Forty Creek’s master blender Bill Ashburn didn’t mourn when his winemaking career came to its end. Instead, he set off down a new path following no one. He devoted those early years to helping a tiny Canadian fruit spirits distillery grow from a marginally profitable operation into the juggernaut Forty Creek Distillery that Italy’s Campari Group acquired in 2014 for CAD$186 million (£109 million).
It all goes back to the summer of 1954 when Swiss mechanical engineer Otto Rieder barked up the right tree while visiting Canada’s number one tourist attraction, Niagara Falls. Driving down the Niagara Peninsula, Rieder was surprised by the number of orchards. “I had thoughts of Canada as a cold country where nothing but wheat would grow,” he later told a reporter from the National Post. “Seeing peaches came as kind of a shock.”
Even more shocking to Rieder, whose father distilled kirsch and other fruit spirits back home, was the absence of distilleries in Niagara. A dream was born, but it was 1970 before Rieder and 29 investors pooled their resources to open Canada’s first ‘craft’ distillery. By November 1972, his dream was a reality and he was selling fruit spirits in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.
About a decade later, Bill Ashburn landed at Rieder’s door, where the smell of fermenting fruit and the sight of brandy barrels triggered a Pavlovian response for blending wine and spirits. It was a fortuitous move. The distillery has remained Ashburn’s Byzantine Empire for the duration of his remarkably successful career, despite two subsequent changes in the company’s ownership. In 1992, on the verge of bankruptcy, Rieder brought in John Hall, an experienced winemaker and drinks executive, to help wind down the business. What Hall discovered was a gem in the rough. He proposed that, rather than closing the faltering distillery, he would buy it. “Ashburn,” as he likes to recall, “came with the furniture.”
Hall renamed the distillery ‘Forty Creek’ – it is 40 miles from Niagara Falls – and changed the focus from fruit spirits to whisky. Ultimately, Forty Creek became the fastest-growing whisky brand in Canada and produces a wide range of best-in-show whiskies, including the widely acclaimed Forty Creek Confederation Oak. And while Hall was the face of the distillery until he sold it on to Campari, few people were aware how much Ashburn shared in the creative and production processes behind the scenes.
Ashburn’s pursuit of excellence is obsessive, and he freely admits that, although palates differ, his products must please his own tastes first. So, while he watches what others are doing and keeps abreast of evolving tastes, he categorically refuses to jump on bandwagons. “Having liquids that are polarising in some ways is a good thing,” he explains, “but there are going to be people who disagree. I want to make what tastes best to me, and, because we’re a commercial establishment, I have to make sure that what I do will have mass-market appeal.” He credits the confidence of the marketing team at Campari for his most recent successes. They have never asked him to tweak any of his new releases. And this brings us to Foxheart, Ashburn’s latest creation. Foxheart celebrates his pursuit of excellence with both his passions – blending great whisky and raising championship dogs.
With 40 years in the business and a million whisky stories to tell, Ashburn can seem pretty single-minded. “What else do people who are in the spirits business talk about, but spirits?” he asks. But the truth of Ashburn’s home life is that he and his wife, Jennifer, have applied the same focus he brings to whisky to their love of wire fox terriers. Their Foxheart Kennels is renowned across Canada and the US for breeding champion show dogs. “The whole house was designed around the dogs, that they’d be in it,” he tells us.
“In dog terms, we would call this an outcross,” he explains. “Taking liquids that are in the same family and putting them together to come up with something different.” Foxheart whisky includes just enough long-aged Caribbean rum to bring singing notes of molasses and tropical fruit to the Forty Creek profile. “A great melding of rum and whisky tastes together,” he calls it. With artful blending and respectful use of the 9.09 per cent rule, Ashburn has integrated the best traits of two celebrated brown spirits into a single new one. And the Foxheart label incorporates a portrait of his international champion wire fox terrier, three-year-old Ruby, to top it off.
Canada’s 9.09 per cent rule is as misunderstood as it is naïvely maligned. Distillers in many countries routinely add wine to their whisky by pouring it into wine-saturated barrels, and no one bats an eye. They call it finishing. Canadian whisky law permits blenders to add up to 9.09 per cent of wine or mature spirits to their whisky. The regulation was intended to make high-volume, entry-level whiskies competitive in the US market by taking advantage of favourable tax rates on whisky containing some American spirits. Canadian blenders have only recently begun using this regulation to expand the range of Canadian whisky flavours and, among these, Forty Creek is a leader. In fact, until interest in Canadian whisky began to increase around 2012, innovation was rare, and Forty Creek pretty much had the preceding decade all to itself to define modern Canadian whisky.
Ashburn’s method for coming up with new whiskies relies on his well-trained taste memory: “I put things together in my head and imagine what they will taste like. I taste something and think that would go good in a whisky. Now, where can I get that? It really is a long thought process before putting anything together.
“If I use, as an example, Forager – I made 10 different blends over the year before we arrived at the one we liked. For Foxheart, this is a blend that came out of the gate – no changes required. Sometimes ideas click and they work right away. Other times they take a long time; sometimes they just don’t work.”
Perhaps no whisky reveals Ashburn’s thought process as clearly as does his 2019 release: The Forager. Ashburn learned about botanical flavours decades ago, when he was making gin for Otto Rieder. He’d only know if that process could be applied using whisky as a base if he tried. The result, which is labelled ‘botanical whisky’, incorporates several botanical flavours and is finding success among adventurous spirits lovers and Forty Creek fans.
But it’s his next project that really showcases his blending skills. This one is blended whisky, like all Forty Creek whiskies are, but, rather than blending mature whiskies, Ashburn brought together five spirits and then re-distilled them in Rieder’s original German copper pot still. He included some well-aged barley spirit in the blend for top notes and, in part, just to see if the flavours generated by ageing spirit would carry over in re-distillation. “It was fun to take it out of barrels and realise it worked,” he says with a smile.
Ashburn attributes the success of Forty Creek’s whiskies, just two decades after they were introduced, to the team’s willingness to embrace innovation: “What we started in Forty Creek back in 2000 was shaking up the Canadian whisky market as the leader. The whole pleasure of making whisky is trying to push the boundaries, trying to do things differently... and trying to find new flavours.” If The Forager, Foxheart, and his upcoming Master’s Cut are any indication, Ashburn has found the recipe for breeding whisky success.