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Forty Creek’s whisky revolution

Note: This article originally was published at Traveling Golfer.

By Rick VanSickle

He enters the tasting room at Kittling Ridge in his trademark suede vest, shirt and jeans. It’s a look not out of place at any old Friday night rodeo. But this is no rodeo. And John Hall is no cowboy.

John Hall, master distiller at Forty Creek.

He’s the owner of Kittling Ridge Estate Winery and Spirits, and one of the hottest whisky distillers on the planet. And he’s putting Canada’s reputation as a quality whisky producer back into the hands of its rightful owners.

The story of John Hall’s Forty Creek whisky started 41 years ago when he first tried to follow his dream of becoming a master distiller in Canada.

“I had always been interested, all along. In fact, when I first graduated I wanted to work for a whisky distiller. But unfortunately they didn’t hire me. So I became a winemaker instead.”

Hall’s first wine job was with Chateau Gai, back in the days before table wines had caught on in Ontario, at least the kind of wines we enjoy today. Few wanted to drink dry Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs and most the wines made were from hybrids and sweetened for consumers’ palates of the day. weet wines ruled the day.

John Hall in the barrel room.

Hall was instrumental in leading a management buyout of Chateau Gai, which owned four wineries across Canada. Chateau Gai was owned by the big beer company, Labatt, at the time. The buyout included partners Allen Jackson and Donald Triggs (which became Vincor, the largest wine company in Canada, now American owned).

“I decided to divest in 1992, the other two decided to carry on and purchased Brights and Inniskillin,” Hall said.

That was the same year that Hall started Kittling Ridge, making a range of wines at a unique location that was the gateway to Niagara in Grimsby, Ont., along the QEW. And the seeds were planted for his dream of making whisky.

“In the late 80s I noticed that the Scotch guys were beginning to develop good quality single-malt Scotch whiskies. And the bourbon guys in Kentucky were starting to do small-batch bourbons. But nobody was doing anything with Canadian. It was the same-old, same-old. The same products were on the shelves that had been there 70, 80 years ago,” he explained.

Back in the 1800s there were over 250 whisky distillers in Canada. By the 1980s the industry had rationalized. “In fact, today there are only three distilleries in Ontario. And I’m one of them,” he said.

John Hall and his whisky.

Hall said that by the 1980s most Canadian distillers were owned by large, foreign companies and they were only interested in making Scotch whisky or bourbon.

“Canadian whisky wasn’t Canadian owned anymore,” Hall said. “So I decided that what I wanted to do was resurrect, to bring back the heritage of Canadian whisky and make a hand-crafted Canadian whisky.” That was where Hall’s dream started taking shape. He began making his first whisky in 1992 and sold his first bottle of Forty Creek Whisky 10 years later.

“Everyone thought I was nuts back then when I told them I was going to make a Canadian whisky. Because they were seeing distillers close (between 1985 and 1995 12 distillers closed). And here I was opening one when everyone else was closing,” he said. Hall’s gamble paid off. Forty Creek was the most successful launch of whisky brand since 1939 when “a little thing called Crown Royal” was introduced to the world.

John Hall with his top whiskies.

Forty Creek whisky and its various brands have seen phenomenal growth since its launch. It actually took off quicker in the U.S. than it did in Canada but various international awards have made it to the fastest growing whisky sold in Canada.

The success has paid off for Hall who started his business in 1992 with 12 employees and today has 135 workers at the Grimsby facility. What started as a 50,000-square-foot building, has ballooned to 170,000 square feet. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t even get hired as a whisky maker.

He takes his job as a master distiller seriously, but draws liberally from his winemaking skills.

“Whisky is very much like wine to me. The complexities, the flavour notes,” he said. “What a winemaker tries to do with a wine is bring out the various nuances. It’s exactly the same with whisky. Only you’ve taken it a couple more steps. You’ve distilled it and it’s made out of grain rather than fruit. And you’re aging it for a much longer time.

“I always say, whisky makers are jealous of winemakers. A winemaker can have a wine on the market in 12 to 24 months. But with whisky … I have to wait 10 years for that,” he added.

Hall’s unique whiskies are a blend of three main ingredients — rye, corn and barley. And like different varieties of grapes, all three grains are fermented, distilled and aged separately to highlight the best characteristics of each grain.

This, explained Hall, brings out the fruitiness and spiciness of the rye, the nuttiness of the barley and the heartiness of the corn.

Another reason Hall’s whiskies are gaining favour come from the copper pot distillers he uses instead of the commonly used column stills that are more practical but take away from the flavours of the grains.

Oak barrel at Forty Creek.

But it is in the barrel room, a massive storage area where the smell is a heady mix of vanilla, spice and alcohol, where you get a sense of Hall’s true mastery. He uses primarily American white oak barrels and Canadian oak for his top whisky and employs different “toasting” or charring of the barrels for the different distilled grains, again, all kept separate before blending.

With rye he uses a light toast to preserve the fruitiness and spiciness, for barley, a slightly more aggressive spirit, he uses a medium toast to provide smoothness and to bring out the nuttiness of the spirit, and, lastly, with corn, he uses a heavy toast to smooth and capture the body and depth of the whisky.

One single barrel room alone holds up to 40,000 barrels. Hall has over 100,000 barrels in total that range in age from brand new to 10 years old. Hall samples from each barrel in a regimented form of quality control as he guides the spirits to the final blend for the various whiskies including:

Forty Creek Barrel Select: One of the world’s most decorated whiskies with several gold medals and a distiller of the year award for Hall from Whisky Magazine. This whisky is a blend of the three grains, blended together and further aged in sherry casks for further aging and mellowing.

Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve: Same blend of grains and barrels but this whisky goes through an additional three years of aging in bourbon barrels, purchased in Kentucky.

Forty Creek Canadian Confederation Oak Reserve: This is the only whisky in the world aged in Canadian oak (planted before Confederation in 1867) grown 50 kilometres away in Brantford, Ont. Only 16,800 bottles were made of this fascinating whisky and each bottle is numbered. It was just named Canadian Whisky of the Year by Malt Advocate Magazine.

What you need to know:

• Whisky made in Canada and Scotland is spelled without the “e” but in America and Ireland it’s spelled with the “e.”

• Kittling Ridge also makes a full range of other spirits including Prince Igor Vodka, the largest selling and fastest growing standard vodka in Ontario.

• How to drink Hall’s whiskies: “A lot of people ask me, how do you drink 40 Creek whisky. And I tell them, ‘drink it anyway you like. The only thing I frown upon is in a Styrofoam cup, it just doesn’t work.’ ”

• Forty Creek sells a cigar made from Dominican Republic tobacco that is infused with Forty Creek Barrel Select Whisky. One cigar costs $20 or you can buy a box for $255.

The reviews:

I grew up with a father who loved his whisky. He came home every night from a hard day at the office and made himself (and my mother) a big glass of rye whisky poured generously into a glass full of ice cubes and topped up with ginger ale or Pepsi. It was one of the few bottles of booze he stocked that I rarely touched when he wasn’t looking. I just didn’t like the smell or taste of the blended spirit and, judging by the amount of mix my dad added, I’m thinking he didn’t much like the taste either.

How about a cigar dipped in Forty Whisky?

I think it was a generational thing. All my dad’s friends drank their booze with a healthy dose of pop, orange juice or even water. Not a lot of drinks were served “neat” in those days. All that has changed as adults have come to enjoy a wide variety of fine liquors — from gourmet vodkas, gins and high-end tequilas to the wonderful single malt Scotches and Irish whiskies made by skilled distillers using quality ingredients.

I simply love the whiskies being made today. And, I must say I was totally blown away by the wonderful whiskies being crafted by master distiller John Hall at Kittling Ridge Wines and Spirits in Grimsby, Ontario. Hall is passionate about his three-grain whiskies that are meticulously distilled in copper pot stills and aged for up to 10 years in American or Canadian oak barrels. There’s no wonder Hall is one of the world’s most decorated master distillers.

To taste his top whiskies is an extraordinary experience. Richly flavoured and textured, it’s quite clear these are NOT the whiskies of our parents.

Here are three top Forty Creek whiskies (available at the LCBO or at any of the Kittling Ridge retail stores):

Forty Creek Barrel Select Whiskey ($36) — A highly decorated whisky that’s a blend of rye, corn and barley and aged in oak and sherry barrels. Notes of vanilla, honey, dried fruits and pecans on the nose. It’s smooth but not hot on the palate with nutty-apricot and spice notes.

Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve Whiskey ($60, each bottle numbered) — Same blend of grains and barrels but this whisky goes through an additional three years of aging in bourbon barrels. This is much more complex with layered notes of smoke, spice, fruit, vanilla and caramel cream. So rich and smooth on the palate and through the finish. Not a whisky to mix with anything but a couple drops of water.

Forty Creek Canadian Confederation Oak Reserve ($70, each bottle numbered, and running out quickly!) — The only whisky in the world aged in Canadian oak. Only 16,800 bottles were made of this fascinating whisky and each bottle is numbered. It was just named Canadian Whisky of the Year by Malt Advocate Magazine. This is a big, exciting whisky that offers up the same thrill as tasting a fine single malt Scotch. The nose starts with raisin, vanilla and figs with subtle smoke aromas. Lovely fruit on the palate with earthy layers of marzipan, caramel cream, and mingling spices. All that and a wonderfully smooth finish. So delicious!

Note: John Hall is planning a big new release of a whisky he’s been crafting for eight years. He plans on releasing it in September. He’s also working on a new Confederation Oak whisky, this time with once-used barrels for extra smoothness. To learn more go to Forty Creek.