On April 21, 1986, 30 million Americans watched Geraldo Rivera crack open bootlegger, Al Capone's vault in Chicago's Lexington Hotel. Medical examiners and IRS agents circled, predator-like, as the erstwhile newsman smashed through a brick wall. But the heavily promoted TV spectacle revealed no skeletons or stacks of cash. Other than an empty gin bottle and a lot of dirt, the vault was bare. Geraldo, who had vowed to sing if the vault was empty, sauntered off warbling Frank Sinatra's "Chicago", off-key.
A quarter of a century later and with no fanfare, Canadian Club manager, Tish Harcus, pried open a more likely depot of Capone relics: an indoor swimming pool, sealed in the basement of the Canadian Club Brand Centre. Working alone, Harcus unearthed real treasure: pristine old bottles of Canadian Club whisky. Why that pool was sealed with those bottles inside remains a mystery, Distillery focus Canadian Club Issue 116 | Whisky Magazine 27 though an urban legend involves an ingénue - a company clerk - who drowned when a Prohibition-era celebration got out of hand. That is quite possible. The subterranean speakeasy where Capone clinched many whisky deals was in an adjacent room and a bullet hole in the wall attests to his notoriously short temper and brutal negotiating tactics.
Back in 1858, Detroit whisky rectifier, Hiram Walker, founded this distillery across the Canadian border from his U. S. home. At the time, American distillers were not permitted to turn spirits into whisky. Instead, independent rectifiers completed this task. As a successful vinegar maker, Walker knew the financial benefits of controlling a manufacturing process from beginning to end. Unable to eliminate the whisky middleman in America, he simply crossed the narrow Detroit River and set up shop in Canada. Although part of Windsor today, the distillery site and town where Walker housed his workers is still known as Walkerville.
During Prohibition, that watery border became a magnet for bootleggers including Capone. Long before Prohibition, Walker was interred in Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery. Then, when Prohibition arrived, his nervous heirs, fearing reprisals, if not from the law, from their fellow Protestant congregants, sold the distillery at a loss.
Was it ignorance or malicious intent that the real estate broker failed to disclose that something secret lay entombed deep in the recesses of the spectacular Florentine palace that was Walker's world headquarters? Strange occurrences have since rattled staff in the Canadian Club Brand Centre. Now, a new phenomenon has brought Blair and me to Walkersville to investigate: The Windsor Hum.
An undulating low-frequency thrum, audible to only some of Walkerville's residents, has created quite a stir. Some blame space aliens - an intergalactic barbershop quartet perhaps?
Environmentalists accuse heavy industry on Zug Island, just across the border. Retired Canadian Club employee Art Jahns is laconic, referring to Windsor-hum chasers as "a bunch of people with nothing better to do." Still, the coincidence of Harcus opening the long-sealed pool and the simultaneous arrival of the Windsor Hum needs probing. Canada's government has given university researchers a quarter of a million dollars to identify it. We're under-resourced, but Blair and I know a good mystery when we see one.
Is it coincidence that "The Hum" began its unsettling croon just as Harcus exposed a cornucopia of Prohibition-era whisky? We wait beside the Canadian Club elevators, ears cocked. Twenty tonnes of grain piped from the elevators to the grinding mill each hour has a distinct hum of its own but this sound pre-dates the mystery. We join Harcus in the Brand Centre, sipping the spicy dram of Canadian Club 20 Years Old she thoughtfully provides.
I flew in early - Blair was taking the bus - and used my head start to commune with Canadian Club's founder.
Passports in hand, Art Jahns and I cross into Detroit to seek dispensation at Hiram Walker's gravesite. At Elmwood Cemetery we stand in quiet reverence.
"Strange things are happening at your distillery, Mr. Walker," I murmur. Art stands close by, hands clasped. "Mr.
Walker, I am here to solve the mystery of The Windsor Hum." Silently, Art pulls three glasses from his bag and pours us each a dram. Canadian Club Classic 12 Years Old, Walker's sweet, barley-rich nectar. We upend our glasses, and his.
"The rest is for you Sir," Art says, pouring his whisky onto the grass.
When the Brand Centre was built in the early 1890s, Harcus tells us, the original construction workers encountered bones. "The riverfront lot lay undeveloped since Chief Pontiac deeded it to 'an Englishman' back in 1745." As anyone who has ever watched a horror film knows, when you find an ancient burial ground you pack your bags and vamoose. Not Hiram Walker.
He simply relocated the graves. Perhaps his insensitivity triggered this ominous hum a century and a half later? New possibilities begin to reveal themselves.
We eye the six bottles set out for us by Harcus and pour a dram of Canadian Club 1858 Premium. Although it has gone from six-year-old whisky back to the original five, the flavour seems enhanced. "Did you change the formula?" I ask. "No," Harcus replies.
"Since Beam took over we've changed the wood. We start with first-fill barrels that have been re-charred to get rid of the Bourbon flavours." Canadian Club employees spent six months refurbishing the Brand Center before its May 2013 grand re-opening.
Harcus herself polished the wooden floors in the art gallery before the weary staff locked the doors and headed home.
The next morning Harcus noticed dusty footprints on her polished floor and the Group of Seven originals hanging crooked on the walls. Thereafter, staff began walking the corridors in pairs.
Some claim they've felt a gentle nudge or breath on their neck. Others have heard sounds of a festive gathering echoing through the empty halls. More bone-chilling than the hum.
Blair and I examine the pictures in Hiram Walker's former office. A view of the distillery, painted from a hot air balloon tells us nothing. Directly to its right, the diminutive Walker peers mournfully from a photograph taken at the wedding of his only granddaughter, Ella. Suddenly, my eyes are riveted on a disproportionately large, translucent soldier watching from the side as the European count whom Ella married stands beside her. Blair notices it too.
"Tish!" we almost yell, racing back to the bottles to pour another stiff dram of Canadian Club Triple-Aged. "Aged three times?" Blair stammers, deliberately changing the subject. "No," she chuckles.
"The law says we have to age it at least three years and we age it for nine." We splash a couple more fingers into our glasses. Harcus smiles.
"John McBride, Hiram Walker's traveling salesman, was a well-dressed gentleman with a distinctive bushy moustache," Harcus continues casually, before lobbing the bomb. "He's the very image of an apparition I ran into as I slipped out of Walker's office late one night." McBride nodded to her then vaporised. We sweep the room again for clues. Nothing. Harcus pours us another ample dram.
We postulate that the Hum might be the moaning of disheartened angels and head off to the Pike Creek warehouses 20 minutes away. Recently, some "expert" has convinced neighbours that the dark patina on their homes is an eyesore. Perhaps his blundering disconnect between classroom theory and reality has brought grief to the angels. Residents of Scotland (and Cognac) treasure the patina the angels' share nourishes, but on Windsor homes, he claims, it's a blight.
Sixteen warehouses, each holding 125,000 barrels keep many angels very busy. Nearby maple trees are burnished black by an alcohol-loving fungus revered everywhere else as signalling a prosperous distillery. We negotiate the alleys between darkened rows of barrels seeking signs of unnatural beings, ready to retreat instantly. Nothing. Plunging a whisky thief into a barrel, Harcus draws us a hearty 70% barrel sample. She knows the routine.
The more we search and brace ourselves with Walker's liquid spirits, the more our adventure begins to resemble Geraldo's.
Not only do we fail to unravel the mystery of the Windsor Hum, we dig up more possibilities than we put to rest.
Has Hiram Walker himself stymied our search? Were my graveside supplications insufficient? Perhaps it's not the man, but his whisky that has impeded our paranormal investigations.
Still, we needed the courage it provided.
Departing Walkerville, we spontaneously break into a refrain from Joseph Louis MacEvoy's The Canadian Club Drinking Song. "Canadian Club we drink you deep and long. Let's Drink!" How true! We glance furtively at each other, then wait in silence.
Alas, no alien barbershop quartet feels moved to join us. But listen, what's that distant hum?
Canadian Club Whisky 2072 Riverside Drive East, Walkerville, Ontario, Canada, N8Y 4S2 www.canadianclub.com Visitors welcome at Brand Centre but NOT at distillery.
Distiller: Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery Distillery owner: Pernod Ricard Canadian Club brand owner: Beam Inc.
Distillery volume: 1,200 barrels daily One five-year-old barrel yields 32 9-litre cases of whisky. 52% of volume is for Canadian Club Barrels: re-charred first fill bourbon - used 4 times, some sherry butts for finishing Grains: corn, rye, rye malt, barley malt, each distilled separately Unique production process: pre-barrel blending - individual grain spirits blended before barreling Ageing: 5, 8, 9, 12 and 20 Years Old.
Occasional special versions.