[Disclosure: The brewery gifted me a bottle. I mention too with pleasure I was recently named Historian-in-Residence of the Ontario Craft Distillers Association].
Toronto Distillery Co. is a venture of Charles Benoit and Jesse Razaqpur, both lawyers who entered the craft spirits field. Until now they have focused largely on unaged (white) grain spirits, as well as a gin and an applejack (the applejack got some aging).
Each grain spirit is distilled from 100% of a given grain, corn, rye, and wheat to date. A beet spirit is also produced which expresses the pure flavour of that vegetable. A shot of it in borscht is dynamite.
Distillation proofs vary but are below 95% abv – the U.S. ceiling to define a grain distillate as “whisky”. This leaves plenty of flavour in the spirit, what the late Michael Jackson called “distillery character”.
Charles explained that he likes to highlight particular characteristics of rye, wheat, or corn in a distillate and for an aged product that the caramel and vanilla of the barrel balance (not efface) those characteristics.
The white rye spirit has a strong spicy nose, something you can connect to the more forward Canadian rye whiskies but much more floral, the Marshall amp vs. unplugged, you might say. The wheat spirit is always the mildest, as bourbon fans know from comparing wheat-recipe bourbon to a rye-recipe.
First Barrels evokes the days whisky was made on the frontier, when processing was minimal and flavour maximal, but with 21st century process control and modern still technology.
Many world spirits are consumed new or with moderate aging and always were, everything from rum to tequila to arak. (I don’t include vodka since it is made from the get-go to be neutral in taste).
For First Barrels, Charles and Jesse combined barrel-aged rye, corn, and wheat spirits. The barrels were all new charred wood, similar to those used for bourbon. Aging was from two to 26 months. The 26-month-barrel was made by Pete Bradford at Carriage House Cooperage in Prince Edward County, ON and aged the soft winter wheat distillate. Its irregular size of 90L reflects the artisan scale of this small traditional cooperage.*
Part of the wheat was toasted: lightly kilned before being milled and mashed. All grains used are certified organic. No malted grains were used, a practice shared by many large distillers. Commercial-grade enzyme is added to assist conversion of the starches to fermentable sugars. The reason is simply that malted grains produced no flavour enhancement when tried in the past.
First Barrels has a creamy mouthfeel and pleasing, natural, wood tones. Think blonde butterscotch combined with Turkish delight combined with good alcohol (42% abv).
In my view, it is analogous to a reposado (“rested”) tequila, a French marc brandy given some aging, or an Irish pot still or U.S. straight rye if not too aged.
First Barrels is part of a diverse and ever-growing spirits market and is hand-made, artisan, home-grown.
* 770 liters of the whisky was aged in 90 to 110L Canadian Oak barrels provided by Carriage House Cooperage and Canadian Oak Barrels. 217 liters of the whisky was aged in 10-20L American Oak barrels provided by Thousand Oaks. The smaller American Oak barrels were since sold off to home brewers, mostly from Toronto Home Brewing. Going forward Toronto Distillery Co. is planning to use just Canadian Oak.