Marketers tell us that a good story is key to a successful whisky brand. And if that story is disclosed by a whisky hero, you’re golden – hence the rise of the revered “master distiller.” He may have run a still at one time, but his or her job now is essentially global public relations. Easy to miss, in all the hype, is the reality that it takes a dedicated team to make and sell consistently great whisky. Those teams with the greatest success have one thing in common: A visionary leader – a strategic thinker who can motivate them to bring all the moving parts together into a humming machine. At Hiram Walker distillery, in Windsor, Ontario, that leader is one Ross E. J. Hendry, a man whose office is a good three and a half hour drive away in Toronto.
Let’s be honest. Hiram Walker has been making top-notch whisky for longer than Canada has been a country. It buys the best local grains, manages flawless fermentations, uses its pot and column stills with artistry and matures its spirits – some of them for many decades – in pedigreed barrels. A large quality control panel assesses the nascent, maturing and mature whisky at more than a dozen points along the way. On top of this, it engages in research and development unceasingly. Though sales are strong and growing, its core product is pipeline whisky. Yet, despite 1.6 million barrels of spirit in their Pike Creek warehouses, Hiram Walker hasn’t really had a hit whisky since the 1980s.
Enter Ross Hendry. Yes, his nose is brilliant and his palate even better, but this is no different than a dozen other people who work in the distillery. There is, however, one key difference: Hendry understands the global whisky market at a visceral level. Stints at Brown-Forman in the U.S. and The Glenrothes in Scotland taught him both to think outside the pipeline and to seize opportunity where he finds it. As a marketing specialist, when he sees potential he has the skills to turn it into something everyone wants to buy.
The untapped possibilities of Canadian spirits astounded Hendry when, in December 2011, he interviewed for a marketing position with Corby Distillers (Corby manages Hiram Walker Distillery for its owner, Pernod Ricard) “When I tasted the spirit at Corby, I couldn’t not accept the challenge. I took the job because of the Canadian category itself; the other horses had already bolted” says Hendry. It was beyond him that no one had ever really brought these whiskies to the world. Believe us, Ross, others tried.
But one man does not a great whisky make. Despite the reality that Canadian whisky has been the best selling whisky style in North America for more than 150 years, it took a community to bring it back onto the world stage. Whisky makers, the core of that exceptionally diverse community had been in place for generations. An inspiring leader was needed to galvanize them.
Like many great motivators, Hendry is content to stay behind the scenes encouraging his team with enthusiastic delight. “My job isn’t to move a million cases but to elevate the category,” he opines. Make no mistake about it. As great as these whiskies are and given the reality that some of them were distilled more than a generation ago, they would never have seen light of day without someone with the knowledge, confidence and passion to make the case for bottling them.
Montreal-born Hendry is not a soft-spoken man. His fit, square-shouldered frame, engaging almost impish smile and rolling Scottish brogue would make him the quintessential brand ambassador. Though, he can barely contain his enthusiasm for his new whiskies, he eschews that role, ensuring his team gets credit for a genuine revolution in Canadian whisky. Dr. Don Livermore, the brilliant and innovative Heriot-Watt Ph.D. who leads the production team at the distillery is given full and well-deserved recognition for making these whiskies. Similarly, although Hendry has final approval on the whiskies, the man who explains them to the public is the affable, GQ-gorgeous Dave Mitton, a Toronto bartender who is now Corby’s full-time global brand ambassador.
The Canadian Whisky Guild – Pike Creek, Gooderham & Worts and Lot No. 40 – premiered in the late 1990s. Lot No.40 had been in production for about 70 years at that time and then-blender, Mike Booth was particularly eager to bottle it. The whisky was named for his great-great-great-uncle Joshua, a pioneer who distilled whisky on a plot of land officially described as Lot 40. Despite a huge marketing push, the 1990s launch fizzled.
Still, the spirits were exceptional and it was here where Hendry began his Canadian whisky renaissance. “I was inspired by the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection; they stole my heart,” he explains. “Day one of my job, I was told do whatever I want. Day two, these whiskies got new life.” Adding the silent beauty, Wiser’s 18, to the line-up, he then tasked Livermore with tweaking the other three whiskies to make them bolder and more complex. Livermore responded with Rum-finished Pike Creek at 10 years of age, Lot No. 40 finished in virgin oak, and an entirely re-formulated Gooderham & Worts. Hendry released these as the Northern Border Collection, a clear nod to his largest potential market – the U.S.A.
Slowly, strategically, he rolled the whiskies out. “We don’t want to release a whisky into a market unless we are certain we have the liquid and the people to support and sustain it.”
Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity
17 Years Old 3 Grain Blend 45% ABV
A clean blend of sweet dried fruits, searing rye spices, buttery corn and clove honey capped with a refined bready nuttiness. A lovely full display of flavours.
Lot 40 100% Rye Case Strength
12 Years Old 55% ABV
A spiced up Cadbury Fruit 'n' Nut bar with a vigorous and complex rye sizzle. Bottomless oak, vanilla and toffee. An unflinching celebration of rye whisky.
Pike Creek Finished in Speyside Single Malt Cask 21 Years Old
Delicate and silky bulging with rich caramel and ripe fruit flavours. The Speyside casks merge roasted malts and a slight floral note to the oak focused finish.
J.P. Wiser’s 35 Years Old 50% ABV
Hardened mature oak without overpowering the honeyed green fruits, rye bread, ginger, sweet vanilla and grain. This whisky glimmers into an indulgent waxy finish.
J.P. Wiser’s 18 Years Old 40% ABV
Fresh lumber, sweet caramel, vanilla and prunes balanced with a range of complex wood flavours. No-nonsense peppery spices and a classic citrus pith finish.
Now, with his core whiskies in place, Hendry has his sights set on an annual range of connoisseur whiskies dubbed the Northern Border Collection Rare Releases. His team is busily combing warehouse records for small special lots and rare old whiskies that will fit within the styles of the range. This year we have Lot No. 40 Cask strength, a stunning all-rye whisky that connoisseurs have been demanding since its original release way back when. Then there is a new long-aged Pike Creek finished in Speyside malt barrels. The essence of Pike Creek is barrel finishing and for this rare old liquid the team has substituted Scotch barrels for rum.
When William Gooderham learned that his workers could not afford to pay the pew fees required to attend church services in Toronto, he built his own Little Trinity Anglican church where they could worship at will. Gooderham & Worts 17 Years Old Little Trinity features three grains rather than the four in the standard bottling as a nod to Gooderham’s chapel. Finally, deep in the warehouses the team uncovered a stash of 35-years-old corn whisky that, with a dash of rye added, amplifies the glories of Wiser’s 18. This may be the best Canadian whisky you will ever have an opportunity to taste and it is worth a buying trip to Canada.
Yes, Hiram Walker Distillery has been making exceptional spirit since 1858, and they have found great success producing typically Canadian, middle-of-the-road whiskies. But whisky tastes are changing. Today’s consumer wants bigger, bolder and more distinctive flavours, whether to sip or to mix.
The spirit that has been waiting patiently in warehouses has finally found it’s visionary. A man you will likely not hear about again unless you follow the trade papers, but Ross Hendry, a Canadian-born whisky guru with deep Scottish roots is finally giving Canadian whisky its due far beyond its traditional markets of middle-shelf North America.
The man Hendry himself
Happy team members
The current whisky line up