By Stephen Beaumont
December is, of course, the season of year-end ‘best of’ lists, and 2020 being what it has been, one wonders how many such lists will be themed along the lines of ‘bright spots in otherwise gloomy times.’ And the answer, one suspects, is quite a few.
And so it is full knowledge of the clichéd-ness of it all that we pronounce the past year to have been a very good one for Niagara distilleries and their spirits, at least in terms of what is being produced and sold.
As little as a decade ago, the peninsula boasted but one distillery, and for all of its greatness, one not fully appreciated, at that. In the intervening years, however, that distillery, Forty Creek, has become recognized as a champion of Canadian whisky – and subsequently purchased by the international drinks giant, Campari – and was joined in the Niagara market by no fewer than eight other distilleries and one school, the recently launched Artisan Distilling Program at Niagara College.
Further, whereas in the past the quality curve for new craft distilleries was a steep uphill climb, these days new operations like Tawse and Limited are hitting the ground running, with solid portfolios of across-the-board impressive brands.
In this context, and fresh off two weeks of rather intensive tasting, Wines in Niagara presents our first-ever list of the best in spirits in Niagara.
Best Canadian Style Whisky:
Forty Creek Confederation Oak
“Canadian style” means a blend of grains and sometimes a flavouring element, and this, the first modern Canadian whisky aged in Canadian oak, is a mix of corn, rye and barley, with no extra flavouring other than the distinctive notes of the wood in which it is finished. It has a lovely and balanced nose of spice, oak and fruit, with a body that speaks equally to spicy rye and sweet corn, and a drying finish.
Tawse Canadian Whisky
Best Straight Rye:
Dillon’s Rye Whisky
Straight rye whisky was still a bit of a novelty in Canada when Geoff Dillon first opened his distillery – notwithstanding Alberta Distillery’s long underappreciated efforts – and he nailed it pretty much from the get-go. Aged in three distinct forms of oak barrel, this emerges bright and fresh for the experience, with citrus and spice on the nose, more spice and a pleasing oakiness in the body and a generally complex but approachable character.
Niagara Falls Canadian Whisky
Best Throwback Whisky:
Forty Creek Three Grain
An ‘insider’ favourite from back in the early days of Forty Creek, this limited edition was revived for the distillery’s 20th anniversary. Spicier, drier and a little more punchy than Forty Creek’s flagship Barrel Select, only 9,200 bottles have been made, so best pick one up sooner rather than later.
Best Whisky Innovation:
Wayne Gretzky Ice Cask
Okay, so strictly speaking this is not a true innovation, since Nova Scotia’s Glenora Distillery started putting whisky into ex-icewine barrels some time ago. But Ontario being the heart of Canadian icewine production, and this being the first so-finished whisky in this province, it’s close enough. Expect a faint winey sweetness on the nose and a smooth, almost creamy mouthfeel with a light fruitiness and peppery finish.
Best Flavoured Spirit:
Niagara Craft Maple Flavoured Whisky
As reviewed previously on this site here, this is a mercifully understated take on maple flavouring, the maple complementing rather than overwhelming the whisky it accompanies. The fact that the base spirit is rye-forward doesn’t hurt, either, as the spicy grain provides lovely balance to the maple sweetness.
Vieni Estates Brandy Infused with Pure Maple Syrup
Dillon’s Dry Gin 7
Built on a base of 100% straight rye spirit, this round, full-flavoured London Dry style gin has floral and softly spicy notes on the nose, accented by a decent hit of juniper, and an herbal palate entry followed by a vibrant and peppery body that finishes with a solid dose of juniper. Dillon’s took a bit of time finding their way where gin was concerned, but with Dry Gin 7 they have hit their stride with no looking back.
If you are a corn vodka sceptic, and there are certainly many of us, it’s time you tried a glass of Limited Distilling’s corn-based Vodka. Belying the mythology that vodka should be tasteless and odourless, this has a sweetish, lightly fruity and spicy aroma and a creamy, sweet body that delivers ample, mouth-coating richness and a touch of peppery alcohol on the finish. Try it neat at room temperature for full effect.
Best Underappreciated Spirit:
The distillery at Tawse was born of the realization that, while European winemakers commonly distill their lees into spirits, Niagara wineries were missing this opportunity. And so was born the trio of grappa-like Pressaturas, our favourite of which is the Gewürztraminer. Lively, gently yeasty, with an under-ripe grape fruitiness on the nose and a hint of sweetness on the front of the palate leading to a clean, dry, faintly grassy, and lightly fruity body, it’s a delightful afternoon pick-me-up. Pity that Ontario doesn’t have greater awareness of such spirits.
Vieni Estates Pinot Noir Graspa
About Stephen Beaumont
Stephen Beaumont is one of the world’s leading writers on beer and spirits, with 15 books to his credit, including Canadian Spirits: The Essential Cross-Country Guide to Distilleries, Their Spirits, and Where to Imbibe Them (with Christine Sismondo) and the upcoming, fully revised and updated third edition of The World Atlas of Beer (with Tim Webb).
For a longer bio on Beaumont, go here.