Distillery Focus

A brave new world

Using his knowledge and passion for wine,whisky maker John Hall is creating one of the most iconic Canadian brands, Rob Allanson went to find out why.
By Rob Allanson
Nestled between the southern shore of Lake Ontario and the majestic backdrop of the Niagara Escarpment, in the town of Grimsby lies the compact and bijoux Kittling Ridge distillery.When you take a tour with John, it’s a little like stepping into Doctor Who’s Tardis – small on the outside and seemingly so much bigger on the inside. In fact some rooms are packed to the gunnels with equipment, spare fermenters and pipes, it’s quite an impressive place to see.Given that most Canadian whisky is blended, master distillery John Hall takes a completely different approach to making whisky than the other players.Most distillers traditionally blend a variety of grains together, ferment, distil and age. Instead, John treats each grain separately, as though it were a varietal wine.He believes that being a first generation wine and whisky maker gives him the freedom to be innovative and explore.He says:“Sometimes, when you have generations behind you, that can hinder you from trying new things, or taking chances.Doing things this way lets me put my fingerprints on the whisky and is not as restrictive.My ultimate goal is to provide customers with a memorable taste experience and quality products they can’t find anywhere else.” Forty Creek whiskies are distilled using two small copper pot stills.Each of the pot stills has its own personality and provides a particular character to the whiskies.The smaller still is a 600 litre pot and the larger still is a 6,000 litre pot. John also has copper and stainless steel column stills at his disposal to add extra dimensions to the whisky.For Forty Creek whiskies, each single grain is aged in its own special barrel. Each barrel is hand picked. Lightly toasted oak barrels are used to enhance the fruitiness and spiciness of the rye whisky.Medium toasted barrels are used to enhance the nuttiness of the barley, and heavy charred barrels enhance the smoothness and body of the maize. Finally, vintage sherry casks are used to round off some of the blended whiskies.Some of these whiskies will be in the barrel for 10 years. This makes the barrel selection process vital to the development of a great tasting whisky.John adds:“The length of time a whisky spends in a barrel is often considered the most important aspect of quality.“But, remember, a fine whisky is not created by age alone.“Paying particular attention to the choice of grains, the copper pot distillation and the barrel selection, captures nuances and subtleties of flavour that result in a whisky of distinction.The ageing process then enhances and develops the character of the whisky.This lets me play with the whole colour palate and the whole canvas.” The blending of a whisky is about more that just creating consistency. For John it’s about creating a defining style,an expression of craftsmanship and establishing a heritage.He adds:“It’s a matter of taste.Every barrel ages differently.No two barrels are alike, therefore every barrel must be tasted to determine if it has developed the defining style for Forty Creek. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it!” The distillery name and Forty Creek hark back to days of nature and the pioneers.It was not far from the distillery in the mid 1700s that settlers discovered a creek with a waterfall, which they named Forty Mile Creek.The original name of the community which developed along the banks of the creek was “The Forty”.John says:“Originally I wanted to name the whisky ‘Johnny Hall’ after 10 years of passion for the spirit, but I figured it did not work.“Forty Creek is the name that we proudly call our whisky to celebrate our heritage.“Just like the early settlers, our roots are deeply entrenched in the Grimsby soil.” John says he was similarly inspired when it came to naming the distillery Kittling Ridge.“About 15,000 hawks and eagles migrate here when they are heading north.The problem with north is it is across the lake,and that’s 26 miles.“In the spring we get warm air thermals so the birds get a free ride. In bird watching language this is called Kittling.” With a penchant for fine whisky and a knack for innovation, John has translated his winemaking experience into the art of distilling.He decided this year to celebrate his 15th year in the business with a bit of a special creation – Kittling Ridge Small Batch Reserve.He explains:“I used to come across really good barrels when I was tasting so decided so save some of them for this small batch.“To give a little back to the people who have supported us I have given people the chance to chose their own bottle number between one and 6,000.” Atasting with John is quite an educational affair.He takes the three different types of whisky,which he uses to blend together to make Forty Creek,and it is possible to follow a common thread through them – that of a wonderful creamy oakiness.John only distils once and takes the very heart of the run,he says he is looking for flavour not alcohol,he barrels about 65% to 70% ABV.The final composition of FortyCreek is roughly the rye and corn whiskies make up 85 per cent and the barley is a small contingent of the three.RYE
Nose:Bags of spice and fruit with occasional hints of pepper and chocolate
Palate:Full bodied and drying followed by the lush creamy oak
Finish:Chocolate,honey with a return of the spice and fruits BARLEY
Nose:Malt and a nuttiness which is under pinned with a sweet creamy oakiness
Palate:Soft and complex which dries gently
Finish:Smooth,lingering with some fruit and hints of vanilla CORN
Nose:Like opening a door to a sweet shop:vanilla,burnt sugar
Palate:More clinging sweetness,warming,quite weighty
Finish:Some spices come through,earthy notes and a subtle sweetness like corn with butter FORTY CREEK
Nose:Fragrant,notes of honeysuckle,vanilla,plums,nuts,spice and of course a toasted oak hit
Palate:Rounded,a full integration of the three elements to give a rich,complex melange of honey,spice and oak Finish:Smooth with great lingering fruit notes together with aromatic vanilla and pecan FORTY CREEK SMALL BATCH RESERVE
Nose:Sweet toffee,honey,light cereal notes and spice aromas
Palate:Alittle dryness followed by a burst of sweetness,maltiness, toasted nuts and a hint of spice
Finish:The long sweetness and spice fade into a lovely lingering nuttiness