Lot 40 Canadian Whisky

Lot40-Oct12-lgTHE CANADIAN WHISKY PALATE AND BRAND PICTURED ASSESSED

Whisky is also an interest here at Beer Et Seq., so today we will consider the first Canadian whisky in modern times to have an emphatic whisky (distillery) palate, Lot 40 from Corby Spirits and Wine.

By distillery palate, I mean, one from which the grain character has not been stripped out by distilling it at or near to neutral spirit (vodka) level.

The Canadian whisky style since the late 1800’s has been to distill a base spirit, often from corn but another grain can be used, to a largely neutral taste. It is then aged in wood barrels. Prior to bottling, a small amount of characterful aged whisky is blended in, made often from rye, which adds a subtle spicy or peppery note. Sometimes, the two types of whiskey are blended unaged, and the blend is put in barrels to age at least three years. More commonly the neutral and “flavouring” elements are aged separately and then blended before bottling. The blended or “married” spirits can be given a further period of aging in wood or “resting” in ceramic, glass or other containers.

Products like U.S. bourbon and the Scottish single malts, as well as Cognac, tequila, and rum when made in a traditional way, are distilled to a low proof (alcohol level) off the still and aged to maturity. They acquire a resultant “heavy” or distinctive spirit character. The character comes, not just from the wood compounds leached into the whisky during aging and certain oxidative changes, but from the chemical composition of the spirit when new. A traditional spirit off the still has a characteristic strong chemical taste, this is so whether it is made from rye, barley, the tequila plant or grapes. This quality is altered by the effect of aging, except for white tequila, or white overproof rum, where the taste is wanted unmodified.

Canadian distillers always made – or brought in –  some of this traditional heavy spirit, but they used it to blend with, not to sell on its own. In Scotland, some unblended whisky – the single or vatted malts – was always sold on its own, ditto for U.S. bourbon and straight rye. The U.K. and U.S. also produced blended versions, but the original unblended whiskies were never taken off the market. In Canada, for some generations at least, you could not buy the so-called flavouring or heavy whisky on its own, its purpose was for blending only. Some distillers felt the unblended product was too harsh in taste for the general market, but this may have been a justification to sell a more profitable product.

About 15 years ago, Corby to its credit released Lot 40 which is not just a 100% rye product, but is distilled at a low proof, one comparable to that used to make the spirit for a single malt or bourbon. In recent years, other whiskies have emerged in Canada which represent this flavouring element on its own or are blends which use a higher percentage of the flavouring element than has been traditional.

This article contains an interview with Corby’s master blender which explains the production of Lot 40, and other whiskies produced by Corby, in numerous aspects. Essentially, Lot 40 is distilled like a U.S. bourbon, once in a column still, and once in a pot still. The resultant spirit will have a lot of taste, a lot more than the neutral-type base whiskies referred to in the interview, and is put away in wood for at least three years. The final age is not disclosed, there is probably a combination of different ages in the bottle. Whether some base whisky, often called grain whisky, is added to the bottle is an open question, but Lot 40 has a very pronounced palate so the effect of any such blending is minimal. For all practical purposes, I consider Lot 40 a straight whisky, comparable in production style to a U.S. bourbon or a Scots single malt.

One factor that can notably influence the palate is the kind of barrels the whisky is aged in. Canadian distillers sometimes use barrels sent by American distillers after their fill of bourbon is emptied. Sometimes, new oak barrels are used, charred black on the inside or not, or ex-wine or brandy barrels, etc. Each whisky brand and each distiller will have a particular specification and approach.

I’d guess Lot 40 is aged in reused bourbon barrels, which the linked article appears to confirm.

Lot 40’s recipe was developed in the 1990’s from an ancestral recipe associated with an early Ontario pioneering family. It is clearly akin to the “flavouring”, or straight-type whiskey used for blending by Canadian distilleries. I once asked a distiller who worked at a now-defunct Canadian distillery what his flavouring whisky tasted like. He said, like a bourbon or U.S. straight rye. (These latter differ only by the relative proportion of corn and rye in the mash).

So, Lot 40 is really “our” bourbon or straight rye, or “our” single malt to use a more distant but still relevant analogy.

What does it taste like?

Indeed, Lot 40 tastes rather like a bourbon, or a U.S. straight rye such as Bulleit Rye or Wild Turkey Rye. It has, not just a woody taste as any whisky does, but a “distillery” palate resulting from the chemical composition which distillation at a low proof (under 160 proof, or 80% abv) imparts. Various bottlings of Lot 40 show this chemical edge more or less, which may recall for some a gingerbread or rye bread note but also floor cleaner or acetone – these are simply metaphors to try to get at the taste. All traditional whisky, no matter how long-aged, has a chemical note, but in different concentrations and manifestations. To my taste, Lot 40 is a bit too raw and chemical-like. I believe aging it another few years would transform that element into something softer and more fruity, as in a 8-10 year old American bourbon or rye. It may depend too, again, what type of barrels are used for aging. Aging in reused barrels generally requires a longer maturation period than aging in new charred oak barrels. I would like to taste an “extra-aged” Lot 40, in a word.

Generally, after tasting a dram or two on its own, I end by blending Lot 40. I might combine it with two parts bourbon, say, or that plus another Canadian whisky to dampen down that “acetone” flavour. Of course, it is precisely that vigorous raw taste which many people admire in the spirit. There can be little doubt that prior to the development of modern blending and rectification techniques, much whisky on the market, in Canada and elsewhere, tasted like Lot 40. This is why whisky was often used in punch, or in toddy with sugar, or in cocktails and mixed drinks, to somewhat alter its feisty character. In fact, Lot 40 makes a fine Manhattan cocktail or whisky sour. On its own though, which is how I normally drink whisky, I prefer a more approachable taste, hence the kind of blending I mentioned.

And so, the process comes full circle in a sense, once can see why distillers, not just in Canada but around the world, evolved blending techniques to soften and make more approachable the taste of traditional spirits. Still, some of these can reach a high level of gastronomic achievement, as a fine Scots malt, say, or premium Cognac. I wouldn’t put Lot 40 in that group, but perhaps one day an iteration will emerge, further-aged or with some additional process used, which will put the brand in that class.

 

Note re image used: The image of the Lot 40 bottle was taken from Corby’s website.

 

Chimay Première (Rouge) – Is It A Great Beer?

IMG_20151109_080954Chimay is a legend, one of the select Trappist beer group, or beer brewed by monks of the Trappist order within the confines of the monastery. It was and probably still is the best known Trappist beer, as well.

The Notre Dame abbey at Scourmont, near Chimay (a town) in the wooded Hainaut of Belgium, has made beer since the 1860’s. Chimay was an early import to North America (from the 1970’s) and helped influence the craft beer revival here. Writers such as Michael Jackson wrote lyrically about the beer, and Trappist brewing in general. This caused a wave of interest in Belgian brewing which is unabated to this date.

I first drank Chimay Rouge, 7% abv then as now, in about 1980, in Montreal. A restaurant in Old Montreal, with flagstones dating from the French Colonial era, carried it.

To my best recollection, it was herbal and aromatic (perfumed), but whether similar to the beer today, it is difficult to say. In checking books both in English and French of the same period, there are few really helpful sensory descriptions. Michael Jackson used different terms in his books, such as blackcurrant, which can mean funky-vegetal, juniper, spicy, red fruit, but it is hard to pin down the palate from what he wrote. James Robertson, in his circa-1980 The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, said it reminded him of his Aunt Beenie’s root beer, which is one of my favourite beer descriptions of all time. Root beer suggests a sweet and wintergreen or minty/herbal taste. I don’t find Chimay today like that, but again it’s hard to know what Robertson really meant.

As many beer fans know, Chimay is not an all-malt beer. It uses something like 15% wheat flour or wheat starch – accounts vary, but either is an adjunct – and 5% dextrose. The brewery says the beer has not changed since the 1940’s when famously, the yeast was isolated which is used in the brewing to this day. It is a strain which performs well at high temperatures and flocculates well, or drops in the bottle so the beer will look clear. Still, 80% malt is certainly respectable, similar to what British ales were using in the period before craft brewing from America impelled some British brewers to brew all-malt. Thus, it seems Chimay was not all-malt in 1980, although some doubt persists.

A factor which may have affected the palate more was the move, in the late 1980’s, to cone-tipped cylindrical fermenters. Prior to that, the beer was open-fermented as the Westvleteren beers, from another renowned Trappist brewery, still are. Some have speculated the behaviour of the yeast changed in the different vessel and altered the palate.

What does Chimay Rouge, best known of the three beers in the Chimay range, taste like today?  It is fruity, as in cherries or plums, and rather light-bodied, with a strong, bready yeast smack to it. The yeast taste is one which many who know Belgian beer will recognize. It is like the smell and taste of a fresh cork, a cork not long in the wine bottle. I used to think the cork in the tall bottle version of Chimay imparted the taste, but it tastes the same from the skittle-shaped bottle closed with a cap. As other Belgian ales have a similar taste, e.g. Leffe, whose recipe originates in monastic brewing, it is the yeast which is at work here.

The next time you have Champagne, see if you don’t notice a resemblance in the yeast background. I always felt that a wine yeast, possibly from Champagne, a region fairly close to Wallonian Belgium, may have been used to help isolate the Chimay yeast. Wine yeasts are adapted to fermenting wine at alcohol levels of 10-12% abv and more. Chimay’s beers are not quite wine strength but are much higher in alcohol than the typical ale of the mid-20th century which was 4-5% abv.

In the last 20 years, I find this yeast taste overwhelming in Chimay. It dominates the palate strongly, with malt and hop flavours playing a supporting role. I don’t find the flavour particularly attractive. For example, there is a scent of fine flowery hops in the beer, I’d guess English ones for recent brewings anyway, but that taste is almost submerged under the yeast dominance of the beer. Someone once suggested to me that Chimay is much better when aged a few years, that the yeast taste breaks down and the malt and hop flavours come more to the fore. I may lay a few bottles away and test the idea.

I’ll leave the reader with a final reflection. About a year ago, I had a bottle of Westvleteren Abt, the legendary Trappist beer from another monastery in Belgium. I hadn’t had Chimay prior to this tasting for a few years.

The first thought that came to mind when I swallowed it was, Montreal, 1980, Chimay Rouge, flagstones…

 

 

 

PBR Under The Gaze Of Beer Et Seq.

PBR IN ITS AMERICAN AND CANADIAN GUISES, AND INCIDENTAL REMARKS ON BLENDING

Before the craft beer era, and well into it, a common feature of the beer scene was to compare the same beer as brewed (or available) in two distant places.

For example, Munich’s Lowenbrau became a locally-brewed, licensed beer in the U.S. in the 70’s. Somebody might get hold of the German original and bring it to a tasting to compare to the local one. Another example: James D. Robertson, in his circa-1980 The Connoisseurs Guide To Beer, compared Molson’s bought in Toronto with the imported one he could obtain in New Jersey. (Molson told him they were the same but Jim liked the one brought direct from Canada better). A version of this was to compare an import, Heineken, or Beck’s, say, with the same beer just off the plane from Europe; this was usually an eye-opener.

We still do this today, even in the hyper-sophisticated and complex world of contemporary beer. Someone might bring a Goose Island Honker’s from Chicago and compare it to the one made in Toronto now. In fact, I may do this soon, as I have some local Honker’s and will be in the States soon where I can get the Chicago one – or at least an American one, since it is brewed in different places now by AB In Bev.

The extra-large can of Pabst Blue Ribbon you can get at The Beer Store in Ontario is brewed in the U.S., in distinction to the other forms of PBR available here. PBR is a famous old beer, one of the first national-scale lagers, and it had a premium image. I recall it in the 1970’s as having a pleasant, perfumed taste, quite different to today’s, but that’s another story.

With the growth of the craft beer segment  – i.e., the return to flavour which all beer had historically – PBR declined in profile, but then had an unlikely revival: it became a “hipster” beer, a commonly used but somewhat misleading description. Hipster implies a socially-aware young person, one in tune with trends. One would expect hipsters to favour craft beers, and many do of course. But the hipster community is not uniform. One of the sub-sets was more concerned with price and retro appeal than the myriad distinctions of the craft world with (often) prices to match. It is this group who took to PBR.

While some have predicted a fall for PBR, the company’s website reports continued growth and enthusiastic reception by millenials. The beer looks possibly to become, or become again, an enduring American icon. And so, a long and winding path: from local (1800’s Milwaukee) hero to national icon to declining American adjunct beer to a niche exemplar of cool. What’s next? Well, calm appraisal under the eye of Beer et Seq, we will look at both the American one brewed at La Crosse, WI and the version made by Sleeman in Ontario.

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The outsize tin is the American, the other, the Canadian one.

I found them rather different. The only thing that was similar was the unmistakeable high corn or other adjunct content, it lends a distinctive dry, starchy note familiar to most who know the elements of the beer palate.

The American one was better, with a notable lager yeast smell, that typical sulphur note so many blonde lagers have around the world.

Unfortunately (for me), instead of the sweet malty taste one hopes will follow as for any good helles, a keen flavour of corn seemed to dominate, as you might find in cornbread or popcorn. But still the taste was reasonably full and mildly sweet – recognizably a beer, the type that became popular in the later 1900’s when malt rates were reduced significantly and hops too. A well-made product by the standard of what it is.

The Sleeman version had none of this lager yeast aroma – not necessarily a bad thing as I don’t favour the “sulphur springs” note. However, it had very little else going for it. The beer was very attenuated, meaning very dry, and had a chemical-like note, to my palate. It was as if you might blend seltzer water and Schweppes tonic water with a touch of toffee apple caramel added.

I am sure many like these beers but they are not something I normally go for. So what to do? My answer, as many will guess here, is to blend them with another beer, one that has much more malt and taste. This evens out the flavours and, done right, reaches a stasis I find much more to my taste.

I tried a Belgian porter the other day, Viven Porter, 7% ABV:

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I corked the bottle after a swallow or two. It is a good beer but the brewer must be a using a well-smoked or roasted malt as the beer had a strong “cured” taste, almost like some Scotch whisky. It was a bit dry, too, for the style, IMO. In Beer et Seq’s world, its best vocation, as for the PBRs, is blending.

In a pint glass, I poured two thirds the PBRs combined, 2:1 American to Canadian, intentionally. The third part was the aforementioned porter.

This produced a perfect blend. Barley malt was evident while lightly modified by adjunct, which I’m good with (I don’t mind adjunct as such), and there was a lightly roasted tone throughout. The beer was a dark brown with reddish highlights, and rather, in flavour not colour, like Aecht Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier from Bamberg which has a lightly smoky note.

The PBR oil cans are still in the fridge, each about half-full. (I leave any can of beer opened for 2-3 days with blithe unconcern – there is so much CO2 to begin with that the amount which bleeds off usually works to the beer’s advantage, with plenty of gas left). Tonight or tomorrow, I’ll do a blend like the first one, but using Sinha Stout for the one-third which is highly flavoured. This is the fine, almost Imperial stout from Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, the brewery was established by British colonials in the 1800’s.

 

A Pot Pourri Reviewed

First, a fine dunkel from DAB in Dortmund – maybe not classic dunkel (dark lager) territory but DAB nails the style: coffee/dark nut-like, a little sweet, good racy hops underpinning the malt but in a neutral way.  Beer as it’s meant to be, few craft dunkels come close.

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Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide in Denver, Colorado, a very rich, well-bittered stout with a grainy, coffee-like palate. This version was “regular”, no unusual yeasts, no aging regimen in bourbon barrels: all to the good. A worthy beer to stand with the great English exemplars of the style, if slightly under them in the league table.

 

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Beau’s Lugtread (no image shown).

The current draft samplings of this beer show it being the best ever brewed at Beau in eastern Ontario. While nominally a kolsch-style, it tastes like a blonde lager in every usual particular, and what a lager. The clean but tasty malt and German hops are to the fore, and the yeast background complements these flavours – the old DMS taste, which spoiled the beer in my opinion, is finally gone.

This is the essence of great German-style brewing, and I hope Beau will keep the beer exactly as it tastes now, it can’t be any better.

The Session – November 6, 2015

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TWO BEERS MEET AND END UP GETTING CLOSE AND PERSONAL

The Session is a monthly round-up where bloggers tackle an assigned topic and submit the results to the Session leader. Today, Mark at Kaedrin Beer Blog has requested that two beers be tasted, compared and contrasted, optionally in connection with a movie double header. Not being a movie buff I’ll do just the beer part.

Below are two beers, both lagers, yet different as can be. There is only one glass pictured, and that’s because after trying a few ounces each, I blended them.

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Guinness Blonde Lager is a new release. Occasionally, a classic or even something solid and valuable can emerge from a first try. My experience is more that first tries don’t reach the mark, and that is the case here. An aromatic American hop taste – generally characteristic of pale ale or an IPA – sits uneasily with a caramelized malt tone and the beer’s description, blonde American lager. To me the beer has a “processed” taste, one I often encounter in craft-type beers from large brewers.

Perhaps there was an attempt to blend an IPA palate with a lager profile to lighten it and make it more accessible.

The Czech Kozel always tastes to me like a lighter version of Pilsner Urquell. This sample, very fresh at only three months from packaging, fits that bill perfectly. It is clean and classic in palate, but a little light, and therefore dull, IMO.

My solution: I blended them, as shown in the pint glass pictured. The malts combined very well as the Kozel’s clean pale malt cut the caramelized tone of the Guinness Blonde, but the latter’s malty quality loosened the restraint of the Czech beer. The blended malt taste now is auburn with blonde highlights (or the other way around!). On the hop side, the roiling American hop taste of the Guinness Blonde was improved by the noble Saaz variety which informs the Kozel. I mixed them 50-50 but if I did it again, I would do 60-40 Kozel to Guinness, possibly even a touch higher on the Kozel.

The blend was excellent, a dark blonde lager with some American accents, similar to some “brown bitters” from England.

I wasn’t planning the blend, but as mixing beers frequently improves the taste of the components, I often have recourse to it to avoid discarding something I don’t like.

 

A Beer And A Shot

A BOILERMAKER

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Above is a beer I have written about before, but I mention it again due to its high quality and unquestioned savour of terroir.

It has a rich, molasses/butterscotch taste, very Bavarian and difficult to emulate in North America (I’ve never had one at any rate).

The real thing, from people who know exactly what fine beer is all about. Just don’t get it too old, this one was four months from packaging and still tasted very fresh.

Below, a new release from Crown Royal.  It is 90% rye mash, meaning a rye grain mash (all rye or mostly) taken off the still at a low proof (under 80% ABV) as all traditional spirits are. I’d guess the 10% is a whisky made from a neutral spirit base or mostly. It tastes like a U.S. 80 proof bourbon if you added a measure of Canadian whisky to it, like a watered down bourbon.  Not bad, but for the price or less, better options are available, IMO. The taste is sweetish, a little apply, with some oak, no char that I can tell, a decorous whisky in the Canadian tradition albeit less timorous than the typical Canadian whisky blend.

 

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The Changeability Of Beer

Tasting different beers recently, a thought came to me that has recurred periodically: beer, I mean the same brand, can be quite changeable from glass to glass.

Generally, one thinks of craft beer in this connection, but industrial beers are liable to changeability too. I prefer to call it changeability rather than inconsistency since the latter implies a value judgement, that is a perfect standard, when in fact this is not possible or desirable.

A bottle of Stella Artois last night at a reception in a downtown hotel surprised by its creamy freshness and beery quality: malty, hoppy, what beer should be. I’ve had it other times when it seems skunky or with too much grain (or other) adjunct.  Same thing for many other beers, mass market but especially craft. Heineken seems similarly better to me lately, but whether it is faster shipment, evolving or better production processes, or luck of the draw is hard to say. Sometimes you can put your finger on it, a can of German dunkel that was particularly good made me check the website. It turns out the beer is flash-pasteurized only, not tunnel-pasteurized which is a more lengthy, and intensive, heat sterilization of beer. I doubt the same brand was treated this way (for export anyway) ten years ago.

In the craft area, the situation is more acute since breweries cannot always get the same hops or other materials for their brands, they have much less buying and stocking power than large concerns. Second, service methods at point of dispense vary, e.g., some bars are more particular about cleaning lines than others. The beer may be stored before service in a variety of temperatures, depending again where you drink it, or the season. And if a keg has sat one month somewhere vs. two or three elsewhere, or ditto in the same place between the first and second times you try it, the beer is likely to be better when younger. Add to this the fact that contract breweries often change suppliers, which introduces another variable.

Many breweries, and not just craft, tend too either to get better over time or worse. Even when the beer is consumed at its optimum condition and quality, a yeast change, say, or different cold storing regimen, may affect the palate. An Ontario craft beer I like a lot now in the past had a noticeable “boiled veg” taste I believe resulted from DMS, or dimethyl sulphide, a by-product of certain certain yeasts when used in association with very pale malts. This is a typical Central European lager flavour, one that has few gastronomic merits in my view except perhaps when consumed with food (which may explain or in part the continuance of this flavour profile). In recent months, the beer seems much cleaner and the taste I found objectionable in the past, completely absent. I believe this was intentional on the part of the brewery and a good move. The malt and hop qualities are more to the fore and the yeast background is subtle and non-obtrusive.

A factor particular to craft breweries is, sometimes the same beer comes cloudy, which can affect the palate, and sometimes not, or less so. You really don’t know until the pint is poured.

Even though the average beer fan may not, or always, be able to articulate what he or she doesn’t like in a beer, I’ve always felt small differences matter. They won’t likely order something again which hits them wrong. The challenge for brewers is to come up with a flavourful potion of malt and hops – a good formula to begin with, and then to try to make it and ensure pubs serve it as consistently as possible. A tall order to be sure, but those who are good at this stand the best chance of success.

When one adds this reality to the profusion of brands and styles available in the market today, it really means – for one who focuses carefully on palate – each drinking experience is different. Predictions based on the beer today are not always reliable, even, again, for mass market products.

It’s good to keep trying a range of beers if only because you may be surprised at some beers which under-performed in the past, and conversely, firm favourites may for a variety of reasons decline in quality.