For the past six years whisky lovers have been flocking to Toronto for an unbelievable gathering of spirited people, and spirited drinks. The Spirit of Toronto is an annual Whisky Gala held each year in Late April at Roy Thomson Hall. I am still excited to discuss it here although it has nothing to do with beer, because it is a celebration of flavor in exactly the same tense as real beer is, and I was privileged enough to enjoy it this past weekend for my fifth year.
It is a collection of artisan distillers and aficionados from all across the globe. 33 Distilleries came to showcase their spirits in 2010, and along with a unique series of Master Classes, this was one of the best years yet!
The doors for the festival open at 6:30pm, and by 6 there is already a large group of excited patrons standing at the door itching to get some golden spirits in them. When you enter, you exchange your ticket for an authentic Glencairn Crystal Whisky Tasting Glass and your are on your way to an exciting evening of sweet music, luscious food, and best of all, hand crafted artisan whisky!
The crowd is very diverse, ranging from very experienced and distinguished spirits professionals in kilts, to seasoned whisky drinkers who have traveled long and far for the event, to young gents like myself, relatively new to the world of spirits compared to the majority of the crowd, but just as eager eager to lean and experience more about this exceptional world.
Walking though the lobby at Roy Thomson Hall enjoying samples of some of the world’s finest whisky, elegantly catered food, great friends, and smooth live jazz was enough to entice a sense of fulfillment and resonating joy within me. But where the Spirit of Toronto stands out for me is the Series of Master Classes. 10 different Master Classes are privately tutored by a notable professional in the field covering a wide range of specific topics for a limited audience in the boardrooms on the concourse levels of Roy Thomson.
The first of two classes which my good friends and I enjoyed was a vertical tasting of four Glenrothes: “The Glenrothes, a Gathering of Likeminded People”. Ross Hendry, National Brand Manager for the Glenrothes, guided us through a brief history of the Distillery, the effort that goes into every bottle of artisan whisky, then though a succulent tasting of the Glenrothes Select Reserve, the 1994 and 1985 Vintage, and the John Ramsay Limited Edition.
The Glenrothes Master Class
Whisky is serious business to these guys, especially the vintage spirits, but Ross brought a cheerful exuberance to the evening which lifted everyone spirits, no pun intended. His charisma, expertise, and genuine enthusiasm set a great tone for the night ahead of us. We began with the youngest of the four whiskies in front of us making our way to the most rare.
The Select Reserve was created to be The Glenrothes house whisky and is the heart of their range. At 43% abv, it is a pale golden whisky with a light amber orange hue and plenty of glowing sunshine. Its nose is filled with oak, vanilla, muddled spices and a touch of dark fruit. On the palate it is full and rich with pale malt, soft vanilla, light floral spices, earth, and a sweet zesty finish. A touch of citrus fruit sweetness flows through the whisky, and was heightened with a single drop of water.
The Vintage 1994 is a wonderful uplifting whisky designed to be enjoyed in the spring, before or after a meal. It shines lighter than the Select Reserve; pale golden with clean yellow and silver piercing though it. The nose bring wonderful rich toffee, honey, marshmallow, with complexity and light warmth. The palate is smooth and caressing with citrus right off the bat, vanilla, soft spice and fruit, and not a hint of smoke. It finishes long a soft, readying me for more. It is also 43% abv.
The Vintage 1985 was of great interest to me, it being my birth year. This Vintage is unique to the 1980’s Vintages for Glenrothes; it is richer and fuller bodied than what was crafted in that decade. It is built as an evening spirit to relax with. It is golden orange with more depth of color than we have seen yet, and has a real deep glow emanating from the center of the whisky. The nose is filled with rich dried fruit, oak and vanilla with loads of floral aromatics and marmalade. The palate is wide and smooth gliding easily across your mouth in a silky wave of sweet malts, big fruit, honeycomb, long warmth and building oak character. Also 43% abv.
The John Ramsay Limited Edition truly made us feel in privileged company. Only 1,400 bottles were ever produced, and they retail for over $1,000. John Ramsey was the Master Blender at The Glenrothes, and after 43 years retried in 2009, but left us with his last expression to impart his legacy on the world of whisky. This is a blend of second fill American Oak Sherry Casks ranging from 1973 to 1987 vintages. It is 46.7% abv. It is unusually dark for the Glenrothes and stands a rich golden bronze with mahogany and pearl glimmering in the light. The nose full and deep with big oak, orange, vanilla, herbs and light spice. On the palate it delivers full flavors balancing fruits and oak. Soft stewed apples and the tropical sweetness of mango makes their way onto your tongue and cheeks. Wide complexity, and a long finish creates a distinct whisky worthy of John’s signature, and his legacy.
This Glenrothes Master Class exceeded all of my expectations. Ross tickled the audience with his wit and charm, and took us through a magnificent journey of some of Glenrothes best.
The Cigar and Whisky Master Class
If you wanted to attend a master class you were able to reserve a seat for yourself for an additional $5 when you purchased your show ticket. This option was available for all classes except the Cigar and Whisky Pairing led my Regis Lamaitre; Whisky Mad. You would have to show up early to find tickets for this class. I had sat through Regis’ Master Classes in years past, and with those experiences in mind I rushed through the doors when the show opened to make sure I could reserve a spot for my friends and myself. That was really the kicker for us. We knew the Gala would be amazing, but being able to finish it off with a one of a kind whisky, a unique cigar, and being regaled by one of the industry’s leading experts was an experience non of us wanted to miss out on. It put a big smile on my face waiting for it the entire night.
This year’s cigar and whisky pairing featured the Aberlour a’Bunadh paired with a Bolivar 2009 Petit Belicosos. Regis, in typical fashion with whisky and cigar in hand, and garnishing a Scottish kilt brought the excitement level to a full charge with a brief lesson on tasting whisky and cutting cigars. He then let us to our own pleasures and strolled the terrace enchanting us with his experiences and knowledge.
The Aberlour a’Bunadh is a single cask strength malt whisky from the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland. The a’Bunadh is bottled as simply as possible without any modern filtration methods, or the addition of water – this cask strength whisky is 59.6% paying homage to the cask strength whiskies of the 19th century. The casks used to age this one-of-a-kind spirit are Sherry Oak casks from Spain seasoned with oloroso – these are the rarest and most precious used for whisky maturation.
The a’Bunadh is a dark and luxurious golden amber with mahogany and rust glimmering through it. The nose is potent with blood orange, rich oak, sherry, spice and huge complexity. A couple drops of water helps open it up bringing more wood and fruit. It coats your palate very intentionally developing huge spicy malts, dry sherry, charred oak, figs, light zest, more blood orange and ginger. It is full and powerful, but creamy across your mouth. An additional drop of water or two allows you to pick up bitter chocolate and even a touch of vanilla. The finish is full and long leaving spice, oak and sherry on your palate. This is a spicy meaty scotch, which I did anticipate would pair very well with an equally powerful cigar.
Bolivar’s 2009 Limited Edition Petit Belicosos is an unassuming Cuban giant. It is just shy of five inches long, has a 52 ring gauge and a torpedoed head. A dark chocolate shaded maduro wrapper is soft with thick veining. A pre-light taste showed a deep spicy and peppery flavor, with rich dark tobacco and salty notes. The light was easy and the first draw was excellent. Slightly toothy with a medium draw, it did bring great powerful smoke directly to the center of my mouth. My initial impressions were rich wood and spices with a light sweet fruity tobacco note on my tongue.
After some time to burn the Bolivar brought moist earth, cocoa beans, pepper and dry espresso – still all quite faded in the back behind rich smoke and woody spice though. Halfway into the cigar it was full bodied and rich with loads of flavor, thick smoke, rich pepper and a luscious mouthfeel; well representing the brand. This did prove to be an excellent pairing of two masterful and richly flavored artisan expressions.
A Festival of Flavor
The 2010 Spirit of Toronto proved to be the best that I have been to yet, and I’ve only missed one. It is simply a gathering of passionate individuals and artisan craftsmen who all share a similar love of flavor. After all, that is what real whisky, cigars, and beer is all about! Whisky has come a long way over the years in the eye of the unknowing public from the dark and smelly drink that your grandfather liked to the elegant and highly sought after spirit reserved for those with a greater appreciation for flavor.
Greater appreciation for flavor… That is really where I want to live – it is where beer, spirits, cigars, food, and wine are created with passion and desire, and without compromise. The end goal is a superb expression of your brand and its talents – one that will entice passion and soul in all those who enjoy it.