*Sincere thanks to RS and Purple Valley Imports for the sample.
Canadian whisky has been the relative latecomer to the world-wide whisky boom of the last several years. Wider distribution is growing now, it seems, as is appreciation for its more “premium” expressions, but the craft distilling movement that’s taken its lowly neighbor to the south by storm hasn’t really gotten going in the Great White North. There are very, very few independently owned, small production distilleries in Canada. Tight government regulation make it difficult and expensive to follow one’s distilling dream, but it is happening here and there. Still Waters Distillery, located in Concord, Ontario, north of Toronto, is one of these intrepid Canadian craft distillers. Founded in 2009 by two guys named Barry (Bernstein and Stein, respectively), Still Waters has been able to keep the money rolling in by doing what most craft distilleries seem to do – make vodka…a single malt vodka, no less. They’ve also put a blended Canadian whisky, Still Waters 1+11 Canadian Blended Whisky on the shelves, one that is made up of a bit of their own distillate as well as that from their larger Canadian whisky distilling brethren. A special note of recognition should be mentioned here as Still Waters proudly and openly assumes the mantle of blender for this well-received and award-winning whisky. They could have gone the route of so many American brands and lamely danced around the fact that the juice in their bottles was not actually distilled by them, instead they’ve embraced the revered tradition of being blenders – that alone makes me like these two Barrys already. With their vodka and blended whisky on the shelves (and the occasional new make, brandy and gin), Still Waters have been slowly building and maturing stocks, just a few barrels a week, in order to release whiskies that are 100% their own. The first of these, the Stalk & Barrel Single Malt Whisky, has been deemed ready, and in late April of this year, the first few casks were bottled. Produced from Canadian two-row barley, aged for about three and a half years in ex-bourbon barrels, and bottled without chill-filtering or additional color, each barrel has been released as its own expression so far. The first two (cask #1 is reviewed below) were released at cask strength while the third was released at 46%. Single malt whisky is definitely a novel idea in Canada, where blended “ryes” are not just the standard but pretty much the rule. On top of that, in the future, they’re planning on releasing a rye as well as a corn whisky, so again you really have to hand it to Still Waters for their commitment and unique approach.
The Nose: Light, sweet, and very approachable. Full of floral honey and raisins, especially raisins in baked rice pudding. Notes of malt, vanilla bean ice cream and juicy red grapes. The few years in wood are evident in hints of cinnamon frosting and soft, rounded clove as well as dry sawdust and just a touch of cedar. In the background is a youthful, slightly sour, beery tang. With water, more cut wood notes, malt, baking spice, and cocoa emerge, though the raisin-y fruit loses a bit of oomph and is simplified a bit.
The Palate: Definitely hot, young stuff, but also impressively smooth and complex given it’s age and cask strength. Lots of caramel sweetness, vanilla bean, a bit of citrus, and sweetened malt. Carrying over from the nose, there’s a raisin-y fruit quality, almost like Port, that emerges after the early sweetness. Unsweetened chocolate, nutty toffee, and big waves of drying clove roll in towards the end. Adding water makes the palate very nice and very drinkable. It’s still quite sweet but those sharp youthful edges are worn off, adding vanilla syrup, a little chocolate fudge, and a bit more beery malt.
The Finish: More clove, vanilla bean, burnt sugar, and toasted malt linger for a while.
Thoughts: It can be hard to judge young “craft” whiskies; they need to be good on their own, and they have the added burden of needing to show potential in the bottle as well. Alternately, it’s easy to cut craft distilleries too much slack, because usually they’re not made of money and are often just like-minded people just chasing a dream …and sometimes releasing a sub-par product. With both those ideas in mind, I can say I am very impressed with the Stalk & Barrel. It’s certainly young stuff, but already, there is a great deal to like and a great deal to look forward to. Something this young has to rely more on the distillate than a more mature whisky does, and it’s clear that Still Waters is producing excellent spirit. Along with that, they’re aging their product well, this is already a balanced, well-made, very enjoyable whisky. As with many smaller “craft” expressions, the Stalk & Barrel single malts are pricey, but in their case, I think it’s worth it. I’m a fan. Definitely recommended.