On opening a new distillery, the playbook usually calls for vodka and gin first, in order to keep the lights on while whisky is being distilled and aged for at least three years (by Canadian rules, at least). Many distilleries have made a name for themselves by travelling down this path, producing gins and liqueurs, in particular, that are unique, tasty and, above all, award winning. If anything, the hype generated from these creative offerings only builds the anticipation of a future whisky release that much more.
But there is an alternate path. One that draws upon the rich cultural history of the distillery founders and the spirits that are intertwined in decades, or even centuries-long traditions. This is exactly the approach that Bridgeland Distillery took when they opened their business back in 2018. Peruse the shelves in the distillery itself or browse the online store and you will find no sight or mention of neutral grain spirits or juniper berries anywhere. Instead you will see bottles labelled “eau de vigne”, “grappa” and brandy.
Among other things, it was this unique approach to spirits that garnered them Distillery of the Year at the Alberta Spirits Awards. Although whisky is always an important milestone for a young distillery, Bridgeland’s grape-based spirits are not a means to an end. Instead, it’s a nod to founders Jacques Tremblay and Daniel Plenzik’s Quebec and Italian cultures respectively. As well as their own personal backgrounds in winemaking and viticulture (grape vine cultivation), it made sense to head in that direction instead, leaving the production of gins to others.
Perhaps the only distillery in Canada to be producing it, Bridgeland makes several types of grappa, which is an Italian spirit derived from the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes. Brandy, which they also make, is derived from the grape juice, so nothing is wasted! Although Bridgeland tries to keep their ingredients as local as they can, Daniel and Jacques had to look one province over to the Okanagan region of BC for their grapes.
Whisky connoisseurs are becoming increasingly interested in the characteristics of a distillery’s new make. Bridgeland is more than happy to pique these people’s curiosity by offering several bottlings of their new make. Malted barley will become their single malt. They usually offer a corn mash new make which also contains malted barley and/or wheat, which is used for their Taber Corn Berbon. Most intriguingly, Bridgeland is bottling their St. Paddy’s triple distilled new make in the Irish single pot still style. This includes a mash of malted and unmalted barley and a decent percentage of malted oats. They’re not the only ones in the province making this, and that’s no bad thing!
Speaking of whisky, let’s tack toward todays’s review. In mid-2022, Bridgeland started bottling their very first single malt using barley from a single field at Hamill Farm near Penhold, AB (south of Red Deer), which was then malted at Red Shed Malting (also in Penhold). Named Glenbow, Bridgeland’s single malt is named after a town of the same name. The rock quarries around Glenbow produced the stone that was used to construct many of Calgary’s first buildings. The whisky was matured for two years in new American oak barrels treated with a #3 char. The final year was spent in ex-Balcones Bourbon barrels from Texas. It’s bottled at 45.5% abv.
Nose: Lovely, rich malted cereal note for starters. The toffee sweetness from the initial maturation sits nicely along side it. A light red stone fruit is coming up now. That’s the new American oak talking again. I always get barley sugar candies on young single malt and this is no exception. A little bit of allspice for the spicing as well as cinnamon and dried ginger. The vanilla takes a while to reach out to my nose, but it’s there now. The citrus is present without being overbearing. This has a slight floral character to round everything out. Overall, this is light, yet characterful on the nose. Let’s see what a few sips offer.
Palate: Sweet, creamy honey is all over the entry and doesn’t let up throughout the whole experience. This brings me back to their Taber Corn Berbon, which has over 30% malted barely in their mashbill. Those rich cereal notes greet me again at the beginning of the development along with a bit of a floral twinge. There’s a lingering youthfulness, but there are other layers of flavour to compensate for it. As I sip this more, the fresh citrus from the nose has transformed into slightly bitter marmalade. This helps to offset the sweetness. The spicing on the back end of the development has become slightly darker and earthier with a dusting of nutmeg and even clove. I sense the beginnings of a spice cake note as this heads into the finish. This is something I get from American single malts, which are usually (but not always) matured in new American oak.
Finish: That spice cake character comes to fruition, but fades relatively quickly as the honey reappears. The black pepper isn’t overpowering, but you feel it all over your tongue. It’s also warming as you swallow.
With water added
The malty character of this whisky is much stronger now. The cracked black pepper has come forward a bit, tickling my nose a little. The honey is much more apparent now. Interesting that the entry isn’t as sweet (given what I got on the nose), but that warming, peppery sensation kicks in much earlier on the palate. That marmalade note is stronger, yet more bitter. There’s a nice balance between that, the spice and the sweetness. I’m missing that spice cake though. The finish is certainly longer.
Given the light character of this whisky, it was a smart move to transfer this to ex-Bourbon barrels after the first two years. Further maturation in new American oak would have swamped the delicate character of the distillate too much, I think. While this whisky was almost a bit too sweet for my palate, I really loved the bitter marmalade and particularly the black pepper, which helped to tamp that down a bit. Balance was the name of the game here and that’s always something that I appreciate.