We were all waiting for it impatiently. The pandemic kept the New-Brunswick Spirits Festival silent for three long years. But in November this year, at last, whisky lovers from all parts of Canada could join again in Fredericton for an incredible celebration of whisky and other spirits but also a celebration of fun, warmth and kindness. An emotional time for me as I chose my favorite festival to bid my farewell.

Art and Whisky at Beaverbrook Gallery

35 guests, six whiskies and six paintings

This was the third time I organised encounters between some great single malts and some of the amazing pieces of art exhibited at Beaverbrook museum. The class was sold out online in 10 minutes. John Leroux, curator of the gallery shared his immense knowledge about the artists and their works with us while I explained the reasons of my pairing choices. We could not think of a better way to spend a whole afternoon !

Enjoying a superb painting and an excellent dram is a real sensory treat

Henri Matisse  – Leda – 1945 (Indian ink and coloured crayons on paper) and The Balvenie Caribbean cask 14 year old

The drawing immediatelEnjoying a painting and a y captivates the eye with its purity, its fluidity, its curves and “economy” of lines. The drawing is sensual, erotic even. Is Leda giving in with pleasure or submission to Zeus/the swan? There is an obvious correspondence of shapes between the figures of the swan and Leda’s. A small drawing but extremely expressive, with an amazing aura. The blue frieze can be seen as the shore of a lake  (waves or love hearts?). The general sensation/expression revolves around sensuality and balance. The Balvenie Caribbean cask 14 year old expresses this balanced warmth with a smooth texture, tropical notes, vanilla and a lingering smooth finish. Lots of “yellow” colour in this malt (like in the painting which Matisse did on the same theme later).

Tony Scherman – Still life with melons, peaches and grapes – 2001 and Glen Moray Chardonnay finish

The still life of fruit is an encaustic (coloured wax) on canvas and is based on a 17th-century Dutch still life “vanitas” painting of fruit/flowers that implies the transience of life. The media used (encaustic) and the treatment with thick layers of paint give a relief to the painting. The fruits bathe in a subtle light, they are perfectly ripe and invite the viewer to grab them. Different sizes, different shapes convey an impression of richness but also of fragility. The “pyramid” is in fragile equilibrium. These fruit might also be rotten tomorrow. A hint to the passing of time and the idea that we must make the most of life while we are able to enjoy it. To match this painting, I looked for a whisky “packed” with fruit, with a balanced aromatic profile and maybe a little glitch which emphasizes our vulnerability in front of life’s ordeals. Glen Moray Chardonnay finish is a concentrate of fruit. The nose is fruity on grapes and juicy pears. The palate is fluid and dry with a lot of fruit.  The finish is dry and rather short (and that could be the glitch !!)

Alfred Sisley – La falaise de Penarth le soir – temps orageux – 1897 and Hibiki Harmony

Though now acknowledged as one of the most famous impressionnists, Alfred Sisley did not receive recognition for his work when he was alive. He lived in poverty most of the time. This painting depicts a cliff in Wales where he spent time with his partner in 1897. They were both ill from cancer. He died two years later.  The colours of the painting are soft (blue/grey) and convey a sensation of tranquillity and also of solitude though, when one observes the painting long enough, one can guess silhouettes in the back. Maybe a light breeze (the bushes seem a bit agitated). The light comes from the sky with a sort of milky haze. To pair with this painting, I thought that the Japanese blend Hibiki Harmony would evoke the delicacy and serenity of the painting.  It reveals a vibrant smoothness and creaminess with delicate floral and fruity notes. Fresh, natural, tranquil, like the Penarth shore. And this whisky is a little underrated, like the artist.

Marcel Barbeau – Que neige la clarté – 2000 and Caol Ila 12 year old

Marcel Barbeau is a famous Canadian artist from Québec who has joined the automatist movement in 1948 and has met Riopelle. He is a mutidisciplinary artist (a painter but also a sculptor and a photographer). He has lived in France since 1990. This painting was inspired by a violent snow storm in the Paris region which destroyed Versailles park. The painting offers an extraordinary contrast between cold colours (white grey and black) and bright ones which come like an explosion of light. There is movement, joy and a sense of space in this painting. A large painting (220 x 220 cm), part of a group of 6. The painting also expresses strength and hope. The geometry works like a dance. We can nearly see the painting as a 3D work. The yellow geometric shapes attract the eyes. Light, clarity, mobility, joy… I immediately thought of Caol Ila 12 year old which has always appeared to me as an aromatic rainbow, with a versatile flavour palette, constantly changing like mercury (alias quicksilver), shifting from grassy notes to fruity ones with the smoke lingering and swirling. 

Gérard Beaulieu – Guardia 1995 – burned wood and Ardcore (regular release)

Two Islay malts to echo these powerful masterpieces

An enigmatic black angel looking down. Is he thinking ? Is he devastated by the sight of our chaotic world? Is he a fallen angel ? Has he been chased from Eden? Everyone will have their own interpretation. That human size sculpture is very powerful, puzzling, slightly frightening. But the attitude of the angel is also very humane. Self-inflicting or just meditative? Resigned or ready to jump into action after deep thinking? To pair with this ambiguous sculpture, I have chosen an Ardbeg bottling. Not the peatiest, not the most powerful but an Ardbeg totally off the beaten track. Ardbeg Ardcore (regular release) 46% was released for the 2022 Feis Ile on the theme of “punk”. It is produced from heavily roasted black malt. Bill Lumsden describes it “as tasting like ‘biting on a spiky ball’, Ardcore is a dram that wears its heart on its sleeve… its black heart!” Charcoal, herbal notes, marmite, ground coffee, soot, cocoa powder… black is black !!! An echo of the burned wood sculpture !

Deanna Musgrave – Transcendence – 2019-2022 and Laphroaig 10 years old cask strength – 57,2% – 5th batch

This incredible work by Deanna Musgrave raises so many interrogations and thoughts that it is hard to guess what the artist really meant. I think each of us will have an interpretation. The location of this impressive fresco is extremely important too: close to the famous Salvador Dali Santiago El Grande (which I paired with Auchentoshan 18 some years ago). Connected through two circular paintings by Musgrave, the two works seem to converse together through the colors and the allegories. It is mesmerizing. Transcendence explores the theme of apocalypse but in an unusual way, starting from the original meaning of the word : “a revealing of truth that was once hidden”. The apocalypse is often referred to as a catastrophe, as dark threats hovering on the world. Deanna Musgrave seems to have another vision. That beautiful naked woman on her horse brings the power of hope. Interesting to note that the artist began her work just as Covid was striking the world.  The artist insists that  “the painting is really a reflection of you. All my art is a mirror.” Now what whisky to choose to match this masterwork ? A powerful and uncompromising malt, at a high strength: Laphroaig 10 years old cask strength – 57,2% – 5th batch matured in bourbon cask. Pungent, with a  sweet core and an extraordinary marine and medicinal profile. Not for the faint hearts !

The dinner : Glenmorangie and Ardbeg superstars

The traditional inaugural dinner was sponsored by Glenmorangie and Ardbeg this year. Like the previous years, I sampled the whiskies chosen by the distributor and worked out a menu to be prepared by Mindi, the hotel Delta chef. She does a fantastic job. This year she had to feed 101 guests.

Glenmorangie X was offered as a pre-dinner cocktail (with lime juice and elderflower)

There was only one Ardbeg – Ardbeg Fermutation – that the guests expected at the end of the meal. I chose it for the starter: unsmoked mackerel pâté balls on a bed of salad with dice of beetroot and a tagliatelle of cucumber served with toasted sourdough bread. The rich flavours of the mackerel totally mingled with the smoke.

Glenmorangie Signet had to go with the main dish : chicken thighs cooked in a creamy coffee flavoured sauce, diced sweet potatoes (with a pinch of cumin), chili rice. The roasted notes of the chocolate malt found a perfect match with the creamy sauce.

A small gougère (chou pastry with cheese) was the choice for Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or and its pastry-like flavour profile.

The new Glenmorangie “Tale of the forest” was a bit puzzling. What would pair with these notes of juniper, fresh mint and pine needles? A very unusual Glenmorangie with a creamy texture. Hence the choice of the caramelized panna cotta, mint jelly and an almond biscuit. I think the combination worked quite well.

As an afterdinner dram, Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 14YO was served with a delicious chocolate filled with a raspberry ganache. There is a new chocolatier in town, she is called Nacy (Fancy Bites) and she performs marvels ! 

In brief…

And the lunches

Sherry was the star at the Dalmore lunch as one could expect, And this was the trick: how to create a three courses meal without repeating the same ingredients such as orange, spices, chocolate ? I think the challenge was met. The main dish epitomized Dalmore character with a duck breast, an orange sauce, a parsnip mash and a dried fruit chutney.

A new Irish whiskey was featuring at the Irish lunch, being presented by the charismatic Woody Kane. With a dry and wicked humour, he had so much to say that we could have stayed the whole afternoon at the table ! On the menu, goat cheese and apricot, trout in oatmeal and a splendid banoffee pie.

Saturday lunch was the “ladies’ lunch” (at least by a majority). An opportunity to discover four  great gins : Fords gin, Haymans London dry gin, Roku Gin and Glendalough Wild botanical gin. presented with a blue cheese nibble, a spicy pumpkin soup, scallops and a Turkish delight and raspberry pavlova.

Proof that “a gin lunch” is not an eccentric idea.

Not to forget the classes

Just 25

To mark the 25th anniversary of NB Spirits Festival, we needed to have a special tasting. We just called it “25”. Thanks to the generosity of my friends in the whisky industry and of Frank Scott’s, the organizer of the festival, we could offer the participants 6 drams of outstanding 25 year old whiskies. No need to say more, the whiskies told the stories ! We sampled Berry Bros. & Rudd 25YO Perspective Series , Linkwood 25YO Gordon & McPhail, Glenfarclas 25YO, Highland Park 25YO and Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1998

Kindred spirits meet

That last tasting (but not the least) was the one my dear friend Johanne McInnis and I had dreamt of hosting for years. I thought it was appropriate to add a French touch for my goodbye tasting. The idea was to bring out the differences in producing a cognac, an armagnac, a calvados, a rum (a french one) and a single malt. The differences but also the similarities. With the best of French eaux-de-vie, we offered the participants’ tastebuds a stunning “Tour de France” (via Martinique). Once again, thanks to the generosity of my distillers friends, we could sample Calvados Christian Drouin XO, Armagnac Château de Laubade XO, Cognac Grande Champagne, Jean Fillioux 14 YO  and Rhum JM XO. A revelation for the audience.

The dinner at Rossmount Inn

It has become a tradition. After the festival, many friends joined me at The Rossmount Inn in Saint-Andrew by the sea for Chris Aerni’s mind (and mouth) -blowing dinner. Once again, the chef performed a true piece of art. Thank you to Chris and Graziella Aerni for their generous welcome. The menu speaks by itself.

The snow crab croquette and its necklace of melon balls made an impressive pairing with Hibiki

I have decided  it was time to hang up my apron. I could not choose a better place to say goodbye to tastings, dinners and festivals. I will never forget the two standing ovations I received at the NB Spirits Festival. I never had that before.

Thank you to my Canadian friends for their kindness, their passion and their whisky enthusiasm.

Merry Christmas to all!