Ok, let's start with the disclosures first. I have been a judge on the Canadian Artisan Spirits Competition since it's inception in 2018, and the panel is so professional that I have no doubt I'm routinely the last to be asked not withstanding my tenure (a full list of the judges is here). But in all honesty, it's one of the best run wine/spirits competition I've ever been involved in. It's run completely blind: in the early fall I get several boxes of what look like hundreds of empty hotel shampoo bottles marked only with a code identifying what category the spirit is in and nothing more.
READ MORE: What Is Alt Whisky?
It's pretty gruelling work—I'm not even kidding. You pour, sniff, sip, spit and write copious notes in a variety of categories for each step. And then repeat. After 6 or so samples, my palate is generally pretty done, so that means to get through all the samples you're digging in most free nights.
But then there are the perks. Free booze of course, but what's really special is that moment when a spirit comes alive in the glass, and there's that dramatic illustration of what separates good from great in the craft of distilling. And each year, there are more and more of those moments—this year in particular I actually emailed organizer Alex Hamer to say I was blown away by the gains that I was seeing in the Whisky category—glass after glass of beautiful brown liquor that both expressed a sense of innovation while still being able to stand toe-to-toe with pricey bottles from around the world.
But even in that embarrassment of riches, one sample stood out for me. To be clear — once I vote I don't see my results ever again so I suppose I can't be certain that the bottle I went gaga over was the essential winner... but I'm pretty sure. I'm no savant at blind tasting whisky—I could identify an Islay from a Speyside I'm sure, but beyond that it's tricky for me. But the spirit that wowed me was both unique and evocative of a bottle I had had only a few weeks earlier—the Ancient Grains from Devine. When I tasted it outside of the competition I was immediately taken with its idiosyncratic ways: caramel sweetness, some out-there light herbaceousness, some lovely citrus. I was so blown away I wrote this story. Then a few weeks later I was doing my nightly tasting ritual and there it was again: a tasting glass that brought back that flood of positivity I had recently experienced. The flavours were unique, the balance perfect...I was pretty sure it was the Ancient Grains. I entered my scores and went on to my next samples.
It wasn't until the winners were announced publicly on Feb 9th that I learned that not only had Ancient Grains won its category, but also been awarded Best in Show (judges don't know who the winners are before the public does). I couldn't have been more happy—not only because I think Devine is doing a bang-up job, but because Ancient Grains is so emblematic of everything that's great in craft spirits. It blends technical proficiency with a refusal to be shoehorned into how things are done elsewhere. This isn't a "Canadian Single Malt" (although Devine does make an excellent one), it's entirely its own thing.
People often ask about a bottle of craft spirits that would make a good gift, and it's an impossibly broad request. Sheringham Gin is one of my go-to's, Resurrection Rye too, and Ampersand Vermouth. But right now I'd say it's Ancient Grains that is capturing the West in a bottle best—and there's a panel of hot shot experts to back me up.