I have found that many of the new distillers in America have come to distilling from breweries and beer production. It’s a logical step, as “beer” must be brewed before whisky can be distilled from it. (I’ve always liked the saying, “Whisky is what beer wants to be when it grows up…”) Some distillers come to whisky with wine expertise as well. Why make cognac when you can make whisky, right?
One such wine producer in Canada that has made the transition to whisky production is John Hall of Forty Creek Distillery. The international community is paying more attention to Canadian whisky largely because of Mr. Hall’s contributions to craft production. John Hall started making wine in the 1970’s and purchased Kittling Ridge Estates Winery in Grimsby, Ontario in 1992. The distillery grew out of the winery. Forty Creek Distillery is named for Forty Mile Creek, a tributary of Lake Ontario. Grimsby, when it was settled, was called The Forty, so named because it was approximately 40 miles from Niagara Falls. The winery included a copper pot still and it became the center of John Hall’s experimentation with distillation.
Each grain is mashed, fernented, distilled, and aged separately. The corn whisky is aged in a heavily charred barrel, the barley in a medium char and the rye in a lightly charred barrel When asked, John hall said that in the wine industry, the blender’s job is to carefully select each grape for its flavor and for what it would contribute to the blend. He translated that into his whiskey making. He would not create a mashbill, like we do here in America, but create each whisky on its own and bring out the strengths of each grain. Each whisky is aged for 6-10 years (determined by taste alone) with “honey barrels” being hand picked and set aside by Mr. Hall for special releases. The aged whiskies could be blended, vatted and finished in any number of ways now.
At first, Forty Creek Distillers had no access to wine barrels for finishing, due, in part, to cost of shipping and quality of product. John Hall solved this problem by making his own sherry and fortified wines! With his wine-making experience, he was able to produce the wines for the winery’s use and then reuse his own barrels for maturation of whisky. The first whiskies released to the public were in 2006-2007 when they had fully aged and matured. Imagine waiting 7-8 years after beginning your business to finally reveal your product! John Hall served as his own one man advertising campaign and made his way from bar to bar and competition to competition before the accolades began streaming in. Most of the releases from Forty Creek are not available in the U.S. with the exception of their “Barrel Select”. This is their flagship brand and has won numerous awards, but the line improves as you move into the more experimental bottlings. We will be seeing more Forty Creek bottlings in the future due to the expansion of production taking place at Forty Creek after being purchased by Campari last year. John Hall will be at the helm, he’ll just have more money to expand now with Campari’s bankroll behind him. (Wild Turkey is also one of Campari’s premium brand labels)
If there’s one thing I want to stress by writing this, it is to never underestimate international whisky. Whisky has historic roots that connect to the people and their land. John Hall is reviving the idea of craft distilling in Canada that has long been connected to large scale production. He is pioneering the new craft whisky movement in Canada and there are many new distilleries in his wake. The styles of whiskeys produced at Forty Creek have won over 100 international awards since 2006 and John Hall has been praised by industry leaders for his creativity and innovation.
“Of all the world’s distillers, there are few I hold in higher esteem than John Hall.”
Jim Murray, Whisky Writer
“John’s whisky is made with passion and sensitivity. He is making brave New World Whiskies that are cutting edge”. David Broom, Whisky Writer
“The most revoluntionary whisky in Canada may well be Forty Creek. John Hall has brought a handcrafted sensibility to whisky and in doing so has broken the barriers of whisky. Forty Creek is a delightful whisky with international, timeless appeal”
Michael Jackson, Whisky Writer
“John Hall is probably the most innovative whisky maker I have ever met.”
John Hansell, Malt Advocate Magazine names John Hall
2007 Pioneer of the Year