Posts Tagged ‘Davin de Kergommeaux’

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.

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.

Part Two: Lost in Alberta. And Windsor.

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin, 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.)CC-Heritage-Centre-June-14,-2013

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.IMG_0281

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.IMAG0738

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.

A barrel of Dr. Don's Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

A barrel of Dr. Don’s Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

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.

Part One: Lost in Alberta

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin De Kergommeaux, Dave Broom and Lew Bryson hit the prairies in search of real Canadian whisky. Lew brings you along for the ride.

Our Canadian whisky reviewer, Davin de Kergommeaux, contacted Dave Broom and I a couple months ago about a trip to visit Canadian whisky distilleries, sponsored by the Association of Canadian Distillers. We were eager to learn more about the Canadian whisky tradition—especially after reading Davin’s excellent book, Canadian Whisky—so the second week of June saw the three of us, and the Association’s president, Jan Westcott, converging on Calgary.

I landed first…and realized Davin and I had made no plans on how to meet. My emergency plan worked: sitting in an armchair beside the baggage carousels till Davin walked by. We picked up the rental car and drove to our motel in downtown Calgary, where we ran into a colorful demonstration against the government. The Ethiopian government. Didn’t make sense to me, either, but Davin waded right into it—they politely held the door for him, it is Canada—we dropped our luggage in the rooms, and headed to a well-recommended spot, Beer Revolution, to meet friends of mine for pints and pizza. Or at least, I did, and Davin headed back to the airport to get Dave. They got lost on the way back; it was a precursor.

The next morning we met up with Jan, who was going to lead us to Alberta Distillers Ltd., our first stop. We saw some nice neighborhoods, the Bow River, one really nice neighborhood under construction — we were lost. After some quick discussion, we were off again, and found the place, off in an industrial area, surrounded by magpies. We learned about enzyme creation and the difficulties of 100% rye distillation, and tasted Alberta Premium 25 year old and 30 year old, two wonderful limited release whiskies that are vanished from the shelves, and Dark Horse, a 45% NAS kicker that was just stuffed with flavor, a very lively whisky indeed. (More to come on Canadian distilling in an upcoming issue of the magazine; we’re just having some fun here).

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

After lunch, we headed south across the prairie, the Rockies in the distance to our right, rye fields all around us. We stopped at one, Tom Riehs’s farm—I’d asked Davin to see a rye field, and he delivered!—and Tom was good enough to take us out to see the field, stand in it, see what rye looks like and how it grows. He told us that it was just young at this point, up to our knees, but when it was ready for harvest, it would be almost head-high. He also told us that fewer farmers are growing rye—a variety of reasons; his son’s probably not going to grow rye when he takes over because he doesn’t want to raise cattle, and pasturing them in the rye is part of the process—which doesn’t bode well for whisky.

Back in the car, and as we approached the turnoff for Lethbridge at Fort MacLeod, Jan said he had to stop to stretch his legs, and started going on about a great hamburger he’d had in the bus depot in Fort MacLeod. He went looking for it. We didn’t find it—it had closed about five years earlier, and to be honest, it looked like a lot of the rest of the town was waiting to join it—but we did stop and tour the recreation of Fort MacLeod, home of the North West Mounted Patrol, which would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: the Mounties. It was a great tour, with Mountie memorabilia, photos, and a gift shop…where Jan found that one of the women who worked there used to be a waitress at the bus depot. He was overjoyed.

We drove on to Lethbridge, and I took over the directions: we rolled straight to our motel, where we discovered a tiki-type bar in their central courtyard, which was full of tikisemi-tropical plants, water, a piano, and cast-iron alligators. We had to have a drink! I got a rummy-pineapple concoction (with umbrella; Dave insisted on getting a picture: “For evidence.”), Davin had a beer, and Dave got a daiquiri (Waitress with permanent smile: “What flavor would you like?” Dave, wary: “Daiquiri flavor.”). After a long walk for a nice dinner (and a continuing enjoyment of Calgary-brewed Big Rock Traditional ale), we called it a night.

We set out across town for Black Velvet the next morning. After our misadventures with directions, I was prepared with a mapped-out route to the distillery. It was great, until we hit a roadblock and detour on the main road that dumped us onto the road out of town, in the wrong direction. We were cursed! Davin found a quick route back through a nature preserve, and we took side streets to Black Velvet.

They really rolled out the red carpet—all the distillers did—and opened every door, answered every question, even the sticky ones. For instance, why do they feed the heads of the distillation process back into the fermenters? The compounds in the heads induce the shutdown of certain metabolic paths in the yeast, which keeps them focused on alcohol production; they’re getting 14-15% ABV in fermentation. We then had a thorough tasting session that included the GNS used for blending, the rye and corn “flavoring whiskies,” Black Velvet, and Black Velvet Reserve (all cut to 20%).

Then we got to taste the Danfield’s 10 and 21 Year Old, at which Jan protested in mock fury: “No, they can’t taste them, and they can’t have them outside of Canada!” We’d already discovered that Canada does indeed keep “the good stuff,” and we were intrigued. The Danfield’s whiskies intensified that, full of fresh-sawn oak and cedar notes, vanilla, and sweet warm cereal, delicious without the cloying sweetness of some younger, export Canadians. We wanted them, and Jan wasn’t letting go!

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

We had overstayed in our curiosity, and the rest of the day would be a rush. We grabbed a quick but delicious lunch at a local taphouse, then went to Fort Whoop-Up, an old “whisky fort” where sharp traders swapped diluted grain alcohol-based “whisky” to the natives for furs; it was another thing the Mounties were formed to monitor.

Then we zoomed across the prairie to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a site where native peoples without effective weapons had craftily stampeded buffalo over a cliff for food and materiel for millennia; the last such hunt took place only 120 years ago. Our guide, Edwin, was a Blackfoot, and even though we got there just before closing, took us up to the cliff site, showed us the herbs the hunters used to disguise their scent, and—really—beat a drum and sang a Blackfoot song for us. It was a fierce moment, and a great experience, with a tremendous view of the vast Alberta prairies.

The next day we would see a third Alberta distillery, then head east…to Windsor.

Davin de Kergommeaux joins the Whisky Advocate review team

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Davin de Kergommeaux LRWe are very pleased to announce that Davin de Kergommeaux has joined the Whisky Advocate Buying Guide review team. Davin has been writing and teaching about whisky for over fifteen years, and is one of the top experts on Canadian whisky. He is the author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, recently named Canada’s Best Spirits Book of 2012. Davin lives in Ottawa.

Naturally enough, he’ll be reviewing Canadian whiskies and Canadian flavored whiskies for us. His reviews will begin to appear in the Spring issue. Welcome to Whisky Advocate, Davin!

An All-Encompassing Chronicle

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Lew Bryson joins us today with a review of Davin de Kergommeaux’s recently released book.

Canadian Whisky: the portable expert, by Davin de Kergommeaux

With this book, Davin de Kergommeaux establishes himself as the foremost writer on Canadian whisky. Before you get in a snobbish whisky geek mood and dismiss that as similar to being the world’s tallest midget, you really should read the book. Even if it doesn’t make you a regular Canadian whisky drinker, it will at least dispel the myths and mistaken assumptions you may have about this entire category of whisky, for de Kergommeaux has written a book full of facts about Canadian whisky, and written it well.

While the author’s mission is clear—present a full, true, accurate picture of Canadian whisky in order to gain the industry a greater measure of the respect it is due—only rarely does he pound the pulpit. Instead, the point is made by describing the historical origins of Canadian whisky and the blending philosophy that informs it, and by explaining the distillation process at each of the nine Canadian distilleries.

Explaining the process at each distillery is a good idea, because this is not bourbon or Scotch whisky, a closely defined and regulated spirit with very specific rules. There are rules, but those rules and the idea behind them allow a much wider variety of techniques, components, aging, and blending. It may help if you think of blending Canadian whisky more in terms of blending cognac rather than blending Scotch whisky, or of American blended whisky. There is a greater freedom to blend whiskies of different ages, types, and strengths, in a variety of woods.

It can be dizzyingly complicated, but de Kergommeaux handles it deftly, taking us through each distillery’s own twists on whisky making, including the easily-differentiated Kittling Ridge and Glenora, the two outliers in the list. Not only that, he untangles the knotted strands of brand history, explaining how the iconic Canadian brands like Crown Royal, Wiser’s, Canadian Club, V.O., Windsor, and Alberta Premium were created, developed, and came to be made by the companies that now own them. He even makes it easy to follow; quite an accomplishment, given the twisting nature of whisky ownership over the past 40 years.

Did you want to know something about the actual whiskies as well? You’re covered, with tasting notes for 100 of the top Canadian whiskies are included, sprinkled through the text at appropriate spots (the addition of a separate index for the tasting notes is most welcome). A wide array is included, from the humble standard bottlings to the exalted Alberta Premium 30 Year Old and the long-gone cult favorite Bush Pilot’s Reserve.

Reading this “portable expert” will not make you an expert on Canadian whisky. The only way to do that is to do what the author has done: taste widely, visit the distilleries, and talk to the people who make it. But Canadian Whisky will open your mind to the possibilities of this long-underappreciated and slowly awakening branch of the whisky family. Well worth a read.