On one level, the oak cask is the most basic and fundamental building block of whiskey maturation, but as any whiskey devotee knows, simply specifying “oak cask” is an extremely broad qualifier, like designating a part of one’s breakfast as simply “fruit.” Different species of oak impart drastically different flavor profiles to an aging spirit, but even the same type of oak—from the same tree, even—will read very differently depending on how it’s been dried and treated. And that’s before one even gets into the world of re-used oak barrels that have previously been used to age various styles of wine, beer or spirits. The world of “oak casks” is a constellation of possibilities.
Seemingly all of those possibilities, meanwhile, are the goal of the exploration going on in Bearface Triple Oak Canadian Whisky, an eccentric and ambitious Canadian brand that is not only combining multiple styles of oak cask, but housing those casks in a thoroughly unusual setting. Using a process they’ve dubbed “Elemental Aging,” Bearface whiskeys undergo their finishing process in the wilds of British Columbia, aging in shipping containers where they’re exposed to the constantly rotating temperature swings of the region.
Explaining the actual process that is undergone by Bearface before it’s bottled is a little bit complex, so let me summarize via bullet points.
— Bearface starts as sourced, 100% corn whisky from Canada—this is the standard method used by most of the larger Canadian distilleries, which typically distill and age a variety of 100% grain distillates (such as corn, rye and malt), and then blend those aged spirits together to create finished products. In Bearface’s case, they’ve sourced 7-year-old corn whisky aged in ex-bourbon casks from a single distillery, meaning this can accurately be described as “single grain whisky.”
— The whisky then undergoes not one but two finishing periods of secondary aging in shipping containers in “bear country.” It first rests in a mixture of French Oak and American oak casks that previously held red wine. After several months in the wine casks, the whisky is then transferred to toasted virgin Hungarian Oak casks, which have been treated with a variety of toast levels. These are exclusively toasted and not full-on charred.
— The whiskey is then cut to 42.5% ABV (85 proof) and bottled, with a fairly approachable MSRP of $35. Considering the complexity of the finishing process, and the respectable age statement the whisky had coming into it, this price point actually seems a little bit surprisingly low to me.
I wondered perhaps if Bearface whiskey was being created as a blend of sourced corn whisky lots that were being individually aged in each style of barrel, but this is apparently not the case—every drop touches all three styles of cask (American, French, Hungarian) during the Elemental Aging process. Is the “wilderness” aspect something of a gimmick, in terms of projecting a rugged image to generate interest in the brand? Undoubtedly, but we can also guarantee that the rapid swings in temperature would likely have just as dramatic an effect as the company would claim.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting Bearface and see how this unusual combination of temperature cycling and eclectic oak aging has transformed this corn whisky.
In the glass, Bearface is a rich gold, but not quite amber—it seems to hint at the toasted rather than freshly charred nature of the Hungarian oak casks, which would have contributed a darker color if they had been fully charred. On the nose, this initially struck me a bit oddly—quite fruity, with green apple and more vinous, tart notes that evoke berries and cranberry, combined with toastier impressions of milk chocolate and nuts. These notes begin to round into a more familiar profile with time, but there’s also something here evocative of solvent or chemical, which detracts from the overall profile. The oak is here on the nose as well, subtly spicy throughout.
On the palate, however, this whisky transforms rather dramatically—where the nose is mild to moderate in assertiveness, the flavors pop on the palate much more vivaciously. This is fairly sweet up front, with molasses and candy apple, fresh berries and eventually barrel char, with hints of sweet espresso. The most dominant aspect, though, becomes oak and spice—this is quite oaky, and the French oak in particular has really put its stamp on the profile, with tons of baking spice, cinnamon and brown sugar. I believe it’s the Hungarian oak, meanwhile, contributing the more tannic, drying finish of Bearface. All in all, it’s quite punchy and dramatic for a mere 42.5% ABV, and in the end I found this palate pleasantly distinctive.
Bearface is an interesting experiment, and I admire the sheer amount of work that went into transporting this liquid around Canada so it could be aged in a shipping container in the woods. To me, the nose doesn’t quite do justice to the punchiness of the palate, and I expect this whisky could be divisive to some. Those who will love it best are drinkers who really like the warm, fragrant spiciness that French oak so often imparts to whisky—go into this one expecting a dram with dramatic oak highlights, and you might find something you quite enjoy, and at a fair price to boot.
Distillery: Bearface Whisky
Style: Single grain Canadian whisky
ABV: 42.5% (85 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $35 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.