Thursday, February 15, 2007

Unique whisky spills across categories

What happens when a winemaker from Canada takes grains typically used to make bourbon, ferments them with wine yeast, and distills it in an eau-de-vie still to makes whisky? You end up with whisky like nothing else in the world.

In 1992, winemaker John Hall purchased an eau-de-vie distillery in Grimsby, Ontario, on the southern shores of Lake Ontario midway between Buffalo and Toronto. ''There wasn't a great demand for eau-de-vie in Canada, so the owner sold it,'' he explained as we sat in the office of his small Kittling Ridge Estate Distillery. ''I wanted to start my own company. The timing was right.''

I knew that John's whisky-making process was unique as soon as he started describing the ingredients he uses to make his whisky: ''When making my premium whisky, Forty Creek Barrel Select, I use the same ingredients a bourbon distiller would down in Kentucky — corn, rye and malted barley. But I don't make a mash. I don't combine the three grains and cook them in water the way bourbon is made. When I was deciding how to make my whisky and read about how bourbon mash is made, it didn't make sense to me. When I have cereal in the morning, I don't add corn flakes to my wheat flakes before adding the milk.

He continued: ''I make three distinct whiskies — a rye whisky, a malt whisky and a corn whisky. I age them separately in their own barrels. For Forty Creek Barrel Select, I marry the three whiskies before bottling. I call it a 'meritage' whisky, similar to the way meritage wines are produced. I try not to use the word 'blend.' Many whisky drinkers look down on 'blended' whisky. The word has a bad connotation.''

As we went to see the stills, John continued: ''I actually use a wine yeast strain to ferment the grain sugars to alcohol rather than a typical distiller's or brewer's yeast. There are fewer volatiles. It produces a softer whisky.''

At Kittling Ridge, there are two eau-de-vie pot stills. One is 5,000 gallons; the other is 500 gallons. They aren't housed in a romantic still house like you might find in Scotland. Just two stills sitting next to each other in the corner of a very industrial-looking room.

''The majority of spirit comes from the larger still,'' John noted as we stood in front of it. ''Problem is, I want to make whisky in one pass, not by a double-distillation process common with single malt scotch or cognac. But one distillation in the pot still doesn't increase the alcohol enough for whisky, so I added a reflux column on top of the pot still to bring the alcohol level up. It's a pot still but, with the reflux column, it's getting some help.''

Seeing the puzzled look in my face, he continued: ''A winemaker endeavors to bring out the flavors of the grape variety. So why would I want to distill twice? I'll lose more flavor. I'll 'bruise and lose,' as we say in the wine industry. My still is now very similar to an armagnac still. Armagnac, on the whole, tends to be a softer, smoother brandy when compared to other brandies, and this is what I'm trying to achieve with my whiskies.''

Forty Creek Barrel Select is aged in three main cask types: used bourbon casks, new oak casks, and used sherry casks (from his own sherry). He's also been dabbling in Port casks and Canadian Oak casks for future bottlings.

John then began describing his ''meritage'' process. ''We dump the barrels by hand. I won't tell you the exact percentages, but I will say that Barrel Select has about the same amounts of corn and rye whisky, with a lesser amount of malt whisky. I combine the three whisky types together and then 'finish' the whisky for a further six months in sherry casks before bottling. Barrel Select consists of whiskies from six to 10 years old.''

Relative to the other big Canadian distilleries, Forty Creek Barrel Select whisky is barely a blip on the radar screen. Most of you reading this article probably never even heard of the whisky before today.

It is still very much a family affair in the front office. John makes the whisky. His wife runs the visitor's center and distillery tours, and his daughter handles many of the marketing aspects.

Still, his company has grown from 12 employees in 1992 to over 120 today. Some of this might be due to his work ethic. He was traveling 185 days last year. But I think the main reason is the quality and distinctiveness of his whisky.

As John explains: ''With Forty Creek Barrel Select I'm making a whisky that transcends categories. It's a whisky for Scotch drinkers, bourbon drinkers, and Canadian whisky drinkers. I use my wine background to make 'varietal' whiskies and blend them together. It's like making wine. I'm just painting on a different canvas.''

He continued: ''I'm a first generation whisky-maker. I don't have to follow any tradition. I don't have any prejudices. I just do what I think needs to be done. I'm not trying to be anyone else. I'm just trying to be me.''

John Hansell is a full-time drinks writer and editor of Malt Advocate (, a magazine for the whiskey enthusiast.

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