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Spirited myths
Why vodka doesn't belong in the freezer (and nine other boozy bloopers)

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Saturday, December 1, 2018 – Page P17

They say that in wine there is truth. As for hard liquor, not so much. Judging by my inbox, it appears many people hold fast to a lot of bunkum about booze. What's true and what's fake news?

In the lead-up to the holidays, it seems like a good time to fact-check a few dubious beliefs.

Spirits age in the bottle. This is roughly equal in veracity to most statements made at a Donald Trump campaign rally. Whisky, brandy and rum evolve only in wooden barrels. Once bottled, they're frozen in time. That "10-year-old" Laphroaig you got for the holidays five years ago? It's still 10 years old, not 15.

Vodka should be stored in the freezer.

The viscosity thickens, imparting creamier texture, no question. But there's a downside, as reported recently in Business Insider. Joe McCanta, global Grey Goose ambassador, says freezer temperature (typically around -20 C) can mute aromatic compounds that distinguish one vodka from another. "I prefer to serve great vodka at zero to 4 C," he told me. You can achieve that by adding ice and stirring or by keeping the bottle in the regular fridge compartment. Because Grey Goose is made with just one distillation and one filtration, McCanta adds, "you really taste the full expression of our French winter wheat." There's another advantage if you follow his advice: Imagine the room you'll free up in the freezer for ice cream.

Caramel flavour comes from added caramel. There is, in fact, actual caramel in many brown spirits. But it's added in trace quantities simply to adjust for colour, ensuring consistency from one batch to another. "You're in the parts-per-million range of addition," says Don Livermore, master blender for Windsor, Ont.-based Hiram Walker, which makes such brands as J.P. Wiser's, Lot No. 40, Pike Creek and Gooderham & Worts. Livermore, who holds a PhD in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, notes that the actual caramel flavour common to most brown spirits is produced naturally during wood aging. Prior to use, oak barrels get charred with heat in a classic example of what in chemistry is called the Maillard reaction. This caramelizes woody carbohydrates, namely cellulose and hemicellulose, in the same way that heat transforms another carbohydrate, cane sugar, into the gooey-good caramel in a Snickers bar.

Canadian whisky is distilled from rye.

In reality, most domestic whiskies, including those literally labelled "Canadian rye," are mainly based on corn, often with varying proportions of wheat, barley or rye in the mix. Misleading? It shouldn't be. The term "rye" has long been used to distinguish Canadian whiskies from foreign counterparts because many were, and still are, flavoured with dollops of rye, a hardy grain that grows well in Canada but not so well in Kentucky bourbon country. Rye can taste spicy, so it makes sense to label the whisky that way. Still not convinced? Don Livermore of Hiram Walker cites what he calls the curried-chicken analogy. What's the main ingredient in that dish? Chicken.

Yet the spice gets prominent billing. "You could name 100 foods where it's the same thing," Livermore says. "It's the spice and the flavour expectation."

Bourbon comes only from Kentucky.

America's signature whiskey can be produced in any U.S. state so long as it's distilled from at least 51 per cent corn and matured for a minimum of two years in charred American oak barrels. Why, then, is Jack Daniel's called "Tennessee Whiskey" rather than "bourbon," even though it fulfills both those criteria? Because the folks at J.D. take the added step of filtering new-make spirit through maple-wood charcoal for smoothness prior to barrel maturation, and that's a proud tradition specific to Tennessee.

Martinis should be shaken. A properly dry martini, whether based on gin or vodka, should be stirred. Basically, you want to minimize the opportunity for dilution as ice shards end up in your glass after you strain. Plus, when you shake, you get tiny bubbles, which spoil the velvety texture.

Save the shaking for sweet cocktails involving fruit juice, which froths up nicely.

Older spirits are always better. Brown liquors develop character in the barrel. Flavour improves with time, but it crests roughly somewhere between 10 and 20 years in a lot of cases. Only the lucky minority of casks develop into something sublime over the longer haul. Why are very old whiskies very expensive? One word: rarity.

Single malts and small-lot spirits are always better than big blends. Wrong.

Quality considerations are just as high, if not higher, in the big-business world of blended whisky, where the top noses operate as chef-chemists, cherry-picking individual casks and, in many cases, different base grains to arrive at a desired profile and to achieve smoothness and consistency.

Age is measured in years. Not really. A spirit matures at a pace relative to the temperature and humidity at which the barrels are stored. In the Caribbean, wood expands and contracts like crazy, leaching more flavour into the liquid. "Fifteen years [in the Caribbean] is equivalent to 45 years in Scotland," says Joy Spence, master blender at Jamaican rum-maker Appleton Estate. Now, if only humans could age more slowly by moving to Scotland. They'd have everything they need: whisky, deep-fried Mars bars and the fountain of youth.

SPIRITS TO TRY SUNTORY WHISKY TOKI, JAPAN SCORE: 90 PRICE: $59.95 Here's a Japanese whisky in the image of blended Scotch, although it could put some examples of the latter to shame.

Light and slightly sweet, with essences of citrus, caramel, soda bread and peach, it's smooth, yet with a kick of spice on the finish. The distinctive, flat-sided bottle would make for a nifty gift. Bottled at 43-per-cent alcohol. Available at the above price in Ontario, $54.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $58.40 in Saskatchewan, $59.99 Manitoba (on sale for $54.99), $58.25 in Quebec, $64.99 in New Brunswick (on sale for $59.99), $59.99 in Prince Edward Island (on sale for $54.99), $54.99 in Nova Scotia (on sale for $49.99), $59.24 in Newfoundland (on sale for $54.24).

CASAMIGOS MEZCAL, MEXICO SCORE: 90 PRICE: $89.95 Nice bottle. Opaque black, it sports a gritty, ash-like texture, as though it had been recovered from a fire. How appropriate. Mezcal, tequila's country cousin, is based on agave plants (the Espadin variety in this case) that have been cooked on an oak fire inside earthen pits lined with rocks. This, incidentally, is the latest product from the tequila brand founded by George Clooney and Hollywood friend Rande Gerber, who stayed on after selling it last year to Diageo for US$700-million, plus a potential US$300-million extra depending on continued sales performance. As mezcals go, this is accessibly fruity and smooth, with a plump-sweet core joined by smoke, lemon verbena and dried herbs. It's on the pricy side for a joven, or young, mezcal, but, hey, Clooney's signature is on the bottle. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.

WILLIBALD FARM DISTILLERY GIN, ONTARIO SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95 An offbeat gin from farm country in Ayr, Ont., distilled from Ontario corn, rye and malted barley. The light-amber colour, unusual for gin, comes from time spent in American oak casks. But the wood is wellhandled, lending background softness to an otherwise brilliantly floral, spicy gin. It's fully dry, and tastes like lemon candy infused with cardamom, chamomile and citrus zest. Bottled at 43 per cent alcohol.

Available in Ontario.

APPLETON ESTATE 15 YEAR OLD RUM, JAMAICA SCORE: 92 PRICE: $69.95 All 18,000 bottles of this one-time-only product are exclusive to Canada, Appleton's largest market outside Jamaica. It's made by Joy Spence, billed as the first female master blender in the spirits industry when she took the helm in 1997. A blend of rums that have spent a minimum of 15 years in cask, it's round and silky, with a generous palate reminiscent of flambéed bananas, dried fruit, orange peel, cocoa and vanilla. The sweetness is well tuned, balanced by warm spices. "In my opinion, premium aged rum will be the next hot spirit after bourbon," Spence says. With products such as this, one could believe her.

CANADIAN CLUB CHRONICLES 41, ONTARIO SCORE: 94 PRICE: $299.95 The alternative name of this spirit is CC Chronicles Issue No. 1: Water of Windsor.

It's the oldest expression ever from Canadian Club, bottled in homage to the city that gave birth to the iconic brand. It was placed in barrel in 1977, the year Fleetwood Mac released Rumours and Elvis died at 42.

British expert Jim Murray named it Canadian Whisky of the Year in his 2019 Whisky Bible. It's big, bold and luscious, with prominent notes of toffee, brown butter, vanilla and baking spices enveloping orange and baked-plum fruit, culminating in a long, rye-spice finish. Available at the above price in Ontario.

GLENFIDDICH FIRE & CANE, SCOTLAND SCORE: 94 PRICE: $79.75 This is No. 4 in Glenfiddich's Experimental Series of limited-edition whiskies. Its intriguingly cryptic name derives from two essences captured in its flavour. "Fire" stands for the heady peat smoke that departs from Glenfiddich's normally mellow signature style. Then there's "cane," as in sugar cane. The aged liquid was transferred from ex-bourbon barrels to spend its final three months "finishing" in casks that previously held rum, the sugar-cane-based spirit. The result is a yin-yang success of smoke-infused sweetness. Thick and delectable, it offers up hints of green apple, campfire, toffee, honey and milk-chocolate s'mores, finishing with a kick of black pepper. A Hanukkah bonus: It's certified kosher. Available in Ontario at the above price, $84.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $79.99 in Manitoba.

Associated Graphic

As mezcals go, Casamigos's is accessibly fruity and smooth, with a plump-sweet core joined by smoke, lemon verbena and dried herbs.

Huh? How did I get here?
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