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Spirit of Toronto 2020: Virtual Warehouse Experience Hiram Walker

‘I believe that we as a whole world are going through a transition. These so-called bleak times are necessary to go through in order to get to a much, much better place.’¹

A sentiment we can all recognise and identify with during these past few months. This is especially true for festival organisers across the world. When COVID-19 struck at the foundations of our societies, there was a parting in the waves concerning festival approaches. Many decided to abandon plans for the year and regroup for 2021 and a smaller segment decided to adapt and face the challenges head-on. In retrospect, the sensible decision was to defer. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and given how things are right now, the strong likelihood of COVID-19 spilling into 2021 and devouring a new festival season. Those that decided to adjust take their respective festivals into the virtual realm have become trailblazers.

A trio spring to my mind for tackling the issue head-on. The originals were the guys behind the Belfast Whiskey Week who put together a virtual festival for all attendees on a stable platform that worked on a variety of devices. The Whisky Exchange Virtual Show followed and arguably did their own thing without fully capturing the vibe of Belfast. I also had technical issues, but one cannot criticise the size of their ambition and plan. Finally, we reach the Spirit of Toronto, who no doubt were taking in these prior virtual experiences and delivering their own take on the format.

Throughout these festivals, I’ve been a participant and an observer. In the case of Toronto, for full disclosure, I was asked to temporarily take over their Instagram account for the festival run. In doing so, this allowed me to join the sessions themselves, plus co-hosting a Daftmill broadcast with Francis himself. I highlight this because the chips are always on the table and my opinions are very much my own. What struck me most about the first weekend of the Toronto experience was the glee of attendees over being able to try rarely seen whiskies and a trio of exclusive cask samples.

Such delight is an infectious commodity and truly humbling. Particularly so with Daftmill as there are no releases for Canada and generally any bottles are extremely hard to purchase and even rarer to be seen opened. Interacting with attendees and the chat feature underlined how fortunate we are in Scotland and the UK as a whole. Things we take for granted, are very much forbidden fruit to others elsewhere. Modern-day, instantly born unicorns; never to be seen. The fact that all of this whisky made it into Canada with no issues (itself a remarkable achievement) and was shipped around the country to grateful recipients, added to the occasion.

There’s an undeniable addictive quality to a good broadcast. I found myself tuning into the Belfast schedule even when I didn’t have a tasting pack. Partially just to rip Phil online and to delve into the world of Irish whiskey and beyond. Ok, I couldn’t understand half of the chat at times; that goes without saying. Yet it was educational, fun and a welcome distraction to events closer to home. I was quite happy with the weekend approach over several weeks for Toronto – I felt the TWE Virtual crammed too much into a week. Every night for 7 days, is just too much – less is more!

So, I was surprised when a package arrived from Canada with one of the bespoke handmade tasting sets…

Yes, ok, I know. The lid says Benromach, but I’m giving you a sense of the experience. They were kind enough to include the cask samples for Benromach, Glen Scotia, Two Brewers and Zuidam. Extremely generous, and what I plan to do is cover these four in a follow-up article after the sessions have been broadcast. Meaning today, we have a session from Hiram Walker’s Don Livermore, Master Distiller, which I was pretty excited about…

If you’ve ever met Dr Don in person or online, you’ll know there is no one more passionate or knowledgeable about Canadian whisky. Throw into the mix his role at Hiram Walker and overseeing their huge operation and various brands. He was the logical choice to kick off the experience to an adoring crowd. Sitting here on the other side of the Atlantic, taking in his historical-come-science dive into Canadian whisky, I felt he could have gone on for hours and no one would have complained. Poignant moments, included a first for me, a Master Distiller actually saying yeast offers more than barley and wood. An important point that goes against much of the industry opinion. His openness on details regarding the whiskies below and making feel attendees weren’t just passive components – he really wanted to know what you thought about each of the whiskies and whether you’d purchase a bottle. This meant for a riveting and educational 90 minutes live from the distillery.

There was some excitement at the incoming JP Wiser’s Port release and having a sneak liquid preview. The Red Letter was keenly awaited with that strength being eyecatching, or watering? Peated Quarter Casks came into the equation for the Lot 40 release and Dr Don didn’t know which Scottish distillery leading to some chatter. But on the Black Sea Casks he did state just how expensive they were – this whisky would make for an interesting comparison to the Ardbeg Kelpie.

So, let’s jump in. I would say that there is a debate whether we should be scoring cask samples that come from maturing stock with no intended release as of yet. We’ll score them on potential and maybe one day, a return to this article can allow for some reflection on that promise.

JP Wiser’s 22 Year Old Limited Edition Finished in Port Pipes – review

Bottled at 59.7% abv. A blend of Canadian corn and rye whiskies. This spent its last year in French Oak that was seasoned with port.

Colour: rubbed brass.

On the nose: it’s exactly what you hoped for with that rye spice flushed with the port sweetness. Walnuts, red berries, a little metallic in places, a rich caramel, a good level of cracked black peppercorns, sage and a touch of vanilla. Cohesive and confident. Water softens that spiciness and brings out a mossy aspect with light brown sugar.

In the mouth: worn bronze, cask char and a real powerhouse full of nuttiness and toffee. Elements of a drying port in places, a touch of rubber but this moves into cranberries and then chocolate. A good texture on display. Adding water reveals more of that dryness matched with a creaminess and blackcurrant.

Score: 7/10

That’s the incoming official release out of the way. Now, we’ll move onto the exclusive cask samples and discover what Hiram Walker are experimenting with…

JP Wiser’s Red Letter 15 Year Old – review

Bottled at 70.1% abv. yes that’s right and 15 years!!

Colour: bashed copper.

On the nose: no alcohol burn or sharpness, so that’s a relief. Instead, walnut and cranberries mix well with elements of leather, red liquorice and autumnal notes. Cracked black peppercorn, radishes, chilli flakes and cinder toffee. Adding water unlocks cherry, a creaminess and corn.

In the mouth: surprisingly well balanced at this level. Sure, it is oaky and peppery with the oakiness coming through on the finish. Prior that we have red liquorice, treacle and quite surprising at this strength. But let’s add water… A good texture still, caramel, brown sugar, rye spice, mace and vanilla.

Score: 6/10

Lot 40 Black Sea Cask – review

Bottled at 56.3% abv.

Colour: a reddish amber.

On the nose: dark spices, red apples and pomegranate. Some red peppers, worn leather, pecans and raspberry tea. Time in the glass reveals saffron, chocolate, sage and oakiness.

In the mouth: more fruity on the palate and a good mixture of redberries and peppercorn. Strawberry jam, tangy in place with tobacco and more of those dark spices.

Score: 6/10

Lot 40 Peated Quarter Cask – review

Bottled at 55.1% abv.

Colour: light gold.

On the nose: still a noticeable spirit element married well with the robust presence of peat. Cooking apples, gold foil, butterscotch and marzipan. If you pay attention you’ll pick up a brief coastal element. Pear drops and toasted vanilla marshmallows. Adding water unlocks a winey aspect, with the peat becoming more restrained and an oiliness.

In the mouth: more oak and peat, boggy and spicy. Quite robust and unforgiving. Needs water in my opinion. Prior to that, we have drying firewood, cloves, blackcurrant and blueberries. So, that water brings out more juicy oak, pepperiness and Heaven Hill’s Mellow Corn.

Score: 4/10

Conclusions

Well, I’d buy the Limited Edition Port release, which will retail at $149.99 in Canada. From the session chat, it might be one of those releases you have to go chasing. And my mantra in 2020 is not to chase bottles; what will be will be.

The Peated Quarter Cask is an interesting one… Highly anticipated by attendees to see what a Lot 40 married with peat would taste like. It is very heavily dominated by the wood characteristics and bulked out by the pepperiness of the distillate. It feels a little unbalanced and one dimensional as if it needs something else like a new host or more time. Definitely, one to file under ‘experimental’ and deem a work in progress.

What about that Red Letter? That was an eye-opener in a good way. An exceptionally well-made spirit that has so much to offer and could sit in a cask for decades to come. I’ll be interested to see what Dr Don has planned for the whisky when the time comes. The Black Sea cask had some intriguing elements and certainly works; ready for the market now and probably needs close observation. I enjoyed it more than the Ardbeg put it that way!

The session was an overdue return to the captivating sensations offered by a warehouse. My favourite part of any distillery tour and sadly missed by many of us. While a virtual format cannot hope to create the aromas and atmosphere of such a location, it is successful in bringing us a sense of discovery and a distraction from the world outside. The existence of such online tastings brings a glimmer of hope for 2021.

¹ quote by David Lynch. Bottle photograph provided by BC Liquor Stores.

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