SPIRITS OF WORTH – FORTY CREEK WHISKY
“Of all the world’s distillers, there are few I hold in higher esteem than John Hall.”
Jim Murray, Whisky Writer
I enjoyed more than the angel’s share this day. Here, on the heel of winning the coveted Canadian Whisky of the Year Award at the annual Canadian Whisky Awards, Forty Creek Whisky founder, distiller and CEO John Hall was sitting across from me, leading a private tasting and talking me through his methodology. A winemaker by trade, Hall has singlehandedly redefined Canadian whisky, lifting a sagging, confused and misunderstood product to a thing of beauty.
A backgrounder: Canadian Whisky is usually a blend of lightly flavoured high strength, column still corn whisky, with some flavouring added in via rye, corn or barley. By law it must be aged in wood barrels for not less than three years, and “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky” -however you want to take that absurd statement. The terms “Canadian Whisky” and “Canadian Rye Whisky” are legally indistinguishable in Canada and do not require any use of rye or other specific grain in their production. In fact, the predominant grain used in making “Canadian Rye Whisky” is corn. Canadian whiskies may contain caramel and flavouring in addition to the distilled mash spirits, and there is no maximum limit on the alcohol level of the distillation, so the bulk of the distilled content (often more than 90 percent) may be neutral spirits rather than straight whiskies.
Hall, bless his winey heart, would have none of that. When he began his distillery in 1992, he had already been entrenched in Canadian winemaking for 22 years. Though small distilleries were closing all around him (he counted 15 closures during the decade after he opened), he persevered, reminiscent of his childhood aspiration of working at the distillery he passed en route to and from school daily in Ontario. He applied his winemaking skills to the distilling process: create pure, sound and high quality base products separately, blend carefully, and age patiently. He looked at whisky as being comprised of “noble grains” instead of “noble grapes”, using what was plentiful in this region -rye, corn and barley. “Why mix them together to make a stew?” he wondered. So Hall distills, treats and ages each grain separately, with each matched to barrels to best suit the grain’s particular character. We tasted 12 month old barrel samples of each pure grain, so I could ascertain the grain’s character. Rye, known for its spicy attack, does well in lightly toasted oak, yielding a sweet, spiced and light caramel spirit. Barley, known for its malty heart, suits a medium charred barrel, resulting in a smooth, cereal spirit with nutty sweetness. Corn, the gutsy, nutty one in the bunch, can handle heavy charred oak. Hall calls it his “Aussie Shiraz” in the blend – full of body, toasted sweetness and heft. All three samples were pure, smooth and drinkable, and I was easily content to sit and enjoy, but Hall interjected with an example dear to my heart. He likens his blended whiskies to Meritage – a wine term for the blend of Bordeaux varieties to create a more complete, balanced final wine. Hall uses his three, singularly distilled and carefully tended grain spirits to blend his master “meritage” blend, each flavour weaving and marrying and complementing each other.
And that’s where the fun really starts.
“John’s whisky is made with passion and sensitivity. He is making brave New World Whiskies that are cutting edge”.
David Broom, Whisky Writer
It’s widely recognized that John Hall makes the best whisky in Canada. That’s the verdict of seven independent whisky experts who awarded Forty Creek and Hall Canadian Whisky of the Year Award last week at the Victoria Whisky Festival. His limited edition Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve took top prize honours. In announcing the awards, Chairman of the Judges, Davin de Kergommeaux, dubbed it “the best whisky yet from Forty Creek Distillery.” Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve was selected from 60 entries by a panel of eight whisky experts.
We started our tasting with Forty Creek Barrel Select. This “meritage” is approximately 25% barley, with the remainder rye and corn. It is aged in Canadian ‘sherry’ casks, has lovely nutty, orange and honey notes and a smooth finish.
From there, we progressed into Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve. This blend was put into first run bourbon barrels where it rested for 3 years. Big caramel, banana, toasted pecans and rich spice throughout, with a lengthy and warming finish.
“The most revolutionary whisky in Canada may well be Forty Creek. John Hall has brought a handcrafted sensibility to whisky and in doing so has broken the barriers of whisky. Forty Creek is a delightful whisky with international, timeless appeal”
Michael Jackson, Whisky Writer
The last whisky we tasted together was the Forty Creek Confederation Oak. When the plan for this whisky was set in motion, Hall had been distilling for years with success, and wanted to make something inherently, quintessentially 100% Canadian – all the way down to the barrel. The barrels he used were all American. He searched for white oak in Canada to make a barrel, and found it was quite rare. But – in a incredible stoke of luck – there as a small strand near his home in Niagara wine country. Three 150 year old trees were being felled, and Hall was able to purchase them, had them specialty cut into 1 inch thick staves, aged the wood for 2.5 years and had it made into barrels to his exacting specifications. He received 90 barrels from these old oaks – trees that dated back to around the time of this country’s beginning. These are the special Canadian barrels for Confederation Oak. Each bottle is numbered, starting with 1867 (history buffs will recognize Canada’s confederation). The whisky glowed a beautiful burnished gold, with a full body, rich aromas of raisin, maple and dried fig that carried through to the silken smooth palate. Caramel, butterscotch, dried fruits, nuts, spice, honey – every sip bringing something new and lingering longer than the last. A Canadian whisky revelation for me.
“I didn’t really get Canadian whisky until I discovered Forty Creek. John Hall isn’t just a great Canadian whisky maker, he’s one of the world’s very best period.”
Dominic Roskrow, Whisky Writer
Thanks to Hall, and those that he’s inspired, Canadian whisky is growing as a category for the first time in a decade. Forty Creek produces 350,000 cases of whisky annually, and Hall is careful of not growing beyond his control. “I’ve had requests from Scotland, Japan, Germany and more for my whiskies, but I’ve said no. I don’t want to lower the quality to reach greater quantity.” Throughout our visit, Hall was friendly, open and humble. This from Malt Advocate Magazine’s 2007 “Pioneer of the Year”(the first and only Canadian whisky maker to receive the prestigious award), and Whisky Magazine’s 2008 “Distillery of the Year” and “Ambassador of the Year” in their Icons of Whisky Competition, among many worldwide accolades.
Now with more than 40 years in the alcoholic beverage industry in Canada, this first generation whisky maker has instigated a renaissance in Canadian Whisky. Hall’s Forty Creek Whisky has become the fastest growing whisky in North America, and the first successfully launched Canadian Whisky brand in over 70 years.
“The most revolutionary whisky in Canada may well be Forty Creek. John Hall has brought a handcrafted sensibility to whisky and in doing so has broken the barriers of whisky. Forty Creek is a delightful whisky with international, timeless appeal.”
Michael Jackson, Whisky Writer
Forty Creek Whisky
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