Distillery Focus

Up on Forty Creek, the whisky sends me

Charles K Cowdery explores a Canadian distillery that can lay claim to making a true small batch bourbon – and a quality one, too
By Charles K Cowdery
In American whiskey circles, the term ‘small batch’ has been generously defined to cover any whiskey selected, bottled and sold in small batches. In most cases, there is nothing ‘small’ about the way the whiskey itself is made. Until it goes into the barrel it is identical to the company’s ‘large batch’ products.Since that is what ‘small batch’ means, we need a different term for Canada’s Forty Creek whisky: ‘itsy bitsy batch’ perhaps. Forty Creek Canadian whisky is just about the only widely available, honest to God “boutique” whisky made in North America. John Hall, Forty Creek’s distiller and president, makes his whisky in two small pot stills. His ‘big’ one is 5,000 litres (1,320 gallons), his other one is 500 litres (132 gallons).In those stills, Hall makes individual corn, rye and malt whiskies – he malts his own barley – and ages them in American oak; some of it new, some not, some charred, some not. He puts his corn whisky into used bourbon barrels. Hall personally tastes each barrel and does all of the blending. So he can finish some of his whisky in sherry or port casks, he makes his own sherry and port. The oldest whiskies in Hall’s blends are about 12 years old. That makes it 1992 when this seasoned wine maker, well into middle age, decided to try his hand at making whisky. His wife marvelled that a man in his 40s should begin an enterprise that would not even bring a product to market for a decade.As a wine maker, Hall was familiar with the practice of blending varietal wines, so he approached the making of his three stock whiskies as if they were noble grape varieties, trying with each to highlight its defining characteristics.“I try to bring out the fruitiness and spiciness of the rye, the nuttiness of the barley, and the heartiness of the corn, or as we call it in Canada, maize,” says Hall. When you are a small operation, own the company, and do almost everything in-house, you can experiment. Hall likes to experiment. He tries different yeasts, uses different combinations of malt, enzymes and cooking for starch conversion, and re-barrels some of his whisky.Although he usually makes single grain whiskies and blends them after they are aged, he has been experimenting with blending new spirits before barreling. He mostly ages his whisky in American oak but is experimenting with Canadagrown oak.Hall respects tradition, but is not hobbled by it. He takes what he likes and leaves the rest. Like other North American whiskymakers, and unlike the Scots, he ferments mash not wort. Unlike other North Americans but like the Scots, he distills a wash in a pot still, instead of distilling a mash in a column still. Unlike most whisky makers in all lands, he generally runs just one distillation pass, bringing the spirit off his self-modified, German-made still at 62% alcohol. Occasionally he doubles the spirit and takes it up to 70-75%.An operation like Forty Creek is what most people imagine when they hear words like ‘small batch’ and ‘hand-made,’ but it isn’t what they usually find. Forty Creek is the real deal, a true ‘craft’ distillery, and unlike most other boutiques, Hall does not make an expensive novelty product.His two expressions of Forty Creek whisky are made to be enjoyed by ordinary drinkers. They are widely distributed and affordably-priced. In addition to whisky, the company makes table wine, sherry, port, liqueurs, vodka and other products, primarily for local consumption. Forty Creek whisky is its main export, now sold throughout Canada and the United States.The name of Hall’s company is Kittling Ridge Estate Wines & Spirits and it is located in Grimsby, Ontario. Although Canada is a vast nation, most of its population lives close to the southern border, the one it shares with the United States. From Grimsby, near Lake Ontario on the Niagara Escarpment, the U.S. border is only a few minutes away, as are the world-renowned Niagara Falls.In addition to being a geological phenomenon, much of the Niagara Escarpment is also a wilderness preserve, albeit in the midst of what is otherwise a very populous and developed area. John Hall’s company makes good use of its location by welcoming tourists, it even operates a hotel. The primary tourist draw is the company’s vineyards and winery, of which there are many in the area.Having a whisky distillery at Kittling Ridge makes it unique. Nearby there really is a creek called Forty Creek, so named by early settlers who believed it to be forty miles from Niagara Falls. It actually is closer to 27 miles. Although the taste of Forty Creek whisky is original, it is still recognizable as a Canadian whisky and Hall is proud to carry on that tradition.“We are the only Canadian-owned Canadian whisky distillery,” he notes. Hall spends half of the year travelling the world to introduce bars, stores and drinkers to his Forty Creek Barrel Select and Forty Creek Three Grain whisky.“Probably my greatest enjoyment is standing in liquor stores, meeting customers, just watching their eyes light up when they taste the whisky,” he says. His best U.S. markets have been in the South: Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.Both Forty Creek expressions seem primarily to emphasize how sweet whisky can be and both come across as significantly sweeter than any bourbon. That may be an illusion. Bourbon can be very sweet, but it usually has some equally strong contrasting flavour, something sharp and astringent from the rye or wood. Forty Creek hasn’t banished those flavours altogether but no other whisky, including no other Canadian, provides so much flavour with so little sharpness.The overall effect is more like a liqueur or fortified wine than whisky. In the Barrel Select expression, wine notes from the sherry casks combine with dark fruit from the rye to suggest port as much as any whisky comparison.Barrel Select is the primary expression. It has caramel, vanilla and a little dark fruit in the nose. The sherry finish is very apparent but so are the contributions of all three grains: sweetness and body from the corn, fruitiness from the rye and nuttiness from the malt. The rye whisky component especially seems to be well aged.The second expression, Three Grain, is a little drier and carries a pleasant undertone of raw spirit. Because it features the barley whisky more than rye, Hall compares it to an Irish single malt.Hall has talked about creating other expressions, possibly limited editions – he says some of the whisky he has made is “truly incredible” – but new bottlings won’t come out anytime soon. Not in 2005, maybe in 2006.Forty Creek whisky will not be to everyone’s taste. Certainly no one would describe it as “challenging.” But every whisky enthusiast should be excited about what Forty Creek represents, because John Hall has proven that an individual in North America can create and launch a true boutique distillery, make complex and interesting whiskies, and successfully distribute them all over the country. May one thousand such flowers bloom.