Wheat is whisky's demure grain. Soft and delicate in flavour, it whispers compared with the three more domineering grains in the whisky playbook: barley, corn and rye. If barley is a breakfast cereal sprinkled with fruit, corn is sweet and oily and rye is a jolt of spice, wheat is more like a plain cracker. And like a cracker, it's usually deployed in a supporting role, taming the assertiveness of those punchier grains in blended whiskies.
Most blended Scotches use a large proportion of wheat to soften the barley, as do Irish whiskies.
American bourbon, though mainly corn-based, often features wheat as a secondary element, nowhere more successfully than in the superb and rare Pappy Van Winkle. And it shows up in Canadian whisky, occasionally playing second fiddle to corn.
But wheat can deliver a compelling solo. That's the case with a relatively new American spirit called Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey. It has been available for a while in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec and it rolls out today in limited quantities to Ontario Vintages stores. Launched in 2005, it's produced by Heaven Hill Distilleries, makers of Elijah Craig bourbon and Rittenhouse rye, two other splendid products. Seven years ago, Bernheim was the lone stalk of wheat in a field of Kentucky corn, billed as the first new variety of premium American whisky since Prohibition. Since then, it has been joined by a few smaller, craft-distilled wheat whiskies available only in the United States.
Aged like bourbon, in heavily charred oak barrels, it hands the lead to wheat but also contains some corn and barley for muscle – a compelling turn of the tables. Though lighter and drier than bourbon, it delivers a rich, smoky profile and thick caramel quality (thanks to that heavy dose of wood), which I suspect would please Kentucky whisky traditionalists.
Think of it as a bourbon-soaked Triscuit.
Though novel now to most American aficionados, wheat whisky was a big deal in the 19th century, particularly in Canada. The grain was plentiful in Ontario before corn stole its thunder, and many of our early distilleries got their start as sidelines to milling operations. Even today, Highwood Distillers, of High River, Alta., produces several wheat-first products, including Centennial 10 Year Rye, which gets its name from a proportion of rye added to the wheat.
Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey (Kentucky)
SCORE: 96 PRICE: $74.95
Full-bodied and robust, it starts off with a conspicuous wheat-cracker essence and builds with notes of caramel, vanilla and smoke, returning to wheat on the dry, toasty finish. $84.99 in B.C., $65 in Que.
Centennial 10 Year Limited Edition Canadian Rye Whisky (Alberta)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $25.75
Light and clean, with a delicately sweet entry that turns powdery in texture, unfolding with vanilla, baking spices and hints of rum and chocolate. A dry, cereal quality emerges on the finish. Good value. $24.95 in B.C., $26.25 in Sask., $24.95 in Man., $28.79 in N.B.
Ridge Monte Bello 2009 (California)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $145.95
The 1971 vintage of this wine finished fifth in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting that pitted top California wines against big-name French counterparts. Six years ago, in a 30th-anniversary re-enactment, the same 1971 Monte Bello placed first, ahead of such wines as Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 and Château Haut-Brion 1970, proving that at least some California reds can age as gracefully as the best. This 2009 should offer more proof.
A cabernet sauvignon-dominated blend, it shows lean muscle, with cassis and dark fruit tightened up by spice, juicy acidity and lightly astringent, fine-grained tannins. Drink it now if you must or enjoy it with prime rib in 30 years while proudly informing your guests that you paid a mere $145.95 back in 2012. Available in Ont. and Alta.
Domaine des Tilleuls Gevrey- Chambertin Clos Village 2009 (France)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $49.95
Crafted from 60- to 70-year-old vines and blessed with an outstanding 2009 growing season in northern Burgundy, this pinot has so much going on. Succulent plum, berries, herbs, earth and spice mingle with sticky tannins. It has impressive concentration and structure and could improve with up to six years in the cellar (perhaps more) or pair well now with pan-seared duck breast.
Mas d'Auzières Sympathie Pour Les Stones 2009 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.95
The name is a tribute to the Rolling Stones hit Sympathy for the Devil, but it's also a double entendre, alluding to the rocks in the vineyard that absorb and radiate the sun's heat to the vines. Winemaker Irène Tolleret blasts Stones music to the fermenting wines. This syrah-based red from the southern Languedoc is more complex than the price or appellation might suggest. Full-bodied, tannic and muscular, it exhibits a strong savoury character suggesting black pepper and herbs along with a note of rubber. This is a tough, gutsy French red, not a smooth shiraz-style crowd-pleaser. Give it up to eight years in the cellar or try it now with herb-infused meat stews. Available in Ont.
Malivoire Wismer Cabernet Franc 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95
This is a superb cab franc, nodding in the bell-pepper direction of Loire Valley Chinon yet beautifully underpinned by ripe, weighty dark fruit owing to the glorious sunshine of 2010. The flavours seem to span the four seasons: herbs (spring), juicy fruit (summer), spice (autumn) and toasty oak (winter). Add to that aromas of cigar and licorice and you've got one delightful red. Try it with lamb roasts. Available direct from the winery through www.malivoire.com.
Pierre Henri Morel Signargues Côtes-du- Rhône Villages 2009 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Good value for a red Rhône, it's full-bodied, with candied cherry, raspberry, herbs and a nuance of orange pekoe tea all wrapped up in sticky tannins. Duck confit would match well.
Pighin Pinot Grigio 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
Light and lively to the point of almost being spritzy, this white shows good flavour concentration for moderately priced pinot grigio, leading off with pear and citrus. Good for light fish dishes.