Archive for the ‘Canadian whisky’ Category

66Gilead: going up to the County

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxCrimson Rye is the latest whisky from 66Gilead, one of my favorite Canadian micro-distillers. This rural distillery takes its name from its street address in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The distillery sits on 80 tranquil and beautifully maintained acres in the heart of this popular tourist destination. Year round, visitors smile for photos among a scattering of grey-weathered outbuildings. In summer they amble across the broad green lawns, accompanied by an ever-scurrying flock of multi-colored chickens.

The main attraction at 66Gilead is clearly the frequently packed tasting room on the main floor of a restored 19th century home built by a wealthy hop farmer, Bert Cooper.

The 12 Barrel delivery wagon is being restored.

Today, in order to meet fire code, the distillery itself occupies a new metal structure, though the rest of the outbuildings remain as they were in Bert Cooper’s era. There’s an oast house – a hop drying kiln – complete with slatted floors and brick ovens that provided gentle heat for drying. It’s an education to see how hops were dried over a century ago and how large the scale of brewing operations was, even then.

I first visited 66Gilead a couple of years ago. “The County” was built by hard-working farmers, and recently it has become home to some of Canada’s elite writers and musicians.

My day began when I joined a few dozen well-heeled, back-to-the-earth retirees and aging hippies for breakfast and single-estate coffee at the Tall Poppy Café in Wellington. Some long-time residents are not amused that these newcomers beautify their properties with brightly painted old farm machinery and heritage vegetable stands.

I’m back in The County for the launch of Crimson Rye. It’s a luscious big whisky, mature well beyond it’s 42 months in barrel. “It’s the heat,” Peter Stroz explains as we walk around in the distillery. After filling, the barrels are stacked in the distillery building to mature. Even though the stills are not working today, Peter concedes, “It’s hot in here!”

Michael, son of Peter Stroz, has a theory about why the spirits from 66Gilead distillery are so consistently good. “You really have to want to do this,” he tells me. “There are so many government regulations and obstacles that you really have to be determined to succeed.”

Michael is a recent graduate in software engineering, and minds the distillery during the week while the owners (his parents Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi) work at their day jobs. Both are radiologists in Toronto, a commute that takes them about two-and-a-half hours.

Distiller Sophia Pantazi with her still.

This is a genuine small batch distillery and here that means one to three barrels. “Why should I do more?” asks Sophia, “I want quality not volume.”

That attention to quality and detail is reflected in the oil paintings that hang in the distillery guesthouse. Sophia is also an accomplished painter. She may spend weekdays reading x-rays, but in her soul, I think Sophia is an artist.

“Sophia is the creative one,” Peter confirms, “I’m just the property manager.”

In Canada, grain spirit must be aged for at least three years before it can be called whisky. Crimson Rye is the first mature rye to come from 66Gilead. Even so, their rye spirit – what some would call “white rye” – has been available in local liquor stores for several years. Don’t tell martini or whisky snobs, but it makes a heck of a great dirty martini.

Bradford counts to twelve as the barrel chars.

As chickens run clucking around the property, a clanging sound from the Carriage House Cooperage tells me that Pete Bradford is pounding hoops onto a new barrel. I venture back to find some 40 people gathered around his charring furnace, a single barrel late-18th-century working antique. He is about to finish a newly made local-oak cask.

Carefully he places the barrel over the fire and soon it is crackling. “When it starts to ping it’s ready to ignite,” he tells the intrigued onlookers. But this one is a slow starter. It takes almost ten minutes for those distinct pinging sounds to begin then Bradford gets into position. Once the barrel ignites he lets it burn for about 12 seconds then douses it with a pail of water. Even the fire is hand crafted. It’s fueled with 100% white oak scrap.

This is physically challenging work and Bradford tells me he will pass the cooperage on to a new apprentice cooper before year’s end. Canada’s last working cooperage will remain in operation, though he explains that it will likely move elsewhere in The County.

It’s now 2 in the afternoon and a busload of tourists has arrived for a distillery tour and a tasting. Canadian distilleries are notoriously disinterested in tours. 66Gilead is an exception. Visitors are more than welcome here and there’s plenty to keep them occupied.

“Our conversion rate is outstanding,” Sophia grins. I wonder for an instant if our conversation has suddenly turned religious, until she points to the visitors.

“Look at that, over half of them are taking a bottle or two home with them.”

In addition to Crimson Rye and Wild Oak Whisky, 66Gilead also serves vodka, gin, shochu, and barrel-aged rum in the tasting room. “We distil every drop on site,” says Sophia. “It really hurts the craft distillery image that some people use grain neutral spirits.”

Peter nods in agreement. It’s obvious to see how satisfying it is for them to make spirits that are hand crafted in minute batches. I have to remind myself that Peter and Sophia spend most of their week in white coats, tending to patient’s medical needs, and not looking after these barrels.

I ask Peter about their dual focus. “I’m just as passionate about medicine. But here I can chat and joke and share stories with people. At the hospital there is always that element of doctor-patient confidentiality.”

They are genuinely welcoming hosts, Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz, and spending a day at 66Gilead in Prince Edward County is certainly worth the drive if Toronto is your base. Experience their hospitable spirit and taste their distilled spirit and you’ll likely end up discovering a bottle worth bringing home with you.

Canadian Club releases an all-rye-grain whisky

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxIt was a secret mission. So secret, in fact, that even the operative did not know what it was about. I could name the operative but that would put them at risk. Let’s just say, for the moment, it’s a whisky-loving writer based in a friendly country not that far away. It was mid-April and he flew from somewhere in that country to Louisville to meet Beam Suntory marketing director, Kelly McGregor. Louisville isn’t the easiest city to fly to and it took a full day of travel to get there, another on the return. All that for a single day in Louisville.

When Kelly met him for breakfast she couldn’t help cracking a smile as she told him that a blindfold would not be required for the journey. She identified the destination: the Jim Beam distillery campus on Happy Hollow Road in Clermont. Happy Hollow has a nice backwoods ring to it, but when they arrived at their destination – the product development lab – they were surrounded by the essence of modern science, right down to omnipresent white lab coats.

Canadian Club Rye in rye field“We’re going to taste some whisky,” she finally told him. “We’d like to get your impressions.” So, they toured the lab before he sat down with five scientists and about a dozen glasses of whisky. Some, he reports, were good, some were great, and one was just so-so. All had the rich spiciness, dried fruitiness, subtle sourness, and refreshing bitterness of rye.

They worked in silence, writing their tasting notes, five whiskies at a time, and then, once they’d committed their thoughts to paper, they discussed them one by one. Not which ones they liked or why, just aromas, flavors, and impressions. After a couple more rounds, someone collected all the notes, and just like that, it was over. He still hadn’t a clue what was really going on and he doubted that his hurriedly dashed-off notes would be decipherable, let alone of any value.

Then late in August this year, Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory’s senior brand manager, sent him an e-mail. “I wanted to let you know about our new product launch in Canadian whisky. I cannot reveal it yet, but will be letting you know sometime in September. We were honored that you were able to join our team in Kentucky, and hopefully you got a taste of what I consider to be our obsession with moving the Canadian whisky category forward. This new product, and in particular because it comes from this brand, will open the eyes of many Canadians about Canadian whisky.”

Great news, Rob, but there’s an important detail that’s missing: WHICH BRAND????

In Louisville, his taste buds had told him it was rye, and he knew that Rob was the mastermind behind Dark Horse, one of his favorites. So, when he received an invitation to attend a product launch for a new whisky from Canadian Club, one sentence jumped out at him: “Join us as CC unveils the newest member of its portfolio, honoring the grain that is exciting bartenders and whisky lovers across the country.”

Let’s join the dots: Beam Suntory owns Canadian Club. Bingo! He had it. A new all-rye Canadian Club.

Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory

Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory

It was an educated guess, though Rob still was evading his questions. Then a week or so before the launch, a messenger arrived from Beam Suntory with a bottle. He ripped the package open and lo and behold: Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye whisky.

Rob finally let him in on the secret. The whisky, he explained, is distilled and aged for 7 years at Alberta Distillers, Beam Suntory’s western Canadian distillery in Calgary and then shipped east to Walkerville, Ontario, for bottling at 40% abv.

Wait a minute! Before fans of “more-is-better” begin to snipe that the whisky is bottled at a standard 40%, take a look at the price. This seven-year-old 100%-rye-grain whisky sells for about $1.50 more than regular Canadian Club Premium. “We could have priced it higher,” Rob concedes, “but we wanted to get it into the hands of 25 to 30 year olds and price is sill an important factor for them.”

A note, then, to US residents who love their rye: Get ready for your cross border shopping run. With just 70,000 cases in the pipeline each year, this new whisky, at least for now, is available in Canada only.

Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye was unveiled at a launch held at Toronto’s Spoke Club on October 2 and will be appearing in Canadian liquor stores over then next few months.

And finally, I can reveal the identity of this whisky-loving operative. It’s… Wait! I hear footsteps…

A Whirlwind Canadian Whisky Tour

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Author - Davin de Kergommeaux

Davin de Kergommeaux is a tireless chronicler of Canadian whisky, and one of his best attributes is that he very much wants to share the good news. Here he takes Whisky Advocate writers Dave Broom and David Wondrich along on a tour of some big Canadian distilleries: Crown Royal (Gimli and Valleyfield) and Canadian Mist.

I meet Dave Broom at the baggage carousel at Winnipeg airport. Dave’s flown in from England for a first-hand look at Canadian whisky, beginning at Crown Royal’s distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, 55 miles north of here on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

It may well be May, but the ice lies thick on the lake. That’s fitting. In the late 19th century, Icelanders fleeing volcanoes and other woes settled here. The very name Gimli is Icelandic for “Haven From Hellfire,” and this haven feels like the coldest place on earth to make whisky.

Gimli distillery: the core

Gimli distillery: the core

Jan Westcott from the industry group Spirits Canada joins us as we head to the plant where twelve massive columns produce 90,000 liters of five different distillates daily. Local Manitoba corn is used for continuous base whisky, producing a light, sweet, and nutty flavor with a floral essence. It comes off the still at 94.6% ABV and turns crisp, woody, and spicy after 8 years in barrel.

A second, batch base whisky contributes Crown’s signature creaminess. Batch base starts with the same all-corn mash as continuous base and is distilled to the same ABV, but in a column and kettle still. Low wines boil in a large sideways pot, which slowly feeds vapors up a tall 54-inch diameter column where heads and tails are discarded. Already creamy as new make, with hints of juicy fruit and butterscotch, 8 years in wood adds cedar, grapefruit pith, and nutty elements. With skillful additions of flavoring whisky, these bases become seven expressions of Crown Royal.

Rye flavoring comes from a mash of 95% rye and 5% barley malt, and corn flavoring from a mash of 65% corn/30% rye/5% malt. Both are distilled in a beer still to 64% ABV.

The pièce de résistance is the Coffey rye. Distilled to a low ABV, it transforms into stunning rye whisky after 11 years in wood. Remarkably, it’s made from the same mash bill as the corn (yes, corn) flavoring, but distilled in an improvised Coffey-style still transported from Seagram’s shuttered Waterloo distillery. Each of the three flavoring whiskies is fermented using proprietary yeasts grown on-site. Corn and rye flavoring mature in 80% new wood barrels and 20% one-time bourbon dumpers, Coffey rye matures in new wood.

Davin Oakenshield and Dave Skullsplitter

Davin Oakenshield and Dave Skullsplitter

Dropping by the Icelandic Museum we sample Icelandic hard fish, washed down with Brennivin – Black Death. Then, Toronto, 1,400 miles to the east where we meet David Wondrich and drive north to Brown-Forman’s Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood.

 

Collingwood

Distillery manager David Dobbin guards the secret mash recipes carefully, but clearly there are several. The base is made from local corn and barley malt, the flavoring from corn, barley malt, and Ontario rye, all fermented using proprietary liquid yeast. Canadian Mist and Collingwood whiskies are distilled in a single beer still and two columns inside a tiny stillhouse.

Canadian Mist: Tom Hartle, Gay Arsenault, and David Dobbin

Canadian Mist: Tom Hartle, Gay Arsenault, and David Dobbin

Production at Canadian Mist is increasing, evidenced by rows of new barrels in a warren of twelve cinder block warehouses under a common roof. Forklifts thread pallets of newly filled barrels down long narrow rows. Others transport mature whisky for dumping. This involves drilling holes in the heads then vacuuming out the whisky, four barrels at a time. In winter the warehouses are heated to 50° F for continuous maturation. Once blended, Collingwood is shipped to Woodford Reserve for bottling, while Canadian Mist is bottled in Louisville, by Brown-Forman.

In the lab we sample Canadian Mist. “Highly improved,” declares Wondrich. Next: Collingwood. Suddenly, quality control manager Don Jaques pulls out a bottle of cask-strength Collingwood 21 year old rye. Dobbin’s eyes widen. “Where’d you get that?” he asks.

“I kept a few extra retains,” Jaques grins, as glasses are thrust forward faster than any last-call tippler at a whisky show. Rich, spicy, and smooth, with hints of ginger, cinnamon, and chocolate, you wish they’d bottled this one-batch-only 100% rye-grain whisky at more than 40%.

Davids Broom and Wondrich on Lake Huron, the water source for Canadian Mist

Davids Broom and Wondrich on Lake Huron, the water source for Canadian Mist

That evening, Wondrich introduces us to Normie’s, a recently renovated, brightly lit dive whose owner, Janet, overhears our discussion of libations. “Last time I drank tequila I ended up in handcuffs, and not for a good reason,” she confesses. Wiser’s it is, we decide. Next morning it’s Montreal, 400 miles east.

 

 

Valleyfield

Barrel pyramids at Valleyfield

Barrel pyramids at Valleyfield

Distillery manager Martin Laberge greets us at Valleyfield, Diageo’s other Canadian distillery, outside Montreal. Each day, 200 employees turn 260 metric tons of corn into the annual equivalent of 28 million liters of pure alcohol. In classically Québecois-French style, this distillery is a long narrow strip of 22 buildings stretching back from the road.

Valleyfield makes base whiskies only, importing flavoring whiskies from Gimli for the Diageo blends made on site, including V.O., Five Star, and Crown Royal Maple. They also bottle the low-volume Crown Royal blends, such as XR.

Eight thousand kilos of local corn make up a mash and it takes eight mashes to fill one of the twelve fermenters. Two proprietary yeasts take 55 hours to convert the corn into alcohol. Batch base whisky is distilled in a beer still and then a kettle and column still. Continuous base travels through four columns: a beer still, aldehyde column, rectifier, and fusel oil column.

Huge, nine-story warehouses hold a million barrels of maturing Valleyfield whisky, on racks, pallets, or offset rows of barrels piled in pyramids.

Sampling is the best part of any tour and master blender Andrew MacKay offers five versions of Crown Royal. Based in Valleyfield, he is also responsible for the Gimli blends. Creamy texture defines Crown Royal, though each whisky exhibits its own flavor spectrum. My favorite? The one-batch-only Monarch 75th Anniversary, containing the most Coffey rye ever in Crown Royal. “You would expect that if you put more flavoring in you’d get more flavor but it kind of smudges together,” MacKay explains. Base whiskies open up these flavors. This is regal whisky, rich in butterscotch and pine-cedar complemented by chocolate fudge and rich spices.

Our Canadian whisky whirlwind ends on this high note and then we follow Andrew MacKay to Montreal’s Trudeau airport. Broom is New York bound for a book launch, Wondrich to Nashville to judge cocktails, Westcott home for family time. And me? Ottawa and this blog. Ahh, the whisky life!

Top 10 Whiskies Reviewed in the Summer 2014 Issue Buying Guide

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Here’s a sneak preview of our Summer 2014 issue’s Buying Guide. A total of 117 whiskies were reviewed for this issue. We welcomed two new members to our review team: Jonny McCormick (blended scotch, blended malts, grain, Irish, and world whisky) and Geoffrey Kleinman (flavored whiskies and U.S.-exclusive imports).

Crown-Royal-XO-bottle#10 – Crown Royal XO, 40%, $45

A rich luxurious whisky finished in cognac casks, as was the crisper, brighter Cask No. 16 that it replaces. This is the cedary, leathery, tobacco-ish sipping whisky of the private club. Simple toffee and the cherry essence of Beaujolais nouveau evolve into ripe red apples and heavy, dusky, dark fruit with candied citrus peel, bitter almond skins, and hints of oak. Sizzling gingery spice and white pepper linger over textured sandalwood. Defined by its heavy, creamy body. —Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#9 – Evan Williams Single Barrel (Barrel No. 1) 2004, 43.3%, $27

Polished and nicely balanced, with caramel as the main note, followed by candied fruit, soft vanilla, sweet corn, and nougat. Subtle spice (ginger, cinnamon) and gentle oak on the finish round out the sweet notes. Easygoing demeanor and very drinkable. Great value too! A very pleasing, versatile bourbon. —John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93JW Odyssey

#8 – Johnnie Walker Odyssey, 40%, $1,100

Jim Beveridge delivered these aromas of toffee apple, peach, and rich berry fruits by working with European oak casks. The smoke is timid, with hints of background salinity. The finely structured mouthfeel is where this triple malt whisky truly shines: the polished smoothness is exceptional. The flavor journey begins with honey, citrus, and swirling melted chocolate, building to a fire of squeezed orange oils, dry fruits, and pecan nuttiness before concluding with rich espresso, dark caramels, and plain chocolate. Immaculate.—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#7 – Cragganmore Triple Matured Edition, 48%, £80

This is Cragganmore in early autumnal guise. Dry leaves underfoot, ripe black fruits on the bushes, waxed jacket, chestnut, and a whiff of cedary smoke, opening into dried peach. The palate is thickly textured, with those fruits, dark chocolate, and pomegranate molasses. The immensely long finish gives you light pepper, smoke, and blackberry jam. Cragganmore at its very best, and at a great price. —Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93mortlach_18yo

#6 – Mortlach 18 year old, 43.4%, £180/500 ml

Deep amber in color with the green glints of first-fill sherry, this has bosky notes and meat—mutton and venison—plus graphite, bitter chocolate, and wet rock before layers of dried stone fruits and date. This is the most savory and Bovril-like of the new range. The palate is feral and earthy; think mushroom with game pie, and rowan berries. Deep, but with more dimensions than the previous 16 year old which, in comparison, seems like a blunt instrument.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#5 – Brora 40 year old Single Cask 1972 Vintage, 59.1%, £7,000

Just 160 bottles of 1972 Brora are available through UK World of Whiskies and World Duty Free Group stores. The oldest bottling of Brora to date was distilled using heavily-peated malt. A big hit of oily peat on the early nose, with malt, dried fruit, and black pepper. Mildly medicinal. The palate yields bonfire ash, licorice, honey, more pepper, and well-integrated oak. The finish is long, with peat smoke, plain chocolate, and tannins lingering in harmony. Complex and rewarding. —Gavin D Smith

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

#4 – The John Walker, 40%, $3,500

The pinnacle of the current Johnnie Walker range, this is a rare, inimitable blend of just nine whiskies. It exudes the aromas of ripe bananitos, whole mango, satsuma, vanilla seeds, barley awns, butter biscuits, and crystallized pineapple. The supple grain sustains indulgent, characterful malts creating a weighty, smooth mouthfeel. I’m smitten by the vanilla creaminess, burgeoning deep fruit layers, how it swells with a satisfying snuffbox smokiness. A beautifully styled blend delivering a captivating, sensuous experience. (330 bottles only)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94Last Drop 50 year old

#3 – The Last Drop 50 year old, 50.9%, $4,000

Would you have gambled The Last Drop 1960 liquid in new sherry wood for four more years? The indulgent nose proffers maple syrup, buckwheat honey, roasted spices, blue grapes, pomegranate, raspberry compote, cilantro, pandan leaf, and beefsteak juices soaking into mushroom gills. The complex, lustrous mouthfeel is replete with a sheen of rich maltiness, molasses lashed by sherry before a dry, resinous finish. Water brings an oily nuttiness, then further drops produce a silky, clingy texture. Glorious. Miraculous. Victorious. (388 bottles only) —Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

peatmonster_park-avenue_front2#2 – Compass Box The Peat Monster 10th Anniversary Special Cask Strength Bottling, 54.7%, $120

As you’d expect, solid peat is the first thing out of the glass, but this isn’t just a peat beast. Underneath are honey, dried fruit, and malt. The palate is all about balance with honeyed malt, raisin, and oak spice all complementing smoky peat. A lush mouthfeel makes you forget it’s cask strength. A pure love note in a glass from Compass Box to Park Avenue Liquor.  (Park Avenue Liquor only.) —Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
Bookers 25th Anniv Bottle

#1 – Booker’s 25th Anniversary Bourbon Batch No 2014-1, 65.4%, $100

The complete package: uncut, unfiltered, full-flavored, richly textured (almost chewy), and very complex. Notes of toffee-coated nuts, vanilla fudge, polished leather, cedar-tinged tobacco, barrel char, cocoa powder, and a hint of fig, wrapped up with a firm oak grip on the finish. Worth every penny of the premium price being charged for this commemorative release. —John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxWhen Robert Simonson alerted me recently that the makers of WhistlePig rye were finally ready to “come clean” and confirm that the whiskey* they bottle is from Canada, I was skeptical. However, in an article written for the upcoming summer 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate, Simonson quotes WhistlePig’s master distiller, Dave Pickerell, saying that the original WhistlePig came from Canada’s Alberta Distillers (ADL), and that some of it still does.

Here’s some of what that piece will say:

“It’s fairly common knowledge that that’s where we started,” Pickerell said of ADL. “What’s not common knowledge is that’s not where we are now. We are growing our own rye on site and contracting whiskey from three distilleries in the U.S. and two in Canada.” One of those Canadian distilleries, however, is still ADL.

Has several years of badgering from American whiskey bloggers softened the stance at WhistlePig? Finally, Pickerell has stated for the record that at least some of the whiskey is from Canada. He also went on record in 2010 that this is the very best rye whiskey in the world.

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

When WhistlePig was released in 2010, the firm’s publicist was blunt that they did not want people to know that the whiskey was Canadian. So I was surprised when WhistlePig brand owner Raj Bhakta contacted me last week wanting to talk. Speaking of his whiskey’s Canadian heritage he was quick to say, “That’s not something I’ve shied away from,” although he did later concede that might not have been his approach in the beginning. In any case, he is talking now, and is completely candid that the whiskey they are bottling today is still from the same single Canadian source, not five distilleries as Pickerell implies.

“Yes, we’ve been growing our own grain,” he continued, “and we have been contracting others to distill it for us. We wanted to see how it turned out. That whiskey is currently maturing on the farm in Vermont, but it is not yet ready for release.” And the whiskey in the bottles? It’s still all Canadian rye whiskey, and will be for years to come.

“We’re deeply in bed with Canada, it’s just not our lead,” he continues. “WhistlePig is a Canadian-U.S. collaboration to the core. The latest batch has spent four years on the farm in our own barrels, so much of the flavor is from wood we put it into in Vermont.”

Shortly after Bhakta bought WhistlePig farm in 2007, he began casting about for business ideas. A mutual friend introduced him to Pickerell. He had found what he called “the best rye whiskey in the world,” in Canada and wanted to bottle it. However, try as he might, Pickerell could not convince any of the big players to sell Canadian whiskey at a premium price. Bhakta, meanwhile, wanted to create “America’s first luxury rye.”

Rye growing at WhistlePig Rye Farm

Rye growing at WhistlePig Farm

“Dave had the product and the pedigree, I had the entrepreneurial gusto,” he told me. But after so many rejections, Pickerell wasn’t sure how to tell people the whiskey was Canadian.

“I’ve never not wanted to disclose,” Bhakta told me, citing what he called “the Templeton debacle.” But, he added, “you don’t start out saying, ‘This is Canadian whiskey.’ It’s looked down on. It’s been an interesting navigation. It’s a tricky piece—the people who react are the geeks of whiskey—but we don’t want to confuse the general public.

“Look, I’m a salesman with a bit of P.T Barnum in me,” Bhakta continues, “and I like that.” According to Bhakta, rather than talking about the Canadian connection, they decided to focus on their long-term vision of making rye whiskey in Vermont. “We’re not trying to dance around the issue, but how do you navigate this?” he wondered.

“We have the opportunity to sell younger whiskey,” he noted, “but we are storing our stocks and doing barrel experimentation. Five years from now the critics will come to see there was a much greater vision here. I feel I am getting attacked for building the thing the right way.”

One thing is certain from my conversation with Bhakta. There are no stills at WhistlePig. Although they have applied for a permit to open a distillery, they are still awaiting approval. For now WhistlePig is a farm, pure and simple, and not a drop of the whiskey bottled under the WhistlePig label was actually distilled by Dave Pickerell: sourced, selected, and approved, but not distilled.

 

*Rather than switch back and forth between the American “whiskey” and Canadian “whisky,” this one time we decided to just use the American spelling. Davin, no shy Canadian, approved, for which we thank him.

Campari Buys Forty Creek

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxNews today that Italy’s Campari Group has bought Canada’s Forty Creek Distillery, should come as no surprise. After decades of marginal decline, Canadian whisky sales have rebounded strongly in recent years. Much of the credit for this must go to Forty Creek’s whisky maker, John K. Hall.

JohnHall_106It is more than a decade since Hall began taking his whisky from bar to bar in New Orleans and Texas. At the time Canadian retailers had shown little interest in the upstart Canadian whisky maker. As he pounded the pavement, selling a case here and a case there, Hall effectively became the face of Canadian whisky in the U.S. Happily, despite the sale of his distillery, this will continue.

From the firm base he began building in America, Hall returned to Canada to conquer his home market. Forty Creek is not the largest, but it is now the fastest-growing whisky brand in Canada. Today, Campari, which also owns Wild Turkey bourbon, confirmed Hall’s unshakable faith in Forty Creek by purchasing 100% of the distillery, its brands, and holdings for $185.6 million Canadian. Forty Creek, as the consultants say, was low-hanging fruit, ripe for the picking.

Campari was one of a number of firms that was interested in purchasing the distillery. Hall was looking for a buyer that would keep the Grimsby facility open and ensure that all the employees could keep their jobs. The deal was sealed when Campari committed to those objectives.

When I met Hall in Victoria this past January, he seemed tired. “I just can’t keep this up,” he said of the non-stop pace of appearances at whisky shows and liquor stores across Canada and the U.S. “I want to spend more time with my family. When I’m in my distillery now I spend half my time behind a computer.”

“You need to hire a CEO and get back to tending your stills,” I offered. And I guess, in a way, that is what he has done. Little will change in day-to-day operations at the distillery and Hall will remain as company chairman and whisky maker. With the full strength of Campari’s sales force supporting him, Hall will likely have more time to do what he loves best: make whisky.

“I am very excited about my 2014 Limited Release,” Hall told me recently. “It will be bottled in July, and then after two and a half months of bottle rest I’ll release it.” That’s typical John Hall. Ever the wine maker, he wants to be sure his whisky has time to recover from bottle shock.

Forty Creek is a small distillery. With two pots and one column still, it has yet to reach its annual production capacity of 555,000 cases of whisky, but with the Campari deal, that can’t be far off. Watch for expansion plans in the not-too-distant future as Campari uses its global resources to grow Forty Creek in Canada, and around the world.

Meanwhile, congratulations are due to Canada’s hardest-working and best-known whisky maker, John K. Hall, and the whole Forty Creek family. For that’s what it feels like when you visit the distillery.

Canadian Catches Up: Hiram Walker expansion planned

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxAfter several years of very encouraging sales, managers at Canada’s largest distillery have decided to expand production capacity. In 2014, $8 million will be invested on new and upgraded facilities. The coldest winter in a century delayed construction, but the cement is now poured for a new tank house at Pernod-Ricard’s Hiram Walker and Sons distillery in Windsor, Ontario.

“The bottleneck here is the column stills,” master blender Don Livermore told me. “We can’t speed up the stills without affecting quality, so we are constructing a new building with four tanks to hold excess high wines. That will let us run the beer stills longer without getting backed up.”

Changes are coming in blending and bottling as well, where expansion will increase overall volumes while enabling smaller production runs. When your lines are geared to over 400 bottles a minute, it’s difficult to do small batches. New equipment in the bottling hall will permit a more leisurely pace, allowing it to process smaller runs. And good news for whisky lovers: capacity for short runs could lead to more new products making it into field-testing and onto your home bars.HIRAM WALKER & SONS LIMITED - Major Investment in Windsor, ON

“When you are set up for high production it’s difficult to attract business from small producers,” says Jason Leithead, who manages the bottling hall. “Right now a seemingly trivial change can be a monumental undertaking for us.”

Hiram Walker and Sons president Patrick O’Driscoll agrees: “The new production volume will smooth out the seasonal peaks to offer more stable employment and enhanced partnership opportunities for our customers.”

The expansion will boost overall bottling capacity by 230,000 cases. Hiram Walker currently employs about 400 people across Canada, 300 at the distillery.

“In my 18 years at Hiram Walker I’ve never seen it this busy,” Livermore tells me. “We were distilling about 20 million liters a year when I started. Last year we made the equivalent of 55 million liters of pure alcohol.” That translates into a lot of whisky. Key brands include Wiser’s, Canadian Club (made for Beam), and Gibson’s Finest (for Wm. Grant). Hiram Walker and Sons makes about 70% of all Canadian whisky, of which about 75% is sold to independent bottlers in Canada and abroad.

If Livermore has his way, this expansion is just the start of bigger things to come. “My long-term vision is to have an education center right here at the distillery. We make great products here and we need to tell people all about them.” That project is at least a decade down the road, says Livermore. For now, expanding capacity to keep up with demand and support growing consumer interest in small-batch high-end specialty whiskies is the top priority.

Suntory Bids For Beam

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

It was revealed today that Beam, the all-spirits company spun off by Fortune Brands in 2011, has agreed to be acquired by Suntory for $13.62 billion, upon approval from Beam Inc. shareholders. Suntory already distributes Beam’s products in Japan, and Beam distributes Suntory’s products in several other Asian markets. The deal is targeted for completion in the second quarter of 2014.

Given numbers from the Impact Databank, the deal will make Suntory the world’s fourth-largest spirits company, behind Diageo, India’s United Spirits Limited, and Pernod Ricard; Bacardi will now be fifth. By dollar amount, this is a bigger deal than the Fortune Brands/Pernod takeover of Allied Domecq in 2005.

Assuming the deal goes through, this will put a lot of new whiskeys under Suntory’s roof. In addition to their own Suntory, Yamazaki, and Hakushu brands, and Scottish brands Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, and McClelland’s, they will now own all the associated Jim Beam brands, Maker’s Mark, Canadian Club, Laphroaig, Ardmore, Teacher’s, Alberta Distillers, Cooley, and the Spanish DYC brand. They’ll also own the still-growing Pinnacle flavored vodkas, Courvoisier cognac, Sauza and Hornitos tequilas, Gilbey’s, and Skinnygirl cocktails.

What’s this mean to you, the whiskey drinker? Probably not much. Beam CEO Matt Shattock and the current management team will be left in place to run the business. Bourbon, Irish, Canadian, and Scotch whisky are all growing strongly. Given Suntory’s record with Morrison Bowmore, it seems unlikely that they’d change anything with their new acquisitions. Should we worry about Suntory owning both Bowmore and Laphroaig, and possibly closing one Islay distillery as unwelcome internal competition? Not for now, when both are selling well, though it may become a factor if there’s a downturn; but in that case, everything is going to be in play anyway.

The deal will increase Suntory’s debt load considerably; Moody’s Investors Service indicated that they would be evaluating the company for a re-grading in light of it. Should we worry about prices going up to cover the debt? Realistically, at this point in the whisky market…would we notice?

This was a sale that everyone interested in the industry had been expecting, at least on the “Beam sold” end. As a purely spirits company that was neither family-owned nor large enough to fend off purchasers, Beam was widely considered as a very likely takeover target. The “Suntory acquired” part was more of a surprise, in that one company is swallowing them whole. That’s the only potential downside; that a richer purchaser might have been able to put more into the new brands than Suntory will, but that’s all speculation.

In the end, it looks like a ‘move along, nothing to see here’ moment. Just another swapping in the game that has gone on for decades. Suntory has a good track record; rest easy. We might even see more Suntory whiskies in the world market.

Meanwhile, in a much, much smaller deal that was also announced today, two Tasmanian distilleries are merging. Lark distillery will acquire Old Hobart distillery and the Overeem brand. Both companies will remain as separate brands and entities, Overeem becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Lark. Perhaps more importantly, Bill Lark will be reducing his time at the distillery and becoming the Lark global brand ambassador, and Casey Overeem will be doing the same. We’ll wait to see if this means more Tasmanian whisky in America.

Whisky Advocate Award: Canadian Whisky of the Year

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Wiser’s Legacy, 45%, C$50

Amidst a wealth of outstanding new releases it’s easy to forget old favorites. Forty Creek Heart of Gold, Highwood Ninety, Collingwood 21 yearWisers_Legacy_750mL_CDN old, Wiser’s Red Letter, and Masterson’s Barley each fought to stay at the top of my 2013 whisky charts. Many head-to-head tastings and much thoughtful consideration later, the whisky to hold its own and emerge as Canadian whisky of the year is Wiser’s Legacy.

Legacy is the crowning achievement of Wiser’s former master blender, David Doyle. Looking back, it was also a harbinger of the new direction Wiser’s whiskies would take following Doyle’s departure. In hindsight, the influence of Doyle’s then-apprentice, Don Livermore, is obvious.

After a decade and a half as a blender, Livermore completed his PhD in brewing and distilling in Edinburgh at Heriot-Watt University. Shortly thereafter Doyle handed him the master blender’s reins at the Corby distillery in Windsor where Wiser’s whiskies are made. Livermore studied the effects of wood on aging for his doctorate. That almost candied succulence of toasted new oak that you taste in Legacy is the fruit of those studies.

A muscular, full-bodied, friendly whisky, Legacy slathers your mouth with its creamy, not-too-sweet candied essence. Hot cinnamon hearts and peppermint buttress the ginger, cloves, and nutmeg of warm Christmas pudding. Sweet vanillas and sumptuous butterscotch toffee becalm the steely earth of rye-grain whisky into kid-soft armchair leather. Then, just as you hit a pocket of black licorice, toasted new oak resurges with freshly split red cedar, over-ripe dark fruits, and out of nowhere, a briny wash of seashells. Finally, ever so gently it fades to a sweet spicy memory.

Though price was not a factor in deciding the Canadian whisky of 2013, its $50 price tag is a welcome bonus. Formerly in U.S. distribution, Legacy is now exclusive to Canada. –Davin de Kergommeaux

Come back tomorrow for our Irish Whiskey of the Year.

Whisky Advocate’s Winter Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Here it is: a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate‘s winter 2013 issue’s Buying Guide. Revealed here are the top 10 rated whiskies. We begin the list with #10 and conclude with the #1 highest-rated whisky of the issue.

Forty Creek Heart_of_Gold_bottle#10: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, 43%, C$70

Each fall, whisky lovers in Canada and Texas anticipate John Hall’s new limited edition whisky. This year’s sits squarely in the golden heart of classic Canadian rye. Tingling gingery pepper is bathed in ultra-creamy butterscotch, woody maple syrup, black tea, and barley sugar. Prune juice and ripe dark fruits dissolve into dried apricots and zesty hints of citrus. Then floral rye notes turn dusty, with gentle wisps of willow smoke. Complex, full-bodied, and slowly evolving, so let it breathe.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 93

Handy Sazerac2

#9: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, 64.2%, $70

The youthful, testosterone-laden member of the Antique Collection family. Bold and spicy with cinnamon and clove, but softened and balanced by thick toffee, vanilla, and honeyed orchard fruit. Lush and mouth-coating. An exercise in extremes: bold, muscular spice, along with soothing sweeter notes. While its older sibling, Sazerac 18 year old, expresses a classic “older rye” low-risk profile, Handy pushes the envelope in many directions.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#8: Eagle Rare 17 year old (bottled Spring 2013), 45%, $70

Often overlooked in this portfolio because it isn’t barrel proof. The last few years of this bourbon have been wonderful. This year is no exception, with a bit more spice. Notes of nutty toffee, caramel, creamy vanilla, and pot still rum, with interwoven hints of oak resin, dried spice, tobacco, and honeyed fruit. Hint of barrel char and anise for intrigue. Delicious! (And actually 19 years old, even though it bears the traditional 17 year age statement.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Elijah Craig 21 Year Old
#7: Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel (No. 42), 45%, $140

Surprisingly reserved on the oak spice; it tastes like a bourbon half its age. Soothing in nature, with layers of sweetness (honey, vanilla cream, caramel, nougat), lively complex fruit (coconut, pineapple, ripe peach, honeydew melon), and gentle cinnamon. Soft, creamy finish. A whiskey that has aged very gracefully. Delicious! (This is a single barrel; every barrel is unique.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94SazeracRye18year2

#6: Sazerac 18 year old (bottled Fall 2013), 45%, $70

Still lively for 18 years old, with no hint of interfering oak. The age has softened the rye spice, making it an easy entry into the premium rye category. The balance here is beautiful, with rounded spice (mint, cinnamon, licorice root) on a bed of soft vanilla and caramel. Gently, dry finish. Very sophisticated for a rye. It remains my benchmark for extra-matured rye whiskeys, which are becoming exceedingly scarce.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#5: William Larue Weller, 68.1%, $70

The traditionally gentle demeanor of this wheated bourbon is jazzed up with some lovely complex spice (mostly coming from the oak). Sweet notes of maple syrup, silky caramel, blackberry jam, and blueberry are peppered with notes of allspice spiked with cinnamon and vanilla. Soft leather on the finish. Great balance. A lovely whiskey!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
GeorgeTStagg2
#4: George T. Stagg, 64.1%, $70

Less alcohol than past Staggs, even at 128.2° proof. This whiskey has always been one of the best in the portfolio, and its reputation is intact. Sweeter and fuller in body than recent releases, and not as masculine, making it easier to drink. (Don’t worry; it’s still a big Stagg, but with a smaller “rack.”) Vanilla taffy, nougat, dates, polished oak, roasted nuts, leather, and tobacco: it’s all there.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#3:  Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, €185

Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that’s in charge here; a fully expressive Yoichi. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke (ozone, tar, soot) alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and in among the smoke, apple mint. Long, insanely complex, and jaw-droppingly good. This will go down as a classic.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96Redbreast 21 Year Old

#2: Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180

Wow! After the wonderful 12 year old cask strength, Redbreast does it again. This is a different beast altogether, but it is a stunner. This is Roger Waters doing The Wall: over the top, unsubtle, and totally entertaining. There’s lots going on: fermenting apples, juicy oils, spice, and dark cherry and berry fruits zip and fizz over the palate, the wood influence is sublime. I’m comfortably numb.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

125th_Front_SMBLE#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, 51.5%, $85

A marriage of 13 and 18 year old bourbons. A mature yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture and so easy to embrace with a splash of water. Balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg; smooth finish. Sophisticated, stylish, with well-defined flavors. A classic!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 97