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

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Garrison Honey Lavender Ale

Apparently Garrison makes a honey lavender ale!  I recall seeing this one at Cristall in previous years but I had never gotten around to trying it until now.


650ml bomber bottle with a pry-off cap.  Garrison's blocky new branding is present.  The golden-brown label with hand-written-looking font looks nice, especially with the illustrated lavender occupying the centre.

This beer is brewed to 6.3% abv.

The Beer

Colour: Pours hazy and golden, with lots of rising bubbles.  The head is tall, firm and foamy and boasts epic retention.

Nose: Belgian style yeasty banana esters.  Perfumed with very noticeable lavender.  Undertone of pineapple and lemon.

Taste: Really zingy effervescence.  Very floral, almost overpoweringly so.  There are some spicy notes present but they mostly get lost beneath the assault of grandma's perfume.  Not bitter.

Finish: Scented candle-ish with the lavender.  Tangy with vague honey and banana.

Overall: It's interesting for sure, but ultimately not really my thing.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Alberta Premium Dark Horse

Do you like rye whisky?  Do you consider yourself to be a whisky purist?

If you answered "yes" to both of those questions, Dark Horse is going to cause you some mental anguish.  If you're the kind of person who reads whisky blogs, you're probably already aware that this whisky has taken advantage of Canada's 9.09% rule through the addition (post maturation) of a small amount of sherry.  In most other whisky making jurisdictions this would condemn Dark Horse to "flavoured whisky" status, perhaps even "whisky liqueur."  Hey, I've even heard it called "frankenwhisky."

The purist in you will look at this stuff through the lens of strict Scotch whisky or bourbon regulations, and a sneer, perhaps unbidden, will creep across your face.  "How dare they," you might think.  "How dare ADL disrespect whisky's sacred maturation traditions with such shortcuts, such vile half-assing.  The Scottish would have have achieved the same goal with sherry butts and a few years, the way the whisky gods intended!"  Your condemnation complete, you will resolve never to buy it again, and move on with your life. . .

. . . but the rye lover in you will taste it and, as I did, will begin making a heartfelt effort to reconfigure your production expectations, and maybe even your ideas of what makes whisky whisky.  You'll be all like "Hey, this stuff doesn't have any more sherry in it than a sherry matured single malt does.  Problem solved, I'm allowed to like it now!"  While this is true, it doesn't account for the fact that in single malt whisky the sherry is "added" (via the vector that is wood) before maturation is complete, rather than afterwards the way Dark Horse does it.  Fully accepting this drink as true whisky is going to be hard for you, as it has been for many before you.

Personally, I've abandoned trying to apply strict international rules here.  I've accepted that this is a Canadian whisky, made in accordance with Canadian regulations, and without taking any truly unforgivable liberties with the composition of true whisky.


Alberta Premium Dark Horse comes in a 750 ml glass bottle of a short and stout shape.  The bottom of this thing is almost comically thick; there's probably enough glass in there to make a whole other bottle.  It's nice and hefty.

The label is black with an even blacker, somewhat glossy horse barely visible in the background.  Text is simple and white.  Altogether it's a simple, clean, attractive package (plastic screw cap notwithstanding).

This whisky is a blend composed of 91% rye whisky, 8% corn whisky, and the much-talked-about 1% sherry.

The Whisky

Colour: A swirl yields a heavily coated glass.  Fat, slow legs gradually develop and descend.  Dark colour, presumably helped along by that 1% sherry addition and new oak (and probably some of the ol' E150, though I'm just guessing here).

Nose: Fruit in the form of tart currants and blackberries.  Light varnish, loads of rye spice, and a subtle brininess.  Brown sugar, maple.

Taste: Feisty (but not unpleasant) alcohol burn. Sweet toffee, bittersweet molasses, dusty spice and slate.  Vanilla and assertive oak after a few seconds of savouring.

Finish: An initial wave of sweet brown sugar and molasses.  Prunes, vanilla, and good clean oak follow.  Rye spice throughout.

Overall: This is the best value per dollar I've yet encountered in Canadian whisky.  It's complex, interesting, and (most importantly) delicious from start to finish.  I'm not confident it can stand against more expensive bottlings (some day I'll have to try a blind comparison), but at the $30 range Dark Horse is king.

Some links:

NSLC Availability
Alberta Rye Dark Batch (USA release)

Sunday, 9 August 2015

At the Bottom of a Bottle: CC 100% Rye Edition

Welcome to the first edition of At the Bottom of a Bottle, a new feature wherein I attempt to reconcile my first impression of a new whisky against my better-developed final thoughts as the last drops of spirit slither through my veins and unto its final destination in Bedford Basin.  I'll only do this for bottles of 375 ml size or larger, which means I won't do it often (it takes me a long time to empty a bottle; this one is around 10 months old).

Nose: When I first tried this whisky I was really impressed with the array of aromatics, which captured the spicy character of rye and balanced it with CC's signature fruitiness (despite being distilled by ADL).  750 ml later I still find that it continues to please, although
I think time and oxygen have brought the bubblegum and tobacco notes more to the forefront to the detriment of the spice.  Take that as a negative or a positive, per your own preferences.

Palate: Initially I had found this one had a nice tactile bite to it; it attacked with some spicy, peppery heat that was a nice change from the excessive "smoothness" characteristic of inexpensive Canadian bottlings.  It was solid in the flavour department as well, with dark bread, candied nuts, and fragrant baking spice.  At the end of the bottle the searing qualities seem to have retreated(for better or for worse), and it still tastes really really nice.

Finish: I'm not really finding anything radically altered here.  It's still pleasant and could stand to linger a bit longer.

Overall: My feelings towards this whisky fluctuated a bit as the fill level shrank.  I loved it initially, but began to grow a bit bored of it towards the middle; it started getting the "drink it and forget it" treatment as I enjoyed it as an after work tipple without paying it much mind.  I started to appreciate it more again towards the end of the bottle, and this final dram has convinced me that this is one of the best value-per-dollar sippers in the Canadian whisky category.  My only major bone of contention is the 40% ABV; if Alberta Premium can bottle Dark Horse at 45%, why can't you match them CC?

At the bottom of the bottle do I think it deserves your money?

Absolutely.  For $28.50 this stuff is kind of amazing.
Goodnight, sweet prince.