Superstition ain't the way

Superstition ain't the way

A new release charts a daring battle from 200 years ago

Taste | 06 Sep 2019 | Issue 162 | By Blair Phillips

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Guitarist Jeff Beck jumped on the drums when Stevie Wonder took a break from recording the album, Talking Book. Wonder returned, loved the groove and hopped on clavinet. They cooked up some lyrics then laid down a demo. The song evolved into the funk masterpiece Superstition, a gift to Jeff Beck for contributing guitar parts to Wonder's recording session.

Motown had other intentions. They knew they had a hit. Talking Book was released and Wonder's "Superstition" climbed the charts. This September, Forty Creek is releasing their 13th limited-edition annual whisky called Victory, and superstition ain't the way.

Like Wonder, retired whisky maker John Hall had his share of hits. Behind the scene working away as well was Bill Ashburn, now on the front line laying down whisky grooves for Forty Creek's next chapter.

The year Wonder worked on his 1972 album, Otto Reider’s plans were underway to open a new Canadian Eau-de-vie Distillery in Grimsby Ontario. While the Reider Distillery spent the first decade trying to make a profit, Ashburn pursued a career in chemical engineering for an oil additive manufacturer. He hated it. Ashburn washed the taste of oil out of his mouth after landing a seven-year product development gig in the wine industry. His palate developed into a fine-tuned weapon. In 1987, he got a job at the Reider distillery and rapidly learned how to run stills and blend spirits.

"I got exposed to a lot of people with a lot of knowledge," remembers Ashburn.

By 1992, Reider's venture capitalists wanted out. John Hall was brought in as a consultant to review the business. He walked in and found home, then bought the facility. It was a whirlwind from 1992 to 1999. Hall and Ashburn generated cash flow with their winemaking skills under the brand Kittling Ridge. To Ashburn's unease, three-quarters of Reider's whisky stocks were sold off and re-invested into the new model. Eau-de-vie was scrapped in favour of laying down whisky. "It was a very dynamic time and hard work, but you had Hall who made everyone think this isn't just a job. He has a passion for it and that rubbed off on the rest of us," says Ashburn. That first year was a victory for the little guy; Hall’s company made a profit.

Hall hit the road with the 2000 release of Forty Creek Barrel Select; marketing the brand and doing whatever it took to make it work. His job was to sell the first bottle, Ashburn's was to make sure they bought a second. Forty Creek climbed the charts with a whisky that had flavours as infectious as Superstition. The duo developed a familiarity with the whisky stocks and employed Ashburn's photographic taste memory for every barrel in the joint. In 2014, Hall sold Forty Creek to Campari and retired. The keys were in Ashburn's hands.

Ashburn's taste memory and tenacity were recognised at the 2019 Canadian Whisky Awards when his Forty Creek 22 Year Old Rye took home Whisky of the Year. He distilled the spirit in 1989 as a side project. Otto Reider was blasé about the spirit and advised him to get rid of it. "I couldn't do that," says Ashburn, so he stuck it into four barrels. "John came along in 1992, this being my pet project, I brought him a sample of the liquid," explains Ashburn. "Hall was unimpressed and asked, what are we doing with it? I just left it in the barrels and ten years later… wait a minute!" That extra time raised Hall's eyebrows.

Most of the whisky became a component in the 2015 Three Grain Harmony, but a little remained for this exclusive release. The rare cask produced a little more than 100 bottles to be sold through a lottery. Social media’s griping over the $225 price tag was in the minority; thousands entered for a chance to buy a bottle, and hundreds more came out of the woodwork offering winners quadruple that price. It's a testament for the demand of more Forty Creek expressions. John Hall may be retired, but the whisky hasn't.

Forty Creek is going to war with this year's limited-edition whisky. Victory tells the story of the War of 1812 battle, Engagement at the Forty, fought in the distillery's backyard. On June 8, 1813, a small British Navy detachment along with the local militia and a band of indigenous people ended the advancement of more than 2,000 storming American troops into the area. The symbolism of a little village pushing back against an invading army resonated with the distillery.

The battle lasted 45-minutes, roughly the same amount of time Ashburn was given in 2007 to blend Forty Creek's first limited edition whisky. "Forty Creek Small Batch came about quickly," recalls Ashburn. The project started in June with the release scheduled for the inaugural Whisky Weekend that September. The event opened with John Hall, Bill Ashburn and Hall's daughter, Beth and wife, Eileen staring into an empty parking lot. After 90 minutes, Ashburn was released from active duty. He got home to a frantic phone call from Hall, "You gotta get back here. There are all kinds of people. We need help." It was a leap of faith by Hall to think people would show up. Small Batch sold out instantly.

The bar was set. Small Batch was followed in 2008 by Double Barrel Reserve and in 2009 by Port Wood Reserve. "It takes three to make a serial killer, it takes three whiskies to make a limited series," jokes Ashburn. Each successive year, Hall and Ashburn murdered it with every anticipated release. This year, 4,000 people are expected to show up to buy a bottle of the latest. "Victory is an evolution of last year's Unity, using a different wood treatment on similar base whiskies," explains Ashburn. "The centrepiece of Unity was some very old corn whisky. There's none of that left so I've elevated the rye portion and used a very complimentary wood treatment."

Ashburn draws from experience, "My wine days have taught me what some of these treatments can do." He used a high vanilla treatment traditional to Chardonnays. The wood is toasted, cooled down, then toasted again bringing out the desired flavour parameters. Half of the blend is treated with these vanilla staves. One or two staves are added to existing mature barrels, calculated on grams per litre.

A smidgen of the distillery's 1999 Villard Noir Port is added for balance. "It's a very interesting liquid on its own. We made it using a traditional Portuguese method," says Ashburn. The port was aged in Hungarian oak for three years then transferred to stainless steel tanks. Hall needed the tank space for a wine vintage, so Ashburn stuck the port in used whisky barrels for about 15 years. "No other port like it in the world," he smiles.

Ashburn proudly pours Victory into a glass and we have a taste. It's delicious and inspires him to dig deep into his resume of innovative spirits. He pulls a sample from a used barrel containing a 25-year-old peach spirit. The 85% spirit is gorgeous and when diluted, is a time capsule that captures the essence of Niagara's famous peaches. Then he shifts to a cask of very old single malt whisky that is off the charts with floral notes. A mysterious bottle with 'Bartender's Blend' written with a wax pencil is next. A trial blend, but Ashburn references it as a work in progress instead of a snapshot into the future. But what has him beaming with pride are some very cool wood extraction experiments that remain top secret, for now.

Ashburn does admit that he's superstitious. Product development is done when no one else is in the building. "I have lots of superstitions," laughs Ashburn. "I'm not willing to disclose." But, looking around the distillery, there are no ladders to walk under. Seven years of bad luck? No mirrors here, just whisky barrels from wall to wall. Ashburn tucks the sample bottles under his arm and heads back to the production facility. Victory is scheduled for bottling just weeks before thousands descend on Forty Creek.

This Whisky Weekend’s thirteenth release will deal with the attacking fans, the tried and true Forty Creek way – with a flavourful whisky and a guarantee that black cats won't cross their path.

Tasting Notes

Forty Creek

Victory 43% ABV
Shots fired with candy fruit, then banana custard, Flintstone vitamins, sour green apples and vanilla toasted spice. Dry mid-palate tannins shift naturally over to a classic Canadian pith finish.

Forty Creek

22 Years Old Rye 43% ABV
Bill Ashburn’s magnum opus balances rich toasted rye bread, caraway and dried exotic fruits lifted by earthy oak. Razor sharp spices integrates the whisky into a complex unified force.

Forty Creek

Small Batch Reserve 40% ABV
A sweet subtle nose of caramel and vanilla open to a palate of traditional rye spice. Stone fruits, maple and a buttery texture complement the all star grains.

Forty Creek

Barrel Select 40% ABV
This fruity and spicy sweet corn whisky sets the stage with dusty rye, baking spices and oak. Citrus peel, vanilla and creamy corn interlock into a modern-day classic.
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