Tasting Flight: Seven whisky stories to read this wintry Saturday night

A photo of the blogger reading Fred Minnick's WHISKEY WOMEN with a dram of whisky in handLooking over my list of goals for 2015, I realize I should have specified that I mean to read more books this year. In 2011 and 2012, I read 30 books of various genres, but in 2014 — I’m embarrassed to say — I read less than one book per month.

My RSS reader, on the other hand, was robust. Here are a few recent whisky stories I found worth reading:

Whisky Wednesday

Dram of whisky with dropper for water.This blog has been a little neglected lately, and now that work is starting to slow down a bit, I’m happy to return my attention to it. Terse Tuesday posts are fine, but a girl needs variety in her expression!

And speaking of expressions, here a few of the whisky-inspired links that tickled my fancy over the last few weeks:

  • Last Friday marked the 81st anniversary of the day our bourbon-drinking neighbours to the south repealed Prohibition. Here are ten appropriately festive cocktails to enjoy now and through the holiday season. (I find this one, which calls for balsamic- and apple-infused Woodford, especially appealing.
  • Counting down the days until Christmas? I hope it’s with this dram-a-day Advent calendar! I can’t believe I discovered these existed only last week! You can bet I won’t miss out next year.
  • There are those who believe that water mixes with whisky as well as it does with oil. While I do prefer most whiskies neat, a drop of the real aqua vita can really enhance some drams. Here the Bourbon Guy shares his thoughts on dilution.
  • Though as a whisky-drinking woman I’m a little annoyed by Harry Rosen’s CEO’s “boys will be boys and they love scotch” comment, I love the sentiment behind this promo event for The Macallan: it’s not the age that matters but the cask. Now, go hug a cooper.
  • Where do good barrels go when they die? The garden centre crowd has one idea, but here’s a better one. Show your love for whisky by keeping a piece of monogrammed cask close to your heart. Dear Santa…

Photo Friday

I’m working on a couple longer posts right now, but in the meantime, here’s a peek at some of the whiskies currently on my bar cart:

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In case you can’t see, in behind the scotches and the local whisky are Bushmills Single Malt 10 Years, The Tyrconnell Single Malt, The Wild Geese Irish Soldiers and Heroes Rare Irish Whiskey, Jameson Select Reserve, Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey, and Bushmills Black Bush. Not pictured: Redbreast 12 Year. That I have a bottle of that in the house goes without saying.

Obviously, my collection is heavily weighted toward the Irish whiskies (and will continue to be), but I’m looking to add a few bourbons (namely, the Hudson Baby Bourbon and my much-loved Woodford Reserve) and another Canadian whisky. And, of course, I’m always open to suggestions.

As an aside, if you click on the Green Spot and Redbreast links above, you’ll find some lovely, short whiskey-nerd documentaries. Highly recommended!

They’re crafty

Ah, those cunning marketers!

While browsing one of my favourite online women’s magazines, Ireland’s IMAGE, I came across a post on a recent marketing campaign supporting Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel. With the whiskey’s iconic barrels and the artistry of master cooper Ger Buckley as inspiration, four Irish artisans created pieces celebrating both the Jameson brand and their own artistic heritage.

The pieces–a leather apron, a trestle table, a holster bag, and a tweed cap–are lovely in themselves, but what really struck me were the resulting ad spots highlighting these partnerships. There’s a romantic, almost sensual, quality to them, but they still seem quite masculine. (Maybe the company’s decision to go with male artisans has coloured my perception? I wonder what partnerships with female artisans would have produced?) I couldn’t help but be taken in by these ads. The pride in Irish craftsmanship and tradition feels genuine to me, and confidence is so very attractive. I may now have to buy a bottle of Select Reserve for my collection.

So well done, marketers. Or as they say in Ireland, fair play to you.

Women and Whisky

A flight of single-malt scotches on a fireside table.Nestled just west of Toronto’s Little Italy, on the far end of College Street, is a paean to Scottish culture. With a name evoking a storied Roman past, The Caledonian is an upscale pub that’s as warm and homey as it is polished.  It was also host to the women-only Balvenie whisky tasting I attended on May 6.

Matching my gait to The xx melody filtering through my headphones, I head to College from Ossington subway station. It’s a beautiful spring evening, May 6 — the air fresh despite the rush-hour traffic, the hazy light inviting the mind to wander. A knot takes shape in my stomach. I had been to a tasting before, but not in Canada and definitely not by myself. What if I’m the youngest one there? Or the eldest? Or the lone single in a room of pairs? Worse still, what if I’m out of my element, too inexperienced with scotch to fit in or enjoy the evening?

Should I turn back?

I imagine what I’ll tell my husband, who — sharing my love of whisky — had been so encouraging.

“Why don’t you go? You’ve tried a lot of Irish whiskey,” he had pointed out. “And there will probably be a lot of women your age there; whisky’s a bit older than college tastes. You could make some new friends.” The man had faith in my whiskey knowledge and my ability to blend with the crowd. How could I disappoint him?

How could I disappoint myself?

I fell in love with Irish whiskey less than a year ago. I had been a bourbon drinker, but when my local LCBO was out of Woodford Reserve one day, my gaze fell on a shelf of Spicebox Whisky. This was new. Intrigued, admittedly, by the retro-style label, I brought a bottle home and savoured the smooth sweetness–like the caramelized sugar of creme brulee–with notes of allspice. What a treat! I started wondering if all whiskies were like that, and with a trip to Ireland on the horizon, I vowed to try a some proper whiskey in my travels. (Spicebox is only 34.8% alcohol; whisky is actually supposed to be at least 40% alcohol.)

Our first night in Dublin, my husband and I found ourselves in the Fitzwilliam Hotel bar, looking for the perfect way to cap a once-in-a-lifetime Kevin Thornton dinner. We seated ourselves at the bar and after exchanging a few pleasantries with the bartender, we asked him to suggest a few Irish whiskies. I settled on the single pot still Redbreast 12 Years, and I was immediately won over. Smooth and full, tasting of spice and dried fruits, it was sweet, but not cloying. It was exactly what I was looking for that evening, and it continues to be a favourite spirit of mine, the benchmark against which I measure all other whiskies.

Back home in Canada, I continued my whiskey education, trying as many Irish whiskies as the LCBO stocks. (There’s one or two I still haven’t tried. I have to save my pennies for those. Exhibit A.)

The very glass of proper whiskey that began it all.

The very glass of “proper whiskey” that began it all.

Now, I was ready to try scotch, brave the peat.

I walk into The Caledonian, hoping my thinly worn nerves don’t show. Past the bar, crowned with shelves of whiskies from around the world, I spy the Glencairn whisky glass-lined tables in the pub’s curtained back rooms, as yet empty but for a lone mother and daughter duo. Oh, no. Were my worst fears about to come true?

I must look as uncertain as I feel. Or maybe I don’t, because in my experience at The Caledonian, proprietress Donna Wolff greets everyone as a friend. The pub is suffused with her warmth, and it’s hard not to think the pub is really an extension of Donna’s own uncanny ability to make her guests feel at home. She welcomes me tonight with affection — I am called “sweetie,” genuinely — and leads me to the nearer back room. She takes my coat as I settle in at a small four-person table between the fireplace and kitchen door. I order a drink — water — so I’ll have something to occupy my still-anxious hands. I am alternately playing with my straw and peeking at my email on my phone when Valerie arrives.

Valerie addresses the wait staff by name. Unlike me, she’s a Caledonian regular, but like me, she’s on her own tonight. Stevie, our waitress, seats Valerie across from me, introducing us as if we’re friends of hers whose first meeting ends years of name-only acquaintance.

“Have you ever been to a tasting before?” Valerie asks.

We trade stories, of whisky and travel, of work and family, and soon we are old friends. We order dinner as the room around us continues to fill. A pair of friends, Jassi and Nabila, complete our table, but we’ve barely exchanged pleasantries when our attention is called to the doorway joining the back rooms. It’s Donna introducing the event and our guide for the evening.

Guided by Beth Havers, Canadian brand ambassador for The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, we sample three of The Balvenie’s core range single-malt whiskies one at a time: the DoubleWood 12 Year Old, the Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old, and the Single Barrel 12 Year Old. As an Irish whiskey drinker only recently acquainted with its Scottish cousin, I am continually amazed by the variety and distinctiveness of scotches. The Balvenie trio we taste are at the sweeter end of the spectrum, with notes of fruit and spice. The DoubleWood, tasting of honeyed apple and nutmeg, is my favourite, but I really enjoy the richness of the Caribbean Cask and the brightness of the Single Barrel, too.

Beth explains how each whisky is made, inviting us to discuss with her and with each other what we’re smelling and tasting. My table relaxes into a rhythm of sipping and sharing and laughing, and soon we’re no longer comparing only tasting notes.

“Whisky’s such a great social lubricant,” Jassi observes.

And it is.

Over two hours on the evening of May 6, my doubts about my age, my palate, and my ability to fit in all drain with three drams of Balvenie. I had set out that night to expand my knowledge of scotch, but in sharing with strangers an experience of something we all love, I extended my community in Toronto. I was at home among those whisky women, and I can’t wait for the next tasting in July.