By 1925, a burgeoning automotive industry had turned Detroit into “The Motor City” and across the river, the Hiram Walker Distillery was making a whisky steeped in history. There, 100 per cent rye grain was fermented, then distilled in a short column still, then again in a copper pot. Nothing foretold that this flavourful blending whisky would one day be released as Lot No. 40. But the juice had already made Hiram Walker’s whiskies coveted.
By 1950, automobiles had made Detroit the fourth largest city in the United States until a slow decline began in 1958 when the Packard Motor Car company closed shop. When a 1973 gasoline crisis opened the American market to fuel-efficient foreign cars, slowly, the surviving automakers began to fall. On July 8, 2013, The Motor City finally sputtered to a stop, filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.
Lot No. 40 burst on the whisky scene in 1998, as part of the Canadian Whisky Guild, three whiskies made by master distiller Mike Booth and his team at Hiram Walker. Booth traced Lot 40’s heritage back to Joshua Booth, his sixth-generation grandfather. A United Empire Loyalist, Joshua fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War. At the war’s end in the summer of 1784, Booth settled near Canada’s Lake Ontario in Ernestown. “He was quite a successful businessman,” explains Mike Booth. “He owned about seven grist mills, one of them located on a plot of land – Lot 40.”
Historical documentation of these mills is slender, but it shows that each included a licensed distillery. Climatic conditions in Canada were very different from those 300 miles south in his Orange County, New York home and Booth would have found Canadian rye unsuited for baking.
It was simply fermented and distilled in crude pot stills. In 1792, with his milling business at its peak, Joshua was elected a member of the first Parliament of Upper Canada.
During the War of 1812, his home became a vantage point for spotting invading American ships crossing Lake Ontario. However, before the war’s end, Joshua joined the angel’s share. His November 6, 1813 Kingston Gazette obituary states, “Died at Ernestown on Saturday, the 30th October, very suddenly…” He was 55. Mike has heard two stories of Joshua’s demise. Either he drowned rescuing sailors from a capsized boat, or he was shot.
Mike Booth envisaged a rye whisky that could have come from Lot 40’s mill. “I think if we knew the truth, my Lot 40 would be pretty close to it. It’s a very simple distillate from a mash of 10 per cent malted rye and 90 per cent rye grain grown close to the distillery, and aged in good oak.” The distillate was aged in freshly dumped Bourbon or ex-Bourbon casks. Booth reminisces that the pot still that makes today’s Lot 40, although refurbished, was already a fixture when he started in 1971.
Liquor stores had a Titanic promotion with bottles displayed on rugged Canadian Whisky Guild stands and miniatures at every cash register. An American launch soon followed but within a few years, Lot 40 joined Joshua in whisky heaven.
It was expensive for its time and sales, though steady, were slow. “The classic cocktail movement hadn’t been revived yet in the nineties,” explains Corby global brand ambassador, Dave Mitton, “bartenders weren’t making warming, boozy, stirred whisky cocktails. It was a time of Sex In The City, and fruity, colourful cocktails such as Cosmopolitans.”
Canadian whisky fans still debate the fatal blow to the original Lot 40, but who cares? Lot No. 40 made a famous comeback in 2012 when former master blender David Doyle and current master blender Dr Don Livermore revived it as part of the now-rebranded Northern Border Collection. This time, they used 100 per cent rye grain, no malted rye, and finished it in virgin oak. With a PhD in oakwood extractives, Dr Livermore knows how to finish whisky. In a nod to history, the president of Corby wrote Mike Booth a letter asking that his name remains on the label. “I was just happy it was coming back,” Booth remembers, “this whisky has some real history to it.”
Livermore’s formulation is writing a new chapter in a failed town’s history. Through thick and thin, Windsor and Detroit are conjoined twins, surgically separated by the Detroit River. Looking across from Windsor, you can imagine Batman living in Detroit. Ornate skyscrapers tower over 1920s Art Deco buildings with sculptural setbacks. In death, it became a rugged frontier, drawing in entrepreneurs who had nothing left to lose. It wasn’t Batman who stepped in to save the day. Artists, bars and restaurants did, with the water of life flowing from the Northern border helping to resuscitate this town. Thirsty, we joined the Lot 40 team in Detroit to see for ourselves.
Dave Mitton laments, “I quickly learned that the city known for the birth of music from Motown to Techno also has remarkable street art. So many aspiring young men and women have taken the reins on the bar and restaurant scene building incredible establishments. It just made sense to focus Lot No. 40 on this incredible city, as the whisky itself was going through a rebirth.”
Case in point, John Clifford Bell opened Cliff Bell’s bar back in 1935. By 1985, the room was vacant until a massive early-2006, restoration returned the legendary bar to its jazz-era glory. Davin and I enjoyed Old Fashioneds, today made with Lot 40 rye, along the curved mahogany bar. It was mandatory that we sit there; original owner, John Clifford Bell first introduced the very concept of bar stools to taverns. By 1935, bar stools were standard, but Bell accented his with trademark bar-side tables.
Along with whisky, Hiram Walker made a small fortune selling lumber, so it is fitting that the 1894 mansion built by his lumber baron colleague, David Whitney Jr., is now a fine dining restaurant. Though the mansion is reputed to be haunted, it was the architecture that made our heads spin like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist.
The fifty-two rooms, ancient elevator, granite columns, mosaic tile floors and Tiffany stained glass windows dazzle the eye, but it’s the sculpted wood accents that make this place amazing. We needed a dram, but first Lot 40’s Gerard Graham wanted our opinion on a panoramic painting of two babies playing. Half way around the room the tone changes as one of the babies steals from the other and a fight breaks out. The story ends with a psychotic baby pulling out a hunting rifle while the other ducks for cover. Chalk it up to teething; these Detroit babies are tough. Maybe rub some Lot 40 on their gums then view the mural backwards. It’s a happier story.
Finally, we settled into the third-floor Absinthe room and ordered “A Spoonful” cocktail – Lot 40, maraschino liqueur and bitters with a spoonful of sweet vermouth added tableside. A throwback to a classic era.
“Today’s bartenders are one of the major forces that brought back rye whisky,” says Mitton. “As they went through old cocktail books they wanted to make the recipes authentic. They needed that heavy spice, that special rye whisky flavour.”
The Grey Ghost was a notorious Prohibition pirate, who was never identified because he wore a grey mask, but Lola Gegovic, who represents Lot 40 in Detroit assures us we are safe in the restaurant that bears his name. The Purple Gang gunned him down on a Detroit backstreet long ago. Comforting. Lola has brought us here to taste their “No Strings Attached,” a balanced drink made with Lot 40, white vermouth and cherry herring. The room pulsed with energy as did a menu. Perhaps it’s the taste of Detroit – fried bologna on a sharp cheddar cheese waffle or the menu’s Not Meat section: seared diver scallops but Mike Booth is delighted to learn that Detroit is embracing the whisky so close to his heart.
“It’s damn good whisky!” he tells us, and he’s right.
Beneath the Underdog Tasting Notes
Lot No. 40
Canadian Whisky Guild Release 43% ABV
Very expressive with dark German rye bread, dusty grain, caraway and then sweet citric notes. Fresh naval oranges burst with spicy rye into the glowing finish.
Lot No. 40
2012 Edition 43% ABV
Rye bread, lilacs, hard, dusty, earthy rye grain, then sour rye with candied citric notes, hot peppery spices and tannic wood.
Lot No. 40
Current Edition 43% ABV
Just as rye driven as the 2012 expression but with some added rounding. Dark rye fruit and sweet floral esters add a polish to the hard rye.
Lot No. 40
100% Rye, Cask Strength, 12 Years Old, 2017 Northern Borders Rare Release 55% ABV
A spiced up Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar with a vigorous and complex rye sizzle. Bottomless oak, vanilla and toffee. An unflinching celebration of rye whisky.
Lot No. 40
100% Rye, Cask Strength, 11 Years Old, Fall 2018 Northern Borders Rare Release 54.3% ABV
Martha Stewart’s rye bread recipe, when she was in prison. Bold and complex with caraway seeds, cloves, green fruits, vanilla and a rock pile of rye.