Archive for the ‘Spirits and Beers’ Category

Toronto Distillery Co. Batch No. 1

02 Feb

toronto whisky

Just before Christmas, a man came to my door. He had the most splendid, waxed and curled, Dali-esque moustachios I have ever seen, was impeccably dressed, and he handed me a half-bottle (375 mL – 50% abv) of “Ontario organic grain spirit.” It was Batch No. 1 from the newly founded Toronto Distillery Co. and all he asked was that I taste it and, if I saw fit, write about it in my blog. Prominent on the label was the information that this was distilled from pure Ontario wheat. I looked up to ask him about that but he was gone. My porch was empty.

            Now weeks have gone by. I have watched the level of liquid slowly go down in the little jug-shaped bottle. Yes, I have had a hand in that particular process. I’ve been trying to think of what to call this disarming spirit. Nowhere on the label does it mention the word “whisky.” I have heard it referred to as moonshine – or as “gentleman’s hooch” – but I have taken to calling it whisky. What I love most about it is the way it honours the grain from which it was made.

            Often over the years, I have visited important distilleries in Scotland and Ireland and asked about the barley that went into the maltings, hoping for long disquisitions on local farming and particular heritage varieties, only to be frowned at and hear the question dismissed. Perhaps the purpose of that year’s media invitation was to write about oak casks, or peating, or the peculiar shape of the beloved pot still, or the number of times the spirit was distilled – anything but the grain itself. Which always led me to believe that what arrived in those dusty sacks (or in the vast mobile hopper, more likely) was almost incidental. Ditto the water used to make the wort or to dilute the spirit from cask strength to something they could sell more readily in the bottle. Sure, the distillery is in Brigadoon – or in Tir Nan Og itself – but when the bottling is done in a Glasgow suburb and regular Glasgow water is being used to dilute the spirit down to 40%, the whole “pure local highland sun-kissed granite-filtered sporren-blessed water” thing is best left unmentioned. The truth is not going to resonate with denizens of the Romantic Republic of Whisky.

            I don’t mean to sound cynical. Marketing anything is hard work – even something with as vivid a natural back story as whisky. I guess where this is leading is that it’s a treat to come across a product that doesn’t really have a built-in angle. The Toronto Distillery Co.’s first product is what it is – a pure spirit from the first new distillery in the neighbourhood since 1933. Taste it. See what you think. Some will love it; others will hate it. I don’t think shrugging indifference is ever going to be the response to this white wheat whisky: it has far too much character to engender nonchalance.

            Let me say now, I think it’s excellent. I have drunk a great many amateur spirits in my time, from the poteen we bought in milk bottles from a farmer that teenaged summer beside Lough Corib, that we ended up using to light the fire in the chilly morning because we were afraid it would make us blind or dissolve our insides, to some sublime grappas distilled by more careful unlicensed artisans in Venezia Giulia. More recently, I’ve been disappointed by “white whiskies” made in North America, mostly because they are really just so-so, wood-aged whiskies radically filtered to strip out all their colour – a process which also takes out most complexities of aroma and taste.

            Quick refresher: just because a spirit is colourless doesn’t mean it’s characterless. Vodka is so ghostly because it has been distilled umpteen times in a continuous still and then filtered umpteen times more. Gin isn’t like that. Neither is whisky straight from the still, if it’s a cantankerous and inefficient old pot still that hasn’t done a very good job of purifying the alcohol, that has included all sorts of extremely complex aromatic molecules derived from the fermented grain, and sent them through the condenser. Why, friends, that colourless liquid will be as perfumed and as flavoursome as eau de Cologne – and all those aromatics come from the grain in the mash bill and the yeasts that fermented it. But especially the grain.

            The two guys who operate the Toronto Distillery Co., both 31-year-old Toronto lawyers, one called Charles Benoit, the other Jesse Razaqpur, both amateurs in the best sense of the word, understand this. Because they weren’t prepared to wait a decade for their nascent spirit to mature in oak, it was imperative that they found some good honest grain to ferment and distil. They said no to barley and rye and corn, the usual grains for the making of whisky, and instead chose to work with organic local winter wheat, grown by Mike and Bonnie O’Hara on their farm in Schomberg, Ont., less than an hour north of Toronto. The assurance is that Batch No. 2 will be made from a different cereal and so will be vastly different. I fully expect it to be so and I can’t wait to try it.

            But meanwhile we have this one – available at the LCBO, I might add, for $39.50. I’m just pouring the last of the bottle into my glass as I type. By now I know what to expect. I still think it deserves to be called whisky – though moonshine is a more beautiful word. Perhaps someone versant in the languages of the agricultural first peoples of this continent could find a name that means the bountiful personality of the life-giving grain. Though, come to think of it, I don’t believe wheat is native to North America. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

            What does it taste like? I prefer it neat, even at 50%. It smells pungently granular, like a prairie silo after harvest, with touches of ripe, malty sweetness impinging, and a hint of flowers. But the taste!? Wheat has a sharp, bitter edge to it compared with the easy-going, half-wit-smiling sweetness of corn or the spicy, tight-lipped sarcasm of rye or the fruity chuckle of malted barley. Expect pepper and fennel and a whiff of lemon peel. A sudden glimpse of the heart of darkness. But it’s gone in a flash because this is pure spirit and without the sumptuous velvet and silk robes that long aging in oak imparts to the flavour and which linger on the palate, sometimes for hours, the effect of this whisky is momentary. Ariel rather than Caliban. Not so much a spirit as a sprite, naked and off about its business before you can blink.

            And now the jug is empty.



elit by Stolichnaya

04 Jul


elit 002jpe

A bottle of elit by Stolichnaya vodka costs $69.95 at the LCBO. Can any vodka be worth that much?

My dad was a whisky drinker and he taught me from an early age that the answer was no. The point of distilling vodka, he explained, was to remove any trace of personality from the spirit, to purge every last tiny vestige of flavour. Even very good vodka was designed to eliminate the sense of alcohol, to produce a smooth cocktail component, the only real purpose of which was to lift the sense of vermouth and to render the aficionado swiftly and efficiently hammered.

I carried this doctrine into my teenaged years and on into my 20s, choosing gin over the “little water” whenever the choice was offered. There was so much more going on in gin! Even the deluxe vodka brands of the 1990s, which bartenders served so cold that the infinitesimal residual sweetness of the grain was muted to silence, failed to move me. It was only when I started tasting a bunch of different vodkas together, at room temperature (for professional purposes) that I could discern serious nuances of difference between them, mostly based on the original grain or tuber used.

So it was with a dash of cynicism and a twist of doubt that I approached a tutored tasting of elit by Stolichnaya, yesterday, with Ontario’s Stoli Diplomat, Ryan Powell, at his downtown Toronto embassy.

We began with regular Stolichnaya, a fine Moscow-style vodka made with winter wheat, spring wheat and rye grown in the fertile black soil of Tambov in central Russia. Okay, it’s diluted and bottled in Riga, which is now in Latvia not the USSR, but to me this is still echt Russian vodka. It’s a nicely balanced mash bill and Stoli (unlike so many American vodkas) doesn’t distil it into total insipidity. They filter it four times – through quartz sand, charcoal, quartz sand again and then a fine fabric mesh – but you can still catch faint whispers of pepper from the rye and grainy spice from the wheat under ethereal illusions of vanilla marshmallow and citrus rind. The suggestion of bitterness from the alcohol is gone by the time you take a second sip. All very smooth and pleasant.

Then we tasted the elit. It is the identical vodka – Stoli itself – but it has undergone an extra filtration process. Many centuries ago, explained Powell, farmers who lacked a still of their own figured out a way of turning their beer into something stronger by leaving it out of doors in a barrel during the Russian winter. The water in the beer froze, but the alcohol did not, and with great patience and care this could be gathered and drunk to great effect.

Elit has taken this notion of fractional distillation and run with it, bringing the initial filtered Stoli down to minus 18 degrees. Of course it becomes viscous and heavy at that temperature and that allows, said Powell, a further removal of impurities that would still be liquid at normal temperatures. The cleansed spirit is left to lose its chill over several days and what you have then is elit.

It all sounded very convincing yesterday but the proof was in the tasting. Elit has a remarkable texture. You remember how Auric Goldfinger fell in love with gold – “its colour, its divine weight…” Elit has a divine weight, even at room temp. The Stoli character is there – the hint of spicy, lemon, vanilla flavours – but it’s the satin viscosity on the tongue that is so sensually irresistible.

Powell made me a Martini with elit, stirring the spirit with ice then putting it into a chilled glass that had been blessed with orange bitters and then rigorously emptied. He took a slice of lemon zest and twisted and pinched its oils onto the surface of the spirit before dropping it in. The heavy vodka was very cold and so smooth – so alarmingly smooth – that one was barely aware it was booze.

I was forced to admit – no, that’s not fair – I was pleased to admit that elit is indeed special, that all that extra effort Stolichnaya puts into it does make a palpable difference. When my laboriously perfected roulette system finally pays off and money is no longer an object, it will be my vodka of choice – on those dark evenings when I run out of gin.




Goose Island Vintage Ales

21 Apr
Goose Island ales from Chicago are now available at the LCBO

Goose Island ales from Chicago are now available at the LCBO

A couple of beers arrived on my doorstep this week (in a beautiful wooden crate that is now the perfect home for some of our beat-up power tools – but that is another story). The beers are really good – two of the Vintage Ales collection from Chicago’s Goose Island craft brewery (estd 1988), both of them available this spring at the LCBO. Created specifically as versatile food-beers, Sofie and Matilda (Goose Island likes to call its beers by name) are Belgian-style ales with real balance and sophistication rather than the over-hopped bitterness that is currently in fashion down in the States.

Sofie first. It’s a pale golden ale, partly fermented with wild yeasts which give a grassy fruitiness to the brew and then aged in wine barrels with lots of fresh orange peel. In terms of flavour intensity it reminds me most of an aromatic white wine such as a New-World, warm-climate Viognier with a deliciously flavourful middle palate of citrus and vanilla. Goose Island has taken trouble to suggest some precise food matches – oysters or sushi, grilled whitefish, shrimp or lobster, brie or fresh chèvre. I still prefer something sharper or more bitter for the oysters but the other ideas are sound. Then again, there’s more than enough going on in the beer if you taste it all on its own.

Matilda is darker and spicier and less obviously flavoured than Sofie. Different hops are used (Super Styrian, Styrian Golding and Saaz as opposed to Sofie’s Amarillo) but again they provide an unusually subtle seasoning – just enough to balance the rich maltiness and counteract the grain’s natural sweetness. This time the recommended cheese is camembert and if you think the difference between a camembert beer and a brie beer might not be so very great, you are getting the point. The major recommended food match is lobster or crab served with drawn butter rather than off the grill – again, a matter of nuance. Personally, I find the dipping of the pristine, aromatic, steamed or poached flesh of a crab or lobster into clarified butter to be a nauseating treatment – even the stench of the pot of hot liquid butter in a restaurant can make me gag – but I won’t hold that against Matilda. As mentioned before, it’s a very good beer, though Sofie is more to my taste.

If you have time this month, you can also drop into Nota Bene on Queen Street West where chef David Lee has devised some dishes of his own to go with these beers. He is a past master at creating menus to flatter specific wines so I’m sure the trip will be well worth your while.


Moses McIntee cocktails at Paese

12 Apr


The Inspirato Dal Maestro in all its glory

The Inspirato Dal Maestro in all its glory

Fellow restaurant geeks and industry cv nerds, this paragraph is for you. Everyone else, skip to para 2. Ame > Toronto Temperance Society > The Ritz Carlton > Lucid > The Museum Tavern > and now the L-eat group of properties featuring Paese and L-Eat Express… ace bartender and mixologist Moses McIntee gets around. Which is good because it has dragged me out of the house, following him hither and yon over the years. At Lucid, he was heavily into molecular mixology – lots of flasks and frozen gases. At The Museum Tavern it was more about barrel-aged cocktails (O M G – that aged Negroni!). Then, a couple of weeks ago, he left to join the group of businesses operated by Tony Loschiavo, an influential and excellent group including Paese (almost 25 years old, up on Bathurst), the new Paese on King Street West, L-eat Catering and L-eat Express. Tony himself handles all the wine stuff for his establishments – he is a brilliant sommelier, avid collector, dedicated vertical-vintage fan of such immortal luminaries as Quintarelli, Tignanello, etc, and also one of the very good guys in this tricksy hospitality business. Moses is his new Bar Director – and therein lies the meat of this posting.

As a sort of announcement of his latest position, Moses has made public (“shared” as we say in the merry, bustling world of social media) a flipbook of new, original, seasonal cocktails that he has created for Paese on King Street West. If you click here,, the book, with all its fascinating recipes and plangent background anecdotes, will miraculously appear! Meanwhile, let me offer some pictures of the Inspirato Dal Maestro cocktail (gin, Campari, orange juice, prosecco granita) manifesting itself before your very eyes. The finished version stands proudly at the top; the necessary steps below. I’ll leave you to imagine the swirling flavours you would experience if you made your way to Paese and ordered the cocktail from Moses himself… Consider it a commandment.

Step one

Step one

Step 2

Step 2






Lapostolle and Grand Marnier

16 Jan

My enthusiasm for the wines of Chile continues to grow, a long-smoldering ember fanned into flames by my trip there last fall, generously organized by Wines of Chile. These days our house wines are from Cono Sur and Conch Y Toro with a bottle of Montes Purple Angel for very special occasions. And my education was further expanded on Monday when I met with Javier Santos at Crush Wine Bar for a private tasting of some of the wines of Lapostolle, framed by other treasures produced by the Marnier-Lapostolle family.

The winery was founded in Chile’s Conchagua valley in 1996 by Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, sixth-generation descendant of the original creator of Grand Marnier. It seems to be a family tradition to add something important and original to the clan’s portfolio. Alexandra’s great-grandfather bought property in the Loire and founded Château Sancerre in 1910; her son, Charles de Bourné, now has a project of his own, making pisco in Chile’s luminous Elke valley, a pisco he calls Kappa, after the brightest star in the constellation of the Southern Cross.

We started the tasting with the 2011 Château Sancerre, a graceful, subtle, perfectly balanced wine. There was fresh lime and lemon zest on the nose, hovering over a distinctive minerality. The flavours echoed the bouquet, a swirl of complexity beneath the obvious elegance, reflecting the nine months the wine spent on its lees and the ripeness of a lovely vintage. The length showed the wine’s breeding and I was delighted to learn that it will be returning to the LCBO in the summer, priced very reasonably at around $25.

The next white was from Chile’s cool Casablanca valley, Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre 2011 Chardonnay, made with organic grapes from the Atalayas vineyard. It’s another wine with a bouquet to make any oenophile’s nostrils flare in admiration. Half oak- and half steel-fermented, half oak-aged, no malo, it’s intense, rich, spicy but perfectly formed – a Olympian Chardonnay with oaky caramel braided around peach and pear aromas.

We tasted two red wines, both spectacularly aromatic, an effect enhanced by the splendid stemware Crush found for the occasion. Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandra 2008 Carmenere is splendid, the dominant varietal educated and smoothed with about 15% Merlot. The nose is redolent of plums and black fruits with smoky spice and a hint of dark chocolate. Tasting it, I was struck by the smoothness of the tannins and the ripe black fruit that didn’t seem to have faded at all with the passing years. Young Carmenere often has a hint of something ferous and bloody, the taste you experience when you cut your finger and suck the wound. I didn’t get that here, which may be due to the wine’s maturity.

Then we tasted Lapostolle’s unique Borobo 2009, a blend of Carmenere, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Petit Verdot that changes with the vintage, in terms of ratio. I tasted the 2005 a couple of years ago and loved the dark, liquorice spiciness behind the ripe black fruit. There was a sense of drying tannins behind the scenes, however, that had not managed to integrate themselves thoroughly. Not with the 2009 – a black velvet cloak to wrap around your palate.

So far, so very good, and now we moved on into the spirit world, enjoying a small snifter of Cognac Marnier VSOP as an introit into the Grand Marnier range. If you’ve noticed a change in your Grand Marnier over the last couple of years it’s because they have lowered the level of sweetness by a welcome and significant 20 percent, a decision that has helped bring Red Label Grand Marnier into the modern age. Now Javier Santos caused cocktails to be made to emphasize this refreshing, contemporary side to the old liqueur. The Grand Ginger was my favourite, a simple mix of 1 oz grand Marnier, 3 oz ginger ale and the juice of a ¼ of a lime stirred in a glass full of ice. The ginger ale brought out the flavour of the very rare, bitter, greenish-yellow type of oranges (Citrus bigaradia) that go into Grand Marnier, grown in the family’s groves in Haiti.

The next step up from the Red Label is the Grand Marnier Louis-Alexandre – my favourite level – which is smoother, more sophisticated and offers a greater ratio of Cognac to orange eau de vie in the blend, a virtue reflected in its price. We skipped the next two rungs of the ladder, the Cuvée de Centenaire and the Cuvée de Cent Cinquantenaire, created to mark the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the elixir. Instead we leaped right to the Quintessence, blended from double-distilled orange eau de vie and a selection of cognacs up to 100 years old that were discovered in the Marnier Paradis. This is the ultimate Grand Marnier experience. Can a smell be intense but also ethereal? Almost an incense of orange and oak and very old brandy. Texturally, it’s so smooth it is almost a syrup and the length is unparalelled. Remarkable. But dare I admit it – privately, and for your ear alone – I still prefer the Louis-Alexandre.



Crazy Uncle cocktails

24 Nov

Crazy Uncle culinary cocktails – Frankie Solarik made them

It came as a shock this week to hear Frosty the Snowman playing at my local LCBO store. The gorgeous weather we’ve been having has kept thoughts of winter away from downtown Toronto, giving us an eternal autumn, as if we lived in Imladris. But apparently Christmas is coming anyway, so thoughts turn, naturally, to festive alcoholic iterations. I am not a huge aficionado of ready-mixed cocktails – I much prefer them freshly made – but every rule has its exceptions. Two Toronto brothers, Bruno and David Codispoti, have decided to raise the bar on the genre by commissioning no less a mixologist than Frankie Solarik of Barchef to create a trio of drinks of unusual verve and depth of flavour.

The brand is called Crazy Uncle and the first of the three is already available at the LCBO in a litre-sized hooch jug for a bargain $17.95. It’s rather delicious – a sort of vodka punch infused with the sweet-tart aroma of blood orange juice, deeply spiced up with nutmeg, clove and cardamom and sweetened with a dash of maple syrup. Hanging around the bottleneck is a sachet of powdered cinnamon and rosemary sugar with which to rim the glass. The only thing you need to add is a great big two-inch cube of ice (easily made if you have a King Cube ice tray (call 888-225-7378 for retailers near you)).

Promised for early next year are two more flavours – a Basil & Lime Daiquiri and a Cola Bitter & Mint Julep, one tart and herbal, the other sweeter and pleasantly minty. Thank you, fratelli Codispoti! Thank you too, Frankie! These are cocktails that will carry one right past Christmas and into the real winter if it ever comes. Meanwhile I have been toasting the great victory over the mega-quarry speculators with my blood-orange Crazy Uncle – while the last leaves fall in the blessed sunshine.


Crown Royal XR

06 Jul

Oh Joy! Someone on our street has decided to learn the tenor saxophone. He has spent the morning struggling with the instrument, blowing down towards the difficult lower notes, failing to adjust his embouchure, inadvertently leaping up a squeaky octave. So we have the mournful lowing of a costive calf to add to the vuvuzela-like drone of the Indy cars down on Lakeshore – the sounds of a Toronto summer. The tenor sax was the instrument of my own misspent youth and I am more keenly aware than ever of the pain it can cause. I see now why it drove my Dad out of the house and caused the neighbours to bang on the wall next to my bedroom. Coincidentally, a kind reader recently sent me a link to the one and only single I made as a saxophonist, back in the 1970s. I share it here, as a warning of where unbridled saxophony can lead.

Crown Royal XR - upgrade your Scrabble bag

But that is not the purpose of this blog. I apologise for my long absence. Important matters have preoccupied me. It has taken the arrival of a rare Canadian whisky to kick-start things again – the Crown Royal XR, a precious and coveted item of Canadiana. This whisky was blended from the last, irreplaceable barrels saved from the tragic fire that burned down the Waterloo Distillery in 1993, lovingly assembled by Master Blender Andrew Mackay. It’s subtle, perfectly balanced, not too sweet, and as smooth as the gold-embroidered red velvet bag in which it nestles. The body is rich and creamy, but it’s the amazing complexity of aromas and flavours – none of them too dominant – that makes this worthy of long contemplation. The list of descriptors grows so long that it ceases to be of much use. Yes, there is fresh coniferous wood, fresh fruit rather than the usual dates and dried figs, floral effects, candied citrus, even a trace of minty herbs… Seek a particular nuance and you can probably find it in here. The overall effect is of a shifting kaleidoscope and the finish is long, spicy and smooth, never drying out, always supple and dynamic. If, like me, you are sometimes tempted to take a brash bourbon bombastado down a peg or two, this would be the whisky to represent Canada – though a bourbon lover would have to set aside his leathery palate and concentrate hard to appreciate it.

As of this moment, there are 400 cases left in Canada, with only 50 earmarked for Ontario. The bulk of the inventory is heading west to brighten the lives of fans in Alberta and B.C. Retail at the LCBO: $179.95 – a never-to-be repeated investment in Canadian history.



Writers Tears

02 Feb

I believe in the social benefits of taxation. It’s how those of us who are lucky enough to find jobs can still hold up our heads in a Canada that is being split increasingly cynically into the haves and the have-nots by the Harper government’s divisive policies. Taxation is also responsible for a delicious Irish whiskey I tasted this week. It’s called Writers Tears (the link with the far right’s disdain for the liberal arts is another curious coincidence) and it will be launched at the LCBO on March 3rd, so dip your quills into your bottle of emerald-coloured ink and scratch a shamrock onto that particular square of your calendar. There was a time in the 19th century when Irish malt whiskey ruled the world, accounting for 90 percent of the whiskey or whisky exported from the British Isles. The Westminster government noticed and decided to tax Irish malt whiskey. The response of the Irish distillers was to add lots of unmalted barley into the mash that would end up in their pot stills, to be distilled three times in the labour-intensive way that distinguishes Irish from almost every Scotch.

In 1831, a much more efficient kind of still (the Coffey or patent still) was invented by an Irish excise man called Aeneas Coffey. It produced cleaner, lighter, more insipid spirits and these grain spirits were welcomed by the Scots as a way of lightening single malt Scotch into blended Scotch. There was an outcry in Ireland both from the malt whiskey aficionados and those who enjoyed the recent whiskeys made from malt and unmalted barley. For the rest of the century, the major distillers refused to use the Coffey spirits, remaining loyal to the whiskeys now known as Pure Pot Still. But the world moved on. Especially the world of export commerce. Accountants and auditors had no time for character and loyalty. Gradually Coffey-still whiskeys began to encroach into the old-school Irish spirits. The poets – and Ireland is nothing if not a land of poets – called out in favour of the old ways, but the sons of Fomor prevailed. Blended whiskeys and malt whiskeys supplanted all but a very few examples of the Pure Pot Still style. (I had better add here that I love almost all Irish whiskey and have no personal objection to this lush and infinitely variable blending, except when wearing the tragedian’s mask required for this particular story).

Anyway, the point is that right now we have a lovely opportunity to taste an Irish whiskey that is free of those leavening grain spirits. Writers Tears is a rich and very unusual blend of Pure Pot Still whiskey and pure Irish single malt whiskey from the same company that makes a premixed Irish Coffee beverage and a single malt Irish whiskey called the Irishman, though you won’t find that name on this bottle. Go to the web site however, and you’ll see a picture of Bernard Walsh, who founded and owns the company with his wife, Rosemary. Walsh has access to some fabulous spirits produced by Irish distillers which he purchases and vats into his own blends. Irishman 70, Walsh’s creation from a few years back, was a similar spirit to Writers Tears, that is to say a blend of Pure Pot Still and malt whiskey but with a considerably higher proportion (70 percent) of malt.

            The first thing you notice about Writers Tears is the lovely round body and full rich flavour. Not only is this uncut by cleaner, lighter spirits, it is also allowed to go into the bottle without being chill-filtered. So if it sometimes shows a haze under cool conditions, it has lost none of its original nuances. The aroma reminds me of honey and marmalade streaking the fruity barley. There’s a hint of citrus in the flavour too and an initial flourish of spicy, malty sweetness that quickly leaves the stage to drier, firmer characters. The honey-marmalade comes back as a pianissimo echo of the aroma to provide the final moments of a decently long finish.

            It’s lovely stuff, in other words, and a must-have bottle for anyone who collects Irish whiskeys. Look for it in the Vintages March 3rd release (VINTAGES 271106, 700 mL, $47.95).


The Hennessys

16 Oct

Not sure how many people read Noël Coward’s short stories any more but I found a copy of The Complete Stories at a garage sale last week and have been enjoying them enormously. No one else describes children as “artificial-looking” or an elderly Englishwoman as “wriggling a little, like a dog waiting to have a ball thrown for it.” Somehow these tales read like loving parodies of Somerset Maugham, written by someone who wished he had the romantic sincerity to be Maugham but was far too witty and ironic for that to be possible. They are an absolute delight.

            As are the other two precious things on my desk tonight – a bottle of Hennessy Paradis and another of Richard Hennessy, both on loan from a kind friend and to be returned tomorrow. I have enjoyed many treats over the years but these two are right up there near the very pinnacle of treatdom, the Kanchenjunga of self-indulgence. Paradis is simply spectacular in its subtlety, complexity and length. It’s a blend of “several hundred” rare eaux-de-vie from the Hennessy archives, aged between 25 and 130 years old and first created in 1979 by Maurice Filioux, the company’s master blender at the time. The bottle before me was blended by Maurice’s grandson, Yann Filioux, from the seventh generation of the same family of Hennessy’s master blenders. Even as he bottles this batch, the man must be setting aside young spirits that his great-great grand-descendant will blend for future Paradis…

Richard Hennessy (left) and Paradis (right).

            It’s the length that impresses so much. It just lingers on the palate for ages and ages so there’s no need to raise the old crystal snifter again until at least ten minutes have ticked by. The aromas lifting into the room are very hard to describe. Like very good Cognac only much more so. I could list the fleeting impressions but it would be like a painting-by-numbers kit of some Turner masterpiece – not a great deal of use. Okay, there’s dried cherry and tangerine, spiced prunes and lots of floral notes… No, it’s no use. It just smells like sublime Cognac, as smooth and elegant as a silk dressing gown but rather more expensive at $652 a bottle.

            But bargains are relative. The other bottle beside me, Richard Hennessy, takes everything very much farther. It’s named for the Richard Hennessy who came across to France from Ireland and founded the house in 1765. This is a blend of over a hundred separate eaux-de-vie, some of them distilled in the early 19th century. Almost two hundred years old, in fact. Older than Napoleon (Napoleon III, that is, the emperor for whom “Napoleon Brandy” is named), and older than phylloxera – an astonishing time capsule that is somehow still vibrant and muscular. It costs about $6,000 and just to taste it is an extraordinary privilege. Some very old brown spirits (a handful of glorious old rums and whiskies, for instance) have a ribald, fruity old age, like Christmas puddings or plum cakes, beloved old grandpas sitting by the fire with excellent stories to tell and a twinkle in their eye. These superb antique Cognacs are more awe-inspiring than that – still so elegant, so powerful, so disciplined. The tales they tell are immortal truths, as plangent and as perfectly phrased as Mr. Coward’s dialogue.

            Hennessy is the biggest Cognac house, responsible for 40% of Cognac sold in the world. It’s important to them to be seen as more than just large and successful, however. Hence these two masterpieces, on sale at the LCBO right now and most handsomely packaged. I will never own a Turner or a snow leopard or a Caribbean island, but it’s good to know they exist.



Berry Brothers Number Three

09 Oct

Thanksgiving Day and treats galore – so many things for which to give thanks…

The first is No.3 London Dry Gin. It came to me wrapped in tissue paper printed faintly with a map of St. James’s Street in apple green ink. This is a part of London which is indelibly familiar to me. It lies between the place where I grew up – Chelsea – and the area where my parents worked, the theatres of the West End.  No. 3 St James’s was an address that rang a particularly happy little bell in memory’s carillon: Berry Bros. & Rudd, the world’s oldest wine merchant, in business since 1698. My mum sometimes ordered a case of wine from Berry Bros. The company specialized in making things easy for English customers. I remember bottles labelled simply “Hock” (totally delicious Riesling from the Rhine) or “Good Ordinary Claret” (no need to confuse matters by naming the deuxième-tier Château that had created the wine – and besides it was always excellent). Inside the ancient premises is a room called The Parlour – one of the oldest rooms in the shop – where Lord Byron once dined. So did Napoleon III, who was French. So did Prime Minister William Pitt (though I don’t know if that was Pitt the Elder or Pitt the Younger – probably the Younger, since he drank his weight in Port while running the country).

Berry Bros. is now in the business of providing the heirs and successors of the Pitts and Byrons with the wherewithal to continue conquering worlds politick and literary – namely gin. Byron chugged gin and water while writing Don Juan (there are few poems I enjoy more) and the No.3 would have been right up his allée. It’s a real gin. By which I mean it doesn’t taste of exotic flowers, or cucumber and roses, or citrus fruit. It tastes roundly of juniper (okay, cardamom, grapefruit peel, orange, earthy angelica and coriander seed mitigate the whack) but mostly it’s perfumed, pine-forest-bitter, antique-Christmassy, venison-gamey,  juniper – dry as a bone, clean as the London style should always be, and spectacular in a Martini with a twist of lemon. If you need olives, have them on the side. The LCBO has it on its shelves (look for the bottle with the key pressed into its gizzard) – and so should we all.