By JIll Currie
My first experience with whisky involved a mickey of the cheap stuff, a house party and in the end, a lot of regret. I stayed away from whisky until my 21st birthday, which I decided was a good time to explore all of the bourbon bottles at the bar.
This also ended in a significant amount of regret. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I had a whisky that I not only didn’t regret, but that I enjoyed. As I was coming up and developing a palette for spirits I assumed that whisky, rye and scotch were going to be things that I enjoyed in my golden years. What I have learned however, is that with the growing trend in craft distillation, these spirits can be enjoyed now and all it takes is a little education and a maturity that prevents one from downing as many shots as possible in one sitting.
So with that in mind, I’m driving through the vineyards on a sunny and chilly fall morning. I’m headed to talk new world whisky with Gary Schroeder. This self taught whisky lover and I meet at Niagara Oast House Brewers for lunch, a pint and a chat.
Gary Schroeder is a self taught whisky nut. On his website he offers reviews, tasting notes and articles about industry news, interviews and tours he has taken of distilleries. While some might call it a blog, Gary shies away from this moniker. He writes for the product and the people, and ultimately to further his own knowledge.
“My aim is to bring an air of accessibility to whisky; to help people understand the terminology and process so that they may enjoy what is in their glass. I want to help people understand that whisky is for more than shooting at the bar and punching the guy next to you. It can be something that is complex and immeasurably enjoyable.”
He is currently speaks at private lectures and hopes to offer structured tastings in the near future. For further information and enquiries please follow him on his Facebook page (Canadian Whisky Enthusiast) or email him email@example.com.
Before lunch, the Head Brewer at Niagara Oast House Brewers, Jamie Daust, kindly offers to take us on an impromptu brewery tour. Having been on many brewery tours myself, I’ve realized that no two tours are the same, and this one, of course, is no different. Because Gary loves whisky, this specific tour quickly zeroes in on the Oast House barrel program.
When you visit the brewery, you’ll notice a window that looks into the production side of the building. Directly behind that window sits rows of barrels filled with beers being aged. Different styles of beers can find their way into a barrel, and different styles are more appropriate to different types of barrels. While Oast House uses barrels from local wineries, they also work hard to acquire notoriously difficult to obtain bourbon barrels straight from Kentucky. My lunch companion quickly finds the Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrel. Last year, Oast produced a Toasted Walnut Bourbon Brown Ale that spent many months soaking up the charred and vanilla flavours that a good bourbon barrel can produce.
The barrel discussion leads us down a path of comparison. As it turns out beer and whisky have many similarities. Grain plays a crucial role in the development of the alcohol itself during fermentation, and both beer and whisky start with a mashing process. While whisky distills out into a pure alcohol that is then aged in barrels to develop flavour and meet national standards of aging. Beer goes through many other steps in brewing before it ever see a barrel. Tasting notes for whisky and beer can be very similar, and they can both be paired with food to create wonderful dining experiences. A chef by trade, Gary is also very interested in this aspect of tastings and hopes to include food pairings in his upcoming tastings. Besides these similarities, beer and whisky are also good companions. If we’re lucky enough to see a return of Oast’s Toasted Walnut Bourbon Brown this year, try pairing it with a sidecar of Woodford Reserve Bourbon. The results are wonderful. The bourbon highlights the barrel flavours in the beer and the beer can bring to the forefront some of the graininess of the bourbon as well as the vanilla and biscuit notes.
Gary and I talk food, whisky and beer as we enjoy our lunch that was expertly prepared by El Gastronomo Vagabundo in the beer shed kitchen. We started with a Foie Gras Torchon, and Fried Cauliflower over cauliflower puree. Afterwards Gary enjoys an aged Chuck Tail Steak and I indulge in a Quail and Sweetbread Pot Pie. These menu items can be found on the fall menu, and El Gastronomo is there Friday evenings, as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons. For further details about events and tours at Oast visit their Facebook page (Niagara Oast House Brewers) or their Twitter (@OastHouseBeer). Details about El Gastronomo Vagabundo can be found at their Facebook page (El Gastronomo Vagabundo) or Twitter (@elgastronomo).
In the meantime, check out Gary’s website and with that knowledge in hand head down to the whisky aisle next time you pop into the LCBO. And of that adventure piques your curiosity, consider a structured tasting for your next get together.