Whisk(e)y musings read by tens of people worldwide.

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Distiller Who’d Become King

Of all the whisky yarns I’ve spun over the years, the tale of Hiram Walker is perhaps my favourite.  Hiram was an American who created one of the most celebrated names in Canadian whisky, a man who went from grocery clerk to having his own city-state in southern Ontario.

Walker started making Canadian Club in 1858.  Back then, it was called Club whisky.  It went down easy, and quickly established itself as the drink of choice in gentlemen’s clubs throughout the US.  The bourbon industry desperately wanted to dampen its popularity, so they pressured Congress to insist all imported whiskies put their country of origin on the label.  Legislation was soon passed, and Club became Canadian Club.  Much to the annoyance of the American distilling community, their plan backfired.  Walker’s product became even more popular.  It now had “foreign mystique.”

By the late 1800s, Canadian Club was one of the best-selling whiskies in the world.  Walker now turned his attention to the building of a model community he hoped would be the envy of the region.  Some called it Walker’s Town, but its official name was Walkerville.  Walker built and financed the church (he named it St. Mary’s in honour of his late wife), fire station, and police department.  The houses were rented out to his employees.  He paved the streets and created public utilities.  By contrast, almost all the roads in nearby Windsor were unpaved.  In 1890, Walkerville became incorporated.  Its first mayor was Hiram Alexis Walker, Hiram Walker’s nephew.

During Prohibition, close to 75% of all liquor smuggled into the US came from Canada, and a healthy chunk of it was made in Walkerville.  Canadian Club 41 is called “Water of Windsor,” which is slang for Canadian Club.  The bulk of this expression is 100% corn whisky drawn from ex-rye barrels that were filled in 1977.  The rye, sherry, and Cognac used for the 41 adds complexity without suppressing the underlying spirit.  As I’ve referenced in other posts, Canadian whisky makers can add 9.09% of non-whisky as long as the end product tastes like “Canadian whisky.”  Canadian Club 41 has a depth of flavour that’s hard to articulate.  The nose is like a never-ending flavour cave.  Vanilla, baking spices, caramel.  Well behaved oak.  A pleasant, sweet affair.

Happy dramming,


Monday, January 23, 2023

When Life Gives You Wine Casks, Make Scotch With It

In past reviews, I’ve discussed at length how sherry casks are “groomed” for the whisky industry.  It’s a little different when it comes to wine casks.

A solera system is used to mature sherry.  These casks are in service for decades, sometimes centuries.  The ones old enough to collect a pension don’t really add flavour, they’re more of a holding vessel.  Wine casks, on the other hand, aren’t used for hundreds of years.  A wine cask (or barrique) rarely matures its contents for more than 18 months, and is usually decommissioned by the winery after a few vintages.  Barriques are also smaller than your typical 500 litre sherry butt.  The casks used for Bordeaux wines have a capacity of 225 litres.  This is important.  The smaller the barrel, the greater the cask influence.  2nd-fill Bordeaux barriques are used to mature a portion of Port Charlotte 10.

There’s also a clear distinction between wine casks and American bourbon barrels.  US federal law requires all bourbon to be matured in charred, new oak barrels.  Wine casks are toasted, not charred.  What’s the difference?  We don’t set our bread on fire each morning, we toast it.  The inside of a charred barrel is set on fire for upwards of a minute.  Charred barrels can also make your whisky taste burnt, a flavour some drinkers occasionally confuse with smoke or peat.  A toasted barrel is only exposed to heat.  Toasted barrels generally impart more honey, vanilla, and spice notes.

Bruichladdich makes 3 styles of whisky:  Bruichladdich (unpeated), Port Charlotte (heavily peated), and Octomore (super-heavily peated).  They make whisky for the enthusiast.  Every expression is non-chill filtered, ensuring the best possible mouthfeel, and they’re all (well, mostly) 50%.  More alcohol means less water, and less water means more flavour.  Bruichladdich also never adds colour, so you always know just how much of an imprint the casks are leaving on your whisky.  You may come across a Bruichladdich that doesn’t fit your preferred flavour profile, but you’ll never drink one that isn’t well made.

Port Charlotte 10 is a little different from the other peated whiskies on Islay.  Coastal notes tend to define the region, most notably seaweed and iodine.  Port Charlotte 10 sources their peat from the mainland, so it’s more of an earthy, farmy peat.  Vanilla.  Citrus.  The wine casks don’t stand out, but do contribute a fair bit of spice.  Lovely balance with a nice, full mouthfeel.  One of the better peated whiskies on the market today.

Happy dramming,


Monday, January 16, 2023

The Royal House of Beam

Jim Beam is one of the best-selling bourbons on the planet.  The first drop of Beam spirit was believed to be distilled in 1795.  The Beams have been synonymous with bourbon ever since.

Jacob Boehm (his name was later changed to Beam) moved from Maryland to Kentucky County, Virginia in 1787, and started making whiskey out of his bumper crop of corn soon after.  His spirit, Old Jake Beam, was well-received in the area.  His son David took over the operation in 1822 and modernized everything.  He bought a large factory, and switched from pot to column stills (one of the first to do so) to maximize output.  David also used steamboats to circulate his product, now called Old Tub, westward.  David’s son, David M. Beam, moved the distillery to Nelson County, where a growing network of rail lines could further expand the reach of the brand.

James (Jim) Beam was David M.’s son.  He had the misfortune of taking over just before Prohibition.  Poor Jim.  An angry mob destroyed the distillery shortly after the 18th Amendment became law.  He tried his hand at farming and quarrying, but both were magnificent disasters.  When Prohibition ended, he quickly resumed the family trade.  The first Jim Beam barrel was filled in 1935.  Today, it can be found in pretty much every bar and liquor store on the planet.  Booker’s is named after its creator, Fred “Booker” Noe Jr.  Fred’s mother was Jim Beam’s daughter.  She lost the Beam name after marrying into the Noe family (thanks for explaining the obvious Ryan).

Booker’s is bourbon in its purest form.  It’s not filtered and water is never added.  2022-01, the first Booker’s batch of 2022, is also known as Ronnie’s Batch.  Ronnie Land spent 40 years of his life working for the Beam distillery.  Most of this batch was matured on the 5th floor of a 7-story warehouse, which explains why so little alcohol was lost to angel’s share (evaporation).  Warehouse temperatures in the summer can reach 50 degrees Celsius.  The higher up you go, the lower the humidity.  Alcohol levels will rise in low humidity.  Many Booker’s actually gain proof during maturation.  Cinnamon, caramel, oak.  A drop of water is strongly encouraged for this bruiser.  2022-01 is a lot of fun, and an excellent example of how good bourbon can be in its natural state.

Happy dramming,


Monday, January 9, 2023

The Style That Must Not Be Named

Stillhead B-Word is a bourbon-inspired Canadian whisky.  If they used the word “bourbon,” a lawsuit would most certainly be coming their way.  In 1964, bourbon became a distinctive product of the United States.  Only American distilleries can call their products bourbon (assuming they’ve met the criteria for the style), but that wasn’t always the case.

Prior to 1964, any distillery on the planet could make bourbon.”  After the Second World War, Schenley made Ancient Age 8 in Canada.  Schenley would frequently promote the 8 with Ancient Age 5, a Kentucky straight bourbon, so customers would think both products were from Kentucky.  The only Kentucky thing you’ll find in Canada is Kentucky Fried Chicken, and that didn’t show up until the mid-1950s.  Schenley was one of the largest spirits producers in the world for a healthy chunk of the 20th century.  Perennial bad boy (in my work) Guinness bought them in 1987.  Schenley Golden Wedding, an expression that’s been around since the 1800s, is still available, and made at a facility in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.  I would strongly recommend Golden Wedding to absolutely no one.

During Prohibition, American distillers were left with few options after the federal government issued just 6 licenses for the distribution of “medicinal” whiskey.  Sadly, Mary Dowling’s Waterfill & Frazier didn’t make the cut.  Undeterred, she bootlegged for a while, then moved her operation, piece by piece, to Mexico.  With the help of master distiller Joseph “Mr. Joe” Beam and some clever marketing, her “bourbon” thrived in Central and South America.  It was also loved by American “tourists.”  Mary conveniently set up shop in Juarez, Mexico, a mere 10 kilometres away from the US border.

Stillhead was quite forthcoming when I enquired about this expression a while back.  B-Word is (or at least was) matured in American and Hungarian new oak barrels.  The barrel entry proof is 63%, and all the grains used for this 3 year old were grown in British Columbia, Canada.  It’s on the grassy side, which isn’t unusual for a BC corn-distilled product.  Candied mint, cinnamon, caramel.  Solid mouthfeel and warming finish.  This is, in my opinion, one of the best whiskies made on Vancouver Island, Canada.

Happy dramming,


Monday, January 2, 2023

How Japan Invented Premium Bourbon

In the past, I’ve illustrated how marketing departments (especially bourbon ones) like to play fast-and-loose with the facts.  Buffalo Trace credits Elmer T. Lee for the creation of Blanton’s, the first commercially available single barrel bourbon.  On the Blanton’s website, it mentions how Lee was, “Tasked with creating a bourbon of exceptionally high quality.”  He definitely had a role in making Blanton’s, but it wasn’t his idea.

In the 1980s, bourbon exploded in Japan, especially among young adults.  Their parents drank scotch, so they drank bourbon.  I.W. Harper was especially popular.  In order to meet Japanese demand, owners Schenley had to stop selling it in the US.  Bob Baranaskas and Fergie Falk of Ancient Age and George T. Stagg wanted to take things to the next level.  They felt the industry needed an “ultra-premium” product.  This is where Elmer T. Lee enters our story.

Upon consulting with Lee, Falk and Baranaskas learned how former master distiller, Colonel Blanton, would entertain dignitaries by handpicking and bottling special or “honey” barrels.  It was perfect.  A single barrel would be perceived as scarce, and people are generally willing to pay a premium for something rare.  Blanton’s was launched in 1984.  Back then, it’d set you back a jaw-dropping 25 dollars!  In the US, where bourbon was rarely more than 10 bucks, the price didn’t sit well with customers.  In Japan, however, it was an entirely different story.  The asking (and getting) price in some stores exceeded $100.

Here’s the part that might blow your mind.  Blanton’s isn’t a Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) product.  Blanton’s is, and always has been, owned by Age International, which is currently a subsidiary of Takara Holdings, a Japanese multinational based in Kyoto.  It’s made and warehoused at Buffalo Trace (Takara sold the distillery to Sazerac in 1992), but the brand is owned by Takara.  Sazerac just has the distribution rights for Blanton’s in the US.  Now you know the story of how Japan invented premium bourbon.

To borrow a line from Forrest Gump, “(Single barrels) are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”  I’ve had some excellent Blanton’s, and some just OK ones.  No two Blanton’s (unless they come from the same barrel) are going to be exactly alike.  This is very much a rye-forward expression defined by baking spices, most notably cinnamon.  Caramel, oak, vanilla.  A touch of citrus.  Here’s hoping you live in a place where you can buy one without taking out a second mortgage.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...