You’ll find a great deal of bluster in the whisky world. The nosing sessions may be spirited, and the tasting notes make for great reading — but most of us end up baffled when we’re tasked with finding a certain flavour or savor in our drams. We’re told, over and over, that we should be sniffing whiffs of remarkably un-whisky-ish things, whether that be lemon meringue pie, salt-crusted seaweed or even gasoline. But do we? Almost never.
And yet, in a tiny dining room in Toronto’s historic Fairmont Royal York Hotel, one whisky-maker is turning this industry tradition — of bluffing and guffing — on its head. Visiting from Scotland, the House of Hazelwood team is in town to launch its incredibly rare, exceedingly old whiskies into the Canadian market. But they’re also here to, once and for all, prove that there is sometimes truth in even the most fanciful of tasting notes.
Spanning seven decades, and criss-crossing Scotland’s most prolific whisky-making regions, the spirits that make up this diverse new collection (now available at LCBO) are the creation of the Gordon family, which has been tucking away whiskies for almost a century. Now, as a clutch of their discreet casks come of age, these fantastic dynastic keepers have launched a new boutique brand — and brought it to Canada.
Kirsten Grant-Meikle is a fifth-generation descendant of Glenfiddich founder William Grant. And, with the help of House of Hazelwood brand director, Jonathan Gibson, she is explaining her way through some of the more far-fetched flavours swirling around this seven-strong whisky collection. Specifically, she is trying to put into words the vaguely mouthwash-minty finish of the ‘Blended at Birth’ expression, a whisky distilled in 1965. It’s an odd, herbal note, and one that, in any other setting, could be considered subjective. But there it is! A flash of menthol; inexplicable yet undeniable.
And it’s not the only surprise in this unctuous, mahogany brown bottling (which retails at a sufficiently select $14,000). There are also hints of tannin-rich tea, along with lashings of leather and even a whisper of ‘Dundee Cake’ — a rich pudding named for the Scottish city. This is the most expensive bottle in the collection, and is the first of three standouts from the seven. The second, priced at $3,000, is ‘Sunshine on Speyside’.
Paler in colour, this gold-toned dram has brighter flavours and a lighter mouthfeel. There’s fresh pineapple on the nose, with boiled sweets and zesty citrus. We’re told to prime our palates for “charred, barbecued fruit” — which sounds implausibly specific. But, yet again, there it is. This one whisky, aged for 39 years and acting as cornerstone of the brand’s four-strong ‘Legacy Collection’, is a blend that has played a magical, tropical trick on simple Scottish barley.
Equally impressive is the last of our choice trio. ‘The Cask Trials’ spent 53 years in a single sherry butt before it was plucked out and poured into one of the House of Hazelwood’s handsome, gold-lettered Glencairn decanters. And, during that time, it became almost as fortified as the Spanish wine itself, developing dark, rich flavours of roasted coffee and Muscavado toffee. Once again, you can smell and sip every note — the ideal accompaniment to a brief whirl through the brand’s history.
“For almost one hundred years,” recalls Grant-Meikle, “my family has been laying down stocks of whisky to mature for future generations to enjoy, with the collection growing in scope and stature as the decades have passed.
“For the first time, this once-private collection is being offered to those outside the immediate family in small batches hand-selected for release. These are the most compelling whiskies that the inventory has to offer – a bridge between the past and the present, each issue remarkable by virtue of its character, history, or method of production.”
With limited examples of each expression available worldwide, LCBO has acquired just under 300 chances for you to invest in a bottle from the collection, which first launched in May 2022. Priced between $3,600 and $14,000, it’s a serious investment. But then these are seriously impressive spirits — and whiskies that have set straight the record when it comes to historically dubious tasting notes.
So the next time you feel like turning your nose up at notes like “antique manuscript paper” or “old wooden counter-tops”, instead direct that sniffer downwards (preferably into a dram from the House of Hazelwood). Because, in these spirits, such notes ring true. Claiming a whisky tastes like “Victorian stately homes” may sound ridiculous to untrained tastebuds, but this new name in old whisky makes good on its promises; to intrigue, to innovate — and to impress.