John Hall, an accomplished wine maker and distiller, has enough whiskey in front of him on the table to host a frat party. But this is an occasion for sipping, not shots. Hall is talking and tasting through the whiskeys of Forty Creek, a distillery he began in 1992 in Grimsby, Ontario, and that was bought by Gruppo Campari for $185.6 million (Canadian) in March of 2014. He motions to the Barrel Select first, then the Copper Pot and Double Barrel Reserve. Finally, he settles in to speak about the Confederation Oak Reserve — his most prized liquid. He pours a few ounces, then starts in about trees.
“Canada usually grows cherry oak and red oak,” he says. Not white oak, the preferred barrel for aging whiskey. But in southern Ontario, the place Hall lives and works, he spotted a small grove of white oak growing on the Canadian side of the border. White oak on Canadian soil meant Canadian white oak. He bought a patch, milled the trees, dried them out, and built barrels. “Our colder climate means that the trees grow slower. And slower growth means more extract.” More extract means more flavor. They were, to Hall’s knowledge, the first Canadian white oak barrels ever made.
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Hall took his barrels and aged separately his fermented and distilled rye, corn, and barley whiskies, a process he follows for every Forty Creek whiskey. “I’m a winemaker,” he says, justifying the approach of preserving each ingredient’s individual flavor. “And rye doesn’t taste like corn and corn doesn’t taste like barley”. So instead of mixing them together and then aging, Hall brings each grain to fruition, then blends. The final product is a méritage of single grain whiskeys—something of a bourbon (corn), Scotch (malted barley), and rye whiskey blend.
The Hook: “For whiskey, the nose is the beginning of the book”, Hall says. The nose registers pleasant aromas and you want to “read” more.
The Rising Action: The middle has to be complex, with a plot and subplot, and character development. This is where Forty Creek’s three individually aged whiskies unite to offer diversity and variety of flavor.
The Denouement: At the end, Hall believes a whiskey should leave you wanting more. It’s a resolution, but also a continuing thought — something that concludes the present moment, but also inspires the moment to come (the next sip).
With those Canadian barrels, Hall created something previously unheard of in the storied Canadian whiskey tradition: a full-circle Canadian process: Canadian white oak barrels, Canadian grain, Canadian fermenting and distilling, Canadian aging and blending. It earned him what was, at the time, the highest Whiskey Advocate ranking of any Canadian whiskey. And with that ranking, it put him in among the likes of George T. Stagg and Pappy Van Winkle, the same bourbon’s that inspired him at the start.
Ties between bourbon, Canadian whiskey and Scotch have ebbed and flowed through the years. During both the Civil War and the Highland Clearances in Scotland, Canadian whiskey boomed. At the turn of the 20th century, Gooderham and Worts, a distillery in Toronto, was one of largest in the world. And then, during American prohibition, Canadian whiskey — under Canada’s own quirky prohibition laws — was stifled but far from snuffed out. Ontario, a hub for the famous rum-running of Al Capone, pronounced Canadian consumption illegal, but allowed breweries and distilleries to export their products. It kept the market afloat while the American market was on lock down. After prohibition lifted, whiskey swelled across the continent, but the Canadians headed into more of a mass market appeal — the Canada Club, Crown Royal, and Seagrams variety. As American bourbon increased revenues in the late ’80s by catering to a market call for more craft, small-batch whiskeys, Canada was slow to adapt and whiskey sales took a downturn. Between 1985 and 1995, a net of fifteen distilleries closed in Canada. Hall opened Forty Creek in ’92.
White oak on Canadian soil meant Canadian white oak. He bought a patch, milled the trees, dried them out, and built barrels.
The American whiskey market was growing, rising on the sales of small-batch production. The same year Forty Creek opened, Kentucky powerhouse Jim Beam released Booker’s and Basil Hayden’s craft bourbons. Buffalo Trace, in the previous two decades, released their single barrel Blanton’s and Eagle Rare, and in 1996, small batch distiller Woodford Reserve opened their doors. As American craft whiskey broke out to the masses, up north, Canadian distillers remained in hibernation mode.
Hall looked to wake Canada up. So he took a winemaker’s touch and a whiskey drinker’s passion (he’d grown up walking past a Hiram Walker distillery; the smell of production ran deep in his bones), and started his process from scratch, aging his three strands separately, harvesting his Canadian white oak. When Hall returned from the 2007 World Whiskey Awards with a gold medal, the Canuck whiskey world took notice. In the next two decades, Forty Creek grew to be the third largest distributor of Canadian whiskey, part of the that success due to recurrent releases of small batch, premium craft blends.
Forty Creek is Canadian whiskey. It’s not bourbon and it’s not trying to be. Hall’s never been an imitator. But his whiskey has benefited from the keen observation that the masses, more and more, are becoming discerning consumers, asking for finely crafted products that give an more full flavor experience. Sure, the Canadians were a little slow to adopt — a few decades behind the American craft market move. And sure, while now there’s a variety of fine craft whiskeys out there — Lot 40, Wiser’s 18 year, Tangle Ridge, Canadian Mist — there’s still a ways to go on the craft distillery market. But consider Hall’s stand of Canadian white oak: while the cold Canadian terroir causes slow growth, the long-term gratification comes with richer flavors and more depth. It’s worth the wait.