Canadian distillers' cask experiments – from maple syrup to blackberry wine

Canadian distillers' cask experiments – from maple syrup to blackberry wine

Canadian distilleries have embraced the practice of barrel finishing and are using it not only to enhance their whiskies, but also to hero other local produce, from beers to syrups
The year was 1883, and distiller Willie Hortop had a problem. His boss wanted a new whisky, and he wanted it now. Having just bought out his partners to become the Waterloo Distillery and Mill’s sole proprietor, Joseph Seagram wanted a dram with his name on it.

William Hespeler and George Randall launched the Waterloo Distillery in 1857 with a whisky they called Old Rye/Alte Kornschnapps. They added several others over time and, with the advent of glass bottles in the early 1880s, recast some of these as brands, including Old Rye which became Seagram’s Special Old Rye. However, Hortop’s creation would be the first whisky Seagram could claim as his own.

Whatever he created, Hortop knew it had to be unique, and it had to be soon. Seagram also sold imported sherries among the dry goods and foreign liqueurs in the mill store. What would happen if he refilled sherry barrels with whisky? When it was finally ready in 1887, the whisky had spent four years in imported sherry casks. It was also a spectacular hit, still in production as Seagram’s 83.

Wood finishes are currently quite the rage among Canada’s craft distillers. And while some seek out barrels that have held another spirit or wine through a complete maturation cycle, others season old barrels by adding wine, sherry, rum, tequila, beer, or even peated malt whisky.

Glenmorangie blender Dr Bill Lumsden first brought finishing to the public eye in the late 1990s with a trio of malts that spent their last few months in sherry, Madeira or port barrels. Glenfiddich followed in 2002 with a 21-year-old whisky finished in Cuban rum casks. Traditional malt enthusiasts found the concept controversial, with some claiming the whiskies truly were “finished”. However, wood finishing quickly became standard whisky-making practice, and all sorts of barrels were brought into service, leading some wags to wonder when someone would try ex-fish (fishky) or hot sauce barrels.

It wasn’t long before The Balvenie joined in. In 2001, 45-year veteran blender David Stewart distilled some heavily peated malt, then left the spirit in wood until 2010, when he dumped the barrels and re-filled them with 17-year-old mature Balvenie. The rich, hugely complex and boldly peated result was a pleasure and a revelation. Some of Canada’s most creative whisky makers now follow in Stewart’s footsteps, crafting their finishing barrels from scratch.

Bill Ashburn in the Forty Creek barrel room

If Canada had whisky regions, one of them would be the peninsula leading to Niagara Falls, a rich agricultural area famous for its orchards and wine. The Niagara Escarpment shields the land from above and Lake Ontario warms it in winter. Several distilleries and breweries have recently joined local wineries in offering Niagara in a bottle.

One of the most original of these is Forty Creek, where decades ago, former owner John K. Hall established a new bar for innovation in Canadian whisky by making his own barrel-aged wines. Now in the hands of blender Bill Ashburn, Forty Creek continues Hall’s approach, using barrels from the decades-old wine to impart rich, fruity flavours to a range of whiskies. And now Ashburn has added beer barrels to the flavour palette. Working with nearby Bench Brewing, Ashburn makes what he calls a “hop-finished” whisky named Taproom. Finishing whisky in barrels that held local wine or beer turns what might have been just another typical finish into an expression of terroir. In some cases, the finished whisky is entirely the creation of a single distillery.

Politicians in British Columbia upped the ante when they decreed that craft distillers using BC ingredients are eligible for tax breaks. While malt distillers in BC would love to make peated whiskies, locally made peated malt is scarce. So, to comply with the BC ingredients rule, some, such as Shelter Point and Dubh Glas, mature whisky in used peated Scotch casks, just as David Stewart did his Balvenie.

Most notable among these, the Sons of Vancouver Distillery has used Ardbeg quarter casks for finishing, a practice that requires a keen nose and careful attention to balance the robust peat flavours. After Jenna Diubaldo of Sons of Vancouver filled rye whisky into peated barrels, she checked them every day until they were perfect. Finishing rye in peat may sound like gilding a lily, but in Diubaldo’s capable hands the result is spectacular, with layered wafts of smoky reek underscoring rather than dominating the rye.

Nothing says “Canada” more clearly than maple syrup, and storing it in Canadian whisky barrels gives it extra zing. But why stop there? Using those ex-whisky-cum-ex-maple-syrup barrels to finish whisky brings a new circularity to the idea of finishing. Blenders at Wayne Gretzky Distillery in Niagara and Yukon Distillers in Canada’s far north know this and are among those strolling down this path. And in downtown East Vancouver, the ever-inventive Odd Society Spirits can’t keep up with demand for its take on maple ageing.

“Our maple whisky was born on a trip to a distillery in Washington State,” says Odd Society’s Gordon Glanz. “The distillery was ageing bourbon in small 30-litre barrels. Then, once the barrels were emptied, the distillery would refill them with maple syrup and then sell the aged syrup a few months later. The syrup is sublime. I asked about the used barrels, and they began selling us the emptied ones. The tough part is securing enough barrels. We can never make enough.”

Sampling from the cask at Odd Society Spirits in Vancouver

Glanz ages his single malt in the ex-maple syrup barrels for at least three years. As the aged maple syrup crusting the barrels melts, its sweetness swings into the whisky with a punch of oak influence. But this whisky is far from Mrs Butterworth in assault mode. Glanz carefully balances its sweetness with maple wood-smoked single malt to affirm the malt’s natural character.

Vancouver Island blackberries bear little resemblance to the blackberries that grow anywhere else. First, they thrive wild all over the island, with their thorny stems resisting any attempt at domestication. Second, they are undoubtedly the sweetest, juiciest, and most richly flavourful aggregate fruit berries in the world. They also make great wine, as the Cowichan Valley’s Cherry Point Estate Wines demonstrates in a luscious and intensely fruity, almost port-like, blackberry wine.

“We’ve always wanted to bring provenance to our whisky releases and one of the ways we can do that is by using some of the local winery casks to age our whisky,” says Brennan Colebank of Stillhead Distillery. “When Cherry Point called with a blackberry port barrel, we jumped on the opportunity to finish our whiskies in it.”

Colebank first aged his rye for two years and then the whisky continued maturing for an additional 18 months in the blackberry wine casks, amplifying the whisky’s spicy rye flavours with an earthy-nutty aroma and baskets of dark fruits. Stillhead plans to make more as barrels become available and already has whisky ageing in other local wine casks, filling them same-day fresh to avoid any spoilage of the residual wine in the casks.

Dubh Glas Single Malt Whisky

Nutty, you say? It ought to be. When Dubh Glas Distillery’s Grant Stevely came home from Vancouver with an ex-amaretto barrel he’d picked up from the Sons of Vancouver, the whisky from this typically Lowland-style malt distillery in BC’s Okanagan Valley was predictably so. The barrel, richly imbued with the Sons’ balanced liqueur, also added notes of apricot, bourbon vanilla beans and orange peel. Stevely named the release The Godfather after the Scotch and amaretto cocktail.

Did all this begin with Seagram’s Willy Hortop finishing whisky in sherry barrels back in 1887? Undoubtedly not, though one can never be sure. Has any Canadian distiller, for that matter, found new approaches to advance the finishing concept? Again, unlikely.

If Canada has added anything to the mix, it is the idea of distillers making wine, beer, maple syrup or rum, then, once it matures, re-using those barrels for whisky. And to test the mythical law of perpetual motion, re-re-using those whisky barrels to mature another batch of wine, beer, or rum, ad infinitum.
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