|Is this picture too big?|
One thing EU travellers have to contend with when traveling to North America, that isn’t a problem when staying within the boundaries of the EU, is that of limits to what you can bring home. When returning from the US or Canada, it’s a measly one litre – per person. So much to try, so little time. I suppose it’s lucky I did marry a Canadian, since it means I’ll be able to visit Canada fairly frequently – I could have married someone from China, where they make baiju… that I’ve tried about enough of, thank you very much.
Yes, deciding what to bring home is one of the most exciting parts of the booze tourism experience. I had done my research as usual, and had become overwhelmed with all the choices, so instead of researching the fuck out of it, I stopped when I had a modest shortlist to choose from, and kept it on my phone.
My original intention was one Canadian whisky and one bourbon, but a couple of visits to liquor stores suggested choice among bourbons was not that extensive. Then I realised we were planning a trip to Florida in 2014, so why not wait until then? Two Canadian whiskies then, I said. Not that I’m expecting there to be liquor stores in Disneyland (that could be an interesting post…), but there’s always the Duty Free.
I ended up making one of my purchases on the second day, returning to the Liquor Depot in Woodbine to pick up the Lot 40 that the shop assistant had been so keen on. It had actually been on my list all along, so I just decided to plump for it. Any plans to hold out for the Masterson’s 10 evaporated, and I ultimately didn’t see that in any of the many liquor stores we ended up visiting anyway.
Lot 40 is bottled at a cockle-warming 43%, which makes a nice change from most of the Canadian whiskies I saw, and I ended up paying in excess of 50 Canadian dollars (around £30). I later learned that this was 10 dollars too much, but whatever, the damage had been done by then.
Lot 40 has garnered a lot of interest and praise around the internet, so I’m looking forward to being able to add my voice to the deafening tumult in the coming months.
At this point I realised there was a very real possibility that someone might buy me a bottle of whisky for Christmas, meaning I was going to have to hold off on any further purchases. I waited, sipping the Alberta Springs 10 and Canadian ’83, expecting that, should anyone buy me a bottle, it would be a Crown Royal – which I didn’t mind, though I would prefer to be able to try something else. Nevertheless, just wait and see.
Waiting, waiting – during which time it transpired we would be taking the Highland Park 12 that we had bought for Mrs Cake’s dad back with us – you see, one of the bottles he wanted me to finish was a Highland Park 12 with just about three fingers left. I remarked that he gave the bottle a good go, despite not being fond of it, but he said the guy who brought it actually drank all that. Would the extra bottle cause problems on re-entry to the UK? We had bought it in the UK, and therefore already paid tax and duty so… hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
|Highwood Centennial, "Limited Edition"|
Christmas Day arrived, and this was my whisky gift. It’s a limited edition known as Centennial from Highwood Distillers. I haven’t been able to find out any information in terms of what’s ‘limited’ about it, but it’s 40% ABV, and I’m going to assume it is aged for 10 years, since there is a 10 year old expression that looks identical. It is presented in an elegant grappa-style bottle with an extra long neck, which means it doesn’t fit in my special cupboard. Good pick though, Mrs Cake’s mum, good pick indeed. This is one that I might well have picked out for myself... though it hadn’t made it on to my list.
Highwood are based in the small town of High River, Alberta and they make other spirits such as vodka and rum as well as whisky. I had e-mailed them to enquire about taking a tour in advance of our holiday, but they responded in no uncertain terms that they wouldn’t be doing any tours for the time-being due to the damaging floods that devastated the area in the summer. Fair play, though I’m sorry to say the tone of the e-mail didn’t make me too keen to attempt a visit on any future occasion either.
|Holy shit. Right?|
So, you’d think that would be it, wouldn’t you? One whisky for me to take home, one for Mrs Cake to take on my behalf, and then one to take back with us that had been a failed gift attempt… but, no. Christmas with Mrs Cake’s father (and wife) arrived a few days later and what’s this? Another bottle of whisky. Not Canadian this time though. This is a 2011 Berry Bros and Rudd bottling of a 1979 Bunnahabhain (51.4% ABV) – exclusive to Calgary’s Willow Park liquor store, or apparently not since I found something remarkably similar (though out of stock) on Master of Malt.
This is 32 years old! It made me feel a bit awkward, to be honest. What’s Mrs Cake’s dad doing buying me a 32 year old single malt? My initial estimate was that this could have cost up to £200, which is just far too much to be spending on a Christmas gift for your son-in-law – not to mention the book and glencairn glasses that were packaged with it. The Master of Malt listing had it at £150 (which is still far too much), but we couldn’t resist stopping at Willow Park a few days later to see if they still had it. They did, and it was somewhere around 150 Canadian dollars – which was more like £90. Frankly, that’s still too much. The only thing that would make me feel better would be if this was a re-gift. It’s rude to ask, but I’m just going to assume it’s a re-gift so that I can enjoy it to the full. I never thought I’d own a 30 year old malt, but here it is. One source (Jim Murray, I think) suggests that Bunnahabhain doesn’t carry extended aging so well but, as ever, I will be the judge of that. Thanks John.
Well that would have to be it for our check-in luggage. Hopefully that wouldn’t be too much for the customs, and if it was, I’d be prepared to pay the duty – as long as they didn’t take my precious booze away.
Being the obsessive booze-hound that I am, I was tempted not to finish even there. You see, our flights were via Frankfurt, and on our outward journey I had seen the Duty Free shops had two of Highland Park’s exclusive to international travel expressions. I’ve been dying to try them, and I happen to have a 0% credit card at the moment so I figured I’d pick one up on the way home. Since Frankfurt is in Europe, it seemed logical that I should be able to take as much booze as I wanted from there back to the UK – right?
When we arrived at Frankfurt Mrs Cake was feeling unwell, and I was tired and starting to feel the guilt – you know, when suddenly you think actually I don’t think I can justify spending another £50 on booze for myself.
I deliberated and writhed in turmoil for a couple of hours while Mrs Cake slept. When she awoke and requested ginger ale (Canadian cure-all medicine) and mints, I toddled off to a couple of shops looking for them then, having been successful, decided I’d reward myself not with the Highland Park, but with some cigars.
The point of all this is that they wouldn’t let me buy any tax free goods. I was in too much of a hurry and too tired to ask why, but it was probably because Frankfurt was only a stop on the journey, so I wouldn’t have been able to buy the Highland Park anyway… and they probably wouldn’t have let me buy the Wild Turkey that time in Dubai Airport. Oh well.
Hours later we arrived home, and I needed to unpack my booze as soon as possible – both to make sure it had all survived intact, and to stand the bottles the right way up so that the alcohol wouldn’t damage the cork stoppers (where appropriate), which in turn wouldn’t damage the precious liquid.
It had been around 48 hours since we’d wrapped each bottle in bubble-wrap, then in clothes, then vacuum packed them and I’d been trying not to think about them since.
At home, my combination padlock was stuck fast and I couldn’t release it. It took a combination of hacksaw, hammer, screwdriver and snips to do enough damage to finally convince it to give way, and every bottle was undamaged. Aaaaand relax.
Miscellaneous Observations and Curiosities
So a lot of people have been asking my how my trip was, and in typical Yorkshire style, I’ve been tending to play it down.
“Yeh, it was good,” I say, “it had its moments.”
Yes it did, and yes , it was cold… some of the time. It was nowhere near as bad as the pictures coming out of the United States the week after we left, and I understand it was worse in Toronto and Manitoba than where we were, but it did get down below -20 from time to time. I say ‘from time to time’ because in Calgary the temperature fluctuates wildly from one day to the next. In fact, they regularly experience chinook winds, which are hot winds that can raise the temperature dramatically in a very short time. These have been known to cause temperatures to increase by as much as 40 degress Celsius in as little as an hour.
So one day we might walk, freezing across a car park and get into the car to find the worst effects were carried in our jeans – which hold the cold and then transfer it to your legs when you sit down. The next day, the temperature might have risen to -3, when you go outside and say this is positively balmy. I’d sunbathe in this.
The Canadians, funny people that they are, have leather seats in a lot of their cars. Leather seats at the temperatures they have to contend with – so they have to have heating mechanisms in them. Honestly, just get your car seats made out of regular fabric.
What else? Beers. Yes, I drank lots of different kinds of Canadian beer, but I haven’t talked about it so far, and for very good reason; generally I don’t, and I didn’t keep any kind of record. The Big Rock Traditional Ale is a particularly good one, but in general they successfully tread the difficult line between good lager and refreshing ale. There were even a number of decent IPAs and double IPAs.
A quick much of a muchness update
In advance of our trip to the mountains, Mrs Cake decided to contribute to the spirit collection by buying a bottle of the Grey Goose. It’s quite a pricey vodka here in the UK, but temptingly cheap over in Canada. It’s one of them I’ve been curious about trying, but have never quite been up to stumping up that price tag.
Grey Goose is French, and according to its website, “made using only the very finest ingredients”. It also claims a “signature smoothness and distinct character”.
Yeah… I don’t like it. I’m not saying it doesn’t have a distinct character; that awful, floral flavour is something I’ll never forget –and hope never to experience again, but it’s that same flavour that to me is the opposite of smoothness.
I’ll say one thing for Grey Goose; their website has a tool for selecting your ideal cocktail. Based on my stipulations that I want something salty, earthy, strong and rich… it tells me I want a Grey Goose Spicy Pineapple and Fig Martini, and you know what? That is what I want. Perhaps with a different vodka though.
So anyway, it’s 40%, and comes in a fancy bottle bearing multi-layered images of geese. It’s a bit ridiculous. I don’t recommend it.
I’ll leave you then, with two observations about Canada that you might find interesting. First, you can’t buy your booze in the supermarket; you have to go to a liquor store. Oddly though, some of the liquor stores are clearly affiliated with the supermarkets, and situated on the same lot. Sadly, this means there are no supermarket own-brands to try.
Finally, they have UFC on TV… in restaurants. Now, I do love watching a bit of the MMA, but for Christ’s sake, not while I’m eating!
So that’s it for this week. Thanks for joining me once again. If you’ve been following me on the Twitter you might have noticed that I’ve just got back from Spain where purchasing booze was very much on the agenda. I’m looking forward to telling you all about that in what will probably turn out to be a few months’ time. Whatever. Just make sure you come back here next week for something else. I don’t know what yet, but something else. Alright, cool.