04 April 2012

High Spirits!

Adapted from article originally published in the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph (04.04.2012)
Tasting glasses, filled with a suite of spirits tasted during the first Quebec Whisky Day. 

I don't drink whisky.  In fact, I don't really care for hard alcohol at all.  Jerod and I are well-matched in that sense.  However, a little education and awareness goes a long way.  Last weekend, I spent nine hours at the first-ever Quebec Whisky Day, and it was an eye-opening experience.  I don't know enough about whisky to state conclusively, but after trying 17 different types, I have a feeling there is a whisky out there for everyone.
The combination of story and spirits enjoyed during the Quebec Whisky Club’s first Quebec Whisky Day suggests there will be another. For whisky lovers, the event was awash in it.  If you have never drunk whisky, it was a tasteful window into the lore and culture of an historic spirit.  Over the course of several hours, three whisky ambassadors highlighted various styles of whisky.  All consummate storytellers, Matt Jones (Maker’s Mark), Tish Harcus (Canadian Club), and Jonathan Luks (Mackmyra) carried on entertaining, interactive discussions with an enthusiastic, diverse audience.  

Matt Jones wove a tale of bourbon’s origins, noting that “bourbon is now defined as the native spirit of the U.S,”  and must be fully produced in the U.S. to be labeled as such.  Sometimes called the most intense style of whisky, bourbon was “originally a solvent, medicine, and currency.”  Jones mentioned “the name comes from seventeenth-century French royals, the Bourbons.”  The 6-month long river trip between the Kentucky stills and the major markets in New Orleans resulted in a new style of whisky - one in which the whisky took on the caramel color and flavors of the oak barrels used for its transport. Eventually, “people began asking for that Bourbon whisky” and the name stuck.

Jones shared six whiskies from the Beam portfolio.  The selection included Basil Hayden, Jim Beam Black, Maker’s 46, Baker’s, Knob Creek Single Barrel (named after the Kentucky farm once owned by former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln’s father), and Booker’s (a whisky billed as “the first frontier whisky since the frontier”).  Jones indicated that Jim Beam Black and Baker’s are not currently available in Quebec.

My favorite of the Beam suite was the Basil Hayden. It was also the first, so that might be why. It was perky, spicy, and not totally overpowering. Given my penchant for mixing and matching foods, I found myself thumbing through an internal index of possible pairings - admittedly an amateur effort, given this was my  first exposure to a wide array of whiskies.  Trouble is, much as I liked the Basil Hayden, I couldn't think of anything to serve with it.  I think I'd like it straight up, maybe cold.

Tish Harcus regaled the room with the story of Hiram Walker, ready to establish his own distillery in the 1850s.  Walker gauged the U.S. political climate in Detriot, Michigan, took note of the looming threat of Prohibition, and established himself one mile across the border, in Ontario.  Harcus explained that the smooth, light flavor of “Club Whisky” led to its popularity in high-end clubs, golf courses, and other social venues around the turn of the century.  Due to the concerns of U.S. bourbon producers, Walker was eventually compelled to label the whisky with its country of origin, “and Canadian Club was born in 1882.”  In 1920 the advent of U.S. Prohibition helped popularize the brand, and today, “CC” enjoys 96% brand recognition worldwide.

Harcus shared several whiskies, including CC Premium, CC Classic, CC Premium 20 (20 years old), Sherry Cask, and the 30-year old whisky produced to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian Club.  She provided cocktail suggestions, and emphasized the importance of fresh ice (less than 24 hours old).

To be candid, tasting the bourbon first ruined me. The signature aspect of Canadian Club, its mellowness, the smoothness of it going down your throat, did not catch my attention. Their patented pre-blending method ensures such balance that I couldn't pick out anything. A more sophisticated whisky fan might be able to explain the subtleties I missed, but I think I would pass on CC. I found myself more drawn to the spicy, bolder whiskies. Maybe it's the stereotypical western gal in me, but I wanted something to notice. 

Following a sumptuous dinner with an aboriginal flair, Jonathan Luks shared the history and philosophy of Mackmyra Swedish Whisky, founded in 1998, and recently launched in North America.  Luks said, “we’re more an experience than just a brand.”  The focus is on small batches, high quality ingredients, and an intimate customer experience.  As of last week, whisky aficionados around the world can play a personal role in the development of their own Mackmyra whisky.  Contact Mackmyra to purchase your own 30-liter barrel, and make all the related decisions: American, Spanish or Swedish oak, peat or no peat, one of two distillery methods, five warehouses across Sweden.  Your name is emblazoned on the barrel, and you can come visit, and taste it, any time.  When do you get the finished whisky?  When you think it’s ready.  

While Luks described this unique customer-driven process, he shared three special release Mackmyra whiskies.  He noted that “The First Edition”, currently the highest-selling whisky in Scandinavia, sold out its 150-bottle launch here in Quebec in about two weeks.  The Special 07, is also not available here.  The third, Mackmyra Reserve, was a sample of the single-barrel, owner-determined whisky described above.  Luks clarified this whisky will never be sold commercially - if you want to try it, you have to sign up for a barrel.  

The WA-BAM! of all three Mackmyra products had the room abuzz. Evidently, the age vs. flavor profile - 4-6 years - really caught folks' attention. They were spicy, really bold, and every time I thought about it, they tasted differently. Luks attributes it largely to Swedish oak, something no other distillery in the world is using. Pears and mild cheese.

Between speakers, the founders of the Quebec Whisky Club (QWC) each highlighted a scotch, throwing into contrast the North American and Swedish spirits.  The “Founders’ Choice” selections were a blend of 12- and 16-year old Lagavulin, a 14-year old Langrow, and an 18-year old Laphroaig.  

Thick with peat smoke flavor, the last two particularly reminded me of old leather and green olives. Sharp cheddar, olives, and dark grapes, perhaps?
Image courtesy of Quebec Whisky Club

As one QWC co-founder said, “it was a day full of discoveries and rediscoveries.”  With a price tag reflecting about 50% of the real cost, the event was a serious bargain.  Candid discussion with the ambassadors, seventeen whiskies (five unavailable locally), and a room full of stimulated palettes added up to a highly successful first edition.  In keeping with their efforts to “democratize whisky,” all events hosted by the QWC are open to the public.  For complete information, visit www.quebecwhisky.com.

I did not pay to attend this event.  I was invited as a member of the local press.  All opinions expressed in this piece are my own.  However, I am not a student of whisky lore, and have shared only what we were told during the event.  Any facts or figures which are incorrect are regrettably a result of inexperience + whisky + stories told.

1 comment:

NWedum said...

Wonderfully written!

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