by Stephen Beaumont
Once available almost nowhere outside of its immediate central Massachusetts region, the now-three-year-old Spencer Trappist abbey brewery has expanded its distribution even into eastern Canada. This opportunity to sample one of the world’s newer Trappist breweries is a gift that should not be ignored.
Copper-coloured, this ale has a less overtly banana-ish aroma than it did upon its introduction in 2014, although the banana is still there alongside fresh and dried peach and apricot notes and hints of cinnamon-y brown spice. The banana remains at the front of the body, too, but is integrated nicely with red apple and dry caramel notes, becoming more tannic, yeasty and drier as it crosses the palate to a quite dry, tannic and earthy finish.
Packaged in a 750 ml, cork-finished bottle, this is a beer that has grown into itself since its debut and, if it’s still not quite yet the equal of the Belgian Trappist greats, has become justifiably one of the family.
Innis & Gunn seems to be a brewery that inspires either love or loathing, likely because of the spirits barrels that feature in most, though not all, of its beers. Me, I fall somewhere in between, admiring the brewery for when it hits a combination of style and barrel out of the ballpark, and bemoaning its occasional ham-handedness when it does not. This Imperial stout, aged for two hundred days in bourbon barrels, is what I would call an inside-the-park home run, one which does not immediately clear the fence and start the celebrations, but is nonetheless exciting and gets the job done. The nose is unashamedly bourbon-y, but not to the point of dominance, with instead a pleasant mix of dark chocolate and black liquorice, along with an earthy herbal note, to support the big vanilla-ish booziness. On the body, it is astoundingly approachable for an 11% alcohol beer, soft vanilla-laced horehound candy notes up front, followed by a fruitier, rounder and milk and dark chocolaty mid-palate that finishes with a bit of roastiness and a significant amount of warmth.
If you ski or snowboard, this is definitely a beer for the après moments. However if, like me, you avoid winter sports and, indeed, winter itself, I suggest one bottle, two glasses, a warm body beside you and a comforting late-night movie. Then maybe a second bottle.
Let’s get this out of the way first: It is not difficult to make an Old Fashioned. Although, as with the Martini, some loyalists will insist upon certain procedures while others will mock them for their stringency or naiveté, this most classic of all classic cocktails is simply a mix of sugar, bitters and whiskey, served over ice with perhaps a splash of water or soda and garnished according to the whims of the maker. You should be able to whip one up in under a minute.
The Barchef Toasted Old Fashioned, on the other hand, is a different drink altogether. You could probably play around with flavours from an hour or two and not get close to where the taste profile of this resides, meaning that as far as packaged cocktails go, it’s a breed apart.
Deep copper and lightly hazy, at room temperature the nose of this explodes with sweetness and spice – qualities that will, of course, be somewhat more muted when the cocktail is served appropriately cold – with raisins and mincemeat being the first things that come to mind, followed by maple and toasted cinnamon. On the palate, the spiciness prevails, but with a lovely backdrop of orange, maple syrup and vanilla – sweet, but not cloyingly so, and spicy, yet not solely defined by its spice. There seems to be anise and perhaps cardamom lurking around, as well, just before the dryish, appetizing finish. Produced as a collaboration between the Toronto cocktail bar and the Still Waters distillery, and based on the Stalk & Barrel Red Blend Whisky – a notable bottle in its own right – this is available at a limited number of LCBO stores. For my money, it’s a perfect nightcap for the holiday season.