Bearface Triple Oak 7 Year Old
Bearface is a rather unique new Canadian whisky. I first noticed in a local LCBO early this year, due to its rather rakish bottle design (a little risque for Canadian whisky). But my interest was piqued by the fact that it won a Gold medal at the annual Canadian Whisky Awards in January 2019 – a competition where the medals are based on blind tasting by experienced Canadian reviewers (including several in my database).
My curiosity was further aroused by Mark Bylok’s interview with Andres Faustinelli, the creator of this whisky and master blender for Mark Anthony Wine and Spirits’ new Bearface brand. Simply put, the approach to creating this whisky places the emphasis at the opposite end of where most whisky producers do.
To break that down, most new whiskies come from new or established spirit distillers, who focus first on the quality of their distillate (i.e., choice of grains, distillation methods, etc). Type of wood aging comes next (through acquired casks), followed by blending and potential use of special “finishes,” to impart additional flavours and complexity to the final whisky. Typically this involves some period of additional aging in casks that previously held other spirits, often fortified wines like Sherry or Port. See my Source of Whisky Flavour for more information on the general process.
The point is that whisky making is generally driven the whisky producers’ interests and needs, and they source the casks they want to age their whisky in accordance with those needs. As explained in the above interview, the process for this new whisky was reversed, by looking at it from a wine-makers point of view (who typically focus on quality oak, for limited exposure periods with the wine). Here, they chose a fairly neutral corn-based spirit from a distiller on contract (already aged 7 years), and experimented with extensive exposure of the same whisky to multiple types of barrels, as they would do for wine aging.
This intensive finishing approach arose, as Mr. Faustinelli put it, when they chose to “ask the wrong people the right questions” – in other words, looking to see how those involved in making wine would seek to solve problems whisky makers face when try to produce the final flavour profile.
To try and summarize succinctly, high proof whisky produced by a Collingwood distiller (i.e, presumed Canadian Mist) entered into a mix of French Oak and American Oak casks that previously held classic fresh Bordeaux red wines (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot), at a BC winery. Both the different varietals and the different oaks imparted different characteristics to the spirit. After finishing for 3 months, the whisky was transferred to fresh Hungarian Oak casks, where the wood was previously “seasoned” outdoors. The virgin Hungarian Oak barrels were then “toasted” to one of three char levels, and used no more than 3 times for this project (for 2 weeks exposure to the whisky each time). Despite the limited time, this added a lot more overtly oaky notes. The outcome of all these multiple finishing experiments are then separated into flavour “families”, and blended in a specific proportion for this inaugural Triple Oak Canadian whisky. I recommend you listen to the interview for the the full picture, or check out Jason Hambrey’s detailed post on In Search of Elegance for details of the wood.
Let’s see how it currently performs in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database, compared to other relevant Canadian whiskies:
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.58 ± 0.35 on 17 reviews ($)
Bearface Triple Oak 7yo: 8.37 ± 0.13 on 6 reviews ($$)
Canadian Club Sherry Cask: 8.15 ± 0.66 on 8 reviews ($$)
Canadian Mist: 7.57 ± 0.69 on 11 reviews ($)
Canadian Mist Black Diamond: 8.02 ± 0.54 on 6 reviews ($)
Collingwood: 8.02 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.54 ± 0.41 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.19 ± 0.48 on 17 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished: 8.66 ± 0.49 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Unit:y 8.97 ± 0.28 on on 4 reviews ($$$)
Pike Creek 10yo Port-finished: 8.34 ± 0.35 13 reviews ($$)
Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask: 7.91 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$)
Bottled at 42.5% ABV. I picked it up for $40 CAD at the LCBO earlier this year. Let’s see what I find in the glass.
Nose: Very sweet corn syrup. Buttered popcorn, slightly scorched. Condensed milk. Sweet tarts. Toasted marshmellows. Lots of fruit, but different than you would expect – black and red currants, cranberries. Dried apricot. Perfumy floral, with violets. Light rye spice, cinnamon especially, but also with hint of chilies. The toasted oak really comes through, there is no hiding the complexity here. No real off notes from the distillate, the extra age (longer than most Canadian whiskies) presumably helps with that. Off to a good start.
Palate: Initial corn sweetness hit, gets creamier on the swallow. Definitely a sweet one, not really getting the tartness from the nose any more. Indeed, not really getting any of the subtle notes here – the toasted oak comes on really strong mid-palate, and dominates everything else. More like burnt marshmellows and popcorn now, and scorched wood. Has a silky texture, with good mouthfeel. Rye spices comes up at the later palate, but soft and not at all “hot” or sharp. Fairly mild, consistent with the alcohol level.
Finish: Again, the woody notes definitely dominate initially on the finish, but with the lighter rye spices holding their own. Some of the dried fruit notes return eventually. Coffee grinds. Some astringency, but not the initial tartness from the nose. More going on here than a typical Canadian corn whisky, that’s for sure. Some sticky sweet corn syrup lingers until the end.
I’m at a bit of loss of how to rank this whisky. On first sampling, I really liked some of the additional flavours that have been introduced by the fresh wine cask aging – despite the heavy corn-syrup base sweetness. But the toasted Hungarian oak is just proving too overwhelming on the palate for me, and I find it falls too flat and over-oaked for my tastes. Probably more of an after-dinner whisky, especially for those of you who like heavy wood influence (I typically don’t). While I appreciate the innovation, I expect this whisky would appeal to a limited audience.
There aren’t many reviews of this whisky out there yet, but the most positive are Davin of Whisky Advocate and Patrick of Quebec Whisky, with above average scores. This is followed by more average ratings by Jason of In Search of Elegance and Andre and Martin of Quebec Whisky. No reviews on Reddit yet, but kinohead did provide a fairly positive set of impressions here. My own assessment would be at the low end, closer to Andre and Martin. Definitely a unique experience in the Canadian whisky scene, but a bit of a niche product. I am however curious as to what they will come up with next.