Distillery Review - Forty Creek

Forty Creek Distillery has deep roots in winemaking, with a passion for whisky. Recently I had the pleasure of doing a private tour of the distillery that included a tasting of the full product line.

To mention the history of the distillery is really to speak about the owner and whisky maker, John K. Hall. A native of Windsor, Ontario with a passion for whisky, Hall grew-up dreaming of working for the local distillery, Hiram Walker. When it came time to start his career, things didn't work out as he envisioned. Instead he received an opportunity to pursue his other great passion, winemaking. Hall would spend 20 years as a winemaker, but as much as Hall loved winemaking, his first love was whisky. So when he heard Reider Distillery in Grimsby planned to close he cashed out his shares in Cartier (where he worked) and bought the distillery renaming it Kittling Ridge Estate Wines and Spirits.

As a winemaker with a lifetime of experience in Niagara, he continued to produce wine, but his true love was whisky and his childhood dream was something he couldn't deny. The whisky business, however, is hard to get into. Unlike wine, which can be ready in as little as a year, a good whisky requires six or more years of aging. Hall ran both businesses in parallel, but is currently going through what he describes as the bittersweet process of de-emphasizing and likely divesting his wine business. It's something you can literally see on the building as the signs and the company have been recently rechristened Forty Creek Distillery—indicating that going forward the focus is all on the whisky.

Forty Creek has a loyal following, and for good reason. Hall takes his knowledge as a winemaker and applies it to whisky. For example, in winemaking there are three noble international red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Winemakers are able create some of the most revered wines in the world by making them separately and then carefully blending them together with an artistic touch. Hall sees a similar parallel with whisky having three noble grains: corn (used in bourbon), barley (used in Scotch), and rye (traditionally used in Canadian whisky).

All Forty Creek whiskies use all three grains. Hall distills each separately and treats them differently during the aging process, charring the barrels from light, medium to heavy depending on the grain. He believes this approach allows him to bring out the best in each grain, and he doesn't blend them until the last stage when the whisky is 'married' in a barrel for at least several months before being bottled. It's a very unique approach in the whisky world. American Bourbon distillers begin their whisky making process with a mix of grains (mostly corn with some wheat and/or rye and/or malted barley) called a mash bill and Scotch distillers use only malted barley. Hall explains that if he made his wine with that approach, fermenting a mix of different grape types altogether, the result would be muddied with the wine never reaching its full potential. Tasting through the line-up with him, you begin to understand why he goes through the extra effort of trying to coax the best out of each grain before blending.

I had the pleasure of doing a deconstruction of the whisky, tasting barrel samples of each of the three grains, and it proved his point. Each of the single grain whiskies are expressed uniquely in the final blend. The corn-based whisky offers a thicker, creamier, more interesting mouth-feel; the rye adds a fruitiness and a longer spicier finisher; and finally, the barley adds citrus and nutty notes.

I also did a full tasting of the Forty Creek whisky line-up, and while there's a range of flavour, the one consistent element is the finish. It is, in each case no matter the price-point, a long and fulfilling finish. This, for me, is what separates the greater whiskies from the regular ones. It's also something he works hard to achieve. “I don't think a whisky should bite you back,” he said, “I want something that softly captures your heart.”

Forty Creek whisky is widely available at the LCBO. The original, award-winning whisky, is the Forty Creek Barrel Select ($25.75), which takes the blended whisky and finishes it in sherry caskss for up to six months. New to the line is the Copper Pot Reserve ($28.45), which is blended heavier on the rye and makes for a flavour profile closer to a 'traditional' Canadian whisky.

When walking through the large barrel warehouse (it holds 20,000 barrels), I noticed a few that had "Hold for John" written across them. Hall noses barrels for two or more hours a day, and occasionally he finds a barrel that peaks his interest—those are marked “Hold for John”. These barrels are later used in his reserve line of limited edition products, and are typically released annually.

The Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve Whisky, is one of those and it's currently available at the LCBO ($69.96). This special edition Forty Creek is finished in barrels made from 150-year-old Canadian white oak trees sustainably harvested from a forest near the distillery. Hall explained that the trees have a denser wood grain due to the colder Canadian climate, offering a unique Canadian terroir.

Forty Creek has a fantastic story behind the whisky, and a whisky maker that's truly passionate and obsessed with making a fine product. It's something you can experience yourself taking one of the complimentary tours and tastings held at the distillery from June to September. “I didn't set out to make just another Canadian whisky,” Hall said. After spending an afternoon tasting with him I can confidently say he succeed.

Note: Originally published on Spotlight Toronto