Royal Challenge

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Perusing the shelves at the LCBO my eye was caught by a new bottle tucked in among the wall of blended Scotch whiskies bearing the name "Royal Challenge." My curiosity piqued, I read the label, "Royal Challenge Finest Premium Whisky. A blend of rare Scotch, select grain and matured Indian malts." Turning the bottle over confirmed that it was actually made in India and that the 42.8% ABV spirit contained "permitted natural colour." Intrigued, I purchased the bottle to share with the club. After all, "what's life without a Royal Challenge!" 

Visiting the website on the label of the importer, AA Impex Ltd, affixed to the side of the bottle; I would later learn that Royal Challenge is a very popular blended whisky enjoyed primarily in India and in a few ex-pat communities around the globe. In fact, as soon as I opened the bottle and saw the speed pour cap, I got the picture: this is India's go-to bar rail whisky.

Produced by United Spirits Ltd. RC (as it's colloquially known) lead the Indian "premium whisky" segment, by volume of sales, throughout India, during the 1980s and 90s; it's domestic popularity rivaled by a Seagram's / Pernod Ricard whisky, "Blender's Pride." There's no question that RC continues to maintain a large market share in India and part of it's fame is due in no small part to the brand's relationship as a title sponsor of the Royal Challengers cricket team.

Indian whisky, while loved by the domestic populace, has drawn criticism from the global whisky connoisseur community as the blended product is commonly based on neutral spirits that are distilled from fermented molasses with only a small portion (around 12% of this blend is estimated to be malt) consisting of traditional malt whiskey. The criticism being, that anywhere outside of India, their "whisky" would be considered rum with malt flavouring.

Already feeling a little suspicious about the quality of the blend from the speed pour cap I decided to investigate what does "permitted natural colour" mean? A few minutes of searching led me to a product description of RC for the domestic market asserting that "varying proportions of selected Indian Malt Spirit, Clean Extra Neutral Alcohol, Plain Caramel, FDA and State Exercise approved flavours and essences are blended under close supervision and strict quality control so as to get overall roundness and typical organoleptic characteristics to the blend." I had no luck finding out what those "approved flavours and essences" might include but I figured it must be safe to drink, right?

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Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey is produced at it's namesake distillery in Louisville, Kentucky and should never be called a bourbon.

Legally, bourbon must have a mashbill that contains 51% corn. Since Bernheim's Wheat Whiskey contains a higher amount of wheat than corn, it must simply be called American Whiskey. The "straight whiskey" definition means that the spirit in the bottle was distilled at less than 80% ABV, aged a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels, and contains no coloring, flavoring or blending agents.

Bottled at 45% ABV, this small batch whiskey is the creation of Parker and Craig Beam who were inspired to use soft winter wheat as the main grain in the mashbill when trying to use up leftovers from a newly completed run of wheated bourbon for the Old Fitzgerald brand. The result, as the bottle necktie declares, "is a sweet yet smooth whiskey." According to the website, because Bernheim's whiskey is made primarily with wheat, it has a more mellow taste profile than typically found in that of a traditional bourbon, "wheaters" included. This smoothness, they say, makes it the perfect base spirit in a "high quality" cocktail and the site features no less than 12 recipes to showcase the whiskey's mixability and versatility.

As this small batch whiskey appears to be only available in limited runs at the LCBO and I'm a fan of wheat-forward bourbons, I decided to take a gamble and pick up a bottle of this American wheat whiskey. 

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year old

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Although the term "pure malt" was discarded from the Scotch whisky lexicon in 2009 by the SWA in favour of the term "blended malt whisky," the meaning is the same: a blend of single malts from more than one distillery.  The age statement refers not to the age of the blend, rather it tells you the age of the youngest whisky in the blend; in this case, 12 years. The Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year old is a blend of single malt whiskies from Nikka's Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. 

Named after the company's founder and Master Distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, the 12 year old Taketsuru bottling is a perfect introduction to Nikka's two malt whisky distilleries in a single bottle. Yoichi, with its coal-fired pot stills, produces spirit known for its rich, smokey and peaty flavours. Miyagikyo, with its taller stills, by contrast produces spirit that's lighter, fruitier, and softer than Yoichi. Blended to showcase the features of both spirits and bottled at 40% ABV, this highly awarded pure malt is guaranteed to please both newcomers to Japanese single malt whisky and conoisseurs alike. 
RonBurgundy-front.jpegReleased as part of the massive promotional campaign behind the sequel to Will Ferrell's movie "Anchorman", some minds inside in the marketing machine felt it would be a good idea to commission Old St. Andrew's Distillery to assemble a blended Scotch whisky to coincide with the film release. Purporting to be a blend of 60% malt and 40% grain whiskies from Speyside, The Highlands, and Islay it is bottled at 40% ABV. 

Acquired as part of a sample trade, I have decided to offer my thoughts on this whisky so that others may not suffer the fate of labouring through it the way I have. Altogether disappointing, the most interesting thing about this whisky is that it does so in such a surprising number of ways.

Gordon and MacPhail Tasting at The Dock Ellis

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Back in February, when it was obviously too cold to upload pictures to the internet, ScotchBlog hosted a very special tasting led by Derek Hancock and Richard Urquhart of Gordon and MacPhail.  Attendees were treated to Benromach and excellent G&M selections available at the LCBO as well as a cask strength Caol Ila and a spectacular Glen Grant 1966 vintage.  The Dock Ellis chef, Trish Gill applied her sublime talent to the pairings for each glass.  

Please enjoy this photo gallery of the evening. 




Collingwood 21 Year Old Canadian Whisky

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Collingwood Canadian Whisky 21 Year Old
Inspired by the success of the original Collingwood Canadian Whisky, produced by the Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood, Ontario, This new 21 Year Old expression is distilled from 100% malted rye. Matured in oak, and finished in a wooden vat built with toasted maplewood staves, this whisky is much richer and darker than its younger sibling.

Collingwood 21 Year old is the result of an experiment by an intrepid master distiller. Back in 1991, the Canadian Mist distillery was producing no 100% rye whiskies, yet master distiller Harold Ferguson decided to squirrel away 50 barrels of pure rye spirit. This experiment had no plan, no decided outcome, and yet 21 years later it has produced a whisky of remarkable richness and complexity.



Going Beyond the Bottle at Glenfiddich

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In the galaxy of Scotch whisky distilleries there are many stars, but few burn as brightly as Glenfiddich. Nestled in a valley bordering the small village of Dufftown, its 1,200 acre estate sprawls out over rolling hills under endless skies in such a way that at times it feels like there is no need to venture anywhere else ever again. Arresting in its beauty, nearly flawless in its construction, and operating with an attention to detail that goes beyond obsessive; it leaves one with little wonder as to why its whisky has gone on to win more awards than any other. 

From the moment of arrival it becomes clear that this is one slick operation. Pulling into a proper car park with well manicured grounds and a glorious visitor centre is not something one is likely to encounter at too many of Scotland's distilleries, then again there really isn't much that is like this distillery anywhere. The cafe in the visitor centre is offers some of the best food that we had on our trip, and is likely only rivaled by Ardbeg's cafe for honours of the best distillery to grab a bite at. But what really matters is what goes on in the buildings surrounding the public entry point. Those buildings have been producing some of the finest malt whisky to ever come out of Scotland's vaunted stills, and for over 125 years have done so with such consistency that most whisky fans take it for granted, some even considering it boring.  

But consistency in execution is no accident. It is what separates superstars from all the other players in the league, and it was with this thought in mind that we set out to discover just what sets this distillery apart from the rest.

Glenmorangie Ealanta

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Glenmorangie Ealanta 1.JPGMatured in heavily charred virgin American oak casks for 19 years, this expression essentially answers a "what if" scenario whereby a Scotch distiller has subjected their raw spirit to a bourbon-style maturation rather than using an ex-bourbon cask. The key difference being that instead of ageing in the warmer climate of Kentucky in a racked warehouse, this whisky spent its slumber in the cool environs of the Northern Scottish Highlands allowing for slower activity inside the casks thus preventing the wood from overpowering the spirit after so many years.

Since 2009 Glenmorangie has been issuing an annual release under their Private Edition banner, and the Ealanta is 2013's edition. Finally arriving at the LCBO last week, and available through its Vintages Online system for the time being, there has been considerable anticipation from many awaiting its release. 

On Retailers, Scores, and the Human Condition

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Isn't the point of life to live it through one's own actions and experiences rather than trudging along blindly behind those that have gone before? Surely there is some merit in using the findings of others as sign posts to avoid the worst potential pitfalls, but a life without individualized experience is hardly a life worth living. With its etymological origins rooted in the notion of the "water of life", whisky is inexorably tied to the notion of experience; either as a vehicle for it, or as an experience in and of itself.

So why are people allowing others to limit their experiences in life and in whisky? 

The Black Grouse Alpha Edition

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The Black Grouse Alpha Edition contains a higher proportion of aged malts from The Macallan and Highland Park to the aged grain whiskies than what's found in the standard Black Grouse. Male Tetrao tetrix, (Black Grouse) engage in a mating ritual known as a Lek to determine the alpha position or dominancy in the flock by presenting the best display for females. Festooned with a black feather, the bottle and packaging of the Alpha Edition serves as a nod to the company's interest in positioning this version of the Grouse as a premium offering in the product line and was originally launched exclusively for the travel retail market in 2011 before becoming more widely available in 2012.  We love the original Black Grouse, in fact it won our Battle of the Blends series, so we had no hesitation in sampling a new spin on an old favourite even if we were a tad disappointed to see it bottled at 40% ABV despite the higher malt content.


Bruichladdich Octomore /5_169

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Bruichladdich-Octomore-5169-169-ppm-07-Liter.jpgAn imposing figure on any shelf, this offering from Bruichladdich is a veritable titan of peat.  In fact the Octomore product line currently stands as the world's heaviest peated, often north of 140 parts per million (ppm) phenols.  For a frame of reference, Ardbeg and Laphroaig typically contain about 54 and 40ppm phenols respectively.  Octomore is made in limited runs, and there is considerable batch variation, so the version number naming convention is for the sake of whisky enthusiasts as a quick reference to track the years aged and various ppm levels. There are rumours of an Octomore release in the pipeline for Summer 2014 that clocks in above an unthinkable 300 ppm.


The name pays homage to the Octomore distillery which was near to Bruichladdich and closed in the 19th century.  Bruichladdich has been kind enough to elaborate further here.  Aside from having a package design that seems based on the B2 Bomber, this particular whisky was aged 5 years in ex-bourbon casks, is offered at cask strength (59.5%) and its malt was measured at 169 ppm phenols.

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Lot No. 40 is a Canadian Rye Whisky produced by Corby at the Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. in Windsor, Ontario. Unlike most widely available Canadian Ryes, Lot No. 40 is an all rye whisky is distilled from a mash of 90% rye grain and 10% malted rye in small batches in a single copper pot still instead of the traditional column still. While there's no age statement on the label, the whisky is rumoured to be around 7 or 8 years old. 

The story goes that the recipe for Lot No. 40 dates back to Joshua Booth, an 18th century miller, distiller, and politician from Millhaven, Ontario. Over a century later, a modern day relative and distiller at Hiram Walker, Michael D. Booth helped revive the recipe in the late 1990s before it was discontinued by Corby's. Thankfully, for those of us who missed it the last time around, Lot No. 40 was re-launched in October 2012. Clearly we can expect some variation between bottlings as the label distinctly references that this 43% ABV whisky is part of the "2012 Edition Release," suggesting that there is something unique about this run that may not appear in successive batches. Regardless, the present release has received high praise from enthusiasts, conoisseurs and writers alike, with Canadian Whisky authority Davin de Kergommeaux claiming that it's "become the Holy Grail of Canadian whisky, the quintessential Canadian rye."

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 years old Lot B

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van-winkle-special-reserve-12-year-old-whiskey.jpgPraised by whiskey enthusiasts the world over, Old Rip Van Winkle, produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery of the Sazerac Company, has been one of the most sought-after Bourbons on the market in recent years. Based in Frankfort, Kentucky the Van Winkle family has been producing spirit since the late 1800's however it wasn't until the 1970's that the pre-prohibition era Old Rip Van Winkle brand was re-launched by Julian Van Winkle, Jr..

The Van Winkle line is characterized by the presence of wheat in the mash bill, in addition to corn and barley. This "wheated" recipe produces a spirit with a softer, less fruity, and smoother taste, than those containing rye instead. If Pappy Van Winkle were still alive he'd probably tell you that a wheated Bourbon ages better and more gracefully than it's rye-forward counterparts but then again that might just be a matter of personal preference and marketing.

Bottled at 45.2% A.B.V. the Lot "B" is aged 12 years in charred, new oak, barrels. The result is a sippin' whiskey worthy of a place on any Van Winkle fan's shelf; should you be lucky enough to find a bottle of course... 

The 2013 Gift Buyer's Guide to Whisky

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It's merely 2 days until Christmas. You have many people you want to shop for, and there is a whisky lover on your list. You've already gone into your local store a couple times and have left empty handed because no one could help you make heads or tails of the selection and whether or not it would be enjoyed by the person you are buying for. Where could you possibly turn for help? 

Well, this is one of those places. The first thing you'll need to do is make a list of what they have on their shelf at home. See a lot of Glenfarclas or Macallan on their shelf? That means you have a fan of sherried whiskies that you are buying for. Are there names like Elijah Craig, Maker's Mark, or Bookers staring back at you? Then you've got a bourbon fan on your hands. Are you staring at a myriad of bizarre sample bottles with hand written labels filling every nook and cranny of the room while 3 other shelves hold full-size bottles that are open, and another room holds the closed ones? Then get out of my house! 

All jokes aside, the label on a bottle, tube, or tin will be your first indicator of what you should be looking for. In fact, the best way to read a label is often in reverse. For instance if it says "Single Malt Scotch Whisky", then the bottle contains whisky, made in Scotland from malt (a process by which barley is allowed to sprout before roasting called "malting"), from a single distillery. Whereas "Blended Scotch Whisky" refers to whisky made in Scotland that uses a blend of different distilleries and types of whisky. Other things that you will find noted on the label could include the region of Scotland the whisky is from (Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, or Island), cask type (most commonly sherry or bourbon), an age statement that lists the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle, and the type of whisky it is such as Canadian, Irish, Bourbon, or Scotch. 

Once you have attended to looking into the contents of your subject's cabinet, turn your attention to thoughts of their favourite flavours. Both in terms of food, and if you can think of them, whisky. Do they enjoy smoked foods like pulled pork or beef brisket? Look for something with "Islay" on the bottle and you'll have a very good chance of bringing home a smoky whisky. Do they have a sweet tooth that sees them looking at the dessert menu before the mains in a restaurant? Then a whisky from the Speyside region will likely be a big hit with them.

Want more specific recommendations? Then read on...

Wemyss Malts 1990 Mortlach "Sugar and Spice"

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Mortlach is perhaps one of Speyside's most unknown distilleries outside of anorak circles. It is the backbone of Johnnie Walker Black Label, renowned for its meaty texture and unique 2.8-times distillation, and just about impossible to find outside of independent bottlings. Although, that availability is set to improve with parent-company Diageo's recent announcement of an £18M investment in the facilities and a launch of 4 single malt expressions down the road.

Thankfully we don't need to wait for the mother ship to cast some casks in our direction, as independent bottlers Wemyss have delivered a single cask expression worth hunting. Matured in a puncheon (a cask size between a hogshead and a port pipe) of unidentified origin since 1990 and bottled in 2011, this whisky has a little something for everyone, and a whole lot of rich, sweet flavours for the Mortlach fanatics among you. 

Despite the fact that we could not obtain a formal bottle picture, and in spite of the fact that the LCBO couldn't even be bothered to put up a picture of the proper label on their site, if you find a bottle bearing the label shown here, what follows is that which awaits you. 

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