Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Another Christmas in Canada

the crown jewels... apparently
 Big task ahead of me here; writing about my most recent [at the time of writing, at least] Christmas excursion to Canada. You can read about my earlier adventures here and here. This one will be tough though because there is no overarching theme, just an assortment of disparate elements. Hopefully I’ll figure out how to bring it all together over the next few thousand words…
So a bit of context. We headed over to Canada following the end of 2015’s Distinct Beers Challenge and the start of a new Winter, Christmas and Festively Themed Beers Challenge – I’ll be writing about that last one around Christmas time. I was relying on Canada to provide me with enough variety to triumph once more, and made sure to make a quick visit to a liquor store at my earliest opportunity.
Big Rock, big beers
One of the downsides of Canada is that you can’t pick up booze in a supermarket, so you have to deliberately go to liquor stores. The upside is that there are loads of liquor stores. Sure, they are of varying quality, but you get to learn which the best ones are.
First up was a store in southern Calgary’s Mackenzie Town. I think it was a Co-op, but I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t too well stocked with winter ales, but I did pick up a selection box of Big Rock bottles – Smoked Roggenbier, Hibernation Strong Ale, Fowl Mouth ESB and Dunkelweizen.
My brother-in-law and I would later visit the local Big Rock brewery to fill a couple of growlers and pick up some other bottles and cans. Sadly none of them were winter or Christmas themed, but they are quite brilliantly branded, as you can see from the photo. Their Traditional Ale is still my favourite of their many varieties, but it’s always worthwhile seeing what they’ve been brewing whenever I visit.
There is a wealth of beer available in Canada, with a number of bars having their own microbreweries – Original Joe’s and Brewster’s were two such that we visited during our stay. We may as well go for a direct comparison on this one. At Brewster’s I tried the Rig Pig Pale Ale (2/5), Hammerhead Red Ale (3/5) and Curly Horse IPA (3/5), while at Original Joe’s I had the Red Ale (3/5) and Haus Frau Euro Pilsner (3/5). Nothing to choose between them really then. I will say though, Brewster’s do what they call a flight which is a tray of 5 beers of your choice, amounting to somewhere over a pint for 8 dollars or something. Mrs Cake went for one of those, but I just wanted to give a few beers a proper try.
Now, my big hope for winterly themed ales was to be the Willow Park liquor store, which is well known to pretty much be the pick of the bunch. This place is huge and has beer fridges all down one wall and shelves opposite of a great many unchilled beers. Elsewhere there’s loads of wine and spirits.
In fact, on the day we went there was a tasting event on, where we were encouraged to try a few things. Well, you probably know me by now, and if you do, you’ll know I don’t like to try too much because I usually don’t buy something when I’ve tried it already. I like to find out what things taste like when I open the bottle – and then over the following few months. Notwithstanding, at a tasting event, you can’t taste things the way they really are after a while because one of the drinks you just had is still sitting on your palate. I always feel like the representatives are expecting you to go, “ooh, that’s lovely!”, but all I can muster is a non-plussed, “yeh, it’s alright, that. Thanks”.
One of the things we tried was brandy infused with lemon, and I have to admit, I don’t really get the point of it. If you want your brandy to taste a bit lemony, you can just squeeze some lemon juice into itI don’t even know how they decided what would be the optimum amount of lemon to use. If it isn’t lemony enough for you, you can put some more in, but if it’s too lemony, they’ve lost your custom. Yeah, sorry, I just don’t understand this one. Clearly it isn’t for me.
Vidal Ice Wine: "Naked"
I don’t really remember trying much else – except some ice wine which both Mrs Cake and I liked, and bought because it was a few dollars off, though I noticed later that it only clocks up 9 ABVs.
As I said, I was really there to seek out winter ales, and I managed to find a few. The assistant told me about one that was $50, but there was no way I was ever considering that one – as I told him, I’d never drink $50 in 30 minutes to an hour, and I could buy a nice bottle of spirits for that.
A good thing about beers over in Canada is that many of them come in oversized bottles, which I found over the duration of my stay to be very conducive of drinking quickly – before it warms up too much. It’s nice feeling like you’re able to chug your beer a bit more.
I did ask, while I was there, whether they had any Canadian pomace brandy. Being a lover of grappa, I wanted to find out what the Canadians had to offer, and figured if one place was going to have any (having looked elsewhere and asked before), this was going to be it. The assistant wandered off for a few minutes, and on his return said they didn’t stock any because it’s more expensive than grappa, and not as good. He couldn’t offer any opinion on why it should be more expensive, when grappa would have to be shipped over from Italy, but there you go.
The last thing on this first visit was to pick up a bottle of spirits for consumption during our stay. As ever, I didn’t want to go for anything fancy because I didn’t want to feel guilty about drinking it too casually, so I kept my focus on Canadian whiskies, and tried to find something inexpensive. J.P. Wiser’s Deluxe rye whisky fit the bill.
It is 40% ABV, and was $20CAD for 75cl. It is presented in a square type bottle like Johnnie Walker or Bushmills, with about as ordinary a label as you could expect. At $20, it was great value – at the time the exchange rate was around $2CAD to the pound, so everything just seemed incredibly cheap, and this one now has the honour of being the cheapest whisky I’ve ever bought – cheaper by volume even than the Cutty Sark I got in Spain. Nevertheless, Wiser’s is a decent enough whisky. Sadly, it was a while ago now, and I don’t have any tasting notes, but I would place it above other Canadian whiskies like Seagram’s 83 and Alberta Springs 10. Probably not above the Crown Royal though.
JP Wiser's Deluxe... I hadn't figured out how to focus my phone properly yet
Speaking of Crown Royal, we arrived in Canada to find quite a buzz surrounding one of their expressions. It seems their Northern Harvest Rye had been named World Whisky of the Year 2016 by none other than the renowned Jim Murray. This was the first time the accolade had been awarded to a Canadian whisky, and everyone was talking about it.
Of all the people I spoke to, I was the only one familiar with Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and his particular evaluation methods, but you couldn’t deny the excitement. There was talk of the price increasing from 35 to more than 80 dollars. People were trying all their local liquor stores without success after the news caused a buying frenzy. As you can imagine, everyone wanted to find out what the world’s best whisky tasted like because, for once they could afford it, and might even be able to take a little bit of pride in drinking it. It’s not often you get to own the pinnacle of what the whisky world has to offer.
I’m pleased to be able to announce that my brother-in-law managed to get hold of a bottle for me, for Christmas. I got a bottle of the regular Crown Royal too, and was initially disappointed to see him unwrapping a Northern Harvest Rye, but a few minutes later I unwrapped one of my own.
Mine remains sealed at this point, but my brother-in-law opened his and was good enough to offer me a glass. I can reveal now, in advance of a full appraisal, that it is definitely impressive stuff. I detected a nice banana impression on entry, soon developing into a sweet nuttiness. Such clear distinction of flavours, complementing each other must be the nearest I’ve ever come to experiencing what Murray means by “balance”. More to come on this in the coming months, no doubt.
Haig Pinch
A whisky I probably won’t be able to write more about in the coming months is one that my brother-in-law (who we will now start calling Brian) had been given by some family friends. I think it was one of those things where they were moving house, and came across an old bottle they didn’t need. Brian had already opened it and tried it. It was this: Haig 12 year old Pinch.
I’d never heard of it, but looked it up on Master of Malt, and found it would have been worth around £80 unopened. That price has since gone up to £96 but, you know, it’s better to try it – especially when it’s as good as this turned out to be. I thought it was superb; light and beautiful, sweet and warming, full-bodied with a fresh nose.
I’ll definitely try some more of their stuff in future. The Dimple 15 year old looks to be available for a [potentially] bargainous £35 on Master of Malt (assuming it’s anywhere near as good as the Pinch), then there’s a budget Gold Label at £20 on The Whisky Exchange.
Eeeee… what else did we have? This one is the Alberta Premium – it probably goes without saying that I did finish the Wiser’s with time to spare – and it is apparently one of the few remaining 100% rye grain whiskies produced in North America (says Wikipedia). I bought it because I only wanted a half bottle, and decided the get the cheapest one at the store I happened to be in at the time. This was $14.60CAN, which works out to around £7 (for 375ml). There were occasions when I enjoyed it, and others when I felt it was cheap and bitter.
Perhaps one to look out for in the next few years is the Eau Claire distillery. Located in Turner Valley, they are causing something of a stir by doing everything the old-fashioned way, using locally sourced ingredients and traditional methods – including using horses instead of machinery.
We were supposed to be giving the distillery a proper visit, but what with one thing and another, we didn’t really have enough time for anything other than popping our heads in. They produce vodka, gin and whisky (though at the time, the whisky wasn’t yet ready), packaged in stylish Bruichladdich-style bottles. I have tried the gin, and despite not being gin’s biggest fan, I thought it was good. They have a reputation for being a bit expensive, which they probably are by Canadian standards, but the equivalent of £20 for decent spirit isn’t such a big deal when you’re used to UK pricing.
I didn’t buy anything because I’d already seen Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit back at the Willow Park liquor store for $63CAD. That was just over £30, whereas you’d be paying £70 plus P&P at The Whisky Exchange. I was saving my meagre travel allowance for that. I’ll be writing more about that next week, but I will just say; I have already opened it, and I have seen that it is good.
So coming back with me from the Great White North this year were the Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, standard Crown Royal, Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, and a gift box of 20cl Glenfiddich bottles, incorporating the 12 year old, the 12 year old Solera Vat, and the 18 year old. That should mean some happy drinking for a few months – and a few more posts for you to enjoy. Keep on joining me and I’ll keep on drinking and telling you about it.
one for the future

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