I met recently with veteran spirits writer Dave Broom, who was in Canada from England to promote an updated edition of his excellent World Atlas of Whisky. To share a drink with Broom – water in my case (it was a deadline night), beer in his – is a joy, not merely because of his well-distilled insights but also because of his engaging Glasgow lilt. My main objective was to tap a few brand recommendations worthy of an instructive tasting so that I might share them with readers. I figured I'd also use the occasion to gauge his general sense of where the ever-evolving whisky scene is headed. That's when he told me about sheep dung.
Among hundreds of new distilleries listed in the World Atlas is one called Floki, based in Iceland. Devoted to local ingredients, Floki managed to overcome the challenge of growing a stable barley crop in its frigid climate. But peat and wood, traditional fuel sources for grain drying, proved harder to come by. "Iceland is not noted for its forests," Broom said with a smile. Floki decided to rely instead on an ingredient historically used to produce an Icelandic smoked-meat specialty called hangikjot: dried sheep manure.
Floki is just one of hundreds of craft distilleries – in North America, Europe, Asia and beyond – that have been rewriting the traditional rule book for a spirit essentially defined as distilled grain matured in wood. They're relying not only on inventive fuel sources (nettles in Finland, to cite another) but also on unconventional woods for maturation, such as walnut and used beer barrels, as well as on offbeat grains such as quinoa in place of traditional barley, wheat, corn and rye.
Broom likes what he sees. "I would look askance at people who were just trying to copy Scotch or Irish, or bourbon," he said, adding that even venerable Scotland is teeming with activity, thanks to a growing market. Two new distilleries are slated to join its existing 114 before year's end and another four are expected to come on stream in 2015. "Scotland hasn't seen a distillery building boom like this since the 1890s," Broom noted. "And the rest of the world has never seen a whisky distillery boom like this. We're in completely uncharted territory."
As for my main question, Broom was happy to oblige, citing five fairly widely available Scottish brands and five that paint a good picture of the global landscape.
For Scotland: Auchentoshan (with its dry-cereal character and "lovely biscuit sweetness"); Glenmorangie Original (displaying pure distilled characters of passionfruit and oranges as well as the vanilla of American oak); Glenfarclas or Glendronach (for a lesson on sherried-oak richness); something from the island of Islay, such as Lagavulin (with its intensely smoky peat character); and a good blended spirit such as Johnnie Walker Black (as a final dram in the tasting to display the harmonious balance of all that is Scotch).
For a global tour: smooth, rich Redbreast from Ireland; a spicy rye, such as Lot 40 or Dark Horse, both from Canada; Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon from Kentucky (voluptuous corn spirit aged in heavily charred oak); something Japanese, such as Hakushu 12-year-old (a delicate, fruity nod to Scottish single malt); and an iconic Scotch, such as Highland Park 18 or Springbank 15 (two secret favourites of distillers across Scotland, Broom says).
I'm leading off today's reviews with three excellent bottles just released in Ontario, which also – I'm happy to say – receive Broom's nod.
Glenmorangie Signet (Scotland)
SCORE: 97 PRICE: $329.95
The heavy, dark, curvaceous bottle and formidable price telegraph that this is not your ordinary Glenmorangie. The richest whisky in the distillery's stable, Signet includes a proportion of spirit that's been mellowing in casks for more than three decades as well as whisky based on roasted "chocolate" malt, which, as that last descriptor suggests, imparts a chocolate-like lusciousness. Bottled at 46-per-cent alcohol, it is uncommonly smooth, with honey-coated dried fruit, cigar tobacco, raisin, toasted nuts, spice and smoky oak. Yet, remarkably, the underlying grain character of the barley never gets drowned. Various prices in Alta., $234.29 in N.B., $211.96 in N.S.
Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength 10 Years Old (Scotland)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $83.95
A monster of a whisky, measuring 60-per-cent alcohol. Dense with dried-fruit intensity from maturation in casks that once contained sherry, it coats the palate with heat-taming chocolate and vanilla along with flavours of raisin and date, building to a smoky, peat-fueled and spice-accented finish. Marvellous for after dinner, especially with a chunk of dark chocolate. I'll take mine with a splash of water, too. Various prices in Alta., $84 in Que., $71.45 in N.S.
Knappogue Castle 12 Years Old Single Malt, Ireland
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $59.95
It's pronounced nah-POHG. And, this being Irish, there really is a castle, built in the late 1400s in County Clare and depicted on the label. A delicate grainy aroma is followed on the palate by a sweet core of stone fruit, honey and flowers. An offbeat Irish whisky, yet still a charmer. Various prices in Alta.
Ninety 20 Year Old Canadian Rye (Canada)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
Alberta's devastating 2013 flood interrupted production at Highwood Distillers of Calgary for months. Established brands, such as its White Owl range, were given priority once operations resumed. But this new Highwood product eventually emerged too, first in the local market and now working its way westward. "Ninety" conveys the strength, as in 90 proof, or 45-per-cent alcohol. It's noticeably big in flavour as well. Velvety, with a sweet toffee and milk-chocolate coating, it shows ample fruitiness and earthy, corn-like grain, working up to a spicy rye finish suggesting, most notably, cinnamon and pepper. $49.95 in B.C.
Canadian Club Chairman's Select 100 per cent Rye (Canada)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $27.25
Perhaps you thought all Canadian whiskies were made entirely from rye, a common myth. Mainly they're built around corn and wheat, with rye often figuring in as a minority component for spicy edge. But full-rye whiskies are all the rage, thanks largely to U.S. craft producers, and venerable Canadian Club is wise to the trend. Just launched, this spirit is aimed largely at the hip young-adult market. To be sure, it's not a robust U.S.-style rye backed by heavily charred barrels like all those Kentucky bourbons. But it's a laudable departure for CC. The whisky starts mellow and almost sweet, with vanilla and silky fruit, then quickly moves into rye spiciness and woody astringency. Not your daddy's CC, it's a fine base for a Manhattan and a bargain for an all-rye spirit. On sale for $25.45 in Ontario till Nov. 9, $26.49 in B.C., various prices in Alta., $27.75 in Sask., $25.49 in Man., $26.99 in N.B., $28.49 in N.S., $27.98 in Nfld.
The Flavour Principle, co-written by The Globe and Mail's Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Featuring delectable recipes, enticing beverage pairings and entertaining food lore, the book has garnered several distinctions this year.