Distillery Focus

Joining the Club

Davin de Kergommeaux visits a Canadian giant
By Davin de Kergommeaux
There are three great mysteries in life: Where did I come from? Why am I here? and Why does the whisky from each distillery taste a little different from all the others?

Every distillery has its house style, that certain something that distinguishes its whisky from all others. It’s a combination of grains, equipment, processes, barrels and skill. To taste the whiskies from Hiram Walker & Sons distillery in Walkerville, Ontario, is to learn about house style in general. Why? Because Walker’s has not one but three styles, each clearly distinguishable.

Today, standing in Walker’s well-appointed office with Canadian Club director, Dan Tullio, it’s hard to picture Walker’s early struggles. Born in Massachusetts in 1816, Hiram Walker moved to the western frontier town of Detroit in the late 1830s to seek his fortune. He did not have a still, but made a living leaching high wines he had purchased through tall wooden columns packed with charcoal. He added water, prune juice and some burnt caramel to produce whisky. His first batch filled 500 barrels.

In the mid-1850s simmering temperance sentiments in Detroit threatened such activities. However, those disapproving eyes did not scan the horizon across the Detroit River into Canada. There, Walker distilled with impunity.

By 1858 the first spirit flowed from his Canadian still and it hasn’t stopped since. He was deep in debt though, until the American Civil War (1861-65) disrupted food and beverage supplies there and sent his sales soaring.

Walker firmly established the reputation of his whiskies in the U.S. during the Civil War. He died in 1899, 20 years before Prohibition was proclaimed. “Prohibition did a lot for the popularity that Canadian Club enjoys in the U.S.,” Tullio explains. “We didn’t used to talk about it but Beam is quite open about it.” It was during Prohibition that Walker’s grandsons sold the distillery to Canadian whisky entrepreneur, Harry C. Hatch.

To Hatch and his heirs the distillery workers were one big family, just as they had been to Walker. But when the Hatches sold out to Allied Lyons in 1987 that sense of family fell apart.

“It was sad,” a long-retired employee tells me. “We wanted to be Hiram Walker, we wanted to be Canadian, but all of a sudden we were British and all the profits were going to London. They gave us good packages, but it wasn’t family anymore.”

In 2005, Allied sold everything except the Canadian Club brand to Pernod Ricard. Suddenly, Canadian Club, the whisky that built the distillery, was no longer part of the family. Canadian Club management had to rent offices in the Fiorentini palace that Walker originally built. Tullio and brand ambassador, Tish Harcus, remain optimistic, though. “Beam is a great company,” Harcus tells me, “and we’d do anything for the brand.”

Corby Distillers, owners of Wiser’s, now operate the distillery on behalf of Pernod Ricard. David Doyle closes the circle. He is director of research and Corby master blender today, but was once a blender at Canadian Club. Under his direction Corby faithfully maintains the production of Canadian Club down to the last detail, albeit under contract to its new owners, Beam Global. Canadian Club remains the distillery’s core, if orphaned, brand.

Today, as they have done for 150 years, the whiskies at Hiram Walker & Sons begin with corn, rye, malted rye, and barley. They all flow from the same stills. Three independent firms use these spirits to make a) Gibson’s, b) Wiser’s, and c) Canadian Club. One distillery, three distillers, three house styles.

Corn for base whisky is milled, mixed with water and re-cycled stillage, and then cooked in a continuous cooker.

Natural microbial enzymes convert the corn starches into sugar. After fermenting 72 hours in one of 39 closed, 50,000-gallon fermenters, the beer (with an alcohol content of about 14 to 15%) is ready for distillation. The carbon and stainless steel fermenters are painted a creamy off-white to match the 1950s turquoise and cream checkerboard tiles on the floor.

Each minute, 60 gallons of unfiltered beer pass through a copper beer still , producing a spirit of 65% ABV which is then diluted with water before an extractive distillation in a specialised column still. This removes the fusel oils. A final pass through a rectifying column yields spirit with an ABV up to 94.5%. which is then diluted to 78% and aged in previously used barrels to make base whisky. It smells like... Cheerios®.

Rye is cooked in a traditional batch cooker. After cooling, rye malt is added to the mash. Hiram Walker is the only distillery in Canada to use rye malt as an enzyme source. Fermentation relies on commercial yeast plus a proprietary yeast strain that Hiram Walker himself isolated for the distillery in the 19th century.

The resulting beer contains only 6 to 7% alcohol yet Corby refuses to update this 150-year-old process and risk compromising the flavours that are now central to three distinctive whiskies.

A single pass through an all-copper beer still produces rye spirit (alcohol strength of 68%ABV) which is diluted slightly with water and put into barrels for maturation. This aromatic spirit has a peachy nose and distinct overtones of grain.
Sometimes, instead of filling rye-spirit into barrels it is re-distilled in a 3,200-gallon traditional copper pot still to focus the flavours and lighten the spirit. The nose remains fruity and clean and displays typical rye floral notes. After six years in new charred oak barrels the fruitiness persists as new complex wood-derived aromas complement the floral notes. This is the whisky of the fabled Lot No. 40 and of Wiser’s Legacy.

Almost half the whisky distilled at Hiram Walker’s is used in the production of Canadian Club. However, in the 1980s production of Wiser’s whiskies moved from the Corby distillery in Corbyville, Ontario, to the Walkerville, Ontario plant. Then, in 2008 the production of Gibson’s Finest brands relocated here from Valleyfield, Quebec. Fully one third of Walker’s production is sold as bulk 3-year-old whisky to U.S.-based producers. Each day two or three dedicated rail cars loaded with bulk whisky leave the plant for bottling elsewhere.

For Wiser’s whiskies, the degree of barrel char varies for each of the different spirits. This emphasises the natural qualities of each grain spirit during maturation and ensures the most complementary notes are extracted from the oak itself. For the most part, spirit used for Gibson’s whiskies is filled into newly-drained bourbon barrels. For Canadian Club whiskies the process is altogether different. The component spirits are mingled together before being filled into re-char barrels in a trademarked process called “barrel blending.” Dan Tullio, insists, a twinkle in his eye, “We don’t want any of those bourbon flavours spilling over into Canadian Club. You can see the blue flame as it’s burning off.”

Wood then is the key component of house style? This is where the houses of Wiser, Gibson, and Canadian Club diverge. Perhaps it’s not quite that simple though. With a malted barley flavouring whisky still in production, theoretically, Walker’s could one day revive its once-popular Epicure brand single malt. Then, regardless of the barrels, we’d have yet another house style and we’d finally know where it came from and why we were here: to taste it.

Davin de Kergommeaux’s book about Canadian whisky was published by McClelland and Stewart early in 2012. It includes an interesting chapter about the Hiram Walker Distillery.

Tasting highlights

The house of Wiser

Wiser’s Legacy
Rich and very complex with cloves, cinnamon and piquant pepper. Butterscotch sweet with zesty rye and hot peppermint. Spicy, fragrant, and crisply oaky. $50.00.

Wiser’s 18 Years Old
Crispy oak with cedar cigar box and ever so complex hot pepper, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Butterscotch, vanilla, then dusty rye grain, tobacco, and sour-dough, ending in a citric zestiness. $65.00

The house of Gibson

Gibson’s Finest 12 Years Old
The richest, creamiest crème brûlée sprinkled with oak, spicy pepper, cloves and citric notes. Strawberries and cream. $28.00.

Gibson’s Finest Rare18 Years Old
Spicy oak and dusty rye with rich creamy toffee, vanilla, and hot pepper. Hot buttered breakfast biscuits and creamy rice pudding. $65.00.

The house of Canadian Club

Canadian Club Sherry Cask
Rich and very fruity – over-ripe dark fruits, luscious peaches and sweet/tart berries. Sweet hot tobacco, black tea, pencil shavings, with hot white pepper, ginger and cloves. $35.00.

Canadian Club Reserve 10 Years Old
Sweet, dark fruits, hot white pepper with hot cinnamon and ginger, flinty-hard minerals and a pleasing bitter zest. Earthy rye and pleasantly creamy. $26.00.


Getting there

Flights to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne Airport - DTW (USA) depart from many major European, Asian, and North American cities. The airport is 26 miles/45 minutes from Windsor, Ontario. Add time to cross the Canadian border. Air Canada also services a regional airport in Windsor - YQG. Daily car rental rates at the Detroit airport range from $63.00 to $143.00. Canadian Club Heritage Centre tours are $5.00; there are no distillery tours.

Where to stay in Windsor

A wide variety of hotels, motels and B&Bs range in price from $55.00 to $185.00.

Other attractions

Caesar’s Windsor Casino features Las Vegas style gambling, and entertainment with acts such as KISS, Dionne Warwick, and Howie Mandel.