Spirit of Toronto 2005

First published 10 November 2005.

On Saturday night, my wife and I attended the city’s annual whisky expo, the Spirit of Toronto.  The event is a sort of large-scale scotch nosing, featuring a wide variety of single malt whisky, bourbon and other spirits from around the world.  We were there primarily for the opportunity to try over a hundred different varieties of whisky, which (at bar prices) would cost you far more than the $95 advance ticket price.

Like many industries, hobbies and enthusiasms, whisky has its own jargon, which may seem impenetrable to the novice.  Let’s get a few of them out of the way right now, so that we’re all on the same page:

  • Whisky: An alcoholic beverage distilled from a fermented mash of grains such as barley, rye or corn.  Irish and American spirits use an “e” in the spelling — “whiskey”, while Scottish and Canadian spirits use the older form, “whisky”.  By law, whisky is distilled at a strength lower than 94.8%, matured for a minimum of 3 years in an oak cask (whose capacity should not exceed 700 litres), and bottled at a strength of not less than 40% abv (alcohol by volume).
  • Rye: Whisky distilled from a mash of rye, or a combination of rye and malt.  ExampleCanadian Club 6yo.
  • Bourbon: Whiskey distilled from a mash of corn, malt and rye.  ExampleMaker’s Mark.
  • Single malt: Whisky made in only one distillery, that has not been blended with any other whisky from another distillery.  ExampleMacallan Sherry Oak 18yo.
  • Blended whisky: Whisky made from the products of more than one distillery, blended with grain whisky or neutral spirits to achieve a consistent flavour and appearance.  ExampleChivas Regal 18yo.
  • Scotch: Blended or single malt whisky distilled in Scotland.

One of the best features of the Spirit of Toronto is its Masterclass tastings.  These are smaller, more intimate nosings for 30-40 people, usually presided over by an executive (or even the chief distiller) from one of the major whisky distilleries.  We attended the Masterclass titled “A Dram (or Two) Around Scotland”, hosted by Mr. Michael Urquhart of Gordon & MacPhail.  Michael Urquhart is the grandson of Mr. John Urquhart, one of Gordon & MacPhail’s first employees who (in 1915) became a partner in the firm, and later (by 1920) owner/operator of the distillery.
Scotland_whisky_regionsAs the title alludes to, the class was an interesting lecture about the various whisky regions of Scotland, and the differing characteristics of the whiskies distilled in each region.  I do not recall which four examples were used, but I’ll do my best to approximate it, substituting whiskies I have tried and which are, more importantly, relatively affordable and commonly available around Toronto.

The Lowlands: This area tends to produce very gentle, soft whiskies with no overbearing peatiness or coastal brine.  Lowland malts are very similar in character to sweeter Irish whiskies and make an excellent introduction to scotch for beginners.

  • ExampleAuchentoshan 10yo, Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd.  LCBO price CDN $48.30.

The Highlands: Whiskies of the western Highlands tend to have a dry character with some peatiness.  Peat is basically grass and plant matter scavenged from swamps and bogs, and some distilleries use it to dry their malt barley prior to distilling.  That’s where the smoky-peaty smell and flavour come from.  The northern Highlands can produce spicier malts.

  • ExampleDalwhinnie 15yo, James Buchanan & Co. Ltd. LCBO price CDN $65.45.

Speyside: Although technically located within the Highlands, the Speyside region alone is home to more than half of Scotland’s whisky distilleries, and as a result it is regarded as a region in its own right.  Speyside malts are a kind of fusion between the Lowland and Highland styles.  They are not usually peaty, but they do have some widely varied and delicate complexity of flavour (typically sherry and fruit notes) while retaining a high degree of smoothness.

  • ExampleThe Macallan 18yo, The Macallan-Glenlivet Distillery.  LCBO price CDN $249.95.

Islay: Pronounced EYE-lah, Islay malts have become extremely popular in recent years and presently have the best “snob appeal” of all the regions.  Because of its soggy island nature, the tiny 25-mile-long Islay breeds malts that are invariably smoky and peaty in the extreme.

  • ExampleLagavulin 16yo (pronounced LAG-ah-VOO-lin), White Horse Distillers Ltd.  LCBO price CDN $91.95.
  • ExampleLaphroaig 15yo (pronounced LAH-frayg), Allied Distilleries Ltd.  LCBO price CDN $50.95

The key though, as in all things scotch, is to find the one you like — whether it’s got snob appeal or not.

Category: Deorum Cibus Est, Diversions  Tags:
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