These are boom times for the whisky business, as the spate of new, pre-holiday releases at your local liquor store will attest. Rarity, more than ever before, is front and centre, with producers trotting out limited-edition offerings to elicit excitement among collectors (and to cast a halo over the rest of their brand portfolios).
It also helps when that scarce dram comes with a curious backstory, as is the case with two of the more intriguing whiskies I sampled in recent weeks. One is a single malt from hallowed Lagavulin distillery in Scotland, while the other is a highly unusual and excellent Canadian-Scottish hybrid from Wiser’s that, I regret to report, is available only in British Columbia.
Lagavulin is no stranger to Scotch aficionados, of course. The Islay distillery is best known for its flagship 16-year-old, one of the smokiest potations on the planet and the arresting elixir that turned me into a single-malt fan more decades ago than I care to remember. In preparation for its 200th anniversary this year, Lagavulin delved into its history books to replicate a 19th-century whisky that helped put the distillery on the map.
Back then, whiskies tended to spend far less time maturing in oak than they do today (and the maturation period in cask is what gives rise to age declarations, since spirits cease to evolve once bottled). So, Lagavulin dialed back its formula to just eight years. This was in keeping with a spirit that Alfred Barnard, the noted Victorian whisky writer, celebrated upon his visit to Lagavulin in the 1880s. Barnard called the eight-year-old “exceptionally fine” and anointed Lagavulin as one of the few distilleries that could make whisky that was worthy of standing on its own (rather than being sold off to be mixed into blends by the large-scale producers).
In contrast to the 16-year-old, the 8-year-old is remarkably pale in colour, deriving much less amber pigment from oak. It’s also more delicate in flavour, hinting at grapefruit rather than the orange-oil fruitiness of the 16-year-old, though still with the heady peat-smoke character that is the distillery’s trademark. “It’s very fresh, very zesty,” said Georgie Crawford, Lagavulin’s distillery manager, over the phone from Scotland. “I think the eight-year-old is more of an outdoors, hip-flask type of whisky,” she added, whereas the 16-year-old might be considered an “in-front-of-the-fire” beverage for after-dinner imbibing.
Historical records also provided inspiration for Wiser’s Union 52, a convention-bending Canadian whisky made in part with – of all things – Scottish single malt. Odd as it may seem today, Canadian distillers took to the custom of blending tiny quantities of fine Scotch into their domestic blends as a secret ingredient decades ago. Canadian laws now permit the addition of imported spirits and even wine at a proportion of up to 9.09-per-cent, though makers of premium whiskies rarely if ever resort to the practice.
Dr. Don Livermore, Wiser’s master blender, found evidence of that tradition in the distillery’s records dating from the 1940s to the 1960s, when another master blender held the reins. He also found a tangible clue in the form of 18 barrels that had been sitting in the company’s vast Windsor warehouse for decades. They were stamped with the simple designation “1964 Highland Single Malt,” with no reference to the specific distillery source.
Though untouched for all these years, the barrels’ contents had evaporated through the wood’s pores over a half century to such a degree that the total volume of all 18 amounted to just one measly barrel’s worth. Livermore’s taste test revealed that the spirit’s flavour had also evolved dramatically. As whisky matures in the presence of oxygen, ethanol (the name for potable alcohol) reacts to form a flavour compound called ethyl acetate, an ester that tends to impart green-apple flavour. It can be desirable in moderation, but Livermore found the old Scotch a wee bit long in the tooth. “It was just so powerful,” he said. “It was almost undrinkable.”
After some tinkering in the blending lab, his nose perked up, however. In combination with a much larger amount of lighter Canadian whisky that had spent 15 years in new-oak barrels, the Scotch’s unruly character became an asset, contributing a subtle smoky note in the process. Thus was born J.P. Wiser’s Union 52, a blend of 96-per-cent Canadian whisky with 4-per-cent Highland malt. Livermore, who holds a PhD in brewing and distilling from Scotland, proudly calls the product “one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had.” Certainly, it’s one of the best “Canadian” whiskies I’ve ever had.
Just 4,386 bottles were produced, with no more to come. Wiser’s chose to ship them all to British Columbia at the request of the province’s liquor board, which had approached the company looking for a unique offering. Think of it as one more reason to toast life if you happen to live in beautiful British Columbia.
The new Lagavulin and Wiser’s spirits join a parade of more expensive and exemplary small-allocation whiskies that have been leaping off store shelves this season (some with remarkable speed), including creamy-sooty Laphroaig Lore ($199.70 in Ontario), spicy-firm Glenlivet Cipher ($199.90) and delectably sweet Glenmorangie Milsean ($177.95). If you can’t score one of these rarities, though, remember that there’s always more (and more affordable) whisky on the horizon.
J.P. Wiser’s Union 52, Canada
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $69.99
A one-time-only release, Union 52 is as uncommon as whisky gets. A blend of mostly Canadian whisky, matured for 15 years in new-oak barrels, it features a 4-per-cent dollop of 52-year-old Highland single malt. The combination harks back to a time when Canadian blenders were regularly flavouring their whiskies with tiny quantities of imported Scotch. Full-bodied, luscious and smooth, with big caramel, toffee and vanilla flavours from new oak as well as mellow dried-fruit and chocolate characters, it then turns spicy and firm, with a subtle smoky overtone. My kind of chocolate bar. Available only in British Columbia.
Lagavulin 8-Year-Old, Scotland
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $99.95
Pale straw in colour, this comes across more forcefully than the appearances might suggest. Lagavulin was eager to capture more of the raw-spirit essence in this young release, and the goal is achieved with nuances of underlying cereal grain. Initially sweet, with citrus and dark chocolate notes, it rapidly becomes dry as the trademark Lagavulin smokiness builds along with a marine saltiness, mint and spice. Don’t expect the monster punch of the classic Lagavulin 16; this is the baby brother, after all. Available in Ontario at the above price, $94.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $100 in Quebec.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony, Japan
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $99.95
A blend of malt and grain whiskies from Japan’s big producer, Suntory. Mid-amber in colour and refreshingly grain forward, it comes across with essences of toasted cereal, rounded caramel, sweet honey and orange as well as a spicy contribution from subtle oak. Available at the above price in Ontario, $119.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $99.95 in Manitoba, $101.75 in Quebec, $99.99 in New Brunswick, $99.99 in Nova Scotia.
Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask, Canada
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95
The hockey legend, who branched out with a wine brand more than a decade ago, released this Canadian whisky with wine partner Andrew Peller Ltd. last month. Distilled from Niagara-grown rye and corn, it’s matured in standard whisky barrels, then finished for a short maturation period in casks that once contained red wine. The subtle vinous contact adds a rounded quality (and deep colour) to this generously textured spirit. Round and rich in caramel, brown sugar, vanilla and poached-fruit characteristics, it balances subtle sweetness with lively mulling spices.
Stalk & Barrel Red Blend, Canada
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
Made by tiny Still Waters Distillery of Ontario, this represents a high proportion of the company’s own single malt and rye along with aged corn whisky. Medium-bodied, with good viscosity, it shows a sweet, malty core along with nuances of vanilla, honey, toasted grain, cigar box and a peppery kick on the finish.
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