Meet the Best Craft Spirit in Canada

The winner of the Canadian Artisan Spirits Competition is this wonder from Ampersand.

Ampersand Nocino! $30

Full disclosure: I’m one of the baker’s dozen of judges (from B.C. to NB) who make up the judging panel at the Canadian Artisan Spirits Competition. But—in all honesty—I didn’t know who the winner was until the press release went out to the public today. I didn’t even know who the finalists were: the entire judging process is done blind, which means that in the fall, Alex Hamer, who runs the competition, drops off a bunch of boxes full of what look like shampoo bottles from a Radisson, except they’re full of different spirits and they have numbers on them. And that’s it.

It’s actually a lot of work. I know people just love hearing how much work it is to taste booze for free and to be honest, the wine awards I’ve done are generally quite a bit of fun. But spirits are harder. Your palate fatigues much more quickly—I never taste more than seven or eight in one sitting—and Alex makes us enter detailed notes into our computers for everything we taste. And there are some doozies out there (things your desperately do not want to put in your mouth), though thankfully those are the exception. For the most part, the quality is amazingly high and has just continued to get better over each of the three years I’ve judged.

Which brings us to our overall winner. I couldn’t have been happier when I found out. The Schacht family that runs Duncan’s Ampersand seem like good people, and both their gin and vermouth are top drawer. And a while a walnut-based liqueur definitely has some niche cachet, please let me tell you that spirits like this can go horribly wrong very easily. It’s easy to get overly astringent and bitter when dealing with nuts, and then there’s the risk of overcompensating with too much sweetness, which can make the entire things sickly sweet. But neither of those problems show up here. One of my fellow judges described the drink like this:

It’s very complex and exceptionally balanced. On the palate, there’s a medium sweetness, which is perfectly balanced with bitterness; there are warming and rich flavours of pronounced walnut, bitter orange and coffee. There are accompanying and balanced notes of nutmeg, candied fruit and cloves—this spirit has loads of character and complexity.

Well said. Sadly, it was sold out even before the news hit today. But they’ve made it consistently over the past few years so don’t worry, it’ll be back. Get your glasses ready.