Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Kingsbarn Dream to Dram / Wemyss Nectar Grove - reviews

The whisky "Wo-Man cave"... is full and bursting at the seams!? December 30th 2019 and I'm taking down the little bit of Christmas decorations I had put up. I realize my front closet is full, so I open the doors to my whisky cave and it looks like a hurricane hit it...  Bottles recently purchased still in bags on the floor, no room on the shelves or credenza, drawers so stuffed with sample bottles they don't close anymore...  I make a promise to myself - I gotta clean out this place and start drinking this stuff! Clean I did. I organized the room a little better, gave a few bottles away and proceeded to go through all the samples I had - 122 to be exact!  How the heck do I end up with so many samples!??  The answer my friends - kindness of #whiskyfabric friends. It's pretty much tradition when abroad or at festivals to trade samples, bring sample bottles and go home with way more than you showed up with!??  

With 2020 came a few goals:

1. Run a 5k and 10k (what the hell was I thinking)
2. Write a blog once a week until Dec 30th/2020.
3. Drink at least one whisky sample/week.
4. Travel to Scotland and just "be" a tourist. (Not sure that is even possible?!)
5. Stay in touch with and be more active with many of the whisky friends I've made over the last 13 years.

SO far... I'm doing pretty good on these goals. I'll keep you in the loop on how I'm doing!  So another way to drink said samples:  REVIEW THEM!

A few weeks ago I created a spreadsheet (yes I'm that OC) and I have 24 samples ready to review for the year. May not sound like much but it's a good start.  I thought this week might be a great time to review two whiskies from Scotland. Related but not from the same distillery per say.

Whisky #1 - Kingsbarn Dream to Dram Lowland Single Malt, 46% ABV

Whisky #2 - Wemyss Malts Nectar Grove Blend, 46% ABV

Both samples were given to me by my lovely friend Jacqueline Sutherland (and I do really consider her a very good friend!) during my last trip to Scotland in October 2019. It's not often that we get to spend quality time so I was really chuffed when she and I got to spend half the day chatting over a lovely lunch.

On with the reviews, shall we:

The first whisky is from a modern distillery that has only been in existence for less than 5 years. Owned by Wemyss (Brother and sister duo), it stands on the reputation of their many years of blending and creating independent bottlings.  If you want to read more about Kingsbarn, click here:

I like to take my time when I review whiskies. This one I did over the course of a Sunday afternoon and revisited it on a cold Wednesday night the following week. 

Nose: I gathered from the get go this spent quite a bit of time in ex-bourbon casks: Delicate aromas of newly cut hay, meadows and fresh cantaloupe. Quite elegant and inviting.

Palate: Not at all like the nose, this is zesty lemon peel meets gingerroot with an oaky/resinous backdrop.

Finish: Not overly complicated but quite a satisfying sweet herbal flavour, sort of like chewing on spearmint leaves. 

On Wednesday when it was colder I had a much bigger appreciation for the lingering heat and gingery sensation the whisky was leaving behind.

I can't help but wonder what I would have thought this was had I received a blind sample. Not sure I would have considered it as a whisky that was younger than 5 years old, especially with that very lovely nose.  I remember tasting the newmake when I was there in 2016 and thinking if this sits in the rights casks they are going to have a cracker of a whisky.  Well...  it's lovely. I look forward to seeing/tasting what else will come out of Kingsbarn.

Whisky #2 - Nectar Grove from Wemyss

I'm always fascinated with the names of some of the whiskies that Wemyss comes out with. VELVET FIG... say no more!!! I don't look up anything about the sample when I'm reviewing so I sort of expected some sort of wine or sherry finish. This did not disappoint!

Nose: I immediately detect pumpkin compote (how do I describe that to English people!?) It's like a pumpkin/citrus spice (it has a bit of cinnamon/cloves) marmalade. My mouth watered almost immediately. After I let it sit for a little while and again on the Wednesday evening, I found much more vanilla and a weird freeze dried strawberry smell - not unpleasant just didn't make sense to me.

Palate: In French we have a word that describes silky but also "thick" - Onctueux.  For a moment I was a bit nervous as I was worried it was going to be sickly sweet but it was not.  The right combination of oily, silky, sweet and the feeling I had popped golden raisins that had been soaked in rum in my mouth.

Finish: Warm but then slightly tannic, again not expecting that. A few minutes later, a warming sensation from the inside out...  this, especially on Wednesday was a lovely winter warmer whisky.

It wasn't until I was done my notes on Wednesday that I went to read up on the barrels used and to my surprise Madeira casks are used. I'm not usually a fan as I find the influence leads to a really sweet, wine gummies, artificial flavour'ish…   NOT THE CASE with Nectar Grove.

If you are looking for something new and interesting to try I would certainly recommend either of these whiskies. Thanks again to Jacqueline for sending me home back to Canada with some very unique and special whiskies.

Next week I'm on vacation in Antigua (don't hate me) so I will be writing a blog about sand, rum and beaches. 

Cheers from cold and snowy Canada,

I remain:


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

To be or not to be... terroir is definitely the question!

I will start by saying this: My educational background is a scientific one and marketing bullshit never sat well with me. I've debated with people in the past about things like the following: "You'll find a briny flavour in our whisky because the barrels age in the warehouse next to the sea". In that case my argument is that many whiskies should taste like cow dung and dirt since their warehouses sit near farmlands?? I hope you get my point.
We hear all sorts of statistics and statements from whisky people like: The wood is where most of the flavour comes from. I've seen percentages such as 60, 75 and even 80%. "Where" are they getting that statistical information? Mmmmmmm….. I have good reason to believe that it is pretty much based on one person's quote back in 1998 and everyone else sort of ran with it because I have yet to find "scientific" evidence to actually show that this was measured?

Hold on tight Alice because I'm about to bring you down the rabbit hole, Ready!?? 

Let's fast forward to my visit to Waterford Distillery in Ireland - October 2019. I arrived at 10:00am and spent the next six hours experiencing something I called (and tweeted) as: MIND FUCKERY. I'm going to out the elephant in the room and likely ruffle feathers, raise hair, you name it but until you have gone there and done the Waterford Experience for yourself I truly don't care what anyone says/thinks about my blog or their opinion on what Mark Reynier and his team are doing at this distillery.

TERROIR... there, I SAID IT!

Now everything I knew about distillation and what happens during that process is from my own university texts books. Basically and I'm really simplifying it: Distillation "strips" most of the flavours from any grain (and I did say most) because malted barley taste different than rye, corn, sugar cane juice and/or fruit distillate (pear, apple, grapes). So obviously the origin of the material used has to remain otherwise alcohol would simply taste like... well rubbing alcohol? The argument was/is ALL barley yields the same type of spirit. I'm going to take a moment to paraphrase the response from an industry person in a Facebook thread (To which the originator - a whisky author, was making fun of the possibility of the existence of terroir, tsk tsk… closed minded in my opinion). The industry person added something like: "At our distillery, we buy various varietal malted barley from different geographical locations from a number of suppliers and yet we maintain a consistent new make from crop to crop". In other words - terroir does not and cannot exists.

How about we consider the following:

Mark Reynier and his team at Waterford have embarked on a journey. It's called the whisky terroir project. It's in conjunction with many partners including Dr. Dustin Herb, PhD Plant breeding and genetics out of Oregon State University. How about you click on a few links and actually read, watch, with interests what they are actually doing at this distillery before you so happily discount any/all of it.

So is Johanne McInnis, aka Whiskylassie a believer in the possibility of "Terroir" in whisky. My answer is yes. Hold on now, don't go all out crazy on me just yet. I do, honestly believe after seeing, watching, nosing, tasting when I was there in person that it is possible.  Am I the only one? You might be really gobsmacked to know others also feel there is something very interesting and quite unique going on at the Waterford Distillery in Ireland. Serge Valentin, someone I have never had the pleasure to meet but who is known worldwide as one of the most honest Malt Maniacs recently reviewed two of their products:

So back to Mr. Reynier. His background is wine and everyone knows there is definitely terroir there. Terroir (btw) is climate, soil type and geomorphology (natural landscape). Wine is not distilled, it's fermented - hence terroir is accepted and proven. This term is not just used in the wine industry. It's being studied in coffee, tobacco, chocolate, hops, maple syrup and cannabis just to name a few. So why are so many whisky people up in arms about this? Why is this so preposterous and unimaginable that it might just be studied and discovered in barley?

Might I remind people that most are inclined, as humans, to simply be sheep and follow whatever gospel (no religion overtones when I use this word) we hear. More now than ever because you know, if it was on Facebook - it must be true!? At one point it was believed that planet earth was flat. Pythagoras stated in 500BC that it was round. For almost two hundred years people refused to fully believe that statement and it wasn't until Aristotle (300BC) gave scientific evidence that it was indeed round, that people slowly began to shift their way of thinking (mind you there are people in this world who still think it is???)For those of us old enough to remember, in 1982, a couple of virologists from Australia stated they had proven that a bacteria caused most stomach ulcers and that antibiotics would cure the issue. Again - cries from the scientific community that these two were absolutely nuts!? Yet... they were right and might I add won the Nobel prize for medicine in 2005 for it.
So here is a thought... why don't we all give Waterford Distillery the benefit of the doubt and actually let them do their thing. Is "terroir" the right word to describe what they are trying to accomplish and prove, maybe not... but who are we to judge? I mean seriously...  and what if there is scientific proof at the end of the project that clearly demonstrates there are differences in where/how barley is grown in climate/soil/landscapes - wouldn't that mean that there is even more reason to celebrate the fact that innovative experiments might be possible (because lord only knows a new beer cask or quadruple casking is NOT INNOVATIVE)!!!!

I firmly believe something amazing is about to hit the market when it comes to Waterford, so much so that we invited them to come to Cornwall Ontario Canada - Wonderful World of Whisky Show and let me tell you, everyone who is going to be at that show is not only happy but excited to be some of the first to attend the "Waterford Distillery Experience Road Show".

Whether you believe or not in Terroir is none of my business however, don't go off half cocked or full out bat shit crazy mode...  just yet.... Trust me on this one, you might be a little more than surprised when the evidence comes to light and there is proof that something exists in the way that barley is grown that we simply don't know about...  just yet...

Madman or genius??? Who knows... all I can tell you is that years ago when the industry tried to bury Mark Reynier, they didn't realize all they did was plant a stronger seed. He is a man on a mission, and ladies in gentlemen of the whisky world - let's hope it takes way less than previously mentioned examples for the rest of the us to open our eyes to the possibilities that lie ahead. To Mark, Ned and Ian - Keep up the hard work!

Until next week, I remain...


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Review of sCorn whisky from Last Straw Distillery, careful this is a quirky little Canadian

It only seems appropriate, after naming the iconic Canadian Club 42 as my 2019 whisky of the year, that I start the new year with a proper review of a whisky from one of our youngest Canadian distilleries - Last Straw.

I wrote about them almost 5 years ago when they were literally building their establishment. Since that time they have gone from a temporary location to their current site in Vaughan Ontario and from part time production to running a full time operation. It's been an interesting journey for father and son duo. Here is my first blog about them:

Don was kind enough to send me a whisky they created that he feels is quite unique not only in flavour but it's "raison d'ĂȘtre". He thanks the Toronto Distillery for that. When they were still operational, they contacted Don and offered him a batch of 100% organic sprouted corn (hence the name sCorn).

Sprouted corn kernels
Charles literally said, if you don't want it we will likely throw it out because we simply can't use it right now. Don immediately said yes and picked it up. The spirit that came off the still was something quite different in Don's opinion so they decided to age it in virgin oak casks. Three and a half years later, sCorn was bottled. 

The first thing I did was read up on their website about the whisky, then I did a bit of research on sprouted corn. There are a few distilleries in Canada that make 100% corn whiskies, JP Wiser's 18 is a fine example, and upon a bit more research there are quite a few American craft distilleries that use sprouted corn (malted) to make their whiskies.

What does make sCorn unique? 

1. It's locally farmed 100% organic sprouted corn, AND

2. This is a single cask release (although it doesn't state so anywhere on the bottle)

Bottled at a respectful 49% ABV. I sampled it over the course of a few days, letting it sit for a while as well as adding a bit of water. It was a nice feeling to be back at the simplicity of sitting with a whisky, making notes and enjoying the experience of connecting with it for its aromas, flavours and finish. Now I'll be honest and I'm not telling anyone who knows me anything new when I say... It is rare that I'm a "virgin oak" maturation fan. Not that I find them offensive by any means, they are simply not my favourite whiskies. Don and I had a great conversation about virgin oak and how some people absolutely love it while others like myself struggle. The nose/mouthfeel is so distinctive I can pick them out on blind samples.

sCorn - Last Straw Distillery, 49% ABV

Nose: Sweet but fresh pencil shavings, apple juice,  with some fir tree sap (that's the sign of virgin oak maturation for me right there). With a bit of time and a few drops of water: A lot less astringent, with a more creamy vanilla profile. Can really smell the grain better now.

Palate: A bit of a surprise, I found it a bit harsh (again I struggle with virgin oak), but after the first sip and a bit of water I found the flavours evolved into desiccated banana chips with a dryness of toasted hazelnut skins.

Finish: High ABV = burn, long simmering one. With water it became more of a peppery/chewed on a mouthful of cinnamon hearts at the same time sort of heat. Quite the winter warmer!

It's not a very complicated dram, but overall it is certainly an interesting whisky and concept. I had a few friends try it last week (one who is a really big virgin oak/bourbon fan). At first he didn't believe me when I told him what this whisky was matured in, but in the end he stated he really enjoyed the very different "weirdo" whisky (his words - not mine... ;)

For anyone who lives in Canada - it's only available online or at the distillery itself. At $60/bottle for a single cask edition whisky - Worth the try if you want a simple but different sipping whisky. For the rest of the world... sorry:  Only in Canada my friends - Pity!

I want to thank Don Dimonte for sending me this quirky little sample. Please don't ever stop daring to be different at Last Straw! I really enjoyed starting off my 2020 blogs with this one. 

Next week on Lassie's blog:  My 2019 mindblowing trip to Waterford Distillery in Ireland. Until then, be safe my friends and enjoy your journey, wherever it may lead...


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Lassie's best of 2019 - top 10

As with everything in life, some things change and some things stay the same. Even if I'm not writing or reviewing whiskies, I always keep a spreadsheet of all the whiskies I try over the course of a year. The average is somewhere between 300-350. That also takes into consideration whisky festivals, tastings, traded samples and of course the drams that just seem to "happen". 

So let me get straight to the point. I travelled a little more than usual in 2019, it afforded me some really amazing opportunities and drams. I was a little surprised though when I tallied the spreadsheet and found the number was 421 for this past year. I didn't think I had tried as many as I usually do so to see the highest number I've ever recorded astonished me. I went back through photos which of course creates a "what did I do this year" sort of album. WOW... I certainly was busy. Friends, family, sailing and of course "whiskying".  Blessed, is all I can say to be so lucky for the people that I surrounded myself with in 2019.  Here are the top 10 whiskies with justification:

#10 = Benromach Cask Strength Vintage 2008, 57.9%ABV

I have loved Benromach pretty much since my introduction to it. I chose this as number 10 for 2019 as I feel it was the best value for money whisky I purchased. Cask Strength 10 year old for less than $100.00 where I live in Canada. It was a lovely whisky that didn't feel "hot", was complex and from nose to finish quite lovely indeed. Recommended by Bill Somerville in Halifax NS (February).

#9 = Bowmore Vault Edition 2 Peat Smoke, 50.1% ABV

Bowmore 15 is a staple in my whisky collection. It's usually the first one I will reach for if I'm thinking of introducing someone to an Islay whisky. While visiting Bowmore distillery this year (October),  we were given a "surprise" dram. Blind tasting notes that day: Palate: Not the usual Bowmore I'm expecting.  This is "different". Palate: Super smoky and ashy (Cold fire place/damp). Finish: Long, wet shale rocks, quite smooth.  Voting this one my "this is what?" whisky.  It was quite the surprise indeed to find out which one it was. Happy to have shared it with Sarah Wilson on our Islay trip.

#8 = Teeling Celebratory Single Pot Still, 46% ABV

Probably the absolute best UNICORN moment of 2019 as a whole. Traveling with my friend Amanda through Ireland and we were at a Slane whisky tasting we had been invited to. We went to eat right after the event and looked at the bar menu for whiskies (of course) and she saw that particular bottle. Asked how much a dram would cost. The bartender stated the bottle was not to be opened. Now, as North Americans, this did not make sense to us. Whisky bottles behind the bar that were never meant to be opened??  After some discussion, and forgive my memory but somehow the owner of the restaurant/hotel got involved and Amanda (who I swear has a horseshoe) talked her way into the manager going to check if he might have a sample that her/I could try.  I sat with my mouth completely agape as I watched the 50ml sample bottle arrive at the bar with a few small glasses. 

Ok so why is this a unicorn: Highly recommend you go to the Teeling website and read it for yourself. It was a stunning little dram, given to us out of the kindness of a whisky geek's heart.  Best unicorn for sure!!!

#7 = Jameson Irish Whiskey Caskmates Beau's, 40% ABV

By far my favorite, holy crap am I ever a lucky lassie whisky for 2019. Jameson's has been doing beer finishes for a few years now but we got wind in late 2018 that a Canadian exclusive would be coming to Ontario (I don't live there...) I mentioned it to my friend Dan Vienneau who was also itching to find some and between the two of us, the "hunt" started. By end of February I had secured an entire case (YES... you read that correctly). A few bottles for Dan, the rest for me. About 3 days after I had my case, it was gone - sold out and most people (unfortunately) did not get any as it disappeared almost overnight. It's an amazing Jameson's finished in Beau's Brewing Co Strong Patrick Irish Style Red Ale. This was my "STEAL OF A DEAL" whisky for 2019. I still get an email from time to time from reps at Corby's asking if I can sell them back one of my bottles. ;)

#6 = The Whisky Agency, Montreal Whisky Club Ledaig 11 year old, 51.5% ABV

I have been saying, blogging and talking about independent bottling for years. It's no surprise how many I have in my personal collection. This one however is quite special because it was a gift from someone who has come to mean so much to me. I get "him" and he seems to get "me" too. We have developed a lovely friendship that's not just whisky based. There is a long story as to how this bottle came to "be" and I won't bore you all with the details. All I can say is thank you Larry for making 2019 was one of the best filled with many memories of the times we have spent eating, drinking, chatting, laughing, driving, concert going but most of all simply being great friends.  Fabulous whisky I've opened and shared with many other friends!

#5 = Jack's Pirate whisky, cask #214a, First fill Moscatel - 60.3%ABV

And the winner of wackiest wonderful whisky goes to this one.  Also an independent bottling of an Islay whisky (no disclosure of which one but I have a suspicion) and when I first tried it with Igor Kossov, my mouth fell open.  Why... because it smells like the Kennebecasis River...  Me being a sailor and having a whisky called Jack's Pirate whisky = Beyond serendipitous.  I absolutely loved this whisky, so much so that I've squirreled it away and seriously only take it out on very special occasions (which is not usually what I do). This was truly a weirdo whisky and I'm pleased beyond belief that I have a bottle (well what's left of one...  ;)

#4 =  SMWS 71.47 Citric spicy whisky lassi, 60.5%ABV

Imagine my surprise when my very good friend and mentor Emmett Hossack presented me with a bottle of this for no reason than: "It's got my name in it (sort of)...  the running joke is that it likely describes me to a tee: Citric/spicy...   The best part of receiving this bottle was popping it open and having it empty within 72 hours.  New record for fastest emptied bottle. I tweeted about it and of course talked about the whole experience to several friends. Less than 6 months later a second very good friend gave me a second bottle with the caveat that I drink it a bit more slowly this time and maybe actually have three or four dram of it myself. Thank you Tom Frederick and Emmett Hossack for making a whisky lassie feel pretty special in 2019.

#3 = Glenfiddich Grand Cru 23 year old, 40%ABV

Scotland, Ireland, Portugal and London...  3 weeks, one carry on case. Talk about limiting what you can buy and take home. I was adamant I was only buying ONE whisky bottle and I would wait until I went to London to get it. Glumly I walked about on that last day and found nothing that really was speaking to me. The next morning we made our way to the airport and I was almost in a foul mood about it. I had passed up so many great possibilities while I was on vacation. Now, the funny thing is I NEVER buy anything in Duty free... it's always a "meh" sort of experience for me, well not this time. I was browsing, just sort of walking around while the boy was trying gins when a young salesperson said would you like to try a Glenfiddich...  No thanks I said, I've tried most of what you have here. Have you tried the 23 year old grand cru.  No, I replied so of course he started with what I would consider the "sales pitch"...  Sounds lovely, I said politely but I can't even consider putting that much coin down without tasting something first. Well he said, and he popped the bottle open right then and there. He and I discussed whiskies for the next 30 minutes and I was fortunate to try several more lovely whiskies from Balvenie as well. I splurged...  I don't usually buy whiskies on a whim like that. I loved it. It was a really fabulous dram and the conversation with this person was beyond great as he was a bit of a whisky geek as well.  I walked onto the plane with my "Duty free" sealed bag and couldn't have been happier.  This was my "I'm worth" buying a nice whisky for $$ every once and awhile for 2019. NO REGRETS

#2 = AnCnoc 16 year old cask strength, (No idea what the ABV was)

I am not only blessed, but super fortunate to have made so many friends in the industry from around the world. One of the people I keep in touch with on a regular basis and ensure I visit just about every time I'm in Scotland is Gordon Bruce. For those of you who have no idea who that is, he is the distillery manager at Knockdhu. Another of my favorite discoveries many years ago, and also always a staple in my collection. In March of 2019, we had the fantastic opportunity to bring Gordon over to Canada to the Wonderful World of Whisky Event in Cornwall Ontario. He had never been to Canada before and I was more than excited to show him our true Canadian hospitality. Again, super fortunate to have received a small sample of an AnCnoc that wasn't on the market yet but that would be coming out for the latter part of 2019. IT WAS STUNNING...  it was one of those dream drams that you just sit with and no matter even if you tried to take notes you simply don't because it's a whisky to enjoy.  PS - I bought a full bottle of that whisky in November.  It's a keeper!

#1 - Canadian Club 42 year old Chronicles Issue 2, 45% ABV

Tish, Tish, Tish... our queen, our whisky matron, our grand dame. Last year when the 41 year old came out I thought it was good. When Celinda said: "Johanne, you can't miss Tish's class this year, she's pouring the 42 and I said to myself, it can't be as good as last year... sequels very rarely are. Well, let me eat my words. I described this one with all honesty and delight as a CANADIAN RYE BOMB...  that's a first for me. I love Canadian whisky, that's no surprise but this 42 year old had the kick and youth that I was not expecting.  Well played CC, well played! 

Nose: RYE spices, can really smell the char on the nose (surprised), with distinct butterscotch and ginger. Palate: More spices: Allspice, ground ginger, molasses cake and sweet brown sugar. Finish: Burn baby burn, but a sweet long one like drinking a spiked hot chocolate.  DELISH...  Now that is a real RYE BOMB!

Now I'm hoping that you'll note one key part of each of my top 10: They all happened either through, because, with or recommended by a friend.  When I look back I see all the wonderful people in my life and how imperative it is that whisky is shared because the experience is what is cherished, not just the liquid. 

Honourable mentions:  Chris Jones - probably the most gobsmacked I've ever been when I opened my birthday present of that Glen Keith you arranged to get for me.

Steven Alexander, that surprise Glen Grant 1963 kept me smiling for days. Thank you for sharing that with me on your birthday.

Tom Frederick, every time I see you, you hand me a whisky sample. How can I not be thankful for all the lovely stories and drams.

Amanda Caissie, you are my dearest bourbon geek and I can't tell you how many times I've appreciated sitting at my place or yours just enjoying the whiskies we've purchased and all our amazing chats. There are too many "unicorn" whiskies to mention for 2019 but the majority are due to your quests, horseshoe and passion for the lovely elixir we call whisky.

Benoit Bailey, your healthy obsession with Littlemill has been passed on to me. I love all the great samples you give me and my confession is I love drinking them in the tub (sorry for the visual lol). They are an amazing "relaxing" dram!!!  Gros merci xox

Ned Gahan, my goodness the whiskies I tried while at the Waterford distillery, STILL BAFFLES ME. (Blog to follow on this one because wow...)

And to the rest of you who I spent time with in 2019 (Way too many for me to mention) but thank you for enlightening, lifting, laughing, sharing and keeping me mostly sane...  You have no idea how much your friendships mean to me.  

May 2020 bring more drams, friendships, laughter but most of all memories that I have grown to cherish, remember and appreciate.