Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part trois

The first post in my series covering the whisky bars of Montreal explored the “big three” on the city’s whisky scene and the next post continued with the city’s second tier of whisky dispensaries. This third and final installment will look at a few establishments that are worthy of mention for one reason or another, even though they each fall short of achieving full whisky bar status.

address: 1494 Rue Ontario Est
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Gay Village
closest metro station: 11 minute walk from Beaudry (green line), 14 minute walk from Sherbrooke (orange line)

When I belly up to the bar at just about any pub or restaurant, my eyes tend to gravitate rather quickly toward the whisky bottles on display. My reaction to what I see can range from indifference to excitement. There are about a dozen single malts, each the flagship offering of their respective distilleries, which are as ubiquitous as they are well-known. These are the bottlings that receive the most marketing attention and biggest slice of the promotional budget from the companies that own them. Those parent companies also tend have the most extensive distribution networks.

When establishments have small selections of single malts, say 15 or less, the majority of them are usually plucked from the above mentioned group as well as some of their brand siblings a step or two up the price scale. That’s not to say that there is something wrong with any of those whiskies on their own, but seeing them almost everywhere without alternatives does get boring awfully fast and elicits my indifference. Conversely, what gets me excited is seeing a small list that is well-selected. Ideally it will have a mix of little-known, high-quality single malts along with obscure and limited bottlings that don’t run too far up the price scale. And that is exactly what Station has.

Owner Fred Cormier established his Hopfenstark brewery in 2006. Its location in L’Assomption, an off-island suburb north of the city, is a good place to lease industrial property and make beer. It’s not such a great place for showcasing that beer to its target audience. So mid way through 2013 the brewery’s tasting room was closed and the Station beer bar was opened in the city, taking its place.

While Dieu Du Ciel is Quebec’s best known craft brewery, Hopfenstark has more of an underground presence and a cult following. Fred’s beer can be eccentric and follows no rules or trends, but garners great respect from those who know it. One example is the Boson de Higgs; part Saison, part Berliner Weisse, part Rauchbier, and named after a sub-atomic particle.

If you’re concerned about the neighborhood where this bar is located (which really shouldn’t be an issue in the first place), don’t be. The Gay Village is an expansive area and Station is located on the periphery of it. I actually had no idea which neighborhood this locale was part of until I looked on the map. This was previously somewhat of a rough section of Rue Ontario in terms of drug abuse and panhandling, but a wave of gentrification has gradually pushed that activity further east over the past few years.

The space is simple and rustic, but still warm and inviting. It serves its purpose well, which is to showcase the beers and whiskies that are offered. About two years after opening they expanded into the space next door, but the dividing wall remains intact and the new room is only used when needed for large crowds, keeping the feel of the original space intact. Their third summer also saw the addition of seasonal outdoor seating.

Food is available but limited so a small number of items that can be prepared behind the bar. The owner is not a fan of the latest trend of people going out to public gathering spots only to bury their faces in their smart phones, so expect to engage in conversation with those around you or be subjected to scornful looks. I know a lot of modern bars struggle with the question of whether or not to have televisions. They don’t want to have a “sports bar” atmosphere, but they don’t want to be completely empty during major sporting events. Station has found a good compromise here; one of my visits was during a big NHL playoff game and they chose to show it, but projected onto a wall, in black and white, and with no sound.

When it comes to whisky lists, more is almost always better because you’re getting greater variety, if nothing else. But the selection of single malts at Station shows what can be done with just 20 bottles if the person picking them truly knows Scotch and isn’t required to include popular bottlings. A list that size featuring 10 year Springbank, 12 year Hazelburn, 21 year Old Pulteney, Highland Park Freya and an Amarone cask finished Arran gets instant respect from me. I went with a cask strength (61.4%) Caol Ila bottling from Gordon & Macphail that was distilled in 2000 and bottled at the end of 2012. Official cask strength offerings from Caol Ila are quite rare and their lower proof standard offerings are all chill filtered. Most of the Caol Ila distillate ends up in bourbon barrels, so the fact that this bottling is from first fill sherry casks makes it even more special.

The nose is intense, with peat smoke that is dry and earthy in nature accompanied by a touch of brine and slightly medicinal notes. In the mouth this is classic Caol Ila, big and oily. On the palate there is a sharp attack up front that starts with malt and mint before the peat smoke starts coming in waves and building in intensity. Moving into the finish the smoke evolves, taking on a hot spicy character, but it remains bracing and phenolic for some time. This is a big, powerful whisky, but not to the point of being unruly. The sherry cask influence was less obvious than I expected. I’m sure it added balance, but the peat smoke took center stage with everything else appearing as background notes, as is the case with bourbon barrel aged Caol Ila bottlings. It’s nice to see the potential of this distillery realized, but this example is not for the faint of heart.

Bar Big In Japan
address: 4175 Boulevard Saint-Laurant
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: Little Portugal (a small sub-neighborhood that is within The Plateau)
closest metro station: 13 minute walk from Mont-Royal (orange line)

If you dig deep with online searches for whisky bars in Montreal and try to find something beyond the usual suspects, the name Bar Big in Japan might come up. If you investigate further and peruse their online reviews, you’ll see that of the ones which mention their whisky selection, about half make positive comments and half make negative comments. This seemed quite odd to me and I had a theory about it, so I decided to stop in, investigate and get to the bottom of the mystery.

Easily confused with its similarly named sister establishment, Restaurant Big in Japan, the two are located on the same street, about four blocks apart. Even if you’re looking for the correct place, it can be kind of tough to find as it follows the modern speakeasy formula of having a semi hidden entrance. No sign, no bright light, no marked street number, just a non-descript door (originally red, later brownish-gray, sometimes with graffiti) with a couple of very small Japanese characters on the window. Looking through that window is like staring into a tunnel with just a bit of light at the end.

Walking through the door, you find yourself in a long, dark, curtain lined hallway. At the end it opens into the main room, which is connected to smaller secondary room further back. The space is dimly lit but accented by many candles. The interior design and uniquely shaped bar create a space that is quite stunning visually. The staff members, outfitted in Tuxedo shirts and bow ties, make the atmosphere feel uptight and pretentious though.

Craft cocktails are the driving force of Bar Big in Japan, and I assume that is something they do well. But what of the whisky? Well, as I had expected, the selection was rather anemic; just two Japanese whiskies, four single malt Scotches and 10 American whiskies (and really nothing exotic or even too interesting among them). Was there an explanation of those online reviews talking up their extensive whisky collection? Well, the bar does have a unique feature. You can buy a full bottle of Japanese whisky (limited to the two selections on the list) and if you don’t finish it, they will put your name on it and hold it for your future visits. There is a ceiling beam running down the center of the bar with metal rods hanging down from it, each rod having a bottle cap affixed to its end. The stored customer bottles are screwed onto those caps, creating a line of several dozen bottles hanging like pendants down the center of the room.

As I suspected, the people raving about the great whisky collection here are the ones who are too dumb to realize that each of these hanging bottles is one of the two available that can be purchased whole and stored. Bar Big in Japan may be a great place to bring a first date that you are trying to impress, but it is not worthy of the attention of whisky aficionados.

Since I made the effort to find the place and see what it was all about, I felt obligated to have a glass of whisky and make a few notes. Thankfully they did have Nikka Yoichi 10 year (45%), which is what I drank on that first visit to the Whisky Café, back in 2010 when this whole odyssey began.

On the nose it shows delicate peat smoke, malt and just a touch of citrus. On the palate gentle peat smoke, malty grain notes and stewed fruits come through up front, but it’s a bit rambunctious, with a little too much heat relative to the level of flavor intensity. It quickly turns very dry as it rolls into the finish. A hint of earthy peat smoke lingers and is joined by dry spice notes. Overall it shows much potential, but lacks refinement.

Dominion Square Tavern
address: 1243 Rue Metcalf
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Downtown
closest metro station: 6 minute walk from Peel (green line), 8 minute walk from Bonaventure (orange line)

A friend who visits Montreal often mentioned that I should check out the Dominion Square Tavern if I was writing about Montreal’s whisky bars. There really wasn’t much online to indicate that this might be a whisky destination, but it is owned by the people who own the Whisky Café. Scrutinizing some pictures of the place, what I could see of the whisky bottles on the shelf didn’t look too promising. I did consider the possibility that photos might not be current, and since I was making a third trip to the city to visit the Whisky Café, I decided to stop by here too for the sake of being thorough.

Designed as a vintage 1920’s era tavern, the interior is masterfully done. You really do feel as if you’re stepping back in time nearly 100 years as you walk through the door. The heavily patinated mirrors that line the wall behind the bar don’t photograph well, but they provide an impressive look in person. Perusing their menus, it’s obvious that the greatest strengths here are the food and the cocktail program.

As for the whisky, they do have a respectable selection of 25 single malts. And while there were a few interesting rarities on the list, the majority of the bottles were selected from that group of all too common single malts that I mentioned above. I wouldn’t put Dominion Square Tavern on a list of pure whisky destinations, but it’s still worthy of mention. If you are stuck with a group who are particular about food and cocktails and they don’t want to stray from downtown Montreal, you can take them here and still have some respectable whisky options for yourself.

I was happy to find Bruichladdich Waves on the list. This is a relic of the irreverent days at Bruichladdich when they put out a never-ending stream of new and unique bottlings, and one which I was yet to have tried. There were several editions of Waves released between 2006 and 2012, and the bottling was inspired by Islay’s rough seas and storm-lashed coast. The overall theme here was young (think 6 to 7 years), slightly elevated peat level, and a mix of Bourbon and Madeira casks. This example appears to have been bottled early in 2012 and was at 46% abv.

The nose is very coastal, with bright malt notes, sea spray, fish nets, beach grass and pebbles. Tree fruit and gentle malts notes are joined on the palate by a discernable bit of peat smoke. Some immature malt character comes to the fore as it moves into the finish, but it’s not overtly offensive. Gentle spice notes come around at the very end providing redemption. Overall it’s very approachable without being too mild mannered.

As for price and pour size, I won’t bother with that information for Bar Big in Japan since it really isn’t relevant as a whisky establishment. Dominion Square Tavern has a 1 ¼ ounce pour, but their prices are on the high side across their range (actually, their food looks pretty pricey too, it’s just an expensive place, period). I also noticed that their listed prices do not include the required 15% tax, which is added when you get the bill. They seem to be the city’s exception rather than the rule in that regard.

Station had been issuing 1 ½ ounce pours. When I mentioned the drink size of other bars in the city to the owner, he said he might back down to 1 ¼ ounces. The prices here are still very reasonable, even if Fred does follow through with a slightly smaller pour.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part deux

Part two of my Montreal whisky bar review will cover what I consider to be the second tier of these establishments. If you search around online trying to find such places, pretty much all of the results that come up are for the “big three” that I covered in my previous installment. I discovered the two bars that are the subject of this post by luck more than anything else, so it is very well possible that there are others in the city that fit into this category of which I am unaware.

When I planned what was going to be my epic, slightly more than 24-hour tour of seven of Montreal’s whisky bars, Else’s and Le Boudoir were going to be the last two stops. After visiting five places and spending the night, I would stop by the other two before heading home. Since the Whisky Café had been closed the night before and wasn’t set to open until 7:00 that night, I decided to hit the road ahead of a big snow storm and return for a second visit to cover the three remaining establishments.

Else’s became the first stop of round two since it has the earliest opening time of the three. It was at this point when I realized that inquiring about the sizes of the whisky servings was relevant to the task at hand. I asked the bartender at Else’s and said that she thought it was 1 ounce, but she really wasn’t certain. As our conversation continued, a gentleman sitting nearby interjected with the possibility that even though the drinks in Canada consisted of fewer ounces, they were about the same size as what I got at home because Canada has bigger ounces than we have in the U.S. He went on to explain that it all had to do with the fact that Canada was still part of the British Monarchy, something which the States had rebelled against long ago.

Well, maybe he had a point; the Queen of England can still be found on Canadian currency and I know that the Imperial gallon, though not in use much these days, is significantly bigger than the U.S. gallon. With a bit of research I eventually figured out that he was partially right, but mostly wrong. It’s time for a quick history lesson.

The full story of the origin of the gallon has been lost to time, but we do know that it eventually become the base of systems used to measure goods in England. Of course things needed to be complicated back then, so there were different sized gallons for different goods. The wine gallon, the ale gallon and the corn gallon each had their own defined volumes. There were probably others as well.

According to historical researchers, the size of the wine gallon probably varied over a period of several centuries. Evidence of a 224 cubic inch wine gallon dates back to the mid-1200’s. By the 1500’s it had become 233 cubic inches and a century later the wine gallon was down to 231 cubic inches, likely when its description was simplified by using whole numbers to specify the size of a cylinder that defined its volume. The wine gallon had been used as the unit of measure for taxing wine imports for quite some time, but it wasn’t until 1706 that the English government wrote the 231 cubic inch definition into law.

When the United States declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1776, the new country retained the units of measure that had originated in England, including the three different types of gallons mentioned above. In 1824 the United Kingdom opted to have a single standard for a measure of volume; the Imperial gallon was introduced and all others abandoned. Defined as the volume of 10 pounds of distilled water at 62 degrees Fahrenheit, which works out to about 277.4 cubic inches, the Imperial gallon is slightly smaller than the previous ale gallon of 282 cubic inches. Back in the U.S. in 1832 the Treasury adopted the 231 cubic inch wine gallon as the standard of measure for volumes of liquid. At the same time they adopted the 2150.42 cubic inch bushel as the standard of measure for volumes of dry goods. Although it is rarely used today, the corn gallon, which is 268.8 cubic inches, lives on in the U.S. as 1/8 of a bushel.

Canada’s movement toward independence from the UK was much more slow and incremental than that of the United States. Although the first steps were taken in 1791, the former colonies didn’t federate into a new state until 1867. Up until 1946 Canadians were still legally citizens of Britain, and the final constitutional ties between the two countries weren’t broken until 1982. Canada is still technically part of the British Commonwealth, but it’s purely symbolic at this point; hence the Queen on the $20 bill. This does explain why Canada adopted Britain’s new Imperial units of weights and measures in 1824 though.

And while both countries have largely adopted the metric system at this point, there are still remnants of the old system, most notably in the measure of alcoholic beverages. This is where it gets interesting. A gallon, whether it is an Imperial gallon or a U.S. liquid gallon, is equal to four quarts and each quart is equal to two pints. Of course this means that the Imperial quart and Imperial pint are bigger than their American counterparts. But the Imperial fluid ounce is equal to 1/20 of and Imperial pint where the U.S. fluid ounce is equal to 1/16 of a U.S. pint.

Once the dust has settled and the math is done, it turns out that the U.S. fluid ounce is actually slightly bigger than the Imperial fluid ounce. With respective volumes of 29.57 ml and 28.41 ml, the difference is only about 4%, close enough to say that they are about the same. Keep in mind though that if you order a pint of beer in Canada, you’ll get an Imperial pint, which is 20 Imperial ounces (or 19.2 U.S. ounces).

address: 156 Rue Roy Est
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: The Plateau
closest metro station: 10 minute walk from Sherbrooke (orange line)

Else’s has a pretty interesting origin story which is printed on the back of the menu. In 1993 a 50-something, six foot tall blond Norwegian woman named Else Smith took a five hour cab ride from Toronto to Montreal. Ready for a fresh start in life, she abandoned her quiet suburban ways and opened a bar in her new home city. Sadly, Else Smith passed away in 2000, but her legacy lives on with her son Eliott running the business.

Else’s has a few quirks that should be mentioned. From the start it operated as a bar even though it only had a restaurant permit. After a decade of warnings, penalties and fines, they were finally forced to start operating as a restaurant. I’m assuming that they’re in an area where zoning rules don’t allow bar permits, otherwise they would have obtained one long ago. This means that a little more than 10 years ago they had to set up a kitchen and offer a daily menu of food items. It also means that you can’t just go there and get a drink without ordering at least some food. They are good about keeping a few very minimalist, snack-like items available, so you don’t have to order much food if you are going there primarily for drinks. Oh, and they don’t take credit cards, so make sure you have cash or a debit card before you settle in there. I believe there is an ATM on premise, but I’d rather not find out what sort of fees that involves.

I’ve been to Else’s twice, both times for lunch. On my first visit, in the spring of 2014, the food was what I would describe as approachable pub fare, with items like fish & chips and moules-frites. On my second visit, when I mentioned that the food seemed quite different I was informed that they had a new chef. After 10 years the time had come to shake things up and take the menu in a new direction. While some of the former items remain, the deep fryer, which was the driving force of the old menu, was eliminated. Pork tacos and mini quinoa burgers typify the new offerings, which the chef describes as unpretentious gourmet comfort food.

The area around Else’s is very residential, and the bar exudes the feeling of a local neighborhood gathering spot. The interior is well worn, though not outdated. The space itself is cozy, but open and bright with large windows occupying much of the two exterior walls. Located on a corner and having a wide, rectangular floor-plan, the interior of Else’s is in contrast to many Montreal bars and restaurants, especially those in more densely developed areas which often have a very narrow, deep footprint. Street frontage is not at such a premium in this part of the city, allowing spaces with a greater proportion of exterior walls.

In spite of its respectable collection of more than 70 single malts, Else’s doesn’t seem to be all that well known as a whisky bar. That might be partly because the bottles that are most visible behind the bar are the ones that see frequent use, with many of the Scotch bottles hidden down on lower shelves rather than being prominently displayed. In fact, I only discovered Else’s by chance while scouring the online reviews of another bar to see if it was worth visiting. One of the comments there mentioned that those in search of a good whisky selection would be better off going to Else’s.

I decided to go with Bruichladdich’s 2006 Bere Barely offering for my first drink of the day. Bere is an ancient barley variety that was first cultivated in Mesopotamia some 6000 years ago. The Vikings are likely to have introduced it to Scotland by the 9th century, possibly much earlier. Bere was the barley originally used to make Scottish malt whisky, but it was gradually phased out from the early 1800’s to the early 1900’s as more modern barley varieties took its place. Fortunately a small quantity of Bere has remained under cultivation in Scotland, primarily in the Orkney Islands where it is used to produce traditional baked goods.

When comparing modern varieties of barley, the two-row type has more starch and is therefore higher yielding (more fermentable sugar per ton) and the six-row type has more protein and greater enzyme content. Six-row barley is also higher yielding on the farm (more tons per acre). Scottish malt whisky and most, if not all European beer is made with two-row barley, while six-row barley is used primarily for livestock feed. In the U.S. however, six-row barley is preferred by macro-brewers and whisky distillers because the higher enzyme content is needed to convert starches from the other ingredients used (corn and rice for beer, corn, wheat and rye for whisky) to sugars. While Bere is a six-row variety, it is not a modern one, so it has less yield in the mash and on the farm (Bruichladdich say 50% less than a modern crop).

There have been three releases of Bere Barley single malt from Bruichladdich so far. The first two, a 7200 bottle general release and a 15,600 bottle travel-retail exclusive, both used Islay grown Bere and both were distilled in 2006 and bottled in 2012. The third, a travel-retail exclusive of 36,000 bottles, used Orkney grown Bere and was distilled in 2008 and bottled in 2014. While Bruichladdich’s Bere Barley single malt may be the most readily available, it is not the only modern example, nor was it the first. Michel Couvreur, an independent bottler based in France, had Bere from Orkney malted at Highland Park and distilled at Edradour in 1986. It was offered as a series of small releases in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The Arran distillery also produced a Bere Barley single malt with grain from Orkney in 2004. There have been two releases so far, 5800 bottles in 2012 and 4890 bottles in 2014. Springbank has also commissioned a farmer local to Campbeltown to grow Bere at least twice in the last decade, but they are yet to release a whisky made from it as far as I know.

This first release of 2006 Bruichladdich Bere Barley is aged about 6 years and bottled at 50% abv. It is pale golden-straw in color. The nose is pleasant and bright with citrus and delicate malt notes. It is robust on the palate, with a more assertive character than the nose would suggest. The flavor profile is quite grassy, with candied ginger in front of a gentle malt backdrop. The finish is long and warming with a bit of dry spice coming on late. Overall it has an endearing rustic character.

Le Boudoir
address: 850 Avenue du Mont-Royal Est
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: The Plateau
closest metro station: 3 minute walk from Mont-Royal (orange line)

Le Boudoir was recommended to me three or four years ago by a bartender at Dieu du Ciel! (one of Montreal’s most highly regarded brew pubs) when I mentioned that I was seeking out the city’s whisky bars. Established in 1997, Le Boudoir is located in a bustling part of the Plateau. This is very much a zone of dense commercial development, a fact that is reflected by the bar’s deep, narrow floor plan that I alluded to earlier.

However, this is still an area with a heavy concentration of residential properties and Le Boudoir, much like Else’s, serves as a gathering spot for the local neighborhood. The food here is very minimal, just light snacks that can be prepared behind the bar. Bringing takeout from nearby restaurants is something that is not just tolerated though, it’s actually encouraged. The atmosphere is casual with a pool table and foosball in the back, and the work of local artists graces the walls on a monthly rotation. Well selected beverage offerings and modest pricing combine to draw in an eclectic but friendly crowd. The selection of 70 to 80 single malts (which are very prominently displayed behind the bar) is supplemented by a respectable offering of Quebec micro brews.

While none of the five places that I’ve looked at so far are in heavily touristed parts of the city, the first three are big enough and well known to the point that they do draw in some visitors to the city. Else’s and Le Boudoir on the other hand are both very much local hangouts where tourists are few and far between, though certainly welcomed.

Le Boudoir was the second stop of the day and I decided to try a whisky that I’d been curious about for some time. Unfortunately my selection didn’t live up to my expectations. I wasn’t really looking forward to writing about a whisky that I was underwhelmed by as part of this post, so when I made my third trip to the city to finally visit the Whisky Café it made sense to revisit Le Boudoir and try something different.

This time I decided to go for a whisky from a distillery I was totally unfamiliar with; Glen Elgin 12 year. Owning more than a quarter of Scotland’s 100 (or so) single malt distilleries, Diageo is far and away the biggest player in the Scotch game. But blended whisky has always been the company’s bread and butter. Johnnie Walker may be the most recognizable brand in their portfolio, but it is just one of the 10 blended Scotch brands owned by Diageo. That being said, the company really only strongly promotes a handful its single malt brands and the whiskies from about half of their distilleries aren’t even bottled as single malt.

Glen Elgin falls between those two groups, it’s been bottled as a single malt for almost 15 years (it started of in the Flora & Fauna range in 2001, moved to the Hidden Malts range in 2003 and was added to the Classic Malts range in 2005), but it has never been heavily promoted as such and most of the distillery’s production still goes to blends. Located three miles south of the town of Elgin, in the heart of Speyside, Glen Elgin is generally well regarded but flies under the radar.

The 12 year old, bottled at 43% is the only regularly available official distillery bottling from Glen Elgin. The nose has malty, floral and grassy notes with a lot of subtle complexity. On the palate it is somewhat full bodied and meaty, with a brief hit of malty sweetness up front followed by grassy, floral notes and tree fruit. Then a combination of heat and spice notes (clove?) arrives quickly and becomes more dominant as it moves into the finish, which is quite dry.

What’s interesting here is what I learned when I finally did some more exhaustive research into Glen Elgin while writing this post. This bottling is primarily a European release (obviously some made it to Canada though) and has never been available in the United States. It should also be noted that in spite of a period of modernization in the late  1960’s and early 1970’s, the distillery continues to use long fermentation times (75 hours) and still cools the spirit coming off the stills with traditional worm tubs.

The meaty quality I had noticed is often attributed to the use of worm tubs. There’s occasionally an element of self-doubt as I compose tasting notes, so it’s nice to have a moment of validation like this.

As I sat at the bar sipping on the Glen Elgin, I noticed another bottle on the list that caught my attention; 12 year Glengoyne. And that begged an important question; was it the cask strength version? Much to my delight, the bartender’s answer to that question was “yes”. Glengoyne revamped their core range late in 2012; the flagship 10 year and top end 21 year were left alone, but the 17 year was replaced with a new 15 year and a new 18 year, and the cask strength 12 year was replaced by a 43% abv 12 year old and a non-age stated cask strength bottling. I’m not sure if the 12 year cask strength bottling ever made its way to the States, but when I checked with the importer toward the end of 2013 the NAS cask strength was the only bottling from the core range that wasn’t being exported to the U.S.

I’ve been a big fan of Glengoyne since visiting the distillery in 2012. The cask strength 12 year bottling (100% sherry cask matured and 57.2% abv) is as close as their standard lineup comes to their Teapot Dram, one of my all time favorite whiskies. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to taste it, so Le Boudoir gets two whiskies for their review. Cheers.

It has a big, malty, sherry fruit driven nose with a good dose of mulling spices. On the palate it’s big and fiery in all of its malty, stewed fruit and holiday baking spice glory. The depth of flavor is fantastic. It’s almost mouth-numbing as meanders through the incredibly long finish. Nonetheless, this does show a little more maturity than the 58.8% abv Teapot Dram (60% 9 year, 20% 13 year, 20% 14 year), making it a bit more approachable.

I started off talking about pour sizes and mentioned that the bartender at Else’s said she thought they had a 1 ounce pour, but she didn’t seem too certain. At Le Boudoir I was told that the standard pour is 1 1/8 ounces and the half pours listed on the menu are, well, half of that. The half drams do come at a bit of a premium, at about 2/3 the price of a full dram. I didn’t ask about the availability of ½ pours at Else’s, but I’m assuming they weren’t offered since they weren’t listed on the menu.

With collections of 70-plus single malts, each of these establishments has plenty to choose from, but they certainly don’t have the depth that the “big three” can offer with two to four times as many selections. Rare and obscure bottlings aren’t as prolific either, but the ones that are available at Else’s and Le Boudoir are more affordable, which stands to reason with their price ranges topping out around $25 to $30 per drink. Prices between the two places are quite close, and not much different than those of the “big three”. Overall though, the best values to be found are still at L’Ile Noire.

I should also mention “cinq au sept”, which is what they call happy hour in Montreal. It’s a big deal there; lasting at least two hours (the name translates to “five to seven”, but a lot of places start earlier or go later with it). You probably won’t find any single malts included in the deals, but you can get a few half priced beers to go along with your whisky. The cinq au sept at Le Boudoir, which seems quite popular, is supplemented by “cette semaine”; drink specials which run from open to close and are changed weekly (the names translates to “this week”). A single malt Scotch is always included at Le Boudoir, with Glenfarclas 12 year marked down from $9.00 to $7.75 during my last visit.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part un

Finally, here it is; my long overdue, much ballyhooed review of Montreal’s whisky bars. I’ve lived with two hours of Quebec’s largest city for nearly 20 years and I’ve been an occasional visitor there since the late 1980’s. With my whisky obsession going back at least 10 years it’s kind of surprising that it wasn’t until 2010 when I was struck by the revelation that a world-class city like Montreal must have at least a few good whisky bars.

I found my way to two of the big three right off the bat and eventually got to the third, as well as a handful of lesser known establishments that are also serious about the whisky. I’m going to split this up into three posts, starting with the big players, moving on to the second tier and finishing up with some honorable (and not so honorable) mentions. First though, I’ll give a little orientation of the city.

Montreal lies on an island situated in the Saint Lawrence River, with a secondary island-city, Laval, just to the north-west. Located a mere 30 miles north of the U.S – Canadian border, the city is easily reached from Vermont via Interstate 89 or New York via Interstate 87. The city grid is oriented along the Saint Lawrence, which runs to the north-east (slightly more north in the area of the city). This can make maps and directions a bit confusing if you are unfamiliar with Montreal since everything that is labeled as east and west (est and ouest) looks as if it should logically be north and south (nord and sud).

While some parts of the city are located on smaller, surrounding islands, the city of Montreal does not cover the entire island of Montreal. There are currently 15 other independent municipalities on the island which cover roughly 1/3 of its total area. There’s an interesting history of municipal reorganization on the island which is detailed here. The city itself is broken down into 19 boroughs. Those boroughs, each with a mayor and council, are composed of varying numbers of distinct neighborhoods.

All of the points of interest I’ll be discussing are located in three of the city’s contiguous boroughs; Le Sud-Ouest, Ville-Marie and Le Plateau-Mont-Royal. If one is driving into the city from the South Shore, the most likely approach is across the Champlain Bridge. One of the first exits after crossing the bridge will keep you on Autoroute 10 Ouest. Travelling along this arc, Le Sud-Ouest will be almost entirely to your left. As Highway 10 terminates and feeds onto city streets, it leads into the heart of downtown Montreal (also know as Centre-Ville), which is part of the Ville-Marie borough. The rest of this roughly “L” shaped borough is situated to the north and to the east (as the city grid is arranged) of downtown. A short drive due north across the downtown will bring you to Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, a pie-shaped borough that fills the inside angle of the “L” shape of Ville-Marie.

Ville-Marie is the most heavily touristed part of the city, more specifically the Old Montreal neighborhood and the west end of downtown. In these areas visitors to the city are likely to outnumber the natives. Le Sud-Ouest was historically made up of industrial sites and working-class neighborhoods. As local industry collapsed in the 1970’s, the area became depressed and was mainly known for low-income housing. Over the last 15 years gentrification has brought an economic and social revival to many parts of Le Sud-Ouest. The Plateau, confusingly, is the predominant neighborhood in the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal borough. Many areas here have a close-knit urban neighborhood feel. The Plateau has Montreal’s highest population density and is often included in “hippest places to live” lists. This is the best part of the city to immerse your self in French-Canadian culture. I’ve often felt like I was the only tourist in this area, which can be a nice thing.

Like the rest of Quebec, Montreal is primarily French speaking with smaller Anglophone enclaves. The city is, however, incredibly bilingual. The locals are usually quite accommodating for non-French speakers, assuming you aren’t projecting the stereotype of a loud, arrogant American. The accent alone can be a bit of a language barrier at times though, so even conversations in English can occasionally prove cumbersome.

Navigating the city by car is pretty straight forward but like most modern urban areas, street parking can be scarce and expensive, depending on where exactly you are. I prefer to use the parking garage under the Grand Library on Rue Berri ($9 or $12 for 24 hours depending on when you enter) and walk, or use public transportation. Cabs are plentiful and the three boroughs mentioned above are well-serviced by the green and orange lines of the Montreal Metro (the two lines cross at the Berri-UQAM station, which is a 6 minute walk from the noted parking garage). It’s a flat-rate system ($3.25 for a single trip), so the cost-effectiveness depends on the distance travelled.

Quebec is essentially the same as a liquor control state in the U.S., with the system covering the entire province. The SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec), which runs the monopoly, imports a pretty good selection of Scotch. American whiskey: not so much. Even Canadian whisky is less abundantly available here than one would expect. Basically, if you’re not interested in Scotch, you shouldn’t bother with Montreal as a whisky destination.

On the upside, Quebec will sometimes get whiskies that aren’t imported to the U.S. On the downside, alcohol is taxed very heavily here (I believe that goes for the rest of Canada too). The pricing isn’t consistently higher though. I’ve seen some bottles that are very close to the prices I pay at home and others that are literally twice as expensive. Knowing that the prices are high, I’ll only consider buying bottles to bring home if it’s a whisky that can’t be had in the States. The SAQ does list their inventory online by store, which makes it easy to plan purchases in advance.

I don’t know if bars and restaurants pay retail prices for bottles of liquor in Quebec like they do here in Vermnt, but they do have to add on two taxes for the end consumer: 5% federal and 10% provincial. This results in a combination of high-ish prices and smaller pours. While we’ve become accustomed to getting 1.5 to 2 ounces in a glass of liquor in the U.S., the normal range in Quebec is 1 to 1.25 ounces. Thankfully the exchange rate is currently very favorable, with our dollar being worth about $1.30 Canadian. Of course that helps with anything else you’re spending money on too, not just the whisky.

As I alluded above, coverage of this topic has been a long time in coming. There were several false starts along the way, where I’d go to the city, drink some interesting whiskies, scribble down some notes, take a few pictures and never follow up with any writing. Feeling the need for an adventure during the past winter, I decided that the impetus to getting the job done would be a whirlwind tour of the relevant establishments. The plan was visit five places in the evening, spend the night and stop by two more the next afternoon before heading home. Of course, the best laid plans often go awry, and that single trip turned into three. The additional visits did allow me to add an eighth bar to the list and include some extra details though.

Pub Burgundy Lion
address: 2496 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest
borough: Le Sud-Ouest
neighborhood: Little Burgundy
closest metro station: 6 minute walk from Lionel-Groulx (the orange and green lines cross here)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this now, but when I first started searching out whisky bars in Montreal back in early 2010 I didn’t really pay attention to the Burgundy Lion because their website just didn’t make the place look very appealing. In my defense, they had been open for less than two years at that point after starting with just 40 bottles of whisky, so what I passed up then probably wasn’t nearly as impressive as the place is today.

What finally caught my attention was a Glenfarclas tasting with George Grant that they hosted in September of 2012. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty huge fan of Glenfarclas, and the fact that they had the Brand Ambassador / heir to the distillery running a tasting was quite remarkable. The event sold out quickly and I had waited too long to try to sign up, but at least it motivated me to go check out the Burgundy Lion early in 2013.

This is a world class whisky bar. They’ve built up a selection of over 400 bottles, the majority of which are single malt Scotches. Independent bottlings are also well represented, primarily from Hart Brothers, Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseur’s Choice series and Douglas Laing’s Old Malt Cask series. At some point they also acquired a private collection, so there are a few rare offerings that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

The space is modeled after a classic British pub; warm and inviting with an emphasis on lighter wood tones. Every time I’ve been there it’s been bustling with activity; in fact one of the few downsides to this pub is that I’ve often had a hard time getting a seat at the bar. Detailed food descriptions are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll only mention that there is a full menu which is driven by classic British pub fare. The greatest strength of the Burgundy Lion is their ability to put together impressive tasting events which are usually hosted by distillery representatives, such as the Laphroaig dinner I attended a few months ago. An additional space on the second floor with a smaller bar, a few high-tops and several tables can accommodate upwards of 50 people and allows them to keep the special events separated from their other patrons.

This was the first stop on what was supposed to be my epic 24-hour expedition. I very rarely go for a drink in the $40 to $50 range, but I decided to throw down the gauntlet early on and also partially redeem myself for missing that Glenfarclas event a few years ago. I was torn between the 40 year old and the 1979 Family Casks bottling (a single cask series launched in 2007 and covering every vintage from 1952 to 1994). The former was at 46% and bottled in 2010, thus distilled in 1970 or earlier. The latter was at 52.2% and bottled in mid 2012, making it 33 years old, give or take six months. When I told the bartender which two I was considering, she pulled down both bottles, removed the corks and let me nose them: the ’79 spoke to me. In fact, as I sat there slowly enjoying my first dram of the day in the early afternoon, its aromas elicited a comment from the person sitting next to me, with an inquiry as to what I was drinking.

The nose had an amazing character with great depth of sherry fruit, old wood and earthen floored cellar. The palate was incredibly rich and complex, showing stewed fruits with malt and notes of caramel, leather, butterscotch and cinnamon. The finish was long and warming with lovely spice notes. Overall it was very well composed and balanced throughout, but the underlying sweetness up front gradually faded into a relatively dry finish. Not an everyday drinker, but well worth the price of admission.

A little follow-up research showed that this limited release of 211 bottles was aged in a “plain” Hogshead. While the standard Glenfarclas lineup is aged exclusively in sherry casks, they do use some former bourbon oak (never first fill though), usually for whisky that will be sold to blenders. At Glenfarclas the term “plain” is used to indicate that the former contents of the cask will have little to no contribution to the character of the Scotch that is being aged in it. They use the term both for refill bourbon casks and 4th fill sherry casks. The term Hogshead (250 liter) does not exclude bourbon casks. Bourbon barrels (200 liter) that have been disassembled for shipping can be reassembled into the larger Hogsheads by using more staves.

Whisky Cafe
address: 5800 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: Mile End
closest metro station: 8 minute walk from Rosemont (orange line)

I almost gave up on the Whisky Café. Normally open seven nights a week, it was to be the third stop of my five venue evening, but they were closed that night. I assume this was because they were expecting little to no business on Super Bowl Sunday. I decided to skip the two stops planned for the next afternoon since there was a huge snow storm bearing down on the region and I was going to have to come back again to visit the Whisky Café anyway.

When I returned almost three months later, they were closed again. This time it was my fault. They open at 5:00 every day, except Sunday when they open at 7:00. I thought Monday was the late opening day and showed up at 6:00 on Sunday. I can never remember the days of the week in French so I didn’t realize my mistake when I looked at the sign with their posted hours. I was on the fence about giving this a third go, but six weeks later I was back in Montreal for the Laphroaig dinner at the Burgundy Lion and as soon as it ended I took the metro straight to the Whisky Café.

This was the first whisky bar that I visited in Montreal back in 2010, and I have to admit that I’ve had somewhat of a negative opinion of the place since that initial visit. I was excited to have the opportunity try a Japanese single malt whisky from Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, something we were years away from having available in the U.S. The place didn’t seem so bad on first glance, but it did have sort of a stuffy, pretentious atmosphere. The bartender kept talking about how smooth the whisky I was drinking was. I liked the Yoichi, but “smooth” is about the last word I would have used to describe it. The prices seemed high here, but I had no frame of reference until I found my way to another whisky bar later that night and saw the same Yoichi I had been drinking earlier at half the price I had paid.

While the Whisky Café has an upscale feel to it, it also feels dated. The business was established in 1989 and being there sort of feels like stepping back in time to that period. The space can present an impressive image on first glance with its black leather seating, backlit wall of whisky bottles on display and bar-top adorned with single malt labels. But after spending some time there that all starts to seem like a façade. The large espresso machine behind the bar dominates an area that should be reserved exclusively for whisky bottles. The stark white ceiling looks clinical and out of place. A trip to the men’s restroom reveals that it is the source of the light emanating from the frosted glass on the backside of the whisky display wall. Even the labels that decorate the bar top look like they were supplied by an importer rather than having been carefully removed from sadly finished favorite bottles.

All of that being said; my opinion of the place softened considerably on my last visit. Maybe it was because I excited about the whisky I was drinking and felt like I had paid a fair price for it. Or perhaps it was the good nature of the bartender who was on duty that night. Whatever the reasons, I was able to look past flaws that had bothered me in the past and really enjoyed this visit.

A few other points are worth mentioning. In blunt contrast to the Burgundy Lion, every time I’ve been to the Whisky Café there have very few people there; at most a dozen and on my last visit I was the only guest there shortly after arriving. Located on the northern outskirts of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, the Whisky Café is far from the crowds of downtown and several blocks past the end of the Plateau neighborhood. It was purposely situated in somewhat of a no-man’s-land in order to become a destination location. I’m also under the impression that it doesn’t draw in as many people as it once did, but this could be a good thing if you prefer to avoid crowds. Parking in this area is more plentiful and less expensive as well.

The whisky selection is respectable with about 140 single malts on the list, a few rare gems among them. There is also an attached cigar lounge here, one of a small number in the city that were grandfathered after Montreal’s 2006 ban on smoking in public places. This will have significant appeal for cigar aficionados visiting from the States as businesses in Canada can legally import and sell cigars from Cuba. The Whisky Café also offers a small menu of appetizer sized food items which are all served cold.

On a previous visit I had spied a bottle of Ledaig 15 year old here. I’ve always been intrigued by the Tobermory distillery and its more heavily peated variant. But this wasn’t a current bottling and I knew that peat levels and quality from this producer had varied over the decades so I wanted to do a little research before I tried it.

I’ve written extensively about the history of Tobermory here, so I’ll just go over the information relevant to this post. Tobermory, the only distillery on the Isle of Mull, produces two different single malts; unpeated Tobermory and heavily peated Ledaig (the distillery has gone by each name a couple of times in its long history). After a closure that lasted more than 40 years, it was reopened in 1972 but only operated for about three years, until 1975. During this period all of the whisky was heavily peated but some casks were labeled as Tobermory and other as Ledaig.

The distillery restarted with new owners in 1979 and ran until1983. It was closed until 1989, then opened again and was finally purchased by its current owners in 1993. The practice of making two separate single malts, peated and unpeated, began in 1979. The peat levels (and quality) were inconsistent between 1979 and 1993, but somewhat low on average; maybe around 15 ppm. By the mid 1990’s the new owners had raised the peat levels of the Ledaig distillate to 37 ppm.

From the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s the distillery bottled a 15 year old and a 20 year old, both at 43%. The 20 had red lettering on a white label and the 15 looked similar, but with blue lettering. As far as I can tell, that 15 year bottling was all from distillate produced between 1979 and 1983, while the 20 year was from two periods, 1972-1975 and 1979-1983. I have seen one 20 year bottle that carried a 1974 vintage, but I’m not sure if all of the bottles from that earlier, more desirable period were vintage dated. There were also a few non-age stated Ledaigs bottled around the same time that I’m assuming were from the distillate produced between 1989 and 1993.

The nice thing about finding the 15 year Ledaig at the Whisky Café is that even though it’s a bottling that’s very difficult to find now, it has likely been sitting on their shelf since it was commonly available so it’s still reasonably priced.

It opened with delicate peat on the nose, as well as aromas that were grassy, malty and a bit floral. It had very soft peat on the palate and was surprisingly well-composed, but it still carried too much of the perfumed floral character that goes against my personal preferences. The finish was smooth but lengthy and maintained a good deal of character.

I think this one was better overall but not dramatically different than the 16 year old Ledaig I’ve had from Gordon & MacPhail that was distilled in 1990.

Pub L’Ile Noire
address: 1649 Rue Saint-Denis
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Quartier Latin
closest metro station: 5 minute walk from Berri-UQAM (the orange and green lines cross here)

The Quartier Latin (confusingly this neighborhood is entirely within the newly defined Quartier des Spectacles, which is entirely within the area defined as downtown) has been home to L’Ile Noire since it opened in 1989 (about 6 months before Whisky Café). Originally located on Rue Ontario, the pub was forced to move after 21 years in business when they were unable to renew their lease as the area went through a period of gentrification. The move wasn’t far though, a mere 750 feet and just around the corner on Rue Saint-Denis.

My first visit to L’Ile Noire was at the original location in April of 2010 and I was completely unaware of the impending move that would take place two months later. When I returned for a second visit in October of 2010, I was quite surprised to find that they had relocated. The original space, while following the British pub theme, had a very different feel to it than the Burgundy Lion does. It was much darker, both the wood tones and the lighting. Accented by many candles, it was more lounge-like. But it was still a lively and vibrant place with a solid whisky collection.

The new space had a much different feel to it. It had more of a cold, post-modern interior design character. There was much less wood and a lot more glass, polished stone and stainless steel. Of course the whisky was still there, as well as the friendly staff and the same interesting, eclectic music selection; it all just felt sort of out of place. I’ve often voiced the opinion that it seemed like the owners got it wrong by spending too much money creating the new space and many a Montrealer has agreed with me.

Of course, when I made that second visit everything was still brand new and shiny. Five years later the space is starting to feel like it’s breaking in, maybe some patina is even starting to form. I don’t think it will ever match the original space, but L’Ile Noire does seem more comfortable in its own skin now.

The food menu is small and limited to simple snacks. As for the whisky, the list shows about 200 single malts, but I think they have quite a few more that aren’t listed so they’re probably closer to 250. I’ve definitely had some interesting rarities here over the years, like Highland Park Earl Magnus 12 year and 15 year (which weren’t released to the U.S.), as well as a cask strength 23 year old North Port (Brechin distillery) and a cask strength 25 year old Hillside (Glenesk distillery), both of which were distilled in 1971.

In spite of the Whisky Café being closed on my first attempt to visit for this post, I soldiered on through the -15 F temperatures to the rest of my scheduled stops. L’Ile Noire, being closest to my hotel, was the last one of the night. I decided to go with the 15 year Glenfarclas for a couple of reasons. Having started the day with the 1979 Glenfarclas, it seemed apropos to come full circle. Also, the first time I tried Glenfarclas 17 year was during that visit to L’Ile Noire’s original location. Oh, and we don’t get the 15 year in the U.S. Bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered, Glenfarclas 15 year is somewhat of an anomaly. Most of the rest of their standard lineup (the 10, 12, 17, 18, 21, 25 and 30 year olds) are bottled at 43% and chill filtered.

The nose had lovely dark berry and sherried fruit aromas with a malty backbone and just a hint of peat smoke. On the palate it had good intensity up front with barley malt and stewed fruits leading the charge. It got a little hot on the mid-palate with some of the flavors dropping back a bit. But it regained its balance as it moved into the finish when remnants of the malty core came to the fore and were joined by dry spice notes and a subtle touch of peat smoke. Overall this was an interesting contrast to the 1979, and a nice representation of the Glenfarclas. I should really pick up a bottle of this next time I’m north of the border.

Before I started this little adventure, I knew that the whisky pours in Montreal were smaller than what I get at home. But I wasn’t sure what size they were or if they were uniform from place to place. I didn’t start asking until the second trip, so I had to email a few place to get the info. It turns out that the Burgundy Lion offers a 1 ounce pour while L’Ile Noire and the Whisky Café go with 1 ¼ ounces. L’Ile Noire also offers ½ pours (presumably 5/8 of an ounce), which the other two don’t. These are priced a bit higher than half the cost of a full pour, but can still be a nice way to try some of the more expensive options.

Speaking of prices, I should compare the relative expense of drinking at these three establishments. I looked at about 16 different single malts (I say about because some of them only appeared on two of the three lists) that spanned a wide range of price points. I also adjusted the Burgundy Lion’s prices to account for the smaller pour size. Some solid trends emerged, but as expected there were exceptions. If one place buys a bottle and two years later another place buys the same bottle but its price has gone up 50% (as can happen these days), that would throw off the trend.

L’Ile Noire has the best prices almost universally. Of the malts I looked at, Burgundy Lion only beat their price on one and was tied on another. The prices were higher at Burgundy Lion by 5% to 50% and price point didn’t seem to be a factor in the differential. As I said, this is after adjusting Burgundy Lion’s prices up 25% to take account for the smaller pour size.

The Whisky Café has higher prices than L’Ile Noire across the board. On the low end of the price range the Burgundy Lion is usually slightly more expensive than the Whisky Café. As you get into the higher priced options, L’Ile Noire and Burgundy Lion stay close to each other, with the former usually keeping a slight advantage. But this is where the prices at the Whisky Café really take off. Just a few examples, the location abbreviations should be obvious:

Oban 14 year - $16.25 (BL), $15 (WC), $13 (LN)
Glengoyne 17 year - $16.25 (BL), $18 (WC), $13 (LN)
Glenfarclas 40 year - $55 (BL), $80 (WC), $60 (LN)*
anCnoc 35 year - $63 (BL), $60 (LN)
Bunnahabhain 25 year - $50 (BL), $45 (LN)
Balblair 1975 - $95 (WC), $50 (LN)
Highland Park 25 year - $50 (WC), $30 (LN)
Highland Park 30 year - $55 (BL), $90 (WC)

*2012 price, possibly higher now but the picture was blurry.

With a diverse variety of positive attributes, each of these places is worth visiting. Which one you’ll like most comes down to personal preference. Hopefully my review will help point people in the right direction.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bruichladdich, Islay Barley, 2007 Rockside Farm

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 6 years old, 50%, $65

When a distillery finds itself under new ownership, it’s not uncommon for some changes to occur regarding the methods of production. Whether these changes are an attempt to improve consistency and quality or to increase output and boost profit margins, the character of the whisky is bound to be transformed by them.

While researching a couple of recent posts about Ardbeg, I learned that after it was taken over in 1997 by Glenmorangie a lot of long overdue maintenance and equipment upgrades were finally attended to. At the same time, having Dr. Bill Lumsden at the helm meant that there would be a much sharper focus on cask management going forward. But, I’ve also read (from the Ardbeg distillery profile on the Whisky-Online site, which I consider to be a reliable source) that more powerful yeast strains and shorter fermentation times have been employed during the latest era of Ardbeg ownership. In this example the positive and negative effects of these changes probably cancel each other out in terms of overall quality. Certainly though, the character of the whisky produced after 1997 is markedly different than that produced before.

While researching my piece on Bruichladdich’s 10 year old, I examined the direction that the distillery had moved in since coming under new ownership in 2012. Early in 2013, just six months after being bought by Remy Cointreau, it was announced that production was set to be doubled. The group that saved Bruichladdich in 2001 had been very proud of the quality of the distillate produced after they got the place up and running again, touting the long fermentations and slow distillations they employed. When a distillery is pushed to rapidly make a large increase of its output, corners are often cut to achieve the desired production numbers. I certainly had concerns about the changes that could have potentially been going on under the radar recently at Bruichladdich.

I did a little digging and came across an article announcing that they were going to start making twice as much whisky, where a distillery spokesperson claimed that they were determined to maintain the traditional methods of production at Bruichladdich. He went on to state that doubling output was possible without making any changes at the plant, aside from adding warehouses. At that time two new warehouses had been built in the previous two years, one was under construction, and a fourth was in the planning phase.

Being the skeptic that I am, I still had my doubts. I decided to dig deeper and take a look at some numbers to see if these claims would hold up to scrutiny.

The distillery had stated that it would be going from 750,000 LPA (liters of pure alcohol) per year to 1.5 million LPA and doing so with 24 hour production for five and a half days per week. Most of the other numbers I’m using are coming from the Misako Udo book The Scottish Whisky Distilleries, which was published in 2007. Bruichladdich has the following equipment: A single mash tun which takes 7 tons of grist and produces 36,000 liters of wort, 6 Oregon Pine washbacks that can each take a charge of 36,000 liters, two wash stills that each take a charge of 12,000 liters and two spirit stills that each take a charge of 7,100 liters. Fermentation times are stated as 60-67 hours during the week and 100-107 hours over the weekends.

I started off with the assumption that they were using a production cycle similar to that of Springbank which I was familiar with from their Whisky School. Springbank also has a single mash tun and six washbacks, and they were running five mashes per week. Bruichladdich’s spirit yield is 401 liters of alcohol per ton of grist. If you multiply that by 7 tons per mash and then multiply by 5 days per week and 52 weeks per year, you get roughly 730,000 liters per year. That’s close enough to 750,000 for me to assume that five mashes per week is the correct number.

Going over my notes from my time at Springbank, it looks a mash cycle should take four to five hours. Both distilleries run four batches of water through a mash (three is more typical of Scottish malt distilleries). Bruichladdich does produce more wort from a bigger mash (36,000 liters from 7 tons of malt vs. 21,000 liters from 3 tons of malt), but even if their mash cycle takes twice as long as Springbank’s, there is still plenty of time to run two mashes in a day without changing the process or the equipment.

With the given fermentation times, the mash done on Monday gets distilled on Thursday, Tuesday’s gets distilled on Friday, Wednesday’s on the following Monday, Thursday’s on Tuesday and Friday’s on Wednesday. Once his sequence has been established, there should never be more than three washbacks filled at any given time.

If the number of mashes doubles to two a day, then two washbacks are being filled each day. For the cycle to work out properly, you have to split the washbacks into two sets of three. A washback from one set gets filled in the first half of each production day, and a washback from the other set gets filled in the second half of each production day. Running like this, the above mentioned fermentation times are maintained and each of the six washbacks is getting filled six to twelve hours after it is emptied on an ongoing basis.

While there’s a little extra capacity here in theory (you have one washbacks that’s empty for six to twelve hours on each of the five production days), it’s probably not practical to put an extra mash through they system each week. I haven’t accounted for the time it takes to fill and then drain the washbacks, or the time it takes to sanitize them between fillings (this is done by pumping them full of steam). Adding an extra mash would have the staff constantly filling washbacks the moment they were ready. The best practice is to pitch the yeast as soon as possible after the wort is cooled to prevent any wild yeast or bacteria from establishing a foothold. That would mean the mashing cycle would have to be matched to when the washbacks became available, rather than a regular schedule of mashing at the same two times each day. I’m sure that would not be very practical.

On to the stills; the wash still takes 1/3 of what each washback holds (and the spirit still takes what the wash still puts out), so they would have been doing three distillation runs (each through a wash still / spirit still combo) each day that they were operating. The wash still run lasts five hours and the spirit still run lasts six hours and 40 minutes. A little bit of time is also needed to pump the spent lees and pot ale out of the stills after distillation is complete, but that shouldn’t add much ore than 20 minutes to the times above. With Bruichladdich’s two sets of stills, it is possible to do six distillation runs during a 24 hour period. There is a bit of lag time as the spirit stills can’t start running until the wash stills have done their first run. But once the spirit stills get started, they should both be able to push through three runs each for every 24 hours that they keep running. That lag at the start of the week’s distillations is probably part of the reason that Bruichladdich is running five and a half days a week rather than five.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that my suspicions were unfounded in this case. Bruichladdich is now running at maximum capacity, at least in terms of washbacks. They could increase output further by running seven day a week; with two mashes and six distillation runs every day. If they did that without adding washbacks, that would mean fermentation times would be 60-67 hours for every single mash. As it stands now, for every two mashes that ferment 60-67 hours there are three that ferment 100-107 hours. That gives an average fermentation time of 87-88 hours. A reduction of 27% would be significant. If we hear of any future increases in production at Bruichladdich let’s hope the news is accompanied by an announcement of the distillery itself growing.

Okay, enough of the number crunching, let’s see how this relatively young whisky from Islay grown barley tastes.

The nose is quite fragrant, with floral notes and a slightly soapy quality (but not in a bad way). More subtle aromas are reminiscent of a salty, coastal breeze pushing across grassy dunes. On the palate it is somewhat full bodied and brings a nice range of flavors right up front. Gentle malt and stony minerality lead the way, with hints of fish nets and driftwood rounding things out. A youthful edge of green malt appears briefly as it transitions from the mid-palate to the finish. Warming spice notes take over at the end and are balanced by an oh-so-subtle touch of peat smoke.

In comparison, the 10 year has a more dense malt character with notes of gingerbread and American oak.

This Islay Barley bottle carries a 6 year age statement as well as the notation that it was distilled in 2007 and bottled in 2013. The bottling code, however, indicates that it was bottled in July of 2014. All of the lettering is printed directly onto the glass, rather than on a label. I suspect that they printed up too many bottles and didn’t fill them as quickly as they expected to. I would think it is actually 2007 distillate; why would they print more bottles than they had whisky to fill. So this should be between 6 ½ and 7 ½ years old, depending on when in 2007 it was distilled.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Ardbeg, Uigeadail vs. Corryvreckan

Uigeadail: single malt Scotch, Islay, 54.2%, $80
Corryvreckan: single malt Scotch, Islay, 57.1%, $75

I recently compared Ardbeg’s flagship 10 year old to their moderately peated, limited edition Blasda bottling, while at the same time going over the history of the distillery. Now I’m going to have a closer look at Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, the two Ardbeg bottlings that, along with the 10 year, currently make up the brand’s core range. But first a quick overview of how the range has evolved during the last 18 years.

As you’ll recall from the post linked above, when the mothballed Ardbeg distillery was bought and restarted by Glenmorangie in 1997 there were stocks of whisky from two distinct periods in the warehouses; the early 1970’s through March of 1981 and mid-1989 through mid-1996. The latter period was limited to two months of production per year. The new owners would also have the whisky they began producing themselves from mid 1997 onward as that spirit came of age. Production methods differed for each of these three periods giving three distinct styles of Ardbeg that would shape the evolution of the brand’s offerings for years to come.

The only bottlings put out by Ardbeg in 1997, 1998 and 1999 were their 17 year old and a series of vintage releases dated to the mid 1970’s. The 17 year is often said to be made up solely of distillate from 1980 and 1981, but I have seen a quote attributed to Glenmoranie’s Dr. Bill Lumsden stating that the 17 year also contained distillate laid down between 1975 and 1977.

The 17 year old and the 1970’s vintage bottlings continued on until 2004, but they were joined by a new 10 year old offering in 2000. This bottling was the first use of whisky from the period of limited production between 1989 and 1996.

Another annual release was started in 2001; Lord of the Isles was a vatting of whiskies from 1976 and 1977. It was part of the lineup until 2007 and much like the 17 year, its label stayed the same but the whisky grew older with each subsequent bottling.

The next significant addition to Ardbeg’s lineup was Uigeadail, which first appeared in 2003. It was described at younger bourbon barrel aged whisky vatted with much older sherry cask matured whisky.

Then there was a series of bottlings which tracked the progress of the whisky that the new owners began distilling in 1997. First was Very Young in 2004 which was followed by Still Young in 2006, Almost There in 2007 and finally Renaissance in 2008.

There were two very limited releases of lightly peated, cask strength Ardbeg Kildalton. The one in 2004 was distilled in 1980 and put into 700 ml bottles. The 2005 release was distilled in 1981 and only bottled in miniatures.

The next addition to Ardbeg’s standard lineup was called Airigh Nam Beist. It was bottled for three years, 2006, 2007 and 2008, but all of them were vintage dated to 1990. Many people viewed Airigh Nam Beist as a replacement for the iconic 17 year.

At some point in 2008 the flagship 10 year old was transitioned from distillate produced between 1989 and 1996 to distillate produced from 1997 onwards. There was a change in the label design mid way through 2008 that is generally considered to indicate when the transition took place, but some people claim to have tasted the change in the flavor profile several months before the labels were modified.

Another lightly peated release called Blasda was bottled in 2008, 2009 and 2010. It was non-age stated, but said to be about 7 years old.

Corryvreckan was the next addition to the lineup, arriving in 2009. Upon its introduction it was touted as the replacement for Airigh Nam Beist. This bottling is aged in a combination of French oak and American oak ex-bourbon barrels. It is non-age stated but said to be in the 10 to 12 year range (making it all from post-1997 distillate).

There seems to be some conflicting information about the French oak aged portion of Corryvreckan. It was actually first seen as an Ardbeg Committee bottling in 2008 using first-fill French oak casks (either Burgundy or Bordeaux casks, I’ve seen mentions of both). Most reputable sources now state that Corryvreckan uses new French oak rather than first-fill French oak (along with the bourbon aged component). I’m not sure if this was a gradual transition over a few years or a sudden change when it became part of the regular lineup, but the bottle of Corryvreckan I have from 2009 seems to show little if any wine cask influence. While I was at the distillery in 2012 I was told that Corryvreckan was aged in toasted new French oak.

The limited releases have continued from Ardbeg as well. There was the more heavily peated (100+ ppm) Supernova in 2009 and 2010. Also released in 2010 was Rollercoaster; a vatting of the first ten years (1997-2006) of the new owners’ production. Next, in 2011, was Alligator; a vatting of ex-bourbon barrels and heavily charred, new American oak barrels. 2012 saw the release of Galileo, which was distilled in 1999 and aged in a combination of bourbon and Marsala casks.

Recent years have also seen wider releases of the annual festival bottlings from Ardbeg; Day (2012), Ardbog (2013), Auriverdes (2014) and Perpetuum (2015).

With all of these limited releases and changes to the core lineup, it can be pretty tough to keep track of what was bottled when at Ardbeg. And that has led to the Ardbeg Project. This privately run website attempts to catalog all official Ardbeg releases by their corresponding bottle codes and provide additional information when possible.

In the case of Uigeadail, the Ardbeg Project is particularly helpful. When it was first bottled in 2003, the sherry cask component of Uigeadail was distilled in the 1970’s and aged to about 25 years. I haven’t seen any information about the age of the bourbon barrel component of the early bottlings of Uigeadail, other than the generalization of it as being “young”. At that time though, most of the limited production from the 1989-1996 period was probably being used for the 10 year old, so it stands to reason that the bourbon barrel aged whisky in Uigeadail would have been distilled after the facility was restarted in mid 1997 and at about 6 years old.

Of course, with limited stocks of whisky from the 1970’s which were becoming increasingly more valuable as time marched on, it was inevitable that the recipe for Uigeadail would change. Perpetually on a quest to taste new whisky, it’s rare for me to purchase the same bottle twice. But I was so enamored by my early bottle of Uigeadail that I picked up another a few years later and would recommend it to anyone who asked. At the time all of this history was unknown to me, but the second bottle I had, while genuinely impressive, didn’t seem quite so magical as the first. I originally heard about the change in recipe from a tour guide while visiting the distillery in 2012.

More detail of Uigeadail’s changing formula can be found in this 2013 interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden (at the 23 minute mark), where he states “I’ve tried to gradually drift the recipe to a more appropriate age profile”. I’ve read on other blogs that the most highly regarded bottlings came from 2003 through 2009, and the most noticeable change happened across 2010, 2011 and 2012. I pulled the bottle from my shelf which had just enough liquid left in it for a few drinks, and checked the code against the information on the Ardbeg Project. Much to my surprise, it had been bottled on March 23, 2008. Next it was up to the attic to find my first (and long empty) bottle of Uigeadail. That one dated to April 20, 2005.

I’ve read that the sherry cask component accounts for 35% to 45% of Uigeadail, and that the percentage hasn’t really changed over the years. Having youthful bourbon barrel aged whisky in the mix is part of what makes this bottling what it is, so I suspect that component has remained around the 6 year mark. I’m also speculating a bit on the sherry cask portion, but I feel like they must have started transitioning it pretty early on from late 70’s / early 80’s distillate to the 1989-1996 distillate, and then transitioned to the 1997 and newer distillate across 2010, 2011 and 2012.

If I’m correct, over the course of 10 years the sherry matured component of Uigeadail has drifted down in age from roughly 25 years to around 15 years. Not only that, but it has also transitioned across three distinct periods of Ardbeg’s history, each with its own style of distillate.

I feel quite fortunate to have some 2008 Uigeadail left to taste today:
The nose is sharp and biting. It almost seems astringent at first but shows its true nature upon more cautious inspection; dense, chewy peat smoke aromas are intertwined with dry, nutty, oxidized sherry notes. The palate shows incredible depth and complexity. While the peat smoke is the most obvious element, there’s so much more going on along with it. There’s a gingerbread-like maltiness, mint and wide range of spice notes. The sherry fruit character is dark and moderately dry, with a hint of nuttiness. A touch of brine rounds out the flavor profile. The lengthy finish evolves without losing balance and maintains a good level of grip even as it fades.

Corryvreckan (bottled 2009):
There are some nice aromas on the nose, but a healthy dose of alcohol riding along with them. The peat smoke is somewhat light and floral in character and is accompanied by some subtle tree fruit and tropical fruit notes. There is less heat and aggressiveness on the palate than expected considering its nature on the nose. Notes of dry spice and leather come to the fore and add complexity to the smoke of driftwood burning on a beach. A bit of earthiness and a subtle stone fruit element come into play as well. The finish is long and warming, with a building spice element and lingering peat notes.

Comparing Uigeadail and Corryvreckan to the 10 year, its peat smoke stands out more on the palate. But that is, in my opinion, a matter of the other two having wider ranges of accompanying flavor elements. And while the Corryvreckan stands nicely on its own, it simply pales in comparison to the Uigeadail.