Distillery Focus

Never Will These Barrels Plunge Over Niagara Falls

Blair visits Gretzky Distillery, a first-class stop on Niagara’s wine and spirits trail
By Blair Phillips
Whisky fans recoil in horror each time some daredevil hurtles over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It's not compassion; what if there was still some whisky in those barrels? National Hockey League Hall of Famer, Wayne Gretzky's new whisky distillery is minutes from The Falls, but don't get ideas. Gretzky performed his stunts on the ice, leaving opposing players spinning in his undertow. If his first three whisky releases are any indication, he's about to do the same for Canadian whisky.

Traditionally, Stanley Cup Champions drink champagne straight from the trophy. Accordingly, Gretzky took his first Stanley Cup swig in 1984, the same year that daredevils roused the barrel stunt. That year, Karel Soucek survived the falls in a homemade barrel. No whisky wasted! When Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers repeated as Champions in 1985, Dave Munday survived The Falls, then Steven Trotter went next using a plastic pickle barrel rigged with inner tubes. Coincidence? Or had they cheered for the defeated teams?

Gretzky retired from hockey in 1999 but never sat in a rocking chair telling passersby to get off his lawn. Instead, his retirement has led him down a path into wine, and now into the whisky game. Trading his hockey sticks for barrel staves, his winery and a distillery is in Niagara-on-the-Lake - wine country. And a talented distiller knows how to play off that.

Enter Ontario native, Joshua Beach. He studied brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland before spending a decade working in Germany and Switzerland. Returning to Canada, Beach landed in Vancouver where he helped found the Odd Society Distillery. Three years later, with Odd Society launched, Beach learned that Wayne Gretzky would be drafting a master distiller. Beach was the first overall pick.

Gretzky's distillery flows from the wide grain receiving doors, past three 7,500-litre fermenters to a 15-plate column still and gleaming Vendome pot still. It's a first-class stop on Niagara's popular wine and spirits tour.

Here, visitors amble by an outdoor water feature that doubles as a winter hockey rink. A seasonal open-air cocktail bar features a rotating menu of drinks, all made with local ingredients. From a walkway they watch grain being milled in a hammer mill, then vacuumed into a mash cooker as either a 100 per cent corn grist, or a grist comprised of malted and unmalted rye. This grist becomes single-grain mash in a cold-water tank before being transferred into a fermenter for a five-day ferment. These ferments, long by Canadian standards, imbue the mash with a breadth of flavours for Beach to capture in the steam-fired stills. He has mechanical gauges, but Beach checks each cut by flavour. Although current weekly production is just 15 full-size barrels of 58 per cent spirit (no mini barrels here), there's capacity to more than double production. After the tour, guests can taste the wares in a whisky education loft, then exit through an exhibition of Gretzky memorabilia.

"I have always enjoyed a good whisky and was thrilled to work with master distiller Joshua Beach to create a new fabulous Canadian whisky," Wayne Gretzky told me, via his publicist. "What's truly exciting is we are using oak wine barrels from our wines to finish the whisky for a really smooth and refined taste."

The Gretzky barrel programme begins next door at his winery which generates a steady stream of four- to seven-year old barrels. Casks that are spent for wine find new life when filled with high-proof spirit. "Big flavour and colour come out of those barrels," explains Beach. His signature No99 Red Cask blend is made from a corn-based whisky blended with rye flavouring whiskies, then finished for four months in American Oak red wine casks.

"What makes us stand out is that each of these barrels has a story and they all bring together this unique and consistent taste profile with aromas of caramel, toasted oak and a hint of allspice for a truly elegant and rich taste," says Beach.

An offsite 5,000-barrel capacity rickhouse has 3,000 barrels of sourced spirit ageing on pallets. Beach isn't a wide-eyed hobbyist but a serious blender who's office backs onto five 28,000-litre blending tanks. This is where he blended his first three Gretzky whiskies. Wayne Gretzky scored his first NHL goal in his third game. Joshua Beach, has scored a hat trick in his No99 Red Cask, a cask strength version (99 proof), and the game changing No99 Ice Cask. He had help though. Wayne Gretzky himself, is actively involved in choosing the final blends.

Ice wine is Canada's best known wine style, making Ice Cask whisky super Canadian. It couldn't be more super unless you drank it out of the Stanley Cup. Ice wine arguably brought Canadian wines to the international stage. A dessert wine, it's made from grapes that have frozen while still on the vine. When the temperature hits a stretch of approximately -10C some of the water freezes out in ice crystals, concentrating the juice. The grapes are then harvested and pressed into sweet, refreshing and naturally balanced juice. Beach knew he was sitting on a gold mine with Gretzky's barrels. Finished in the ice wine casks, the whisky is heavier on rye with a fruit-laced Vidal ice wine character that balances the citrus notes, punching up the rye spice and adding a tightly integrated honey sweetness.

Wayne Gretzky's career was decorated with records. In the history of hockey, just five players have scored 50 goals in 50 games. Gretzky did it in 39. He holds the record for most goals in a season with 92 and most assists with 163 racking up an astonishing 2,857 career points. No one else has reached 2,000. Now he has asked Beach to lace up and help him turn wine country into whisky country. So a warning to you daredevils eyeing Beach's barrels - unless you want to be cross-checked you better back off. Those barrels are for whisky.

Tasting Notes

Wayne Gretzky No 99 Red Cask, 40% ABV

Rich caramel and sweet spices glide into dark fruits. A gentle citrus finish is secured by oak and accented by grape tannins and bright pith.

Wayne Gretzky No99 Ice Cask, 41.5% ABV

A thump of rye spice and cloves firmly blended with citrus, exotic wood and fruity ice wine honey sweetness. Slightly floral with a warm glowing finish.

Artisanal Wine Spirit Muscat, 40% ABV

Liquorice up front opening to fruity bubble gum and wine gums. A tight cut with grape powder and marshmallows from a box of Lucky Charms.

No 99 Cabernet Merlot 2014, 13% ABV

An intricate blend of dark orchard fruits. Plums and cherry with dry spices and pepper. A touch of tobacco and oak round off this flavourful wine