Part Two: Lost in Alberta. And Windsor.
Davin, David, and Lew get into the nuts and bolts of Canadian whisky, as described by Lew.
After our day at Black Velvet, we left Lethbridge the next morning, headed north toward Calgary, and stopped along the way at the Highwood Distillery in High River, Alberta. These guys do things their own way: they don’t have a mill. Only distillery I’ve ever been to that doesn’t have a mill! They put the whole grain—wheat is what they’re currently running—in a big pressure cooker, step it up through three temperature/pressure stays, and then, at 120 psi, they open the valve and the wheat blows into a vessel where it slams into a bell-shaped metal plate. Any starches that haven’t already burst from the pressure blow open at that point! They’ve been doing it that way since they opened in 1974. They use a column still, and a pot still for rectification, doing a series of redistillations.
The guys at Highwood confirmed what we’d been starting to suspect: barrels are used, re-used, and re-used some more in Canada. “We like to get as much use out of a barrel as we can,” we were told. “A barrel is spent when it starts to leak.” There must have been some leakers in there, because Highwood’s warehouse was the most alcohol-filled I’ve ever been in; my eyes were burning! When we were treated to a sample from a 33 year old cask (which was lovely, sweet, and gentle enough to hold on the tongue, even at 79%, which is just crazy), the whisky reek in the air was so strong that I couldn’t discern a difference between the air in the glass and the air outside the glass! We had to open a door. By the time we got to the lab to taste whiskies, we were all a bit jolly from just breathing…
We tasted White Owl, Highwood’s carbon-filtered 5 year old white whisky (and their best-selling product). It was sweet, fruity, touched with vanilla, and a flip of a bitter finish; definitely not vodka, despite its appearance. We tasted several more whiskies, some—like the 20 year old Ninety (named for the proof)—quite good indeed, and then wrapped up with a bottle Dave and I had noticed: The Volstead Project. It was a 5 month old barreled Manhattan, and it was quite tasty; putting a handful of cracked ice in it made it even better. But…we begged to be dropped off at a restaurant for lunch; we were woozy! We ate a big lunch, and walked about a mile back to the distillery, and felt much better. Back to Calgary, and we’d leave early in the morning for a day of travel that ended in Windsor. (We’ve since learned that Highwood had 2 feet of water running through it on 6/20 due to flash floods; best of luck to them, hope they’re okay and didn’t lose much stock.)
Windsor was a pretty nice little town, all things considered—being a mile from Detroit these days can be unnerving—and after a great dinner at a place called the City Grill and a couple beers in some downtown pubs, we got some rest before the final day of distillery visits: Canadian Club and the Hiram Walker distillery.
If you’ve never been to Windsor—or Walkerville, as it was originally called, when it was Hiram Walker’s company town—you’ve never seen the Canadian Club Brand Center. Hiram Walker—the Hiram Walker, the man—built it in 1891 to celebrate the success of the global whisky brand he’d built. It’s modeled on the Pandolfini palace in Florence, and frankly, it’s stunning. Hiram may have been a grocer from Massachusetts, but he had or developed excellent taste, and the art and architecture in the building is beautiful. The offices look over the Detroit River, over to where Hiram lived (he never became a Canadian citizen, and commuted home every day by way of a tunnel and a cart pulled by his beloved donkey, Hector). We had time for a quick sample; I picked the CC 20 year old, and found it delicious, with a firmly oaky nose, but gracefully youthful notes of grass, mint, and pepper.
Canadian Club is made under contract at the Hiram Walker distillery. The distillery also makes the Corby brands, including Wiser’s, Pike Creek, and Lot No. 40. We got our tour from Dr. Don Livermore, the master blender, who is very savvy, and very keen to experiment with places Canadian whisky hadn’t yet gone. He talked several times about “keeping the pipeline full of innovation,” staying ahead of the demands of marketing.
This was where we came face-to-face with the tail-end of Canadian whisky, the waste, the DDG: distiller’s dried grains. Due to their use of enzymes and scarily clean fermentation, Canadian distillers get an almost complete use of sugars in fermentation, and as a result the material coming out of their dryhouse is almost all protein. Unlike the burnt chicken feather smell of most dryhouses, the Walker dryhouse smelled like toasted cereal, almost good enough to eat. When something’s wrong with fermentation, Dr. Don said, you’ll smell it here, and you’ll know. This high-protein product is a profit item for them; “It’s not a by-product,” he said, “it’s a co-product.”
Hiram Walker is huge. They use 218,000 liter (57,000 gallon) fermenters that use 60 metric tonnes of corn in every batch, and they have 39 of them. The fermenters are cooled by huge amounts of water piped in directly from the Detroit River: brute force cooling. Their column still is the size of a Titan missile and puts out spirit at 240 gallons a minute. It is the largest beverage alcohol plant in North America. It reminds you that while we may not think much about Canadian whisky—and that’s likely to change—one hell of a lot of it gets bought in a year.
We tasted 40 samples, everything from straight-up new make base whisky pulled off at 94.8% and their Polar Vodka, done at 96%— they were surprisingly different—to all the different flavoring variants of corn, rye, barley, malt, and wheat, run off the beer still in single pass or second-distilled in their pot still (referred to in-house as “Star” and “Star Special” variants) at various ages, spirit aged in used oak and new wood, and in used wood with red oak stave inserts…Dr. Don is an experimenting fool! “They’re all tools in the box for a master blender,” he said.
We tasted finished whiskies, too; the full Wiser’s range, Pike Creek, Lot No. 40, and a new J.P.Wiser that’s intended for the U.S., blended with more rye, and whiskies aged in new wood, bourbon barrels, and used Canadian whisky barrels. It was spicy, sweet, bold, and had some vinous notes to it. Then he pulled out a surprise. Davin had mentioned a 15 year old whisky from the defunct Gooderham & Worts distillery as a “dram before you die;” Dr. Don had the stock from the distillery and the formula, and he made up a small batch. We tasted it, and Davin was right; an exceptional whisky indeed.
You’d think it was downhill from there, but we drove out to the Wiser’s warehouses (beside the real Pike Creek, and sampled Dr. Don’s Ph.D. project, three small runs of whisky done in new oak. It was roaringly bold, and we were loath to toss them, but there were others to try… We were off the clock, and having fun, but still noticed that they had begun barcoding barrels and tracking use and flavor. Wood management is coming to Canada.
After a fine Italian dinner on Windsor’s Via Italia, and a couple more drinks in a street fair on a fine moonlit night…our trip was finally done. We’d learned a lot about Canadian whisky, its history, and its homeland. There’s a lot to be said for learning, that’s for sure.