The pride of Windsor

The pride of Windsor

The story behind some of Canada’s oldest whisky released to date

Whisky Learning | 07 Jun 2019 | Issue 160 | By Blair Phillips

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On September 20, 1977, millions tuned into the American Broadcasting Company to watch a stunt never attempted in the history of television. Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli water-ski-jumped over a shark. But, one man at Windsor Ontario’s Hiram Walker Distillery didn’t tune into Happy Days to see Jaws vs the Fonz. Distiller Jack Farrell was too busy laying down corn distillate in used American oak barrels – a whisky destined to be tucked away for decades to come.

The resting whisky slept through the flicker of some of television’s more iconic moments.

It turned six in its impenetrable oak fortress when M*A*S*H called it quits in 1983 and was 15 when Johnny Carson did the same in 1992. For 40 years, as television captured life’s moments and wardrobe malfunctions, the whisky patiently waited to reveal itself. While that may not have been Farrell’s intention, the combination of a big brand and thousands of barrels spread through more than a dozen warehouses meant long periods when entire lots of CC whisky were left alone or passed by for some of its inventory deemed better suited to the core blend at the time.

Leading into 2017, Canadian Club brand ambassador, Tish Harcus questioned why Farrell’s two 1977 lots of whisky had never been touched. She snatched samples, careful not to spill a drop and brought the golden nectar to Canadian Club’s senior brand manager, Rob Tucker’s attention. Their eyes widened when they tasted it. Tucker and Harcus may not wear leather jackets like the Fonz, but their talent for spotting good whisky is exactamundo. And it turns out to be some of the oldest Canadian whisky ever. Their discovery laid the foundation for the Canadian Club Chronicles – a whisky series that even the Fonz didn’t have the guts to attempt. But first, this 40-years-old whisky had an October 2017 audition.

Canadian Club Chronicles – a whisky series even the Fonz didn't have the guts to attempt

The Canadian Club Chronicles series exists thanks to the reaction to 7,000 bottles released when it was a mere 40 years old. Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, was the perfect opportunity for CC to test these ultra-aged waters. Unlike The Macallan or Highland Park, Canadian whisky had never experienced such a reaction. A Canadian whisky this old was in unchartered waters. At opening time, people ran down the street toward liquor stores, panting in their business attire. Their concerned expressions told the tale of something more urgent than a brisk morning jog. They were like sharks in a feeding frenzy, hoping to secure a place in line for a shot at owning a bottle of Farrel’s legacy.

“We didn’t know exactly how well it would go. When CC40 sold out quickly, that was the checkmark that told us consumers are accepting this,” explains Tucker. “We wanted to do right by the liquid that Tish discovered. It reminded us of how many barrels of this liquid we had aged and since we love to innovate, we drooled when we heard about it. We got it into the most beautiful bottle we could and that was that. On seeing how successful it was and just how damn good the liquid tasted, we decided, let’s do this again.”

By the fall of 2018, Farrel’s remaining honey barrels blew out 41 birthday candles and Canadian Club Chronicles Issue 1: The Water of Windsor introduced whisky fans to the series. “We wanted to start the series with the birthplace of Canadian Club and talk about Windsor,” says Tucker. During American Prohibition, Americans came to Windsor in hordes. The town’s nightlife was hopping and making delicious 'wink-wink' water. Everyone knew that the water of Windsor was code for Canadian Club whisky. “Calling it Chronicles was incredibly easy, there is such a rich history behind the name Canadian Club. So this is a terrific opportunity to tell those stories release after release,” says Tucker.

Calling the collection 'Chronicles,' means it can’t tell the whisky’s story by merely re-hashing the same whisky just one year older. These barrels have a critical mission, to drive innovation and take risks to tell those stories. “You have to tweak them a tiny bit to make them individually unique within the collection,” says Harcus. The Chronicles from year-to-year will be a collection of slightly different whiskies using the same base, just as Hiram Walker himself had done back in 1858. Harcus, Tucker and the late Jack Farrell honour Walker’s memory by drawing on his blending toolkit to nail the art of blending. “When you’re so proud of what you’ve created, you should be transparent,” says Tucker. The whisky is made up of 94 per cent of the 41-years-old base whisky, blended with a rye, sherry and brandy, without laying a hand on the whisky’s integrity.

The fall will see Canadian Club Chronicles Issue 2, a 42-years-old expression called The Dock Man. This time, the 1977 whisky is blended with a splash of 16-years-old rye whisky, 12-years-old pot-distilled rye and a tiny amount of brandy. “Canadian Club’s heritage is so important,” says Harcus. “Shortly after prohibition started, the Canadian Federal Government decided to number the Customs and Excise ports in an attempt to control the spirits heading to the United States illegally. The Hiram Walker dock was named Dock 57.” This is where the Hiram Walker Distillery’s dock men worked endless hours loading freight ships with crates of Canadian Club. “If we’re going to talk about CC’s history and heritage, we certainly want to talk about the prohibition era, a time when there were many CC counterfeit makers, but there were still savvy whisky connoisseurs and bar owners and they could count on these dock men for the real deal,” says Tucker.

Across the river, the motor city’s skyline painted a backdrop to the Canadian Club Docks. Detroit’s nightclub scene may have been impaired during Prohibition, but the river off its banks bustled with a party that bobbed to the current of theDetroit River. Along the busy waterway of lake freighters hauling lumber and grain, were floating liquor stores selling real Canadian Club.

America may have been dry, but as long as CC wasn’t shipped to the States, it was still legal for the Hiram Walker distillery to export their whisky from Dock 57 to other destinations on the waterway shared by two countries. As long as the paperwork was in order, anyone could load a boat with alcohol. While the coastguard would confiscate shipments lacking proper paperwork, and the Purple Gang might seize them, either way, ordinary citizens, like Harry Low, made fortunes forging paperwork then smuggling cases of Canadian Club from Dock 57 into Michigan. Indeed, Low made so much money from his bootlegging schemes that he built a mansion in Walkerville close to the Hiram Walker Distillery.

“With this release, we remind everyone where we’re from," says Harcus. “In Windsor next to the Detroit River, this time it’s a real vintage piece in the history of Canadian Club, the Dock Man.” The plan is to continue the Chronicles with more Issues, a 43-years-old will be next, followed by 44, 45 and 50. “We don’t want to stop, we are going to bottle every single drop,” says Tucker. With every drop, there is one story the Chronicles series will never tell: Canadian Club putting on a leather jacket and a pair of water skis then speeding up the shark-free waters to a ramp on the Detroit river. CC is far from jumping sharks.

Canadian Club Chronicles Tasting Notes

Canadian Club

40 Years Old 45% ABV
This is an elegant and complex whisky featuring CC’s traits of dark fruits and baking spices. For 40-years-old, the oak shows restraint but delivers on refinement.

Canadian Club

Chronicles Issue 1: The Water of Windsor 45% ABV
Whisky steeped in flavour history layered with a milky sweet maple, rich stone fruits and creamy vanilla. Crisp dry oak supports with sweetness with grace and elegance.

Canadian Club

Chronicles Issue 2: The Dock Man 45% ABV
Robust rye spice moors the palate to sweet caramel and baking spices. A deep oak char elevates this whisky into a tight toffee rich finish.

Canadian Club

Premium 1858 40% ABV
Fruity rye and corn grain attack the nose with rich rye spice, vanilla, caramel and sweet toffee flavours. Citrus pith aggressively charges the finish.
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