Category Archives: Food and Drink

Saskatchewan – Searching for Whooping Cranes

Flushed with success from my birding visit to British Columbia, I enlisted my brother Carl in a scheme to visit Saskatchewan and find some Whooping Cranes. I meant to post a trip report before now but “events” and sheer idleness got in the way. Then I discovered that our guide, Chris Charlesworth, had posted a complete report in his blog, so rather than repeat the effort I can concentrate on the aspects of the trip that were most important to me: birds, bird photographs, good food and the delights of Saskatoon’s thriving cocktail scene.

Speaking of good food, our dinner stop on the night we arrived was the estimable La Taverna Italia. The place was busy and possibly a bit understaffed, but the food was excellent. After agonizing over the choices I opted for the spaghetti alla puttanesca and had no regrets – no punches were pulled in this fully-flavoured version of a classic dish. Carl had lasagna and pronounced it highly viable. The cocktail menu was extensive and intriguing, featuring a number of top ingredients that are only dreamed of in the People’s Republic of Ontario. I settled on a Negroni made with Hendricks gin, Punt e Mes, Campari, and a flamed orange peel garnish. It was very fine indeed.

1 October– Roaming around North of Saskatoon

Now to cut to the chase. Yes, we did hook up with the near-mythical Whooping Crane. These magnificent birds, the tallest birds in North America and one of the largest crane species, were not that long ago standing on the precipice. In 1941, after decades of habitat destruction and overhunting, there were just 21 wild birds still clinging to life. An intensive conservation programme was established and over the years the population has grown to about 800 birds. They are not out of the woods yet, but at least there are sufficient numbers now  that the species should survive a catastrophe such as a major storm.

Whoopers spend the winter in Texas and Florida but they travel up to Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Saskatchewan to breed. Our trip was cunningly planned to put us in position to see them on  their way south, and as luck would have it Chris was able to discover a flock near Marcelin on our first morning. Being wary creatures we were not able to get close enough for good photos, but we had a good long look at the beasts before moving on to other delights.

1 October – Saskatchewan birds

Saskatchewan birding - Whooping Cranes
Whooping it up in Saskatchewan. The brownish bird is a colt (a juvenile Whooper).
Saskatchewan birding
Snow Geese including a very dark “blue phase” goose, with two Ross’s Geese below.
Greater White-fronted Geese trying not to be seen.
Rusty Blackbirds on the move.
Black-billed Magpie.

Dinner that night was Cajun-style courtesy of the Bon Temps Café. I opted for a traditional Jambalaya topped with a crawdad and Carl had blackened fish. We were both quite satisfied. They too had an excellent cocktail menu so respecting the New Orleans theme we sampled Vieux Carres – a classic beverage created at the Carousel Bar of the Monteleone Hotel in 1938. Basically a slightly sweet Manhattan-variant featuring Bourbon, Cognac, Cinzano, Benedictine, and Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, they went down well and I made a mental note to acquire some Benedictine for further experimentation.

2 October – Last Mountain Lake

Chris has described this well in his blog so I will get straight to the photos.

Saskatchewan birding - Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk in the early morning light.
A Brewer’s Blackbird surveys his domain.
Saskatchewan birding - Sandhill Crane migration
Waves of Sandhill Cranes.
Brown Creeper creeping.
Saskatchewan birding - Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle – an awesome bird!
Grey Partridge in a somewhat shabby setting. But hey, Grey Partridge!

After a full day of birding we had an outstanding meal at The Granary. There were plenty of meal options but prime rib au jus seemed to be their specialty and when in doubt, go for the choice that the restaurant is proudest of. It was superb, and an eight ounce serving was ample with spuds and vegetables. You will be getting the idea that Saskatoon is a cocktail drinker’s paradise and sure enough The Granary was up to the task. For a while I had been wanting to try an Aviation, an early 20th Century creation of Hugo Ensslin of New Yorks’s Hotel Wallick, but the ingredients could not be had in Ontario. So despite the myriad of choices when my eyes alit upon that one the deal was done. It’s a true cocktail-drinkers cocktail, without the crutch of simple syrup to balance off the lemon juice, and was most excellent. Now if only I could get my hands on some Crème de Violette I could make my own. Hmmm.

3 October – Shorebirds and the long road North

The early part of the day was spent running up our shorebird tally before we moved to our advance staging area in Prince Albert. We stopped at a Sobey’s to get provisions for the trip and I took the chance to duck into the Sobey’s liquor store. There were racks of cocktail ingredients the likes of which the inept LCBO would never imagine offering. Yes of course they had Crème de Violette, Carpano Antica Formula, the full Luxardo range and many other fine products. All this at an undistinguished strip mall. Sadly I only had room in my luggage for one bottle.

American Avocets on short final.
Vast flocks of Lapland Longspurs were buzzing about but they Just. Wouldn’t. Land. ☹
Saskatchewan birding
Carl surveys the scene.
Northern Harrier on patrol.
Whole flocks of stubby-necked Cackling Geese!

Unfortunately, our only dinner option in Prince Albert on a Sunday evening was Boston Pizza. They had food. After a fashion.

Mollified somewhat by an after-dinner Northern Saw-whet Owl.

4 October – Prince Albert National Park

The aim of the deployment to northern Saskatchewan was to nab some boreal forest specialties. Which we did. 😊 The chief target for me was the scarce and unobtrusive American Three-toed Woodpecker. Chris used his ninja skills to track one down and we all had good views. Life bird number 1985 for me!

Saskatchewan birding - American Three-toed Woodpecker
The woodpecker in question.
Boreal Chickadees were present but playing hard to get.
Spruce Grouse on the prowl.
A distant River Otter
Horned Lark dispatches a moth.
The mighty Raven.
Canada Jays were plentiful.

Our last dinner as a group was at Manos, a Greek restaurant in Saskatoon. As I recall I had ribs and Carl had steak, washed down by an excellent local craft ale, Great Western Brewing Original 16 Pale Ale . It was a good meal but came at the end of a long day so memories are vague.

5 October – Farewell Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan birding
Los hermanos pájaritos.

We did a bit of local birding in the morning and then resigned ourselves to the tender mercies of Air Canada and made our way home.

Saskatchewan by the numbers

Three life birds for me (Whooping Crane, Smith’s Longspur, American Three-toed Woodpecker), many more than that for Carl, Saskatchewan bird list jumps from 0 to 88, some fine meals, drinking in a lot of big sky vistas – what’s not to like?

A big shout out to Chris and Avocet Tours for a superbly-organized and highly productive tour.

Dark and Stormy Force 8

Readers of this blog will know that I am on a mission to perfect the world’s greatest cocktails. Manhattans, Gimlets and Gin&Tonics have been dealt with, but the I needed to gather all my resources before I took on the challenge of that pinnacle of adult beverages, the Dark and Stormy.

OK, that’s a fib. A Dark and Stormy is an enjoyable drink, but hardly a masterpiece of the bartenders art. It’s simply dark rum and ginger beer, usually with a lime wedge for a garnish. Technically it is not even a cocktail since it only has two active ingredients. So not something that I would normally have trained my research sights on.

But these are unusual times…

As part of our scheme to avoid inviting the virus into our fortress, we have been buying groceries by click-and-collect. This requires planning a week in advance what we will need, as opposed to the just-in-time shopping that we have been accustomed to. So inevitably there have been hiccups.

One of these was inadvertently buying fresh ginger two weeks in a row. Normally a smallish piece of ginger is all we need for a couple of weeks. But when you click and collect you get a whacking great chunk because that’s what the store wants to sell. And now we had two whacking great chunks.

So what to do? When the going gets tough, the tough make syrup. Ginger syrup. And sure enough, a few clicks were all it took to find multiple recipes.

To save you the trouble of researching this, the recipes are functionally identical: simmer sliced ginger in a simple syrup. These are the proportions I used.

Ginger Syrup

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sliced ginger. Try for slices about the thickness of a toonie or a £1 coin, but you may want to slice a portion of the ginger very thin (see Tip below)

Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat to the boil. Add the ginger and hold at a light simmer for 20 minutes. Pour the whole contents through a strainer into a large bowl. Let the ginger drip dry, then bottle the syrup. It will keep in the fridge for a long time theoretically, but if your interest in Dark and Stormys has taken you this far then I predict you will use it up quickly.

Tip: Take the thinly-sliced ginger and set it out to dry on a baking sheet or platter. When it is mostly dry, sprinkle white sugar lavishly over the slices. Wait for this to soak in. You may have to repeat a few times but eventually you will end up with candied ginger, which is delicious stuff on its own or added to ginger spice cookies.

So now you’re ready to make your Dark and Stormy. Because the drink is focused on ginger and rum, without the calming soda water element of a ginger beer, I have dubbed this version a Dark and Stormy Force 8 (Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale is Gale force – 30-40 knot winds)

Dark and Stormy

Dark and Stormy Force 8

  • 1 ½ oz dark rum  Any decent rum will do. I wouldn’t use anything exotic as the ginger will tend to overpower the subtleties.
  • 1 oz (or to taste) ginger syrup

Shake with ice, then pour into an Old-Fashioned glass with ice.  You can use the same ice it was shaken with.

If you really want to take it up a notch, add one drop (not two!) of Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitter before shaking.


The only hiccup now is that I haven’t settled on a garnish. Lime wedges didn’t seem right – the acid of the citrus contrasts too much with the warm gingery flavour. A Luxardo cherry might work, or perhaps something really demented like a candy cane. More research is evidently required. 😉

Lime Cordial

In a previous post on the great Gin Challenge of 2019 I promised the recipe for home-made lime cordial. So here it is!

Lime Cordial Recipe

  • Get some limes. Five is a good number to start. Let them get to room temperature
  • Wash the limes, scrubbing them with a dishcloth or a soft vegetable brush
  • Peel the limes using a vegetable peeler, trying to get only the green skin (minimize the amount of white pith). Don’t worry if the resulting peel is in small pieces – it will be used for flavour and then discarded.
I find that y-shaped peelers like this one work well.
  • Juice the limes and measure the amount of juice
  • Measure some table sugar. I find for cocktails the best ratio is 1:1 sugar to lime juice, but adjust as you see fit
  • Mix the juice and sugar in a non-reactive container. The sugar will eventually dissolve but if you want to speed up the process you can heat it up while stirring. If you do this try not to let the mixture come to the boil
  • Remove from heat, and add the lime peels to the juice, crushing them with your hands as you do
  • Let the mixture sit in the fridge for 24 hours, then strain out the lime peels
  • Store in the refrigerator. It will keep for a long time, as the acids and high sugar content make for a hostile atmosphere for pesky microorganisms
  • If you must have the unnatural neon-green hue of Rose’s Lime Cordial, I suppose you could add food colouring. But you’re on your own – this is one avenue that I don’t intend to explore.
And it looks like this.


Frankly, this stuff is so delicious that I have been known to just eat a spoonful straight out of the jar. But the traditional use is to thin lime cordial with soda water to make a nice summer drink.

However the key point of lime cordial, at least in my establishment, is that it allows you to mix up a batch of gimlets.

Gimlet Recipe

  • Start with a mixing glass or a the large half of a Boston cocktail shaker.
  • Pour in 1 1/2 ounces of gin (Plymouth Gin would be a good choice) and 3/4 ounce of lime cordial per serving.
  • Add a good number of ice cubes: Four will work, but six is better
  • Stir with a cocktail spoon until the mixture is ice-cold. Thirty seconds is probably enough. You should see a strong layer of condensation on the outside of the mixing tin/glass.
  • Strain into stemmed cocktail glasses
  • Enjoy!
  • Hint: if you have leftover mixture in the mixing glass, strain it out into a clean glass and put it into the fridge. If you leave it in the mixing glass it will become diluted. No one wants a weak and watery cocktail.
home-made lime cordial

BTW the cocktail glass shown on the left is a classic design called a Nick and Nora glass. I prefer it over the martini style as it is less prone to tipping over and takes up less real estate in the cabinet. I bought mine at The Crafty Bartender.

Gin Challenge 2019 – Part 1: the Preliminary Report

Gin cocktails: a Gimlet and a Gin and Tonic

Not that long ago, ordering a gin drink was a simple thing. There were three standard choices: the Gimlet – a lime and gin concoction, the Dry Martini – essentially straight gin with an olive added, and the self-explanatory Gin and Tonic.(1) If you ordered at a proper establishment the gin would be one of Beefeater, Gordon’s or Gilbey’s, or perhaps Tanqueray if it was a more upscale place.

The potion you would be presented would contain:

  • Gimlet: gin and Rose’s Lime Syrup, stirred with ice and served “up” (i.e. strained into a cocktail glass)
  • Dry Martini: gin, possibly with a minute quantity of dry vermouth, served up
  • Gin and Tonic: gin, bar tonic (hopefully Schweppes or Canada Dry) and a lime slice, served on the rocks in a lowball glass

So that was the way it was for a long time, but as you may have noticed, dull but simple, enduring standard, market leader and time-tested are phrases no longer in vogue. Constant innovation is the new shibboleth, and though this has not generally been a good thing in some spheres (politics comes to mind), it means boon times for those of us who enjoy a wee dram or two.

A potted history of the new drinks wave

The current golden age for drinkers started in the eighties when it suddenly emerged that wine could be made in places not named France. Soon afterward the first inklings were seen of the oncoming tsunami of craft beer. Single-malt scotches, so unpopular that even in the ‘80s fine distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora were going bust, unexpectedly became a thing and gained a mass following. Mad Men almost single-handedly revived the market for fine Bourbon.

Cocktails (outside of New York City) had sunk to the point that they were found in a “Martini Menu” that included no martinis but many sappy-sweet kiddie drinks (anyone remember the Monkey’s Lunch?). But thankfully, sanity has returned, and as signaled by Sex and the City and the famous Cosmopolitan (a sappy-sweet grown-up drink) we are now in the midst of a full-fledged cocktail boom, with a young generation of mixologists inventing new drinks and new takes on old standards, all made with exotic ingredients and artfully presented. Even Tiki Bars are making a comeback. It is indeed good to be alive. 😊

All things craft and beautiful

The numbers show that in general, in our part of the world at least, people are drinking less, but they are increasingly consuming higher quality products. So intrepid upstarts have responded with a wide and growing range of artisanal or craft products ranging from whisk(e)y to vodka to beer.

(Rant Warning) Craft beer has stolen so much market share that the top mass market brands are trying to buy out the creators wherever possible, and have even started producing faux craft beers that are marketed as if they came from bearded hipsters in a loft. Shock Top and Goose Island are popular examples of the big brewery fakes, while such fine brands as Stanley Park and Mill Street (Labatt’s), Creemore Springs and Granville Island (Molson’s), and Blanche de Chambly (Sapporo) have fallen into the hands of the same people who for a long time abused their oligopolistic control of the market by limiting Canadian drinkers to a near-identical range of bad, chemical-laden brews.

So their ongoing attempt to subvert and control the craft beer market does not bode well. But I digress… (2)

Craft Gin

Gin Challenge: craft gins from Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.
A few from the new breed, representing (i-r) Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.

So back to the world of craft potables, and to get to the point, let’s talk about craft gin. For anyone wanting to enter the now-crowded craft spirits market, gin and vodka are the best vehicles. Making brown spirits requires a large investment in oak casks, where the whisky or rum lays dormant for years, all the while needing to be housed and protected. Whereas anyone with a still and a handful of juniper berries is in the gin business.

As a result, even in benighted Ontario, where government nannies decide what the citizens will be allowed to drink, there are now 14 pages of gin choices on the LCBO website. Many come from new producers, and the big brand distilleries have also expanded their ranges considerably.

With choice comes confusion. “But what is the best gin for me?” I hear you cry. Fear not friends. Last year a crack team of researchers assembled to answer for once and all the correct recipe for a Manhattan. The team is now hard at work solving your equally vital gin questions. Herewith is the preliminary report.

The 2019 Gin Challenge Research Project – Phase 1

To mistrust science and deny the validity of scientific method is to resign your job as a human. You’d better go look for work as a plant or wild animal.  – P.J. O’Rourke

– Background/Literature Review/Experimental Design

Gin Challenge 2019 - Team 1 members relaxing
Science is serious business.

Job #1 was to frame the problem. We aspired to taste all known gins in every possible drink formulation in a scientifically valid manner. However there were limiting factors to be considered: permanent damage to our livers was to be avoided, and more importantly the host was not to be left with a huge collection of part-bottles of gin that had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

So we made the early decision to set some limits. With a vast array of gins already available and more appearing every day it would have been rather expensive to try and test everything available. Gin fatigue also loomed as a potential problem – it’s not a drink that lends itself to being tasted straight. So we decided that 16 would be the correct number, for no good reason other than the fact that when we were setting this up the Women’s World Cup was entering the round of sixteen.

Narrowing the field

It would also have been beyond the scope of budget and interest to try out every gin-based concoction, so we decided to concentrate on only two of the Big Three Gin Drinks – the Gimlet and the Gin and Tonic. The Dry Martini was down-selected because, well, it’s a nasty-tasting drink. As noted, straight gin is not that appetizing and adding white vermouth, an equally nasty beverage, does not help. The drink became popular in the US during Prohibition, probably for the reason mentioned earlier: gin is easy to make. It maintained its popularity through the postwar era, an age of heavy boozing.

I like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I’m under the table,

after four I’m under my host.  — Dorothy Parker

Ultimately a less battle-hardened population came to their senses and said, collectively, “hey, this stuff is nasty. But I still want to get hammered in the fastest way possible”. And thus was born the Vodka Martini, made famous by James Bond and favoured during the era of the three-martini lunch on the supposition that one’s boss and co-workers would not detect the tell-tale signs of alcohol on the breath. (Slurred speech, bumping into things and needing a rest might still have given away the game).

So anyway, the martini was out. As were several other worthy drinks, including the classic Gin Collins, the ultra-boozy Fogcutter, and some sugary nuisances (Sloe Gin Fizz, the Singapore Sling). The estimable Negroni was also disinvited, as it might be worth its own research effort. But we would focus on perfecting G&Ts and the Gimlet.


Meeting this challenge would require researchers of the highest calibre, willing to pursue results with vigour and determination. Fortunately I was able to call once again on the proven skills of the Canadian Beverage Research Institute faculty. In fact we had sufficient volunteers to make up two teams, meaning that we could conduct experiments on consecutive weekends.

Gin Challenge 2019 - research team 1
Team 1 (l-r) Marianne, Anthony, Lynn, Jennifer, Bryan, Cathy, Carl
Gin Challenge 2019 - research team 2
Team 2 (l-r) Louis, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Branka, Kevin.


We aimed to provide scientifically-valid results upon which you, gentle reader, could rely. Oh, and perhaps have a good time in the doing. So to the extent possible the testing was blind. We did not discuss the product range in advance, and the researchers made their notes based on samples identified only by numbers. Only when we compared notes were the identities revealed, and the team members from the first experiment were sworn to secrecy to avoid skewing the perceptions of the next crew.

Scheme of Manoeuvre

Preparation site for the gin challenge

Each experiment was intended to follow this programme:

  • taste a “reference” Gimlet (Rose’s syrup and Tanqueray gin)
  • record pre-festivities team photograph
  • taste: five gins, seven tonics, two lime syrups
  • taste five more gins
  • sample one or more libations made with the preferred products
  • rest
  • repeat as necessary

And it did sort of work out that way. Indeed Team 1 bravely volunteered to continue the testing until all 12 available gins had been assayed.

Yes, that’s all well and good, but when are you going to get to the results?

Oh alright then. But first I must report that a few twists arose from the decision to split the experiment over two weekends. On the plus side, we were able to compare the results of two different groups. Perhaps surprisingly, their likes and dislikes were very similar, so it was looking as though we could plausibly claim some sort of statistical significance. However since some of the gin was provided by team members (¡muchas gracias mis amigos!), we taste-tested a slightly different range of products at each experiment.

Further, as the poet Robert Burns noted, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”. Or as the poet Mike Tyson put it, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. And so it was to be. A nasty GI bug caused two of the Team 2 members to withdraw, and with them went the bottle of Bombay Sapphire. So our results can only be considered provisional.

As you have astutely guessed, the way to rescue the validity of the results and claim absolute authority for all time is simple: at some point soon we will conduct a plenary session where the top gins will face off head-to-head for world supremacy.

The results, please

Gin Challenge 2019 - research team 2 relaxing

First, the easy stuff.

Lime syrup

You have two choices. Get a bottle of cheap and cheerful Rose’s Lime Cordial and you will be able to make respectable gimlets. Or make your own stuff, which is easy to do and orders of magnitude better. I will publish a recipe on this site, or you can find a good one online.

Tonic Waters

The contestants were:

  • Schweppes
  • Canada Dry
  • Selection (Metro’s house brand)
  • Fever Tree Indian
  • Fever Tree Elderflower
  • Fentimans Traditional
  • Third Place Cocktail Company (a syrup, to be mixed with soda water)

To make sense of the results you should know that we learned early on that gin can be divided into two main groups. The traditional gins are robustly flavoured and fairly heavy in the juniper department. Many of the newer gins are less junipery, letting the botanicals take centre stage.

Best tonic for traditional gin

Gin Challenge - three tonic waters

The top choices were, not surprisingly, traditional tonics:

  1. Schweppes
  2. Canada Dry (preferred by some to Schweppes, and ranked only slightly behind)
  3. Fever Tree Indian
  4. Selection (deemed acceptable, but lacking zing compared to the top two

Best tonic for craft and juniper-light gins

Gin Challenge - four more tonic waters
l-r: Odd, avoid, obtain, avoid
  1. Fever Tree Indian
  2. Schweppes
  3. Canada Dry

Unusual but interesting in the right context

  1. Fever Tree Elderflower. This is a well-made product with a very floral and delicate flavour. Most researchers would happily drink it under the right circumstances, but it is really not recognizable as tonic water. So one to have in your larder, but expect odd looks if you serve this in a gin and tonic.

Not recommended/what the hell were they thinking?

  1. Fentiman’s Traditional Tonic. This was by far the most expensive tonic tested, and 10 of 11 tasters pronounced it nasty and undrinkable. So Nicholas is the proud owner of the remaining seven bottles, which were otherwise destined to disappear down the kitchen sink. Avoid.
  2. Third Place Cocktail Company syrup. Thoroughly nasty, metallic-tasting stuff. Like sucking on an old penny. And deep brown to boot. Avoid.

A final note about the tonics: ensure that you use fresh stuff. The big 2l jugs are cheap, but over the course of a week we noticed a slight degradation in a bottle that had been opened for experiment 1.

Gin – the best of the best

We didn’t have exactly the same set of gins at each experiment, so I will give you the rank order from each group, followed by the rank order of the six gins that were tasted by both groups.

Team 1 results

  • #1 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Plymouth (England)
  • #3 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
  • #4 (tied) – Spirit of York (Toronto), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
  • #6 – Ungava (Quebec)
  • #7 – Seaweed Gin (Newfoundland)
  • #8 – Tanqueray (Scotland)
  • #9 – Iceberg (Newfoundland)
  • #10 – Sixty-Six Loyalist Gin (Ontario)
  • #11 – Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario)
  • #12 – Hendrick’s (England)

Team 2 results

Quebec Gin - Romeo's, Oshlag, Radoune
  • #1 – Radoune (Quebec)
  • #2 (tied) – Plymouth (England), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
  • #4 – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland)
  • #5 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
  • #6 (tied) – Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario), Oshlag Gin Hibiscus (Quebec), Ungava (Quebec)
  • #9 – Romeo’s (Quebec)
  • #10 – Hendrick’s (England)

Results – Gins tasted by both teams

  • #1 – Plymouth (England)
  • #2 (tied) – The Botanist (Islay/Scotland), Tanqueray 10 (Scotland)
  • #4 – Seventh Heaven (Quebec)
  • #5 – Ungava (Quebec)
  • #6 – Dillons Unfiltered Gin #22 (Ontario)


A couple of themes emerged during this process:

  • In general the panels were quite accepting of non-traditional gins that featured interesting botanicals. But there seems to be a point beyond which they were not willing to go. For example, the Dillon’s “gin” is a well-made and interesting product, but it really isn’t gin at all, and was marked down accordingly. Testers noted that it could just as easily be labeled craft vodka or non-aged whiskey. So producers beware – spurn the juniper and you will be punished.
  • Looking over the notes I was interested to see that in a blind testing most people rated the gin they normally buy at or near the top. This is a good sign, I think.

So what gin should you buy?

British gin - Hendrick's, Tanqueray 10, The Botanist
l-r: No, yes, yes

As noted above, these are preliminary results. We need to bring all of the top-rated gins together before we can decide who is king of the mountain. But you would absolutely not go wrong with any of the top-rated gins from either of the teams.

Three craft gins
l-r: No, yes, yes

In my personal bar, I intend to stock Plymouth or Tanqueray 10, the Botanist, and Seventh Heaven or Radoune. I will also pick up some Seaweed Gin or Ungava from time to time.

Of course, that’s after I deal with the large number of leftovers. 😊 That may take a while.

End Notes

Statement on Ethical Research

No animals were to be harmed in the conduct of these experiments. Researchers were not to be compelled to participate and were to be provided ample food and water throughout. Only mild bullying was to be tolerated.

I ran this plan by the Ethics Committee over a long and convivial lunch, and as the port was passed and the cognac emerged they came to the view that the likelihood of permanent harm being done to the participants was manageable. Or at least that’s the way that I remember it.

Peer Review

I sent a request to the House of Lords asking for some peers of the realm to review these results. They didn’t even bother to respond. And to think these people once ran a world-wide empire. Sheesh!


And finally, thanks to all the researchers who made this an entertaining project. And especially those who contributed hard-to-find gins and home cooking. Standby for the plenary session!

[1] There is learned debate about whether these are mixed drinks, not cocktails. Some authorities believe that to qualify as a cocktail a drink must contain three or more ingredients.

[2] And note that Molson’s and Labatt’s themselves were long ago bought out by giant mutinationals, Coors and AB InBev respectively.

Jon Bubb Beer Challenge – The Results Please

Beer. It’s the best damn drink in the world. — Jack Nicholson

 2018 was the year of the challenge: the Biggish Bird Year, where I challenged myself to see 250 bird species in Ontario, and the Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge, where a mate challenged me to sample one beer for every species seen. As you have read in these pages in excruciating detail, I did manage to clock 278 bird species. So how did I fare on the beer challenge?

Beer Challenge: Fuller's London Pride. The best of the best.
Fuller’s London Pride. The best of the best.

Well as the Duke of Wellington said about the battle of Waterloo, it was a near-run thing. Throughout the year I was perennially in catch-up mode, as each time I started to make up some ground I ended up seeing new birds, necessitating even more beer species.  At the end of November I was 40 beers in arrears, but with the aid of some boon companions a late push got me just over the line. I spotted the 278th bird on December 29th, and downed the 278th beer on the 31st.

Beer Challenge: Beer #278
Mackinnon Brothers Eight Man English Pale Ale – beer #278.

It didn’t actually require a massive effort, just a certain amount of diligence. Even operating under self-imposed political constraints (no beers from fascist countries, from countries sliding towards fascism, or from countries run by populist demagogues) and even after losing the month of November to an unnamed plague virus, I still managed to get the job done. I even ended up with a few extras in the fridge to kick off the 2019 year list.

So we now have established that there are upwards of 300 beers available in Ontario, a happy and healthy increase from the days of my youth when there were about ten and they all tasted the same.

And by the way, the level of effort required to sit in comfy pubs or at home in my armchair sipping a cool one compares very favourably to the many hundreds of hours I spent out in the wind, rain, perishing cold and blazing heat searching for birds.

Carrying on the Quest

Beer Challenge: A trio of excellent beers.

A trio of excellent brews, from Kingston, Peterborough and the Laurentides.

So should anyone be inspired to replicate this noble challenge, I think that it should be quite possible to shoot for 300 in a year. The real limiting factor is finding sufficient stocks of new beers to try, but with diligence (that word again) and the help of friends it should be do-able. So I now throw down the gauntlet: a decent bottle of whisky to the first one of my readers to hit 300.

The Rules of the Game

Here are the rules, as codified by a panel of expert:

  • Sample Size. Ideally each beer should be imbibed in its natural form. For draft beers this means a pint glass; bottles or cans should be decanted into an appropriate-sized glass. Half pints are acceptable, as are flights of beers provided that the serving size is adequate to assess the quality of a beer.
  • Radlers may be included.
  • Neer beers (i.e. alcohol-free beers) may not be counted.

How to Approach the Challenge

As long as you stick to the rules the path to success is fairly simple (and should only cause mild annoyance among your friends):

  • When out on the town, try to steer your friends towards brew pubs or places with large beer menus.
  • Don’t just order the beer you like. Nerdishly search the list of available beers for new targets.
  • If in doubt, consult your year list, which should be on your phone.
  • Order a different beer with each round.
  • When out of town, never pass an LCBO without checking to see if they have any regional brews.
  • Drink beer when you might otherwise prefer wine or a cocktail.
Beer Challenge: Glassware is important.
Proper glassware is also important.


Along the way there were a number of people who helped (or in AA terms facilitated) this quest.

  • My brothers, who eagerly leapt into the spirit (so to speak).
  • Andrew and Mike, who supported the guiding philosophy of birds+beers during our road trip.
  • Brother-in-law Rob, who always had interesting bottles in stock when we came to visit.
  • Larry and Janice, my sister’s neighbours, who heard about the challenge and brought me back several Newfoundland specialties.
  • Bruce, who designatedly drove while I sampled the wares of Niagara-on-the-Lake.         
  • Christie and Zarko, who on their travels thoughtfully picked up a six-pack from an obscure craft brewery.
  • Brother-in-law James, who bravely took time off from Christmas Eve preparations to sink a few with me.

A shout out is also due to those virtuous bars that offer flights of beer: the Craft Beer Market in Ottawa, Mississauga’s Bier Markt, the Exchange Brew Pub in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Kingston’s own Stone City Ales.

The Ratings

Of 278 beers tasted, 97 received a star, signifying an interesting brew of high quality and drinkability – “more-ish” as the Brits would say. Stone City Ales had the highest score with five starred brews, followed by Collective Arts and Muskoka Brewery with four each.

Those that didn’t make the grade generally fell into two categories: boring (yet another Labatt’s Blue clone or over-hopped IPA) or weird. In the weird category I would count most of the sours.

Sours are the latest craze among brewers. They have a long history and, in the right circumstances (which normally include being in Belgium), they are an interesting diversion. But they generally fail on the quaffability and I-think-I’ll-have-another criteria.

In the Hall of Shame were eight brews rated as dreadful/never try again: Barley Days Wind and Sail Dark, Bennett’s Dominion Ale, Budweiser Light, Coors Banquet, Coors Light, Henderson’s Food Truck Blonde Ale, Puppers Letterkenny Lager, and Wolfe Island Brewery Out for a Sip. You have been warned.

Recommended Beers

Beer Challenge: MacKinnon Brothers Crosscut
This is the house ale chez nous.

My first post on this topic included a list of recommended beers. Here are a few more good ones for your delectation:

  • Amsterdam Brewery Space Invader IPA
  • Blyth Brewing Company Doc Perdue’s Bobcat
  • Benediktiner Hell
  • Beyond the Pale Pink Fuzz Pale Wheat Ale
  • Bicycle Craft Brewery Velocipede IPA
  • Braufactum Pale Ale
  • Brooklyn Lager
  • Collective Arts Jam up the Mash Dry-hopped Sour
  • Collective Arts Surround Sound Double Dry-hopped IPA
  • Hop City Brewing Co 8th Sin Black Lager
  • Kingston Brew Pub Dragon’s Breath
  • La Trou du Diable Saison du Tracteur
  • MacKinnon Brothers Eight Man English Pale Ale
  • Mill Street Tankhouse
  • Northwinds Rooster Tail American Pale Wheat
  • Robinsons Iron Maiden Trooper beer
  • Sons of Kent Brewing Co 8 Track IPA
  • St Mary Axe India Pagan Ale
  • Stone City 12 Star Session Ale
  • Stone City Shallow Grave American Stout
  • The Publican House Brewery Square Nail Pale Ale
  • Traquair Jacobite Ale
  • Whitewater Brewing Co Astrolabe Session IPA

And remember, as Benjamin Franklin didn’t say (but should have):

“Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy”

The New Manhattan Project

The Manhattan

A quick glance at the menu in your favourite bar will tell you that classic cocktails are back. The soi-disant “Martini Menu”, flogging such abominations as the Fluffy Duck and the Monkey’s Lunch, has mercifully been consigned to the dustbin of history, and we are back to the real thing, including the Old-Fashioned, the Martini, the Daiquiri and my personal favourite, the Manhattan.

The Manhattan is a go-to drink for whiskey[1] lovers. It’s a simple drink – just Angostura Bitters, whiskey, red vermouth and a cherry. It doesn’t rely on ingredients that might not be at hand (e.g. limes), nor on fussy preparation methods.

But in the same way that a simple dish like crème caramel reveals the skill of a chef, the simplicity of the Manhattan means that any flaws in the quality or proportion of ingredients is rapidly revealed.

In these troubled times it is important that we stand up for what is right, so I set out to answer the question: how to make the right Manhattan.

The simple answer is not to make one at all, but to simply order one at Bar SixtyFive in the Rockefeller Center. They serve the Platonic Ideal of a Manhattan, combining cask strength Wild Turkey, exotic Italian vermouths and those brandy cherries that are endemic to New York City. Properly, it is stirred, not shaken, and served on the rocks in a lowball glass. And the bar is in, well, Manhattan. With a stunning view of the Empire State Building.

So if you live in Manhattan your problem is now solved. For the rest of us there is…

The New Manhattan Project

The New Manhattan Project aims to use scientific methodology to determine the correct recipe for a Manhattan cocktail. A crack team of researchers has been assembled and have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of this important endeavour.

The elite research team: (l-r) Kevin, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Cathy, Carl and Bryan.
The elite research team: (l-r) Kevin, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Cathy, Carl and Bryan.

The first activity of this project was a seminar on Sunday afternoon, 4 August at On-the-Plus-Side secure facility and headquarters. The key objective of this seminar was to determine the correct basic ingredients of a Manhattan. Blind tastings were conducted to answer basic questions such as:

– Bourbon or Rye?

– Which vermouth is correct?

– Which type of cherry is best?

Report from the First Plenary


A modest selection of red vermouth.
A modest selection of red vermouth.

After an initial warm-up round of basic Manhattans, the researchers dove into the thorny issue of vermouth. Six red vermouths are currently available at the People’s Republic Patriotic Commissary LCBO. A preliminary round of research allowed us to down-select to four, with Bosco and Martini & Rossi voted off the island for being one-dimensional.

The four contenders were blind-tasted and compared, with researchers asked to rate them on colour, balance (sweet vs bitter), flavour as a solo beverage, and compatibility as part of a Manhattan.  For the most part the scores were close, but a clear winner and a clear loser were determined:

Lowest-rated: Dolin (France). The Tasters found it too sweet and lacking in complexity. Perhaps suitable as an aperitif over ice but not wanted on the Manhattan voyage.

Mid-pack: Cinzano Rosso and Lionello Original (Italy). Both were deemed suitable by most participants, and each received two first-place votes.

Highest-rated: Campano Antica Formula (Italy). A strong preference emerged for this vermouth. Many professional bartenders consider it the best, and a blind tasting confirmed this. A very complex drink that would make a lovely aperitif, its forté was as a mixer. Antica Formula had a dramatic, positive effect and was considered hands-down the best vermouth for a Manhattan.

Needless to say, it is only available at Paternalsim-is-Us the LCBO temporarily, so Ontario residents will want to lay in a supply to tide them over until (a) they re-stock it in another five years or so, or (b) hell freezes over and we get privately-run liquor stores.

Not tasted: Punt e Mes (Italy). Used in the Bar SixtyFive Manhattan. Unavailable in Ontario. Should have tasted it but ran out of glassware. 😉

Bourbon vs Rye

Proper whiskies all!

It is likely that the original Manhattan Cocktail was made with rye whiskey. Purists maintain that what was once must forever be, and are riled that bourbon has now become the default option. In order to resolve this debate and bring peace to the galaxy, the two drinks were evaluated side-by-side.

The constituent whiskies were Jim Beam Black Label, representing the bourbon team, and Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. These are whiskies of good quality – a step above bar whiskey, but not at the top level. (I had Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon and Knob Creek Rye on hand but these are reserved for drinking neat).

This round of tests did not yield a clear winner. The team was split 4-3 in favour of bourbon, but none of the members were prepared to accept this as definitive. Then, as often happens in scientific endeavours, serendipity stepped in. One unnamed member,[2] possibly a bit in his cups already, dumped his two half-finished drinks together. He declared the resulting mash-up the winner, and the panel tentatively agreed. A confirmatory batch of cocktails would be needed, but professional decorum was starting to slide a bit so I called a time out on further cocktails until we had completed the next task.

CherriesCocktail cherries

The panel agreed that a cherry was an essential part of the drink, and that a stem was desirable but not essential. Six types of cherry were evaluated:

  • Amarena Fabbri Wild Cherries in Syrup (Italy)
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries (Italy) – the original maraschino cherry
  • Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Cherries (USA)
  • Bog standard, bizarrely red cocktail cherries, as seen on a Dairy Queen sundae (Probably grown at Chernobyl)
  • Home-made New York-style brandied cherries, made with bottled sour cherries and brandy
  • Home-made fresh cherries in brandy

The above list shows the candidates in rank order from top to bottom. The top two were preferred by a wide margin, with the Amaretto cherries slightly nudging past Luxardo. Merry Maraschino and the industrial cherries were in the middle, while both home-made versions fell far behind. The bottled cherries were deemed unappealingly mushy, and the fresh cherries too boozy. In fairness the latter may have suffered from being too fresh – usually these cherries need about six months to moulder before they are ready. Further research may be needed.

The Correct Manhattan

The scientifically correct Manhattan
The scientifically correct Manhattan

A final batch of cocktails was produced in accordance with the initial findings, allowing participants to review their work in detail. The team pointed out that findings were not valid unless replicated, so a second batch was produced. By this point they were not making much sense, but they concurred that through diligent work we had scientifically determined the recipe for the Correct Manhattan.

The research team
Who says science is boring?


In a lowball glass, combine:

Two dashes Angostura Bitters

¾ ounces bourbon

¾ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce red vermouth, preferably Carpano Antica Formula

Stir to mix. Add three ice cubes. Skewer a cocktail cherry, either Amarena Fabbri or Luxardo, and add as a garnish. Repeat as necessary.

The team then relaxed. Concluding that they might by then be tired of Manhattans I offered something completely different – a Manhattan Negro, in which Amaro Lucano replaces the vermouth. According to  the Gibberish-English mode of Google Translate it seems that these were well-received.


For its next task the research team will set its sights on gin. Amid the current wild proliferation of gin brands and styles it is necessary to determine the best gin or gins for the home bartender. A report will be published in due course. Stay tuned!

The Ethics Committee has determined that this activity met established guidelines. Participants were free to control their own intake. Alternative (non-alcoholic) beverages were available. Only mild bullying was permitted. No animals were harmed in pursuit of this research project.

[1] Whiskey in this case because it is made with Bourbon or Rye. The no-E (Scotch) whisky version is a Rob Roy. An oddity at best.

[2] It was Kevin. 😊

Birding Beer Challenge 2018

The Jon Bubb Beer Challenge

When I announced my intention to have a biggish birding year, one of my friends innocently(!) suggested that sampling a different beer for every bird seen was some sort of tradition. The provenance of this claim is unknown, but Jon is a straight shooter and former Royal Marine and thus trustworthy on the subject of drinking traditions, so I had little choice but to take on the birding beer challenge.

Simple enough, or so it seemed…

Birding and beers have a long and storied friendship. In the UK, where I cut my birding teeth, a visit to the pub was the normal end to a good day of birding. In Canada this is less true – stopping at Tim’s is more common (a poor substitute in my mind). But most birders can be talked into a post-ornithological pint with minimal arm-twisting.

We are also living in the golden age of craft beer, with hundreds of brews available and new micro-breweries popping up everywhere. So in principle there should be 250 beers available, even in our benighted province where the beer market is a government monopoly.

Oh, and I like beer.

There is a fly in this ointment, of course. On the best day so far this year (1 Jan, natch) I added 31 species to the year list. On no day this or any other year have I sampled 31 pints of beer. So I have been trying to play catch-up on the beer front while falling farther behind all the time.

Duchesse de Bourgogne - Jon Bubb Birding Beer Challenge.
Duchesse de Bourgogne – a fine example of a traditional top fermented reddish-brown ale from West-Flanders

However this post marks beer #100. I had planned to sample something special for the one hundredth beer species of the year, but due to poor accountancy skills I squandered the number 100 slot on the boringest of beers – Heineken. The pictured brew is more what I had in mind. It rings in at number 104.

A few general observations so far:

  • Why are Canadian craft beers unnecessarily strong? A session ale should be in the 3.5-4% range, especially if served in pints. The minimum for Canadian craft beers seems to be 5%, and 6+% is common. Lynn theorizes that this is because hipsters drink only one beer at a time and then waste their remaining in-pub hours debating its merits… 🙂
  • Yes, modern IPAs are interesting and voguish. But something close to 80% of available craft beers are IPAs. There are other beer styles known to humankind. Our local brew pub likes to brag about the number of craft brews they have on tap, but almost all of them are variations on IPA.
  • Where are the English-style bitters? A mere handful are being made. And again GUM Department Store the LCBO doesn’t help – on a typical day they will have one English bitter on sale, hemmed in by hordes of pedestrian imports and a plethora of nearly-identical IPAs. They once carried the excellent Propeller Extra Special Bitter from Halifax, but they have de-listed it in favour of Propeller IPA. Grrr.
  • Everything from Muskoka Brewery, Mill Street and Nickel Brook is good. Perth Brewery and Prince Eddy are very promising and will require further investigation.

The Best of the First 100

So I am 104 beers into the Beer Challenge and so far I have not tasted an actively bad brew. A few, however, stand out from the others and deserve mention. Herewith my recommendations. I have not attempted to rank them, save that the number one beer is my Number One Beer:

  1. Fuller’s London Pride
  2. (tie)
Prince Eddie’s Brewing Co Milk Shaka Stout
Skeleton Park Amber 6.6
Stone City 12 Star Session Ale
Spearhead Moroccan Brown Ale
Boshkung Brewing Company 35 & 118 Cream Ale
La Micro Brewing Co Conejo Mago IPA
Muskoka Brewery Mad Tom
Muskoka Brewery Moonlight Kettle
MacKinnon Brothers Crosscut
Boreale IPA
Boshkung Brewing Company North Country Kellerbier
Bobcaygeon Brewing Company Firestarter
MacKinnon Brothers Red Fox Ale
Black Creek Canada 150 Best Bitter
Fullers London Porter
Shepherd Neame Spitfire Kentish Ale
Manitoulin Brewing Co Cup and Saucer English Ale
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout
Creveceria Nacional Dominicana Presidente
Mill Street 100th Meridian
Muskoka Cream Ale
555 Brewing Co Footprint IPA
Muskoka Harvested Ale
Prince Eddy’s Milkshaka Stout
Granville Island Pale Ale
Four Fathers Brewing Co Shevchenko 9 Ukrainian dunkel
Manitoulin Brewing Co Cup and Saucer English ale
Railway City Brewing Co Black Coal stout
Nickel Brook Brewing Co Head Stock IPA
Nickel Brook Brewing Co Equilibrium English-style ale
Amsterdam Brewery Boneshaker unfiltered IPA
Waterloo Grapefruit Radler
Black Creek Canadian Frontier Best Bitter Ale
Mad and Noisy Orange Pale Ale
Chimay Blue Label
Upper Canada Repatriation Lager
Perth Brewery 25 Thistles Anniversary Ale
Br. Verhaege Vichte Duchesse de Bourgogne

Of course I cannot consider these results scientifically valid until I have replicated them…

Beer Challenge Rules (as determined by me):

  1. Sample Size. Ideally each beer should be imbibed in its natural form. For draft beers this means a pint glass; bottles or cans should be decanted into an appropriate-sized glass. I will allow half pints in a pinch, but samples do not count.
  2. Do radlers count? I deem that they do. Especially Waterloo’s Grapefruit Radler. Allowing the odd radler or shandy makes up for all those 7% IPAs.
  3. Neer beers (i.e. alcohol-free beers) do not count. That said, I can recommend two good ones: Grolsch and Molson’s Excel.
  4. In this era of trade wars and other sorts of strategic stupidity it is important to stand up for your friends and boycott the products of the countries that are intent on doing us harm. So rule number 4 is: no beers from fascist countries, from countries sliding towards fascism, and from countries run by populist demagogues.

To avoid offending anyone’s ancestral home (and to lessen the risk of hacking attacks) I will not name the offenders. Suffice it to say that I will have to continue the Beer Challenge without the help of Baltika, San Miguel, Tsingtao, and whatever swill they drink in Venezuela.  Peroni is no great loss anyway, but foregoing Zywiec is a blow. I will survive.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale remains on the list. For now.

Burnt Orange – A new cocktail

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”

— Dorothy Parker

So one night recently I was watching Springwatch on the Beeb and sipping a wee dram of Scotland’s finest. After the show I went to waste some time on the machine – Empire Deluxe Enhanced Edition being my latest addiction. At some point I thought a bit of Cointreau would finish off the evening, so I poured a small slug. It was late and the room is not well lit – at least that’s my excuse for not noticing that a small amount of single malt still remained in the glass.

On the surface this looks like a recipe for disaster, but the result was intriguing. The main impression was the dry intense orange flavour of Cointreau, but somehow the smoky, peaty malt added a very pleasing edge to the concoction.

Continue reading Burnt Orange – A new cocktail

The Rabbit Lever Action Corkscrew

I have tried a lot of corkscrews over the years, and in general I have been disappointed. Most of those available fail in at least one of the two critical criteria: they don’t remove corks cleanly and easily, and/or they are fragile. However I bought a Rabbit a couple of years ago and am finally content. I think the Metrokane Rabbit two-step corkscrew achieves the gold standard.

The most important quality of a corkscrew is that (duh!) it removes corks easily and efficiently. The Rabbit has the key features needed to do the job. It has a slim but strong screw with a coating that allows it to easily screw into even old and hard corks. It is robustly built and very comfortable in the hand. The blade for removing foil is sharp and nicely shaped. The fact that it costs no more than a decent bottle of table wine is icing on the cake.

This particular design is called a waiter corkscrew, but the best examples have a two stage (“two step”) lever action. The Rabbit is a two stage model and it works brilliantly . The two stage action gives you a mechanical advantage that comes in very handy when trying to remove a long cork, such as those used in vintage Bordeaux wines.

rabbit corkscrew

Continue reading The Rabbit Lever Action Corkscrew

Cheerios – Food of the Gods

My sainted wife gave me an early Christmas present!


For all that I enjoy living in Britain, there are a few national peculiarities that continue to puzzle me. A case in point is the Cheerios Affair. Any reputable grocery store will stock a number of bizarre offshoots of the Cheerios clan – honey/almond, multi-grain, “chocolatey”, basil/chipotle (OK, I made that last one up), but the humble simple unsweetened toasty perfection of the original 100% oat Cheerio is nowhere to be found.

This is not merely an academic observation – my standard breakfast for going on 40 years has been a bowl of Cheerios. The chaos that might befall if I had to eat some other kind of cereal is too terrible to contemplate.

We do have the option of driving for about two hours to the nearest American PX, which also stocks other essentials of life unknown to the Brits: Miracle Whip, Texas Pete’s hot sauce and crunchy peanut butter in tubs larger than a teacup, but with fuel running at £1.20/litre this is an expensive proposition.

It’s probably a sign of age that we didn’t immediately work out the obvious solution. Of course you can Google Cheerios and of course you can have them delivered to your door. And this being Britain, of course they will show up the day after you order them. (That’s the standard delay for mail delivery). And just in time too – I was down to my last box.

Civilization as we know it is once again saved by the power of the world-wide web! Perhaps I’ll send a box of O’s to Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a reward. 🙂