Thirsty connoisseurs enjoy sampling premium Scotch, single barrel bourbons and ryes
Whether you prefer the smokiness of single-malt Scotch, rye-forward Canadian whiskies or single barrel bourbons, Spirit of Toronto Whisky Gala is a whisky connoisseur’s paradise.
For Ottawa residents Dominic Roszak, Nick Switalski and Felix Wong, the weekend pilgrimage — their word — was an opportunity to sample premium whiskies and escape the “day to day drudgery of the LCBO,” said Roszak.
“The sheer selection at a show like this is amazing,” says Roszak of the 120 spirits — mostly whisky — on offer at the Roy Thomson Hall venue last Saturday. “For the most part, the LCBO limits our ability to try what the world has to offer.”
Switalski’s favourite dram sampled is the Lagavulin 1980 single malt. At nearly $1,500 a bottle, he may never have the opportunity to try it again. “I’m a casual drinker of whisky. I like to enjoy it, but I’m not going to regularly drop hundreds of dollars on a bottle.”
Some whiskies, like the Ardbeg Vintage 1977 single malt, which regularly sells at auction for $600, are heavily sought by collectors. Tom Alexander, a regular attendee, was happy to drink from a sample bottle at the convention as his own bottle remains uncorked for investment purposes.
For whisky enthusiast Valerie Bradshaw, the event allowed her to reconsider her stance on certain whiskies. Her favourite was the Amrut Peated Blackadder Raw Cask, calling the 62.8 per cent ABV Indian whisky a “good example of what a company can do when it’s looking to expand its range.” Not as peaty as the name suggests, she calls it a pleasant dram, with a balance of cardamom, honey and vanilla.
A limited, one-time release of the Amrut will appear at the LCBO later this spring, tentatively priced at $106.95.
In this thirsty market, ardent aficionados of whisky — or whiskey, depending on what borders your taste buds fancy — are known to line up in the early hours before store openings where limited allotments of spirits are released.
In January, many lined up outside the Queens Quay LCBO to get their frigid hands on four bottles of Pappy Van Winkle 10, an American Whiskey whose popularity is driven by its scarcity.
Roszak calls the LCBO’s strategy a “Soviet concept of limited, deliberately-controlled quantities,” as if brown spirits are hard to find.
But creating a supply frenzy is not the LCBO’s intention, says Marijke McLean, category manager for Brown Spirits at the LCBO. “If we could get more allocation, we would.”
While customers do line up for exclusive releases, she calls the demand for Pappy Van Winkle “an extreme outlier.”
Samples of Pappy Van Winkle 15 were available at Spirit of Toronto.
“It all depends on the attention a certain product will get,” says McLean, adding not all exclusive releases are created equal. In 2013, the LCBO publicized the final bottlings of Aberlour’s 21-year-old Scotch whisky. “We were fortunate to get it. They were reasonably priced, but it didn’t sell out in a day.”
The LCBO uses exclusive releases as a way to test the market for new product, says McLean.
Writers Tears, a single pot still Irish whiskey made in the style of brown spirits popular in the days of Irish writers Yeats and Joyce, was initially sold through Vintages. By 2013, when Irish whiskey sales jumped 19.3 per cent over the previous year, Writers Tears became a regular listing.
When purchasing, McLean has the everyday consumer in mind but also focuses on the city’s bartenders requests. With the recent launch of the Barkeep’s Pantry, a selection of cocktail-making ingredients which caters not only to the province’s bar industry but also to the home mixologist, the LCBO has brought in limited quantities of Crème Yvette, an important floral ingredient in many classic cocktails. “It’s difficult to keep certain cocktails on your menu when you’re not sure what products are available,” she adds.