Monday, 28 November 2011

A Glimpse of a Bright Future for Canadian Whisky.

Last Monday the 21st, I had to privilege to attend a seminar hosted at Clive's Classic Lounge, with Whisky pioneer, John Hall of Forty Creek.

Before tasting the wonderful Whiskies John had brought for us to taste, I had the chance to sit down and ask John a few questions about Forty Creek and the Canadian Whisky industry.

Q: What is your background in the beverage industry?

I actually started out as a wine maker. I’ve been a wine maker in Canada for 41 years, since 1970. A lot of changes in the wine business in those years. And I’m still making wine.

Q: What inspired you to start making whisky?

Every wine maker dreams of opening up their own winery.  So in 1992 I opened up my own winery and distillery. The reason for doing that was really two fold.  One was, in the late 80s, most of the Scotch whisky that was being made was blended Scotch Whisky.  The Scotch Whisky industry realized they had to up their game, and they started introducing some really nice single malt Scotch Whiskies.  The Bourbon guys in Kentucky were stepping up as well by starting to do small batch Bourbons.  But nobody was doing anything with Canadian Whisky; it was the same old same old.  Just relying on what they had done in the past.  So I thought it was important to try and bring craftsmanship and heritage back to Canadian Whiskies.  At that same time between 1985 and 1995, 15 whisky distilleries closed in Canada.  The industry was rationalizing, and a lot of it was being purchased by offshore companies.  So, I thought it was important to the Canadian Whisky category to bring some additional excitement to it, some craftsmanship.

Q: Did you ever think you’d being winning awards from malt advocate when you first started out?

No.  It is a huge honor to be recognized by Whisky experts from all over the world as well as winning those awards: Pioneer of the year by Malt Advocate, distillery of the year from Whisky Magazine, ambassador of the year from Whisky Magazine, Canadian Whisky of the year.  And all the various awards: double golds at San Francisco Whisky competition, and numerous gold medals internationally.

Q: What is Forty Creek doing now that separates it from all the other Canadian Distilleries; that really makes it unique?

Well I think it’s actually unique from all aspects of Whisky making; whether it’s Canadian Whisky, or Bourbon, or Scotch.  It’s the approach that I use, and fortunately being a wine maker I approach it the same way, as you would make a wine.  Typical Whisky is made from a mash bill, which is a recipe card; so many pounds of this grain, so many pounds of that grain, put it all together, cook it, convert the starch to sugar, cool it down, ferment it, distill it and age in white oak barrels.  And I just thought from a wine maker’s perspective that this was the wrong approach.  As a wine maker you try to bring out the best characteristics of each grape varietal, like the soft roundness of a Merlot, or that spicy tropical notes of a Gewurztraminer.  Rye doesn’t taste like corn and corn doesn’t taste like barley.  So I would do my grains separately and try to bring out the best characterizes of each grain.  My grain selection was rye, barley and corn; which I sort of think of as the noble grains of whisky.  Same way as a wine maker thinks of the noble grapes as being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  So that’s why I distill them separately, to bring out that spiciness and fruitiness in the rye, the nuttiness of the barley and the heartiness of the corn. I also use various toasting levels on my barrels just as I would when aging wine to assist in bringing out the special taste characteristics of each grain.  Then eventually after aging I bring back these three noble Whiskies as a meritage so they aren’t just one-dimensional but universally appealing.  Very similar to what a wine maker tries to achieve.

Q:  What can you tell us about the newest expression from Forty Creek, John’s Private Cask?

I’m very excited to offer it and also a bit disappointed because there is not a lot of it out there.  There was only 9000 bottles.  What happened over the last 20 years is that, every now and then I’d taste a barrel that just blew me away.  Every barrel ages differently, but every now and then I’d come across a barrel that is just perfect.  Over the years, whenever I came a across an outstanding barrel like that I would chalk it “Hold for John”.  But over the years I collected so many of them that I realized I couldn’t consume them all.  So I decided to pull them together, and hand pick which ones would work together.  It’s one thing to bring those whiskies together but they also have to work together in harmony.  I managed with 23 barrels, 20 of them were American white oak, and 3 of them were Canadian white oak, a mixture of rye, barley and corn, and as I mentioned it made 9000 bottles.   It’s just an excellent tasting whisky.  I haven’t yet entered Private Cask into any tasting competitions because it’s just been recently release but I’ve already had excellent reactions from some whisky writers that they thought it was an outstanding whisky. 

Q: Where do you see the reputation of Canadian Whisky going?

I do see it changing.  I think the industry tends to promote Canadian Whisky in cocktails.  Quite often because it is a very light mixable whisky that can enhance a cocktail; whether it’s a Manhattan, an Old-Fashion or a Whisky Sour.  But hopefully the industry is looking at taking it further than that.  Just like the Scotch and Bourbon makers started doing in the late 80s.  I hope my Forty Creek Whisky is inspiring other distillers to do so and I hope my Forty Creek whisky is encouraging consumers to try the category and support Canadian made.

Q:  So any of the Whisky in the Forty Creek range be both mixed and enjoyed neat?

Absolutely.  I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to tell someone how to drink Forty Creek.  But it’s just like a chef, if he or she is cooking with whisky or cooking with wine they need to use a good whisky or wine; otherwise the dish isn’t going to turn out.  And I think it’s the same for the cocktail.  Forty Creek Whisky has some wonderful flavors that can enhance the cocktail.  But it’s also wonderful to just be able to sip and savor it on its own as well.

Q:  What is your opinion on the regulation surrounding Canadian Whisky because there are so few in comparison to other industries like the Scotch and Bourbon?  Do you think it helps or hinders Whisky making?

I don’t think it helps or hinders.  The regulations on Canadian Whisky are that it needs to be made from Canadian grown grain, It needs to be aged in a small wooden vessel, and it needs to age for a minimum of three years.  Those minimum regulations, and some of those regulations are similar to other whisky making countries as far as length of aging.  I think it’s really up to the whisky maker and his objective of what he is trying to achieve with his whisky.  Certainly, as far I’m concerned I go beyond that because what my real goal is to achieve a very good, well made, flavorful whisky.  It’s easy to get the alcohol, that’s not the difficult part; the difficult part is that you need to capture those flavors, the spicy and fruity notes of the rye, the nuttiness of the barley and the heartiness of the corn.  A lot of people think that the best whisky is the oldest whisky, but unfortunately that’s not the case.  Age is important but that’s only one factor.  You have to start with great stills and great barrels.  Then add in some passion and patience.

Q:  How do you determine what people will be drinking 10 years down the road? 

It’s extremely difficult to forecast out ten years.  In the early years it was very difficult because I didn’t know how high was high, so I just kept laying barrels down.  It’s a little easier now.  I forecast out ten years, and I revise my ten year forecast every six months.  So it is a difficult thing to do.  Fortunately in my case, people have supported Forty Creek by choosing Forty Creek as their whisky of choice and that has made it a lot easier for me.  

Q:  So what’s next for Forty Creek, what will be the next expression?

I’m going to probably decide in the next couple months what that expression will be.  Obviously because of the length of time it takes, I’ve been working on various things for several years now.  One particular taste expression that I introduced about three or four years ago was the Forty Creek Port Wood, which was finished in vintage Port barrels.  Unfortunately I didn’t make enough of that to satisfy everyone’s needs.  I have laid more down so I might do a repeat performance on that one. But I haven’t quiet decided yet, as I have a few other expressions on the go as well. 

After our chat, we sat down with some other local bartenders to enjoy the current line up of whisky offered by Forty Creek.  

In addition to the Forty Creek Barrel Select, Double Barrel Reserve, and John's Private Cask, we had the rare opportunity to taste all three grains in their nature element.  100% rye, corn, and malted barley whisky were all tasted individually to demonstrate the three pillars that construct Forty Creek Whisky.  The last whisky to be tasted was John's Private Cask, and to sum this whisky up in one word; spice!  Loads of christmas spice and lots of signature Canadian Whisky notes of carmel, maple and honey.  I will definitely be enjoying this whisky around the holidays.

John's Private Cask No.1

Another Whisky of John's that has received various awards -including Canadian Whisky of the year by Whisky Advocate Magazine (Formally Malt Advocate)- is the Confederation Oak.  Aged in trees planted during Canada's confederation, nearly 150 years ago,  Forty Creek Confederation Oak is an example of a true premium Canadian whisky.  Setting elegant packaging a price point aside, the Confederation Oak is a bench mark in innovation and quality.

While stocks of the Confederation Oak sold out long ago here in B.C. Lucky I still have a full bottle at home. 

The Confederation Oak is a wonderful whisky.  On the nose is a boutique of lovely sweet notes: honey, carmel, toffee, marzipan, dark chocolate, maple and butter.  The taste does anything thing but disappoint as well.   On the palate is a complex whisky with some notes reminiscent of the nose: honey, maple and carmel.  Additionally notes of cinnamon, creme brulee, apples, lime zest and a hint of smoke.  The finish is medium length with a mild spice and a hint of floral notes in the distance finish.

It is great to see someone as passionate and innovative such John Hall of Forty Creek.  The category of Canadian Whisky is quite a bland array of the same whisky, different packaging.  Forty Creek is one of the few Canadian Whisky companies truly doing justice to the Category. 

I -along with all other whisky anoraks- can only hope that John is the first among many of a growing trend of distillers to take a pride in the product that they put on the selves.

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