I always say good whisky doesn't have to hurt, and Forty Creek doesn't hurt." I'm chatting with country music legend Larry Joe Taylor about why Canadian whisky is so popular in Texas. "Texas Country is about blending the lyrics and melody together and then adding the instrumentation that will make it sound right. It's the same thing John Hall does with his whisky."
In 1992, Snapple caught the mood of the world with an upbeat slogan, "Made from the best stuff on Earth," In Texas, a young musician named Larry Joe Taylor was hankering to be heard. In Canada, John K. Hall was quietly laying down his first barrels of Forty Creek Barrel Select - whisky that would one day mature into another version of some of the best stuff on earth.
A musician himself, during his student days Hall burned up scales on the saxophone in crowded bars and sweaty dance halls.
This Windsor, Ontario, boy reveled in the Motown sound flooding across the river from Detroit. "I have an appreciation for anything artistic because it comes from the heart with passion, creativity and patience," he tells me, reflecting on the 60s. Those times still feed his creativity, now as one of Canada's foremost whisky artists.
Detroit was not the Yoko Ono to draw Hall away from his music. It was grapes. After college, a stint as a wine maker afforded him the opportunity to blend his artistic sensibility with his education in science. 30 years later, the future of Canadian whisky resting with a small group of foreign-owned corporations that had lost their innovative edge, Hall set out to re-kindle another dream: to bring new life to Canada's national spirit, and in a distinctly Canadian way.
An unspoken criterion for success in Canada is that before being recognised at home, Canadian musicians, actors, artists, and others must gain national acclaim first in the United States. After centuries of leadership, Canadian whisky lagged behind Scotch and Bourbon in innovation, though Canadian brands still dominated American liquor stores, particularly in Texas.
With the turn of the century, his Barrel Select whisky ready, Hall headed south. Working through the stumbling parade of drinkers on New Orleans's Bourbon Street, dodging Mardi Gras beads and strippers, he sold Barrel Select one bottle at a time to bars and restaurants. As a winemaker Hall learned to promote his wine by telling its story. So, when New Orleans' bartenders got off work at 2.30am Hall was there talking about his whisky. The mixology craze was just ramping up and Hall made sure his whisky was handy when they began experimenting with cocktails. His timing could not have been better. They loved it.
"I ended up calling on bars and retail liquor stores and getting bartenders, wait staff, store managers and clerks to taste it, taking the time to explain how the whisky was made." Hall soon turned these taste-makers into Forty Creek experts by explaining his whisky's story. If they cupped a hand behind their ear, they could almost hear his music.
There were few whisky makers on the road back then, and Hall was encouraged by his warm reception in New Orleans. A whisky-making musician, living out of the trunk of his car, Hall headed from New Orleans to the Holy Grail of barbecue - Texas, confident that his whisky would find its natural niche there.
Texas had its own sound and the music blaring from Hall's car stereo as he wheeled down I-10 wasn't what he had expected. It didn't have that distinctive twang of country. Melody driven, it balanced traditional country with the outlaw attitudes of rebels like Willie Nelson. This Texas music had depth with a deceiving simplicity, just like Barrel Select, he thought as he hummed along. Texas musicians were driving the same roads as Hall, and both were building momentum through their live appearances. It was only a matter of time before the musician's whisky and the music itself would find ways to connect.
Larry Joe Taylor, by this time prominent in the Texas music scene, was a fan of Forty Creek whisky from the get-go. Hall was a regular at Taylor's "Rhymes and Vines" music festivals and the two quickly forged a friendship and a musical connection.
Taylor's enthusiasm for Forty Creek led to a coalition of musicians and bands that he calls "the Texas Friends of Forty Creek." "John was looking for ways to promote his whisky and I couldn't think of a better way to do it than getting musicians together to talk about it," Taylor remembers. "It's a pretty sweet deal since Texans love Canadian whisky as much as John Hall loves Texas music," he recounts. "I handpicked those bands and wanted guys who were out there working every week and others who were on their way up and were hungry.
I liked their music and just asked them if they'd like to be part of it." Some of the top names in Texas Country jumped on board: the Josh Weathers Band, Six Market Blvd., Tejas Brothers, William Clark Green, and The Damn Quails. Today, the bands and the whisky share a common stage. Forty Creek has become an integral part of this scene - much more so than a traditional sponsor.
Clearly, John Hall has found his niche in Texas much as his whisky has. "I just find there are a lot of similarities between musicians, artists, and whisky makers. We support each other. These bands are passionate in their music. One includes some of its favourite Forty Creek drink recipes on the inside cover of its CDs," a beaming Hall tells me with enthusiasm. Taylor adds, "When you get musicians together with whisky, there are a lot of creative juices. What I like about John is his independent attitude and it's the same attitude we have in our music.
"The way he makes his whisky is the way I like to write songs. It's not done until it's done and John is very particular about that. The whisky has to be great and it could take three years, five years, 10 years, 20 years, and that's kind of like a great song. You work on it until it's done. There are a lot of similarities to our approaches." Canadian whisky is in resurgence, a resurgence based on new, boldly flavourful whiskies such as John K. Hall's. Whisky connoisseurs actively seek them out, just as music fans seek out live music, Texan style.
Does it bother Hall that other brands are now following the trail he blazed? Not at all. "It's like Halloween," he tells me, "the bigger the neighbourhood, the more the candy." A fan approached the Tejas Brothers, one of the Texas Friends of Forty Creek bands, after a show recently, saying, "You guys look like you're having a lot of fun." Their response captures the Forty Creek factor in two words, "We are!"
Forty Creek Barrel Select 40%
Velvety corn and earthy rye. Ripe fruits, ginger, citrus and hot peppers. A high wire act of fruit and spice.
Forty Creek Confederation Oak 40%
Walnuts, smoke and oak wood bask in maple, raisin, butterscotch and vanilla sunshine. Granola and corn playfully wrestles with berries. Big whisky with fading spice.
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve 43%
Evolving rye grain followed by caramel and spice flares. Maple makes a cameo before rye, rye and more rye. Dark fruit and bitter orange cleanse the palate.
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve 40%
A wonderful melding of toasted oak, hot pepper and oak. Rye dances with ginger, fresh fruit and citrus. A silky backbone to chew on.
Forty Creek Heart of Gold 43%
Maple sugars melt with the granular rye. Creamy butterscotch capitulating quickly into ginger. Floral and crisp with dried fruit and a fragrant wood frame. A masterpiece.
Forty Creek Cream Liquor 17%
Fresh dairy cream, caramel, coffee and milk chocolate. Not too sweet, and very creamy. A natural mouthfeel in the signature Forty Creek whisky base.