Salt can work wonders. We use it to tease out hidden flavours, intensify untold tastes and preserve produce for months on end. But, for all its food-based benefits, the ingredient has long been overlooked in the drinks world. Salt may be used to spice up certain cocktails — though, from the zest of margaritas to the zing of palomas, tequila takes the brunt of this seasoning — but it remains largely unshaken when it comes to base spirits.
Bearface, however, the pioneering Canadian whisky brand that continues to challenge out-of-date traditions, is not most spirits. Unencumbered by restrictive rules and limitations, and instead buoyed by the adventurous exploits of master distiller Andres Faustinelli, the BC-based outfit launched its Wilderness Series of whiskies last spring. The initial offering, a single-grain release infused with Matsuake pine mushrooms foraged from the Okanagan Valley, was a strong start. But this fall sees the second expression drop: Bearface Mitlenatch Island Release, a whisky that takes a plunge into the Pacific’s salty depths.
Just off Vancouver’s coastline, Mitlenatch Island is a trove of natural treasures. In the waters that wash around it, you’ll find extraordinary marine life, from scallops to sea cucumbers. And — among the abalones — swirl the trace minerals that afford the Vancouver Island Sea Salt Company’s seasonings their indelible, incredible flavour. But it takes tons of water to make just a sprinkling of salt, and there’s a lot of saltwater sluiced away during the production process. So, when Faustinelli embarked on his latest expedition for the Wilderness Series, and stumbled upon the set-up, he decided to put that run-off to good use.
The result is this; a sapid spirit with flavours deeper than the Salish Sea. Using the distinct, distilled liquid specifically created during the production of the brand’s maple-smoked sea salt, Bearface’s Mitlenach Island Release is a seriously savoury whisky, and is aged in both ex-chardonnay and alligator-charred ex-burgundy casks — before being cut with its secret, salty ingredient. On the palate, it’s not unlike Lot No. 40’s stunning Dark Oak expression, released around this time last year. But Bearface’s offering is more wind-whipped, with a truly elemental smokiness suffusing every sip and, on its finish, a brine-marinated maple twist that ebbs away like a wave.
However, the plan wasn’t always to go coastal. Although Faustinelli had set his sights on Vancouver for this second release, the whisky-maker was taken off guard when he first spotted Mitlenatch Island. “It’s a rain shadow island,” Faustinelli told SHARP during a tasting of the new expression. “It only gets one-fifth of the rainfall that the rest of Vancouver Island gets. It’s like a semi-desert. It’s a spectacular place and, because it doesn’t rain, there’s more of a salt concentration in that stretch of water”.
You’ll find the exact coordinates of where the salt was harvested on the limited edition’s bottle, which also features a map of the island itself. And it was a place, says Faustinelli, that was rich with naturally-occurring ingredients for inspiration. “I always fly with high-proof whisky,” explains the whisky-maker, “and I always like to try combinations. I went from the gulf to the island searching, and experimented in the field. I tried sprouts from the trees, even sea shells. But the salt water was not something I’d expected. It’s never a linear process, though, and there’s often an unexpected result.”
“You have to start with the taste,” he adds. “If the whisky profile is amazing, you’ve got something. That’s the beauty — when you start, it’s very raw and natural. And I’m not going to the lab with all of my ideas. I’ll just present the one that, for me, from a sensory perspective, is amazing”.
With just 1,500 cases for the whole of Canada, Bearface’s latest is available for $58.95 from LCBO — a modest price for such a singular spirit. And Faustinelli, who won’t give any hints about the third entry in the Wilderness Series (although rest assured one is coming), suggests you buy two bottles if you can; storing one and drinking the other. As for how to enjoy this new whisky? Aside from sipping it neat, the master distiller has a couple of ideas.
“I’d play with citrus,” suggests the whisky-maker. “You know how well citrus goes with a smoky margarita? Or mezcal? This would make an amazing smash with fresh lime, or a sour would work so well here. I’ve found that the briny salinity, combined with citrus, is absolutely amazing. With food, I’d stick with fish. Some ceviche would work incredibly well, as would a seaweed salad or barbecued fish. Anything from the sea, with salinity, is going to work so well”.