WineAlign Spirits Review
by Margaret Swaine
It’s time to talk of the 9.09% rule for Canadian whisky. This unusual rule allows our whisky producers to add that percentage of any spirit (aged a minimum of two years) or wine to whisky made here and still call it Canadian whisky. Our big distillers say it opens the door to much innovation while some of our craft distilleries are so against it they put the rule in a red circle with a cross through it on their labels.
What are the rules for Canadian whisky? The whisky must be made from Canadian grain that’s mashed, distilled and aged (minimum three years) in Canada. That’s about it. Any type of barrel of any age can be used for aging.
In the whisky 9.09% could be another spirit say bourbon, scotch or cognac or wine including port, sherry and other such fortified wines or a mixture of both. For example, Alberta Rye Dark Batch is made by adding about 8% real American bourbon and 1% oloroso sherry to mature whisky distilled from 100% rye grain.
Don Livermore, master blender at Hiram Walker & Sons distillery in Windsor, is a defender of the rule. In fact, he says the additions are the most expensive ingredients. Just keeping it 100% Canadian whisky is cheaper than adding scotch or port for example. Thus our spirits are only so spiked when it makes sense for the flavour profile. As an extreme example to make J.P. Wiser’s Union 52 the last barrel of 52-year-old highland malt scotch found in their warehouses was married with Canadian whiskies. It’s to be launched in BC so I’m thinking of asking Vancouver friends to nab a bottle for me before it flies off the shelves. Lucky Vancouverites can taste it in November at the Hopscotch Festival.
Elsewhere look for J.P. Wiser’s 18 Years Old, with its classic Canadian full bodied smooth whisky taste, Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye Whisky for a full on spiced rye taste and J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels because that’s the end once this bottling is done and Wiser’s Legacy.
The other point Livermore makes is that to get the same effect, Scottish distillers will age or finish their malts in former port, bourbon, sherry, wine and other barrels. So is a slow leach from the wood into the whisky any better than just adding that spirit or wine directly?
As a further complication, Canadian lawyer Gary Gillman says from July 1, 2009, the somewhat notorious 9.09% blending rule is no longer applicable to Canadian whisky sold in Canada, therefore, one can add more. However, Food and Drug Regulations state that Canadian whisky must possess, “the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky”, so presumably a distillery can’t take this to the extreme and since cost is a factor wouldn’t.
On a recent tour of Hiram Walker and Sons, an enormous red brick structure that sprawls along the shore of the Detroit River in Windsor, I saw where grain is weighed, tested and then stored in towering grain elevators until needed. Livermore told me they buy through four brokers who in turn buy from a dozen or so suppliers, as local as possible. After distillation, the spent grain is sold as cattle feed.
The distillery was opened in 1858 by Hiram Walker, a grocer in Detroit, who commuted by ferry to Canada. Despite his success with the booze business, he never moved here. The company is today the largest spirit production plant in North America and makes J.P. Wiser’s (and connected Corby niche brands such as Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek and Lot No 40) along with Canadian Club whiskies. It is now 100% foreign owned by Paris-based Pernod Ricard SA. Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd, which distributes the Wiser’s brands along with imported brands such as Chivas Regal and Glenlivet, is 51% owned by Hiram Walker.
The Canadian Club brand is owned by Beam Suntory, which also owns the Canadian Club Heritage Centre, the historic former offices of Mr. Hiram Walker. A 90-minute tour at the centre brings guests into the basement’s Speakeasy Room, where meetings were held with Al Capone and the Purple Gang. If you visit, try the Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye.
The Hiram Walker Distilleries buildings sprawl out on both sides of the Heritage Centre and across the street from it. And while they make CC for Beam Suntory, they don’t have their own visitor centre. Yet.
A beautiful new bar was about to be unveiled in one of the Hiram Walker buildings, the day after my visit and I had a sneak preview. For the moment however it is not open to the public and will be used just for bartender trade, distributor and media visits. Windsorites can hope.
About 20 kilometres west of these buildings is Pike Creek and 16 enormous warehouses which hold an impressive 1.6 million barrels of whisky slumbering away awaiting their time to be bottled and sold under the Hiram Walker umbrella.
On the opposite end of the scale is tiny Toronto Distillery Co. Ltd, founded in 2012 by friends Charles (Chuck) Benoit and Jesse Razaqpur. Located in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto, it’s the first new distillery in the city since 1933. They just came out with First Barrels Straight Canadian Whisky which boasts a “no” 9.09% on the label symbolized by a logo of a red circle with cross through 9.09%.
A certified organic grain to glass distillery, they distill spirits from locally sourced grains and other produce. If you go there for a tour ($25), they take you through a tasting of what each type of grain tastes like when it’s distilled. For example, distilled corn tastes creamy and somewhat sweet, rye tastes spicy and dry while barley has a cereal and fusil effect on the palate.
To make their Canada Beet Spirit, they distilled 510lbs of sugar beets with 25 kilos of granular sugar. It comes out dry and crystal clear with an amazing beet flavour. J.R.’s Dry Organic Canadian Gin is juniper forward with a neat aromatic hit of bergamot.
Forty Creek Distillery in Grimsby is mid-sized compared to Hiram Walker but also highly successful. It was founded by Canadian John Hall from the ashes of Reider Distillery in 1992. The original distillery was started up in the mid 70’s by Otto Reider, who immigrated from Switzerland, and hoped to make use of all the lovely Niagara fruit by distilling it into fruit eaux-de-vie. He was too far ahead of his time. Hall got the place for pennies on the dollar. He changed its name to Kittling Ridge and started out making wine. His first whisky wasn’t out until June of 2000.
Hall built up his business by going to 400 Ontario liquor stores and hand selling through samples and talk. Now the distillery produces 380,000 cases of whisky a year and Gruppo Campari paid mega bucks to buy the business off Hall. Hall is still around signing bottles and helping out.
Forty Creek Premium Barrel Select is the great value whisky in the portfolio. Forty Creek Confederation Oak came about when Hall got the opportunity to buy oak from a 150-year-old tree that was being harvested from a managed forest area near Brantford. Forty Creek Copper Pot is a blend of pot distilled whiskies. Forty Creek Founder’s Reserve is the 10th limited edition, a tribute to Hall. As he puts it, “John’s private stash became John’s private cask”. He had put aside barrels which were so good he wanted to keep them for himself but eventually the stash became too big for his personal consumption.
Over in Scotland I met up with Ian Millar, former Global Brand Ambassador for Glenfiddich and now Prestige Whiskies Specialist for owner of the brand, William Grant & Sons. Glenfiddich “The Original” first launched in 1963 as a commercial product was the first single malt to promote itself as such. It started the avalanche of luxury single malts we see today.
Single malts (always made from barley) are often sold after a fairly long aging time namely 12 to 25 years and older and thus are limited by what they produced in the past. (Livermore says the aging is necessary because barley takes years to mellow and rid itself of the fusil tastes.) You can’t hurry up the years and you can’t go back in time to produce more. As Millar puts it, “We’re not selling any more, we’re just selling what we’ve got for more.” A case of limited supply. And strict controls on how you make the product.
Tours at Glenfiddich are highly popular and of course include tastings – the more expensive the tour – the older and better the whisky you’ll taste. I recommend the Pioneers Tour where you end up in warehouse number 12, home to the Malt Master’s Selection. It houses 4 casks specially chosen by the sixth Malt Master, Brian Kinsman. Here, you will be invited to fill a 20cl bottle from the cask of your choice to take home. You’ll then get a tutored tasting of five Glenfiddich whiskies Glenfiddich 12-Year-Old, Glenfiddich 15-Year-Old, Glenfiddich 18-Year-Old, Glenfiddich 21-Year-Old and a cask sample.
Other single malt scotch I’ve recently sampled and recommend include Aberlour 12 Years Old and Laphroaig Lore which is double matured and finished in European oak hogsheads. Across the ocean, Suntory has created Hibiki Japanese Harmony, a blend of 10 malt and grain whiskies aged in five different casks. And a head’s up: the lovely The Quiet Man 8-Year-Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey is coming back for a re-release in limited quantities this November.
To up the wow factor of your whisky, pour it into the Peugeot Whisky Tasting Set – a special glass with a distinctive wide bowl and a metal base designed to chill the spirit without diluting it. (You put the base in the freezer for a few hours before use.) It actually makes the spirit smell more aromatic and taste smoother.
To put a real kick into your whisky cocktails, use Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur from Mexico. It’s awesome.
Whatever the rules they follow, I have to say all the distilleries I visited in the past couple of months are making terrific products. There’s something for everyone and that’s what makes all these different approaches welcome and fruitful.
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