Distillery Focus

Atop heaven's hill

How a Kentucky giant is looking to reawaken a Canadian legend
By Blair Phillips
The thermometer outside the Owl Acoustic Lounge is about to burst in the blistering Lethbridge, Alberta sun. “What’s local and refreshing?” we plead. “Old Style Pilsner?” the bartender asks, slamming two frosty pints in front of us. Then, with a knowing, “you’re-not-from-around-here” glance, she launches into the story of Fritz Sick. It was Sick who began brewing Old Style at his Lethbridge Brewing Company just down the road nearly a century earlier.

Sick was not the first beverage entrepreneur to set up shop in Lethbridge. In 1870, two adventurers from Montana built a fortified trading post in a nearby gully carved into the prairie by the Old Man River. From Fort Whoop-up, as their garrison was called, the two traded raw alcohol ‘whisky’, for furs. The ensuing chaos had been curtailed and the fort destroyed by the time of Sick’s 1901 arrival.

Eventually, corporate Canada came calling, and national brewing company Molson (now Molson Coors), bought Sick’s operation. Though the Lethbridge Brewery was demolished in 1990, production continues elsewhere. However, this did not leave local Lethbridge dry. By this time, the Prairie town of 90,000 had re-established itself as whisky central, producing tens-of-millions of litres of Black Velvet and other Canadian whiskies annually.

In fact, American whisky lovers alone buy nearly 24 million bottles of Black Velvet, making the brand second only to the ubiquitous Crown Royal in terms of popularity.

Black Velvet’s story begins in 1946, in Toronto, Ontario, when Gilbey gin distillers began laying down their first whisky stocks. Six years later they released Black Velvet, and Gilbey quickly became a leading whisky producer thanks to its broad presence in global spirits markets and bulk sales to the United States. By 1973, the brand had outgrown the Toronto distillery, so new owners built what is now called The Black Velvet Distillery in Lethbridge, initially to serve the western market. (The Toronto distillery has since closed.)

Then, a few years ago, Black Velvet whisky began disappearing from Canadian liquor store shelves, even as the distillery added a new 58,000-barrel warehouse to keep up with America’s unquenchable thirst for the velvet. In November 2019, wine and spirits giant Constellation Brands (which by that time owned Black Velvet) confirmed its growing focus on wine by selling the Black Velvet Distillery, its brands and 367,429 barrels of maturing whisky to Bardstown Kentucky’s Heaven
Hill Brands.

Making Black Velvet available in its home country again is high on Heaven Hill’s to-do list. Hallelujah!

Heaven Hill, the largest independent, family-owned distilled spirits company in the US, has a gift for getting high-volume spirits to market. “We specialise in very large volume brands,” says Josh Hafer, Heaven Hill’s senior manager of corporate communications. “We know how to merchandise these brands. Heaven Hill has been the steward of products with great historical value since 1935,” he explains.

“We continue looking for opportunities to premiumise, but it all drives to the core brand. Tequila has done it, and so has rum. Canadian whisky is the next opportunity.”

“We have some gems in the warehouse,” a grinning Jonathan Goldberg interjects, nodding towards a case of the Danfield’s 21 Years Old sitting on the table. When Constellation discontinued production of the Danfield’s line, Canadian whisky connoisseurs were aghast. Will this voluptuous unicorn whisky be born again with Heaven Hill? We can only hope. The change in ownership brings new promise to a distillery that aficionados are itching to rediscover. Goldberg, who has managed the distillery since 2014, will continue with Heaven Hill.

Jonathan Goldberg knew from an early age that he wanted to be a distiller. Born in Charlotte, Virginia, he grew up in Washington D.C. where the US military had posted his father. As an inquisitive child, it wasn’t long before he was experimenting with home distilling, making all kinds of things and not necessarily alcohol. When he learned of Heriot-Watt University’s brewing and distilling program, he headed to Edinburgh for an undergraduate degree, then set off for the University of California at Davis for a master’s in alcohol production. Post-graduation stints making brandy in California, and three years distilling Angostura bitters, have given him a pretty good idea of how to make flavourful whisky.

“We use different yeast strains for base whisky, corn high wines and rye,” he offers. “We look at the bushel rate on corn because larger kernels give a better yield due to the geometry.” Since Alberta is not corn country, he brings in about 1,500 metric tonnes of corn from a broker in Montana, and because Black Velvet is popular in some European markets, this includes some non-GMO corn used for whisky that will be exported there.

All the rye and malt used to make Black Velvet is grown in Alberta. Since rye grain is vital to the flavour of the final whisky, Goldberg rejects the more productive hybrid varieties, saying, “Hybrids lack a little bit of character. It is becoming more and more difficult to source non-hybrid rye as farmers get much better yields with hybrids. However, when rye is used as a cover crop, the farmers put very little into cultivating it.” This is precisely the rye Goldberg covets. Hybrid rye, which is notoriously demanding of water and fertilizer, may produce more alcohol but at the expense of flavour. Goldberg is also careful to maintain the rye grain flavours by cooking it at a low temperature. “This prevents burnt notes and preserves the grain notes,” he tells us.

Even though Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels are ‘in the family’, Goldberg plans a slow transition to using them, beginning with premium iterations, from where they will be ‘feathered into’ the system.

Asked about the much-misunderstood practice of including up to 9.09 per cent of wine or mature spirits in some high-volume Canadian whiskies, Goldberg echoes the sentiments of past Black Velvet distillers. There is no inducement or compelling reason to use wine in Canada or overseas. “We are proud of the whisky we make,” concurs plant general manager, Claude Bilodeau. Still, hefty tax breaks in America make adding wine to US-bound whisky necessary to remain competitive there, just as skilful blending makes it undetectable on the palate.

Unlike other Canadian whiskies, Black Velvet is created using a ‘blended at birth’ technique. When the base spirit comes from the still, it is blended with flavour-rich corn high wines and rye spirit that has already spent anywhere from two to six years in barrels. This blend is put into used Bourbon barrels to mature for 3, 8, 12 or up to 21 years. It’s a recipe that keeps Black Velvet at the top of the whisky sales charts.

Lethbridge has a storied past, and that includes Black Velvet. So, it is heartening to think this long-standing Canadian liquid velvet may soon be back on Canadian liquor store shelves. Here’s hoping that the next time we ask the barkeep at the Acoustic Owl for something local, she reaches to the top shelf and pours us the latest special release from Black Velvet.

Tasting Notes

Black Velvet Original 40% ABV
Copious notes of caramel, cotton candy and corn grain. Dark fruits, dry rye cereal and hot spicy pepper blasts this whisky into a zesty finish.

Black Velvet Reserve 8 Years Old 40% ABV
Fresh cut lumber spars with delicious caramel and scorched sugar. Baskets of vanilla-drenched fruits contrast the dusty rye spices with a late-palate citrus tang.

Black Velvet Onyx 12 Years Old 40% ABV
Vanilla and baked apple calibrate the nose with sweet caramel on the palate. Sheets of fruit laden baking spices snap to citrus pith on the finish.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 Years Old 40% ABV
Old oak dictates the direction of a striking whisky that deserves a comeback. A range of rye aromas wafts through the sweet and creamy palate of this all-corn whisky. Gorgeous indeed.