The holidays = better drinking?


Christmas season for me means drinking with my family which also means being able to sample some fine wines that I wouldn’t normally be able to lay my hands on. In fact, I had so much of a good time that I’m having trouble remembering exactly what I had beyond varietals; I know I had a Pinot Noir from Niagra that was pretty good and a Cabarnet Sauvignon from California that wasn’t but I’ll have to reconvene with my mum, collectively put together some details and write up my impressions in a week or so.

In the meantime, I just opened a can of Gaymer’s Original Cider, a new release from one of those brewers who’s been bought up several times. It’s not as heavily carbonated as Strongbow but it’s nothing special either. It’s not too sweet, not too dry, finishes without any appreciable flavour and has a pearish nose.

Perfectably acceptable and I wouldn’t turn down a pint from a friend but neither would I seek it out again. I think it’s a perfect example of a product with mass appeal that will neither excite or disgust anyone ie. rather boring.

Wednesday I’m heading over to one of my favorite locals, the Rasputin Vodka Bar for their New Year’s Eve celebration. $25 gets me in with a all the zakusky (Russian delicacies like sausage, pickles, smoked fish, caviar, etc.) I could want, two cocktails and a glass of sparkling wine (I really like it when they say sparkling wine instead of champagne. Offering “champagne” seems just a bit disingenuous when it’s really VQA or Californian.) for the midnight countdown. It should be a whole lot more fun than any overpriced and overrated event downtown.

The owners have been nothing but gracious and I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be on NYE with the exception of a beach in New Zealand with my fiancee.

Centennial Rye rejuvenates the image of Canadian whiskey


One night, I was at the LCBO looking for a whiskey to bring to a friend’s party. I had no particular ideas as to what I wanted but, like most folks, I always aim for the magical intersection between cost and quality and I also like new products.

The Centennial 10 Year Old Rye Whiskey caught my eye. Most Canadian whiskeys aren’t rye whiskeys (most distillers use corn, barley and wheat in their batches and there has to be over 51% rye for it to be labelled as such) and although I couldn’t remember trying one before, I remembered reading that rye whiskey is generally blended into other whiskeys to give them more body and was interested in trying the real thing.

Mind you, it’s important to keep in mind that stronger-tasting doesn’t necessarily mean rougher. I had heard that this wasn’t some poor man’s Canadian Club and since I always figured a true Canadian whiskey should be like the bastard offspring of an Irish whiskey and an American bourbon, I was ready for good things.

The nose was clean with nary a smell of alcohol and barely any oak. It was rather sweet and kind of reminded me of Pyrat; I swear I could almost smell molasses!

The taste was almost as smooth as the nose. There was a continuation of the sweet molasses feel and it’s also quite peppery with a tingling sensation that stays on your tongue than slides down to your belly for a pleasurable finish.

The bottle was a big hit at the party and we managed to polish off half it it that night with a couple friends coming back to get reacquainted in the morning.

I’d been procrastinating for awhile but I’ve finally got a bottle again and I might even buy one for my fiancee’s dad as gift for when I get down there. At the very least, it’s a good representation of what Canadian whiskey should be and while it may not hold up to some finer blends, I think it’s very good at what it does.

At $24.75, it outperforms whiskeys that are twice its price.

However, you best be quick about picking up a bottle for yourself because there are less than 170 bottles left in downtown Toronto and the distillery is in flux due to its current owners (Hiram Walker) trying to figure out how to integrate it into their family which includes Canadian Club.

As it stands, no one knows if it will outlast the season. Pick up two or three and stuff ‘em in your closet. You won’t regret it whilst enduring all the bad weather you’ll be having in March. And I’ll cheer you from across the ocean as I relax on a beach in Waihi.

Neustadt works for me


Neustadt knows what they’re doing.

The first beer of theirs I ever tried was the 10W30 which they had on tap at Fressen, a vegetarian restaurant on Queen West. While the food didn’t knock me out, the beer certainly left an impression. It didn’t taste quite the same when I bought a tallboy at the LCBO so I didn’t make any effort to buy anymore when I came across it later on.

Then there was the Scottish Ale I first tried at a local bar in Neustadt for lunch. Again, the meal was nothing special but I was excited because they carried every Neustadt product on tap and I had originally planned on trying one of each.

I never got past the first ale though and there’s no point trying to get ‘em all when you can only have two pints because you’re driving. I can’t say I minded though; this ale was fantastic; medium-bodied with a smooth, somewhat malty with a bit of hop to make things interesting.

Since then, I haven’t had an opportunity to try the Scottish Ale again because no bar serves it to my knowledge in Toronto (although the guys on RateBeer keep on talking about a Double Fuggled being served at C’est What? which is like the Scottish Ale but better…) so when I saw a can at the LCBO on Yonge St. I decided to give it another shot and see if it outperformed it’s kegged brethren.

A couple of glasses later, I’m pleased to report that it holds its own and my (admittedly imperfect) memory is hard-pressed to bring any glaring inconsistencies to the forefront. It’s very drinkable and perfect for those evenings when you want something a bit more substantial but more of it.

Apparently, Neustadt uses New Zealand hops in its beers so I have yet another reason to get excited about my time there. It’ll be interesting to see whether I can find some similar ales there to compare and contrast.

Working with what you have


Last night, while in the midst of an impromptu house party, the call for drinks was made.

We nearly always have bottles of wine but our guest wanted cocktails. We had some Martini red vermouth which is an alright start. The fridge, however, was a sad state of affairs with some V8 juice, flat soda water and green tea gingerale. The latter may have worked but I wasn’t feeling it so I looked in the freezer and found some Ben & Jerry’s Baileys icecream.

I took a couple scoops of that, added three ounces of the vermouth and, after shaking it, poured it over some ice and added a splash of Angostura bitters. While it wasn’t something I’d have more than a couple glasses of, it definitely worked as a nightcap. The sweetness of the vermouth and the ice cream was tempered by the bitters and while I generally prefer my cocktails carbonated, this worked better than I would have expected.

The point I’m trying to make is that you shouldn’t limit yourself solely to standard secondary mixers like juice or soda. Ice cream works really well, as does jam, although be sure to strain it a second time so that your guests don’t get bits of jam in their glass. There really isn’t much that isn’t fair play in the kitchen as long as you consider the proportions.

I try to aim for balanced cocktail that’s not too sweet, not too sour and doesn’t kick you in the head with it’s alcohol content.

Over the past week, I’ve gone through my six winter beers and I liked half of ‘em; good odds I say.

St. Peter’s Ruby Red Ale had this incredible grapefruit aroma with hints of vanilla and toffee. It tasted a lot like a Scottish ale and was a bit spicy as well.

A complex, well-balanced beer and well worth your time even if you have to buy it with their IPA, an insipid beer that was far too bitter for me. I also didn’t like the sharp aftertaste but I’m aware of people who’re really into this kind of flavor profile so I’m chalking my dislike of this up to personal preference.

The two malt liquors didn’t impress me at all. The Schloss Eggenberg Doppelbock Dunkel (say that three times fast) was far too sweet and (yes, you guessed) malty for me with a weird, bitter, metallic aftertaste. The strong alcohol content (8.5%) came through but I was left unimpressed and had to struggle to finish it. The things I do in the name of beer…

The Samichlaus, once billed as “the strongest beer in the world” due to it’s alcohol content (12.3%) was also not my cup of tea. Like the Doppelbock, it was far too malty with a cloying medicinal bitterness. Lots of people like it but I won’t be coming back for another round.

After those two, I was ready for an ale so I opened McAuslan’s Scotch. There was a strong caramel nose to this one. It was malty, which I don’t normally like, but the carbonation smoothed that out and it had a sweet finish. It’s a good sipping beer.

My last beer was Brakspear’s Oxford Gold. Fresh and light, it was quite citrusy and went down easily. After finishing I was left wanting more which is a good thing I suppose although I’m hard-pressed to remember anything particular about the taste.

Of any of these, I’d probably go with the Ruby Red Ale again. I’d love to try a cask but I don’t know of any bars that are carrying it right now so I guess that will have to wait until I visit the UK.

Innis & Gunn score again with Rum Cask Finish


While I have yet to find an Innis & Gunn product I don’t like, anything’s possible in the wild and crazy world of beer, particularly during the winter season. I’d hazard a guess that I probably won’t be too keen on at least half of what I have in my fridge but the fun’s in trying and you’ll never see my pass up a new brew.

So, on to the Innis & Gunn Rum Cask Finish Oak Aged Beer… I was blown away by how goddamned good it looked; I’ve always been a sucker for boxed beer (even if it is a waste of packaging). Some folks like to serve Innis & Gunn slightly chilled but I don’t bother. It was quite cold coming out of the fridge but I find it warms up a bit in an unchilled pint glass and by the time you take your last sip, it’s generally opened up quite a bit.

Right at the start, I was blown away by the lovely aroma of rum; it was very noticeable and not anything similar to a cheap white rum. It reminded me more of Gosling’s or even Pyrat (which I still sorely miss… Although what’s up with the those two websites? I don’t mind Flash but the floating links are really annoying and not intuitive at all. Whatever happened to a good sidebar menu?)

Taking my first sip, I could pick up on the caramel and molasses notes. The oak and rum have changed what I would imagine is a fairly standard Scottish ale into something special. In fact, I think I like it better than the Whiskey Cask which is saying a lot as that’s one of the best beers I’ve ever had.

There’s also no hops bitterness apparent which is fine by me ‘cos I’m not a hophead at all. Give me something smooth and mellow and I’m in heaven… this is definitely my kind of beer.

I hope this sticks around for a couple more months; I’m going to have to go back for seconds.

Does Innis & Gunn get distributed in New Zealand? I can only hope…

My favorite bar in Toronto


The list of bars to the right represents places I like to go when I’m in the neighborhood. They vary in concept and crowd but one thing holds true for all of ‘em: they’re beloved by those who know a good drink and those who could care less equally because they’re great bars.

I know that if I happen to stop by because I’m in that neck of the woods, I’ll meet interesting people, ranging from industry types to general enthusiasts and whatever I drink will be solid.

Still, one of my favorite bars isn’t on that list. It has no website and the phone is dodgy at times. If you were to drive by you’d probably pay it no attention to it at all, mostly because it’s located in Chinatown East and looks like a million other little, blue-collar bars that dot the Toronto landscape.

It’s called the Akia (not Ikea although it sounds the same when I say it) Bar & Grill and it’s been around for over a decade. It started out as a bar where the local guys could go for a beer after work and, given it’s proximity to the Don Jail, quickly attracted a clientele of sketchy folks who spent their time selling drugs, fighting over the jukebox and generally terrorizing whomever operated the bar at the time.

Rodney (my roomate) and I started going about five years ago, pretty much as soon as we moved in, because it was right around the corner and the beer was cheap. The jukebox sucked and the crowd was trouble but it was worth it.

As the years passed, we got to know the nonsketchy regulars (there were a few) and even made a few friends. The drinks stayed fairly cheap, only getting raised a quarter now and then, mostly when a new owner took over

After the last handover, I stopped going. The Chinese karaoke, gloriously blaring in MIDI had gotten to be too much for me and the selection of beer was admittedly crappy for the current price. I don’t mind paying two bucks for a Lakeport but ask me for three-fifty and we’ve got a problem. Besides, I was currently enamored with the renaissance of Leslieville and it was much easier to barhop along Queen St. East after finishing work at Joy Bistro.

Soon, I started working downtown again and found myself without a place to go after work. Most of the time, I just drank at home. Rodney had stopped going to but he dropped by every know and then and I began to hear good things about the place once again. He said the karaoke wasn’t going on every night and they’d renovated. I still didn’t go because most renovations don’t do much but raise the prices.

But then, low and behold, another regular and friend of mine started going three or four times a week, holding court as it were, and he invited me. I went and not only did I like the new owners but they carried beer I liked, at reasonable prices.

Knowing I could get a Steamwhistle for four bucks suddenly made the Akia a desirable after-work joint. The owners really made the effort to attract a better crowd and they installed a jukebox full of CDs by Elvis, the Stones and the Kinks; stuff I’d actually listen to.

It was quieter and smelt better. You didn’t have to walk a plank over a flooded basement to get to the bathroom and there were no more dealers offering coke that made you feel like your nose was going to fall off. In short, it was the perfect place for a guy like me, a little older and a lot less impressed by dives, who just wanted a decent beer to drink while he read his book.

Innis & Gunn 750mL more of a good thing


The difficulty with buying a large bottle of beer (750mL+) is that you need to find the proper occasion to drink it and, unless you’re the sort who doesn’t like to share, you need to find a friend or two to drink it with.

There’s a celebratory nature to a beer this size that bears some thinking about and, since I had one in my fridge, I wasn’t about to casually pull it out after a hard day’s work and polish it off.

No, it was definitely the sort of beer I wanted to get into as a prelude to more drinking; a beer to start the night off right with a little class and a lot of taste.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Innis & Gunn’s products. Damn near every beer they’ve ever brewed has been a winner, from their IPA to the limited editions they roll out every year. I’ve yet to try their Rum Cask Finish beer but I’m sure it’ll be good too.

I set the bottle down in front of me. Here was a beer I knew and loved but there was a whole lot more of it. How was I to go about drinking it?

The last time I’d had their 750mL bottle was at a house party and I carried it around as one might carry a cheap bottle of wine. It got a lot of attention and by the end of the night, quite a few folks had begun to see the merits of spending just a bit more for an indubitably superior product.

I wasn’t alone but I wasn’t cracking it open to share this time. No, this was all about pre-drinking which, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t necessarily have to be about speed and volume. My purpose was not to get drunk but to enjoy that bit of time one spends in their home, getting ready to go out and see what the night will bring.

There was no need to worry about the beer getting stale. Innis & Gunn warms up quite nicely and I was looking forward to what the change in temperature would bring to the taste.

My memory isn’t exact but I think I finished the bottle in less than twelve minutes. It’s a smooth beer with lot of malt and some citrus and vanilla as well. Not too hoppy thankfully (I’m not a fan) and it finishes nicely. It’s a lovely beer and not at all difficult to polish off a larger portion of it.

After I was done, I was perfectly set up for whatever I might drink next and I could have just as easily segued into whisky or continued with beer. It was a great way to start the night.