If prime-time TV is any indication, brown is the new pink, at least when it comes to drink. Brown as in whisky.
Consider the evidence. Exhibit 1: Sex and the City is safely in the rerun ghetto and the DayGlo cranberry-vodka cocktails it helped inflict on the world are starting to look as dated as the show. Exhibits 2 and 3: The Wire and Mad Men, two critically acclaimed hits, have done more to glamorize brown spirits than Frank Sinatra and all the billions spent on booze advertising through the decades.
In the case of The Wire, the spirit is Irish, specifically Jameson, consumed in formidable quantity by Detective Jimmy McNulty.
In Mad Men, a period drama set in the early 1960s, lead character Don Draper is rarely more than an arm's length from a tumbler of Canadian Club.
The world of whisky today, though, would be as bewildering to Don Draper as a black president-elect or a "no smoking" sign in an elevator.
Thank goodness for that. While lower-priced, mass-market brands are generally experiencing flat sales, premium products are up considerably and distillers and retailers continue to enliven the whisky market with exciting brands.
B.C. Liquor Stores earlier this month released 50 specialty whiskies, adding to a growing number of premium spirits at British Columbia's private liquor stores. Last month, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario launched about 40 products as part of its fall-winter premium fixture spirits program.
While any connection to Mad Men is purely coincidental, the LCBO also recently launched the Official Canadian Whisky Glass, a tumbler co-designed by the LCBO and Glencairn Crystal of Scotland, with input from whisky executives, bartenders and Canadian distiller John Hall of Forty Creek. Designed to enhance the aromas and flavours of smooth Canadian whisky, the curvaceous glass looks like something modelled on the silhouette of Joan Holloway, the eye-poppingly voluptuous office manager in Mad Men. (In my own test, the glass, which costs $8.95, or $4.95 with a 750-ml whisky purchase, outperformed both a straight-sided tumbler and the Glencairn Whisky Glass now used in professional Scotch tastings.)
Among this season's new offerings is one that might make Don Draper believe he'd died and gone to heaven: Canadian Club 30 Year Old ($179.95 in Ontario). Crafted in celebration of the brand's 150th anniversary, the whisky might be a tad sweet for those of us with tastes running more toward Scotch, but there's no denying the luxurious texture in this smooth, mahogany-hued spirit thanks to three decades of barrel aging.
More to my taste is Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve Whisky ($59.95 in Ontario). Part of a new wave of small-batch whiskies in North America, this limited-edition blend of rye, corn and barley whiskies from craftsman John Hall was "finished" in used bourbon barrels. Smooth, balanced and rich, with hints of roasted nuts and spice, it's quite unlike any other whisky, a hybrid of international styles that stands alone.
I would argue the strongest potential for growth in the luxury whisky market belongs to the Irish. Sadly, some of the best are, like top Scotches, being scooped up by voracious buyers in Asia and Russia, who also are inspiring distillers to gouge customers on this side of the ocean.
I'm not sure if that's why Ontario received just a few bottles of the new Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve Irish Whiskey ($399.95), which sadly are sold out. It's one of the best whiskies I've tasted, period, even if the price seems out of sync with the times. It brought to mind all sorts of words I don't normally associate with whisky, such as chewy and herbal. Irish whisky at its best can do that to you.
To underscore roots that date back 400 years, Bushmills, Ireland's other big brand, recently released Bushmills 1608 Anniversary Edition Irish Whiskey ($99.95), which took home "best Irish blended whiskey" honours at the World Whiskies Awards for spirits with no age statement on the label. It's made with a special type of malted barley called crystal malt, normally reserved for beer brewing but recently found to impart a smoother texture to whisky. This is a powerful Bushmills, with a distinctly toasty, woody character that resolves into toffee and chocolate. In a more affordable vein there's the much more widely available and very good Black Bush ($36.95), full-bodied, spicy and dry.
My top Scotch pick this season is Aberlour A'Bunadh Speyside Single Malt ($92.95). Yes, it's expensive, but it's hardly highway robbery when you consider the inflation of brands such as Lagavulin and the fact it weighs in at cask strength, or 59.5 per cent alcohol. The flavour is massive, with great texture and density, notes of old library wood and toasted nuts. Rare and elegant. Grab it if you can.
From the aforementioned Lagavulin, purveyor of some of the smokiest whiskies, come two products that are actually cheaper than the standard 16-year-old. Some Lagavulin fans argue - with great plausibility, to my mind - that the distillery's best spirit is not the super-smoky 16-year-old but rather Lagavulin 12 Year Old Islay Single Malt ($109.95 in Ontario). More delicate than its older sibling, it's also stronger, bottled at 57.5 per cent alcohol, with the classic medicinal Lagavulin punch of peatiness, yet with more of a sea-salt essence. Great balance. I love this whisky.
In British Columbia, Bruichladdich, an Islay distillery that specializes in limited editions, also this year has available a series of first growth single malts, named for the fact they were finished in barrels previously used to age wines at top - or "first growth" - Bordeaux chateaux. They all cost $119.99 and include 16 Year Old Haut Brion, 16 Year Old Margaux, 16 Year Old Latour and 16 Year Old d'Yquem.
For the money, I'd be more inclined toward Bruichladdich Waves 7 Year Old Islay Single Malt ($69 in Ontario). Matured first in bourbon wood, then in Madeira casks, it's vaguely reminiscent of fruit, sea spray and meat roasting over an open fire.
And just in time for the looming recession, making its seasonal appearance this year in most provinces, is Té Bheag Gaelic Whisky one of the best-value premium whiskies distilled in Scotland ($35.95 in Quebec; $37.95 in Ontario; $40.19 in Manitoba; $39.11 in Nova Scotia; $37.22 in PEI; and $40.18 in Newfoundland). From the family-owned company Pràban, founded in 1976, it combines the smoothness of a blend with the peat-smoke character of an Islay malt.
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Available in the West as well as other parts of the country, Lagavulin Distillers Edition Islay Single Malt ($159.95 in B.C.; $114.95 in Ontario; $124 in Quebec) shows a rich velvetiness, smoky punch and big, oaky, caramel-like sweetness from a short time spent finishing in used Pedro Ximenez sherry butts after their main maturation period in the standard used-bourbon barrels.
The specialty-cask trend shows no sign of letting up. Some might say it's a blatant ploy to imbue whisky with the price-is-no-object mentality prevalent among trophy-wine hunters. First-growth Bordeaux houses aren't the only ones laughing all the way to the bank after selling their used barrels to Scottish distillers. Sassicaia, the Italian producer of cabernet sauvignon beloved of collectors, has lent its name to The Arran Sassicaia Cask Finish ($99.99), which at least is cheaper than a bottle of Sassicaia wine.
Two excellent and rare blended malts making the rounds this season are the high-priced Chivas Regal 25 Year Old Scotch Whisky ($329) and Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt ($69.95). Small quantities of the creamy, nutty and orange-accented Chivas 25 are available in several provinces, while Monkey Shoulder, rich and brimming with toasted hazelnut, is unique to the LCBO outside the United Kingdom.