Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

I picked up a bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye when it was first released locally back in September.  It had a small taste of it as soon as I got it home and then set it on the shelf for later review (Wiser's Double Still and Hurricane 5 just had me more excited).  I never suspected that two months later Jim Murray would decree it to be the BEST WHISKY IN THE WORLD.

I'm not going to launch into a big discussion of Jim Murray and his book (others have already done it better than I ever could - this piece on The Whisky Sponge is excellent).  All I'll say is that I've resolved to mentally re-write the title "World's Best" as "Jim Murray's Favourite" and hope that it is indeed his legitimate favourite this year, and not just an oddball controversial pick meant to drive book sales.

One thing is certain: Diageo is jumping for joy.  This stuff is selling like crazy at the NSLC right now.


Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is sold in the brand's standard crown-ishly shaped 750ml glass bottle.  The label is slightly different from the standard bottling in colour (green drapes instead of purple) and proudly trumpets the blend's 90% rye whisky content.  Crown's typical plastic screwcap is present.  I always prefer a cork, but at least Crown's cap is high-quality plastic and is easy to grip.  Any bottler using a metal screwcap should do some soul-searching and then copy Crown Royal.

Part of me wants to belly-ache about the the generic Crown Royal presentation.  The other part of me knows that Crown has one of the most easily recognized (and best selling) bottles in the world; if I were at the helm of a brand so strong, I wouldn't take liberties with the visual presentation either.

Northern Harvest Rye is bottled at 45% abv.  Good on Crown for breaking the 40% barrier again.

The Whisky

Colour: Amber.  A nice coating on the glass resolves into long legs after a few seconds.

  Very rich and sweet at first.  Caramel and apple pie.  Cinnamon and cloves lurk beneath the sweetness.  Maple and a hint of maraschino cherry.  There's lots to enjoy here, and more complexity than these notes indicate.

Taste:  Sharp grain and lush spices first, carried along on a torrent of sweet caramel and apples.  Spice gradually pushes the sweetness aside and in turn gives way to clean, dry wood.  It requires a few seconds of savouring to get the full effect.

 Vanilla, spice, apple sauce.  Creamy and sweet.  Lingering maraschino.

Overall:  It's a damned good Canadian rye whisky.  The sweet caramel characteristics typical of Crown Royal are certainly present and balanced out nicely by the spiciness of its rye-heavy composition.  Also, it makes a pretty mean Old Fashioned.  For $35 you should definitely try it. . . unless you hate rye.  In that case you might want to pass.

Please don't let all of this Jim Murray silliness ruin this whisky for you.  Sláinte.

NSLC Availability

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Propeller Nocturne Dark Lager


Propeller Nocturne Dark Lager is sold in single 500ml glass bottles.  They're the same shape the brewery always uses for their half-litre beers.  The label is dark with glow-in-the-dark-paint looking text, and seems a good match for the whole "art at night" theme of Nocturne.

This beer is brewed to 4.8% abv.
The Beer

Colour: Nice firm tan head, fantastic retention and lace.  The beer is not quite opaque, with a deep espresso colour (almost black).  Nice looking brew.

Nose: The usual roast malt suspects are present; slightly burnt coffee, dark chocolate, dark yeasty bread, and a hint of smoky singed paper.

Taste: Crisp effervescence lightens the body.  Coffee, dark chocolate and tootsie rolls.  It's all about those dark malts.

Finish: Finishes moderately bitter.  Coffee, tootsie rolls, and light smoke.

Overall: This is the beer Guiness Dark Lager wanted to be.  Light in body and full in flavour, it's a really gratifying beer I'll look forward to drinking each Fall.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Caldera Hurricane 5 (Batch 0001)

50th post!  How fortuitous it is that it should happen to coincide with the release of Caldera Distilling's first bottling, Hurricane 5 Canadian Whisky.

It was only a couple of weeks before the product launch that I even became aware, accidentally, of Caldera's existence.  I was scrolling idly through my seldom-viewed Facebook feed and found a post from The Viral Barman promoting the NS Spirits Festival in Lunenburg, and thinking that NS has very few distillers I could actually name I clicked the link to learn more.  Well learn more I did, discovering that no fewer than eight local distilleries (five of which I had never heard of before) would be in attendance.  From there I found Caldera's website, and a local distiller that promised to make all of my nerdy whisky fantasies come true.

Caldera Distilling is located on an old farm in River John, NS.  Their goal is to run a true field-to-glass operation; they will ferment, distill, and mature whisky crafted from their own organically estate-grown grains.  I say "will" because the company's establishment date of 2013 raised some obvious mathematical questions given Canadian whisky's minimum three year ageing requirement.  Fortunately Caldera is really good about answering questions.

The mathematical impossibility of Hurricane 5 is explained like this: Caldera started distilling before they were called Caldera.  While this pre-Caldera distillate is 100% their own grain, the other half of the current bottling is not; it was distilled under contract by another large Canadian distillery according to Caldera's specifications.  This distillate is not "sourced" in the usual sense (ie. Caldera didn't buy existing stock from the other distiller).  The arrangement was described by Caldera's Jarret Stuart as "our recipe, different kitchen."  The newest barrels, however, are 100% Caldera's juice, so the 100% estate grain goal should be achieved by the end of 2018 (provided the spirit and the barrels decide to cooperate).

Hurricane 5 is available in select NSLC stores now.


Hurricane 5 is sold in a round, stocky 750ml clear glass bottle.  It is sealed with a soft plastic stopper topped with a wooden (or does it just look wooden?) cap, which is stamped with Caldera's anchor logo.  The wrap on the short neck displays a four digit batch number and a short informative statement regarding the distillery's story.

The front label is a beauty.  An irregular octagonal shape, elegantly stylized depictions of grain, and great font choices are all pleasing to the eye.  Even better, the look and feel of the label is of unfinished wood.  I'm not sure what material they used to achieve this effect but I love it.  I guess CFNapa did the branding, and a hell of a job they did.  (Update: Jarret told me in a new email that that the cap is indeed wooden, and so is the label [birch].  Over a year of collaboration with CFNapa went into bottle design alone).

Hurricane 5 has no added colour and is not chill-filtered (though Jarret informed me they are looking at adopting a chill filtering process in the future).  It's bottled at 40% abv.

The Whisky

Colour: Copper.

Nose: Opens with butterscotch and light ground ginger.  Honey, undefined fruits, and light rye spice.  A hint of cedar wood and a youthful spirit undertone.

Taste: Creamy butterscotch sweetness, balanced well with spicy rye and light oak.  Roast nuts.  Minimal heat.

Finish: Cereal, vanilla and baking spices (ginger and cloves).  Fairly short, turning dry and woody pretty quickly.

Overall: This is a true Canadian style blended rye whisky.  The rye component balances out the creamy, sweet characteristics of what I assume is a corn base whisky, resulting is a well-balanced and approachable sipping whisky at a reasonable price.  It reminds me of Forty Creek's core range (Copper Pot in particular), which is never a bad thing.  This is a very nice first bottling from Caldera and a good buy at $34.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Picaroons Harvest Ale

Fall is here!  Delicious seasonal brews are upon us, so let's get right to it.


Picaroons Harvest Ale is sold in a chunky 500ml glass bottle sealed with a pry-off cap.  The label is handsome and autumn-y with its pale tan palette and illustration of two guys on stilts.  There is no informative text to give you a sense of the beer's characteristics.

There IS however a four-digit number preceded by the name of a specific hop variety.  Through the Picaroons website you can use that info to find out where the hops in your bottle were grown, and by whom.  My bottle is Crystal 3687, from Wallace Ridge Farm in Malagash, NS.  The farmers are Allen and Jacqui Cole.  Cool.

Since each batch contains hops of different varieties from different farms, your own bottle could differ significantly from this one.

This beer is brewed to 5.5% abv.

The Beer

Colour: Pours coppery orange.  The head is foamy and off-white, and recedes slowly to a thin but persistent layer.  There's plenty of lace left behind as the glass empties.

Nose:  Oh this is super nice.  Fresh hops are evident first, presenting as citrus and pine.  It's assertive but not overpowering, and allows toffee, a dash of coffee, and a vague suggestion of maple to come through.

Taste: The hops are now delegated to a supporting role; the palate is primarily malt-driven with light coffee and toffee leading, accompanied by mild nuttiness.  Faint baking spices and sprucy hops round things out.  It's good but the taste doesn't really compare to the aroma.

Finish: Moderate bitterness.  Tree-ish hops, light coffee, and caramel.  Dark bread.

Overall: Good stuff overall.  That wonderful nose almost makes the rest of the experience a bit disappointing.  Almost.  I'd most certainly drink it again.

NSLC Availability

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Wiser's Double Still Rye

Canadian whisky is doing some pretty great things right now.

The 40% abv barrier has fallen.  Previously it was the norm that virtually all whiskies produced in Canada, including premium bottlings such as Crown Royal Reserve, Wiser's 18 YO, and Gibson's Venerable 18 YO, be bottled at the default and bare minimum alcohol content of 40% abv.  While this isn't necessarily a problem for the casual drinker, it can and does prove to be a bone of contention with whisky geeks.

Happily, most of Canada's major whisky producers are now breaking that barrier, and they're doing it with interesting, rye-driven bottlings.  Even better, these Canadian rye whiskies tend to be reasonably priced.  Wiser's is the latest brand to join the party with Double Still Rye, which just landed at the NSLC (availability link at the end).


Wiser's Double Still Rye is sold in a 750ml clear glass bottle with a dark, patterned label and a shitty metal screw cap.  The bottle is the same rectangular prism that is used for Wiser's flagship DeLuxe bottling.  It retails for $29.99, so I guess I can't complain too much about the screw cap.

The liquid is a blend of rye distillates from copper pot stills and column stills.  These whiskies likely contained very different amounts of alcohol prior to blending (high proof for the column distillate, lower for the pot still).  The differing alcohol levels would change how the liquid interacted with the casks, resulting in very different blending components indeed.

This whisky is bottled at 43.4% abv.  It is likely chill-filtered and coloured.

The Whisky

Colour: Copper colour with fat, slow legs.

Nose: Ground ginger, maple and brown sugar.  Orange zest, toffee.  Dark rye bread and marmalade.  There are shades of Wiser's Legacy happening here.

Taste: Rich brown sugar, a little zest.  Vanilla, cinnamon, cloves.  Good wood and great grain.  Marmalade.  Sweet elements balanced by the drying quality of oak, plus a subtle briny quality.

Finish: Maple, vanilla, and spice.  Good length.  Eventually becomes dry.  No bitterness.

Overall: Bold and flavourful stuff.  Awesome value per dollar.  Absolutely appropriate for sipping, and would likely make outstanding whisky cocktails.

Let's directly compare it to the $50 Legacy bottling for fun!

Double Still (43.4%) vs. Legacy (45%)

Nose: Legacy seems a bit more rich and rounded, or more complete.  The aggressively spicy rye is tempered by ripe dark fruit and creamy sweetness.  Double Still is untamed; the rye is full-throttle, and despite being slightly lower proof it seems to nip at the nostrils more insistently than Legacy.

Taste: With Legacy the nose predicts the palate; spicy rye balanced with fruit and cream, virtually devoid of the burn of alcohol.  Double Still is more about cereal grain, and is a little bit hotter; I would argue that it is less balanced but more focused - not necessarily inferior to Legacy, just different.

Finish: Legacy starts with a big surge of toffee and cream, with underlying spice and vanilla.  It is quite wonderful.  Double Still plays a similar game with the big initial wave of rich sugars, but with a bit more heat and a bit of brine (which isn't unpleasant).

Overall: While Double Still is a killer at its price point it just can't stand toe-to-toe against its big brother when it comes to my overall enjoyment.   Double Still is very, very good; Legacy is truly great.

I should also mention that I did this side-by-side comparison on a whim while tasting and writing notes for Double Still.  Each whisky was sampled from slightly different glasses (Glencairn for Double Still, Nova Scotia Crystal for Legacy), and I did nothing to cleanse my palate between sips from each glass.  This whole experiment was very unscientific and conducted mostly for my own amusement.

NSLC Availability (Double Still)
NSLC Availability (Legacy)

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Sea Level (in triplicate)

Sea Level Brewing is located in Port Williams, NS.  They've done a great job on the "Find Us" section of their website, which provides an exhaustive list of the bars and retailers that carry their beer.  In HRM all of the private liquor stores (Cristall's, Harvest, Bishop's, Rockhead) stock their brews.


Each of these brews is sold in a 355ml can.  Cosmetically I am not a fan of cans, easy to transport and impossible to break though they may be.  Each brew has a distinct front and back label.  I'm fond of Sea Level's clean, attractive branding, but I just can't bring myself to like the cans.

The Beers

Summer Blonde Pilsner (4.8% abv)

Colour: Pale yellow and crystal clear, topped with a pure white foamy head.  Solid in the head retention department.

Nose: Initially straightforward and beery.  Fresh white bread and gentle, grassy hops. There's a nice undertone of lemon peel here too.

Taste: Bready and beery on the palate as well.  Very easy-going.  Faint lemon and green tea, and the lightest touch of hops.

Finish: Just right on the bitterness level, with hops present in a grassy and slightly pithy manner.  

Overall: This is the kind of beer that wants you to drink it and a few of its friends.  It's light and easy drinking but still has some flavour.  I'll be honest though, I prefer Propeller's take on the style.

Blue Heron Extra Special Bitter (5.5%)

Colour: Copper and clear.  Head has a tawny colour and lacks retention.

Nose: Very malty with toffee and caramel.  The dry hopping contributes a nice citrus character that balances things out really well.

Taste: Mildly bitter.  Pleasantly nutty, plus citrus from the hops, and caramel malt.  Low carbonation.

Finish: Finishes fairly bitter and hoppy.  Nice subtle dusting of coffee.

Overall: I really enjoyed this one.  It stacks up well against its competitors.

Southern Cross India Pale Ale (6.5% abv)

Colour: Southern Cross pours orange and transparent.  The head is white and frothy and settles into a thin but persistent layer.  It leaves a really nice coating of lace in its wake as you empty the glass.

 Nose: Lots of grapefruit and relatively light pine, with a bready malt undertone.  Fairly standard American IPA territory.

Taste: Very bitter and quite dry.  Crisp effervescence.  Grapefruit and spruce, not particularly malty.

Finish: Bitter, pithy, dry.  Pretty piney.

Overall: A quality IPA that is very much up to standard but not necessarily exceptional.  It's bitter even by IPA standards, so it may be one to seek out if your usual is no longer destructive enough for your hop-battered palate. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Stalk and Barrel Single Malt, Cask 14

Still Waters Distillery (of Concord, ON) is really cool.  Since 2009 two passionate guys named Barry have been producing hand-crafted spirits in what they describe as a "grain to glass" operation; they mash, ferment, distill, and mature their spirits on site rather than outsourcing some (or all) of the steps as some other self-proclaimed distillers do.  They sell a small variety of un-aged white spirits (Single Malt Vodka and new-make versions of their rye and single malt whiskies), but the heart and soul of the product line is their Stalk and Barrel Single Malt.

What makes Still Waters' single malt particularly interesting is that they have completely eschewed the typical industry drive towards consistency.  Every release is a bottling from a single cask, aged for a duration different from its brothers, and even bottled at different strengths (cask strength or 46%).  Even the barrels are inconsistent, as they're purchased from a variety of suppliers.  If you had to pick a single whisky brand to drink for the rest of your life, you could choose Stalk and Barrel and have a new experience from every batch.

That just seems really cool to me.

I had the opportunity to taste and purchase this whisky at this year's Celebrate Whisky show.  Also, one of the Barrys was there pouring.  He was very gracious and did not seem put off by how awkward I can be in real life.


The bottle is of the standard 750ml size and made of clear glass.  It's sealed with a soft plastic stopper that is similar enough to a cork to keep me happy.  The bottle shape is nice and the bottom is thick and well weighted.

A circular black label with superimposed white text dominates the front of the bottle.  This stuff is so hand-made that the cask and bottle numbers and abv are written on the bottle with a sharpie.  How great is that?

The back label has some small black text which is really hard to read in my current lighting situation.

All Stalk and Barrel whiskies are of natural colour and non-chillfiltered.  Cask 14 is bottled at 46% abv.

The Whisky

Colour: Straw.  A swirl gives the glass a heavy coating.

Nose: Big initial attack of banana and vanilla.  Tons of oak.  Mild sawdust, sweetened oatmeal, a dash of ginger, and some subtle stone fruit.  Its really nice.

Taste: Sweet and creamy; honey, vanilla, and floral characteristics abound. Savouring brings out ginger and a bit of black pepper.

Finish: Vanilla, sawdust, flowers, and caramel.  Plenty of oak, some pepper, and fresh pears.  Lingers pleasantly for a while, but the good stuff fades and the pears morph into a slightly unpleasant medicinal taste.

Overall: Cask 14 is a fresh and lively young malt, a showcase of oak and barley.  At $57.85 it's priced appropriately compared to other malt whiskies of similar quality.  My only qualms stem from that slightly off-putting note on the finish, which sadly makes a lasting impression.  Otherwise it's pretty great and I'm eager to see what future bottlings hold.

NSLC Availability