Permission to Tour

Permission to Tour

Davin de Kergommeaux finds visiting Canadian distilleries is not as easy as it seems

Places | 09 Sep 2011 | Issue 98 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

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I ’m doing a piece on Canadian whisky and I’d like to meet with John Hall,” I repeated into the phone. “Hang on.” Down the phone line I could hear a cash register clang open. “Great!I’ve ended up in the gift shop,” I thought, eyes skyward. But at least they have one.

Visitors are simply not welcome at most Canadian distilleries, and if you just show up there’s never anyone around to cajole into making an exception. Months of correspondence and a really compelling story might finally get you on site, but then again, you might make your appointment and drive nine hours and eight minutes to keep it only to find they’re putting in SAP and today’s not a good day.

However, Kittling Ridge distillery where they make Forty Creek, welcomes visitors, and from June to September tours are free. But it wasn’t just the distillery but the man himself I needed to see. John Hall bought the old Rieder distillery in Grimsby, Ontario, back in 1992 and quickly turned its eau-de-vie stills to making whisky. Well, grain spirit really; it was a good ten years before he had anything he was willing to call whisky. Forty Creek Barrel Select is Canada’s tenth best-selling whisky today. Back then, Hall had to go all the way to Texas to find anyone who’d buy it.

I met John Hall as he was coming out of the distillery. “Come on down to my office and we can talk.” And he explained that he’s a winemaker and that he matures his rye and corn and barley whiskies separately then blends them together in a process he calls ‘Meritage’- his ‘Bordeaux blend.’ But most Canadian distillers age their different spirits separately in tailored barrels. What makes Hall’s process special is that he mashes the grains separately instead of using mixed mash bills. Either way, whether the different grains are kept separate or mixed together the result is single grain whisky –grain whisky made in a single distillery. My lesson completed, I headed out to the car.

“One down,” I said to myself, “four more to go.”

Getting into the Hiram Walker distillery in Walkerville, Ontario, now there’s a challenge. Canadian Club advertises tours, so I showed up and eagerly paid my five dollars. A university student took me into Walker’s old office and the speak-easy where Al Capone did Prohibition-era business, sometimes at gunpoint. I downed three good-sized drams, was given a monogrammed highball glass, and watched a pretty decent film. And that was just about it. There was not a still to be seen, no fermenter to smell. The distillery itself remains off limits to visitors.

Canadian Club might have built Walker’s but it no longer owns the distillery. Corby Distillers – the folks who make Wiser’s – operate it on behalf of owners, Pernod-Ricard. Back home I exchanged e-mails with a lot of suits-in-offices, four and a half hours away in Toronto. Back in Walkerville, I signed some forms, then a uniformed sentry did my security screening, picked up a phone and called my host.

It had taken some persistence, but that hardly mattered now. There I was, gazing at the single 12,000-litre copper pot still where Canada’s only malted rye whisky is distilled and walking the turquoise checkerboard floors of the fermenting hall in North America’s largest distillery. History. It was easy to forget how many months it took to get inside.

Rain was pounding down. “Oui” a voice crackled from a metal box on the wall. “J’aimerais visiter M. Laberge, il m’attend,” I gurgled. “Across the street.” He’d noticed my accent and switched to English. Back into the downpour. Another day, another distillery. More guards, more papers, more locked doors. “Sign here,” he said, when he’d drawn his final blood sample, pointing to a waver, printed on yellow paper and requiring two signatures. Not really, but after Walker’s I’d half expected as much.

Martin Laberge, my guide, is a chemical engineer. He started out in the toothpaste business and ended up making whisky. “Blue whisky?” I queried eyeing a mini of Gibson’s, and his face lit up. “Yeah, we had a whole batch like that. I figured it out. We switched bottles and there was iron in the glass.” It reminded me of Seagram’s Mr. Sam refusing to pay for a wooden fermenter because it turned his whisky blue. Must have been held together with nails.

Valleyfield distillery, just outside Montreal, Quebec, was home to the Schenley brands until 2008 when Diageo bought the plant and Schenley moved production to the Black Velvet distillery in Lethbridge. They made Gibson’s whisky at Valleyfield too, but that eventually moved to Hiram Walker’s. Valleyfield’s workers haven’t forgotten Gibson’s though. “When I heard they were leaving I stashed a couple of cases at home,” one of them confessed. I remembered noticing a full-page Gibson’s ad that someone had proudly posted on the bulletin board back at Walker’s.

Valleyfield was re-built after the Second World War to make spirit for a clutch of American whisky brands. It makes Canadian now –VO, Five Star, and some base whisky for Crown Royal. At Valleyfield they stack their barrels, one on the other forming pyramids. “We got the cost of handling a barrel down to just over a dollar doing it this way. It costs nearly $15 using pallets.”

The things a whisky man has to think about.

“Making great whisky is like making great rock and roll,” says retired Canadian Mist distillery manager Harold Ferguson. “You have to crank up the volume.” A 24/7 operation may be the goal, but it’s a five-day week at Canadian Mist now according to General Manager, David Dobbin.

Canadian Mist is ubiquitous in the US, but difficult to find in Canada. Owned by Louisville bourbon makers, Brown-Forman, the distillery ships all of its output to Kentucky for bottling. Hardly any of it ever makes it back home although Canadian distribution is in the works for ‘Collingwood,’ Mist’s new premium Canadian whisky. Collingwood, now there’s an unusual whisky. After it has been blended, toasted maple barrel staves are added to the marrying vat where they impart not maple, but sweet and fruity high notes to the finished whisky.

Located in the southern Ontario tourist town of Collingwood, Ontario, Canadian Mist does not welcome visitors, but a day at the beach or ski slopes has many Toronto residents regularly making the two-hour trek north. Grain no longer arrives at Canadian Mist by lake freighter; the white cement elevators that dominate the harbour now sit vacant. Cheap rail transport put the terminal out of business, a bonanza for local farmers who now supply most of the grain.

It’s a standard two-stream, three-column operation at Canadian Mist, but whisky aficionados were astounded a few years ago when someone unfamiliar with Canadian distilling processes mistakenly proclaimed the Canadian Mist operation to be copper free.

“How could this be?” they asked. But the word spread. “Not so,” insists Dobbin.“We employ copper in the upper sections of our stills and the vapours all pass through a solid copper vessel for the additional contact.”

Heading up Nova Scotia’s Highway 102 from Halifax on the final leg of my Eastern Canadian distillery tour, I cruised by a modern Indian trading post beckoning tourists with the standard clichés. Turning east at Truro, onto Highway 104, I soon passed New Glasgow, a fair size at nearly 10,000, and then skirted Antigonish, a university town just half that size. Antigonish turned out to be the last reliable lunch stop before Glenville, another hour and three quarters ahead. Yes, there were lobster suppers advertised at Auld’s Cove but the cheery white façade concealed scenes from Deliverance inside. Keep driving.

Glenora Inn and Distillery is a welcoming snuggery of rural charm in Cape Breton’s rugged Highlands. “The locals don’t come here,” manager Donnie Campbell told me, “it’s too upscale for them.” After crossing the little burn behind the postcard-perfect distillery, haute cuisine delicacies awaited me in the restaurant. Wealthy American and European whisky buffs, here to enjoy the solitude, plunk down thousands of dollars for Glen Breton, but bottle number 1, an 8 Year Old, is still available for $50,000.

Glenora came onto the whisky radar during a decade-long fight with the Scotch Whisky Association for the right to call its single malt, ‘Glen Breton.’ Glen, the SWA seemed to believe, could only mean ‘Made in Scotland.’ But the law thought differently and suggested the SWA may have better things to do than harass a distillery in a part of Nova Scotia, where the road signs are bilingual – English and Gaelic – not as a tourist gimmick but because some local folks still prefer to use their mother tongue.

Glen Breton 15 Year Old single malt, released to celebrate victory in what became known as ‘The Battle of the Glen,’ evinced the setting eloquently in notes of fresh fruit and spring flowers.

The perfect conclusion to a tour of Eastern Canada’s distilleries.

Canadian Mist Distillery

Getting there

Fly into Toronto Pearson (see Kittling Ridge) then drive the 80 miles/90 minutes to Collingwood (but remember – there are no tours inside the distillery.)

Where to stay in Collingwood

This is tourist country with rates from $75.00 to over $200.00 at various bed and breakfasts, small hotels and the Blue Mountain Resort. I paid $95.00 to stay at a bed and breakfast that has since closed. Several others have similar rates.

Representative whisky

Fruity, rich and creamy with rose petals, firewood and hot pepper. $50.00 (estimate).

Hiram Walker Distillery

Getting there

Flights to Detroit Metropolitan Airport (USA) depart from many major European, Asian and North American cities. The airport is 26 miles/45 minutes from Windsor, Ontario. Add time to cross the Canadian border. There is also a regional airport in Windsor. Daily car rental rates at the Detroit airport range from $63.00 to $143.00. Canadian Club Heritage Centre tours are $5.00; there are no distillery tours.

Where to stay in Windsor

A variety of hotels and motels range in price from $55.00 to $185.00. I paid $85.00 to stay at the Super-8 Motel.

Representative whiskies

Canadian Club Classic 12 Years Old
Sweet oak caramels, Christmas cake, warming pepper and clean oak. $25.00.

Gibson’s Finest Rare 18 Years Old
Spicy oak, rich in toffee, vanilla, dusty rye and hot pepper. $65.00.

Wiser’s Legacy
Rich and creamy with cloves, cinnamon and piquant pepper. $85.00.

Valleyfield Distillery

Getting there

Flights to Montreal’s Trudeau Airport depart from most major international cities. Trudeau airport is 13 miles/35 minutes from the heart of Montreal. Taxi fare is $38.00 (flat rate). Daily car rental costs $20.00 to $175.00. You will need a car to drive the 45 miles/1 hour to Salaberry-de-Valleyfield (but remember –there are no tours of the distillery.)

Where to stay in Montreal

Daily rates at a variety of hotels, inns and bed and breakfasts range from $55.00 to over $350.00. I paid$145.00 to stay at Springhill Suites in Old Montreal.

Representative whisky

Seagram’s VO
Pepper, ginger, cedar, dark fruit, floral notes and vanilla. $24.00.

Kittling Ridge Distillery

Getting there

Flights to Toronto’s Pearson airport depart from most major cities around the world. Pearson is 20 miles/30 minutes from downtown Toronto. Taxi fare is $50.00 (flat rate) while daily car rental at the airport costs between $70.00 and $105.00 plus insurance. You will need a car to drive 50 miles/1 hour 15 minutes to Grimsby. Tours are free.

Where to stay in Toronto

A broad range of accommodations from hostels to 5-star hotels will suit any traveler. I paid $209.00 to stay at the Fairmont Royal York right in the heart of the bustling city.

Where to stay in Grimsby

There are many local hotels and motels with prices ranging from $80.00 to $200.00. Hundreds of hotels 30 miles/45 minutes away in Niagara Falls offer daily rates from as low as $60.00 to $350.00 and more.

Representative whisky

Forty Creek Confederation Oak
Butterscotch, vanilla, granola and hints of wood smoke. $65.00.

Glenora Distillery

Getting there

Flights to the Stanfield International Airport in Halifax depart from London Gatwick and Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris, most major Canadian and major Eastern U.S. airports. Stanfield airport is 21 miles/ 30 to 40 minutes from Halifax. Taxi fare is $53.00 (flat rate) while daily car rental at the airport costs between $25.00 to $85.00 plus insurance. You will need a car to drive the 210 miles/4 hours 10 minutes to Glenville. Tours cost $7.00.

Where to stay in Halifax

There are many hotels to suit any budget in the Halifax area. I paid $155.00 to stay at the Inn at Fisherman’s Cove, a waterfront bed and breakfast, where I awoke to the early morning sounds of fishermen starting their boats. Noisy but very colourful.

Where to stay in Glenville

There are various small bed and breakfasts in the area, but if you’ve come this far, why not stay right at the Glenora Inn and Distillery? Daily rates range from $120.00 to $240.00. Full bar and restaurant service.

Representative whisky

Glen Breton, Battle of the Glen
Fruity, floral, fragrant and nutty with hot white pepper and cleansing grapefruit pith. $150.00. Many distillery-only bottlings and samples.
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