My Choices of Blithe Spirits for the Holidays
by Sheila Swerling-Puritt
Decades ago, as a young university student, I thought that if I ordered a Chivas Regal those around me would think I was not only knowledgeable about Scotch, but sophisticated as well. The power of marketing is quite extraordinary. Advertising agencies are still banking on that perception. By the way, Chivas will always have place of honour on my bar.
Your tastes have matured, as has your financial status. You don't want to spend your money like water (certainly not in this economy), but you don't mind paying a fair (if hefty) price for a superior product. What good value (not cheap) spirits will appeal to your tastes? We have learned that extraordinarily high prices due to fancy packaging such as Lalique crystal decanters or exquisite wooden cases do not necessarily reflect quality. So, now I look for the best quality of what is in the bottle. Nobody can pick the perfect dram for you. As an overeducated friend of mine says, "De gustibus non est disputandum" there's no disputing tastes.
Women are enjoying spirits more than in the past, when wine and cordials were the rule for feminine palates. Whatever the gender nowadays, some bibbers like a spirit with a big bite while others prefer a more delicate and refined drink.
I have my personal favourites among Scotch, Canadian, Bourbons, Cognacs and Grappas. There's likely something in each category that will fit your palate.
Experts say that Scotch is like sex. No one wants to admit that they don't know a lot about it, but lack of knowledge has never limited the pleasure. The enjoyment doesn't necessarily depend on what you can read in a book.
Scotch is distilled from malted barley dried over smoking peat, which imparts tarry smoky aromas and flavours, before it is matured in oak casks (which can be new or previously used to age sherry, port, or Madeira). The barrel aging gives the whisky oaky, vanilla, and other aromatic flavours, darkens its colour and generally mellows its alcoholic heat.
As my palate matured, I began to prefer single malt whiskies most of the time to blends, and my favourite by far is The Macallan 18 Year Old ($279.95, LCBP#214759). Sadly, it took a hefty jump in price this year. Often called "the Rolls Royce of Single Malts," this whisky is a full amber spirit with an assertive sherry character (from the casks), full and round, with complex flavours and an powerful finish. "It's as close to a universal crowd pleaser as any Scotch you're likely to come across". For those of you who prefer a more "masculine" taste, let me suggest you try any of the Highland Park whiskies. I wouldn't say no to Santa dropping off a bottle of their 40 year old, which is well balanced and tastes of dried orange zest with an elegant finish and will only cost you a mere $2,000 a bottle. Guess I will happily settle for their 15 year old priced at $79.95. (LCBO #11882).
Recently I had the opportunity to taste a blended whisky called Te Bheag, which in colloquial Gaelic means a "wee dram." I found it to be very smooth, and its peated flavour has a slight sweetness on the finish, which proved to be a very pleasant experience indeed. ($37.95, LCBO#949172). Definitely a Scotch for you and your friends to enjoy.
Often called rye, Canadian whisky is often blended from corn, rye and wheat, and aged in oak casks. Many consumers think it's the easiest of all the whiskies to drink because of its relative mildness.
For my money, you can't beat Crown Royal, which used to come in the wonderful purple bag you could use for marbles or Scrabble tiles (varies by province; LCBO $41.75, #10108 1.14 L). In my father's day, this was the whisky to give American friends as a gift. They loved it and obviously still do.
Crown Royal is a blend of over fifty different base whiskies. Golden amber in colour with rich robust vanilla and fruit aromas, it has a long finish. I appreciate that the taste hasn't changed over the years and hope that no one tinkers with it in order to play with its bottom line.
A recent addition to my Canadian whisky sipping category was Canadian Club's 8 year old Sherry Cask. Unfortunately for me, now this product is only available in western Canada and New Brunswick ($52.95).
A well respected colleague of mine who has been a Canadian whisky drinker for years prefers Wiser's Very Old Whisky ($44.95, #21949, Corby Distilleries Ltd.). I tried it, he's right. This blend is an 18 year old premium product best sipped straight or with a little water. A deep amber spirit, it smells of oak, flowers and fresh pine. It's full and robust in the mouth with lots of oak, baked apple, spice and caramel notes with a deep, long, smooth finish.
This is the quintessential American spirit, corn-based and aged in charred new American white oak barrels. My favourite is Wild Turkey's Rare Breed ($52.95), a limited-release undiluted unfiltered whiskey (the Americans spell it with an "e"). It's complex and perfect, enticing with heady aromas and satisfying full robust flavours through a dazzling smooth finish. Like the bird it's named after, "it is one tough opponent" to beat.
My alternative, when I can find it, is Four Roses Single Barrel, which unfortunately is not yet available in Canada. But you can find it in the non-dry counties of Kentucky as well as in Europe and Japan. This complex, full-bodied and smooth Bourbon has just the right touch of sweetness, is very elegant, and has a long finish. (US$34, Four Roses Distillery, 1-502-839-3436). Definitely worth looking for in Duty Free Shops!
Now available in Canada is Kentucky's Woodford Reserve, a small-batch Bourbon which comes in a mighty pretty bottle and has a long finish with hints of vanilla and caramel ($47.30 LCBO#480624). It is kin (owners) to the whiskey at Jack Daniel's, located in the neighbouring State. While Jack Daniel's doesn't make Bourbon, they are the makers of Gentleman Jack, that fine Tennessee sipping whiskey. ($32.95 LCBO #377994)
Cognac is the classic French spirit. It has been the after-dinner drink of sophisticated gastronomes for hundreds of years and is produced (and consumed) with religious reverence the world over. Cognac is distilled from acidic low-alcohol grape wine and aged in casks made of toasted Limousin oak, a large-grained variety that spills vanilla and smoky characters into the spirit while it mellows. Remember, cognac bottles should always be kept upright, never on their side, to prevent the brandy from acquiring a corky taste.
My house Cognac is Martell's Cordon Bleu ($149.50, #55145). Deep golden copper in colour, this is a round complex drink with floral and spicy aromas, smooth, round mellow fruit and wood flavours, and a delicate aftertaste. Sipping this cognac definitely makes the world seem a much happier place.
While Rémy Martin Cognac's impressive range tops out with their famous Louis XIII, priced in the low four figures, Dan Volway, Remy Martin's Canadian Brand Ambassador, suggested I try putting their VSOP in my freezer and then serving it with a slice of dark chocolate cake. What a great idea for holiday entertaining. It's now nestled in my freezer next to the vodka. ($76.95, LCBO#4101).
If the Christmas Fairy tells you that your wish is her command, you could be naughty and beg for Courvoisier's Succession J.S., priced at $4,461.09. The oldest Cognac in the bottle, I was told, dates back to 1910. It's packaged in a handsome ornate wooden presentation box, resembling Napoleon's "Chest of Secrets," which contains four crystal tasting glasses plus the impressive bottle. Share it and that would then definitely make you nice!
Grappa started out as Italy's "poor man's spirit," distilled from pomace, the solids left at the bottom of the vat after wine has been fermented. In recent years, it has become a much-sought-after product, often water-white, sometimes oak-aged. UE, "created by Giannola and Benito Nonino, obtained by distilling the skin, pulp and juice of the grapes in one single operation," is an upscale sub-category of grappa.
The Nonino family produces a broad range of delicious clean grappas that dance on the palate. Available now in the market is their Picolit ($202.95 LCBO#11353), giving you persistent notes of acacia flowers and quince. As well, try their Chardonnay grappa, which delivers the soft scent of apples. ($59.95, LCBO739615).
The charming and energetic "Duracell Bunny" of Grappa producers is Sandro Bottega. Not only does he design and produce some of the most "must have" and delightful glass bottles for his grappas, this holiday season you can find a wonderful Bottega Jeroboam Server with Tap that contains 3 L of grappa ($139.95, LCBO#49403). Keep your eyes open for his aged grappa called Maestri, which I have fallen in lust with.
While the Tommasi family is well known for their tasty Italian wines, they also produce a delicious Grappa Di Amarone Ca'Florian. This grappa is distilled from Amarone and Valpolicella. Golden in colour, soft on the palate with a slight raisiny finish. The 350 mL bottle is packaged in a tall cylindrical tube all ready for gift giving. ($53.50, LCBO#48850 look for it in Vintages). All in all a very tasty tipple.
Remember, "personal taste must remain the final arbiter." While these are my favourites for the best of the best, don't let that stop your research into what you like best.
- 1½ oz. Canadian Club
- 2 oz. Southern Comfort peach liqueur
- Fresh lime
- Pour rye whisky over ice.
- Add Southern Comfort and lime.
- Top up with cola.
- Serve in a cocktail glass.
For more information, you can contact Sheila at firstname.lastname@example.org.