I had the phenomenal opportunity to spend a day with Don Livermore at Hiram Walker Distillery last week, and - rather than repeat information others have written – I wanted to provide notable moments that stood out to me. For a detailed description of some of what the day entailed, do read Toronto Whisky Society’s excellent posts.
The distillery is huge. There is no way around that. They are classified as the largest distillery in North America because of barrel inventory – over 1.5 million barrels at the Pike Creek warehouses. The fermenters are 200,000 litres – and there are 39 of them. I’ve been to the big distilleries in Kentucky and it’s remarkable to see something bigger, and with 2 continuous stills…at the time we were there the flow rate out of the still was 140,000 litres per day (24 gallons per minute).
So much of whisky making is science, not smoke and mirrors. Hiram Walker gets their fermentation up to around 15%, perhaps the highest in the industry, through use of nitrogen infusion during fermentation. All the whisky is tested in the lab as well as by a tasting panel in a controlled room (composed on 10 people each with different sensory strengths)
Whisky making is not on the shoulders of a “master” but is on the back of an involved team. There is no clearer indication of this than that Don Livermore can’t smell coconut – a component often found in whisky. The tasting team each knows their strengths and weaknesses, and what components they want in a whisky, and what they do not. For instance, a member of the team is sensitive to mossy flavors, which they do not want in a whisky. More than that, a number of people work in the blending lab with various products – interestingly, Gooderham and Worts is the hardest thing for them to blend because of the many components involved and there are even custom scales just to get the precision required for Gooderham & Worts. Lot No. 40 is also a pain to produce because of the difficulties involved with processing and chill filtering the rye.
Rye is remarkable. One taste of the rye wort (the fermenting mixture) and you can immediately see it – it is considerably more complex than the corn, with loads more flavor and “edge” (as opposed to the "corn flakes" flavor of the corn). Rye has more lignin than any other grain, which is the compound from which grain and wood (and peat!) derive most of their flavor compounds once this is broken down.
Tasting straight from the cask is awesome. We tasted an 8 year old wheat whisky, a 10 year old lot no. 40, and a 19 year old corn whisky straight from the cask (with almost no liquid left in it!). The corn was my favorite – a terrific cask.
Blending is a lot of fun. Not that I didn’t already know this, but my favorite part of the tour was that Don let us nose through over 50 samples of whisky, going through the reasons for the flavor components of each. Malt gives a funky, farmy flavor to a grain compared to the cleaner and more grain forward unmalted versions of the spirits. Cauliflower, cantaloupe skin, etc. come from the malt. I find it interesting, but a bit disagreeable in high quantities. Most don’t like it as much as the unmalted profile. This is one reason why single malts take so long to mellow out.
We tasted whiskies matured in tequila barrels, red oak barrels, whiskies made from specially developed strains of rye (brasetto – it tasted much better than the standard!). We blended our own – I wanted a rye forward, grainy, powerful whisky – I blended red oak rye and French oak matured whiskies, with some brasetto rye. Brilliant. One of my other friends blended a whisky around a 30 year old corn whisky and my other friend blended the tequila finished whisky with rye – the spices played together in an interesting way, and that even perked Don’s attention.
The corn base whisky they use, distilled to about 94%, is quite flavorful. It’s a far cry from vodka, despite accusations. All you need is a taste…
The 9.09% rule…”finishing” is a bit of a gimmick. In Canada, a small amount of wine or aged spirit can be added (it needs to be aged at least 2 years). When Don shared this with a Scottish distiller, they said “that is so much easier of a process than having to finish whiskies!”. Finishing casks contain litres of other spirit, and “finishing” just diffuses that spirit into the whisky over the first 90 days (which is why, generally, spirits aren’t finished that long) – but it isn’t a maturation process, rather a simple mixing process. Why do other countries use casks to do this? Because they can’t just add the spirit unless it is in a different cask. So why does Hiram Walker use finishing casks, as in the rum-finished Pike Creek? Because consumers want it…
Canadian whisky is of exceptional quality. This is something I already know, but so many whisky fans are sold only on Scotch or maybe bourbon. I have tried many whiskies, and Canadian truly can compete with the best of them. The northern border collection coming to Ontario in October is an example of this (as is Wiser’s Legacy, which is being discontinued…the last is on shelves now…).
Tasting Notes: My Rye Blend 55%
- 25% double distilled corn, French oak 4 yrs
- 24% double distilled corn whisky (15 Y.O.)
- 17% column distilled rye, new wood 8 yrs
- 15% wheat star special 6 yrs
- 15% rye star red oak 4 yrs
- 4% brasetto star special (new oak) 2 yrs.
The nose is full of grain notes – corn husks, wheat – along with vanilla laden oak, caramel, cinnamon, clove, anise, boiling rice (that’s the red oak!), lilacs, orange peel, and blueberry. Complex, integrated. Not bad for a quick blend! The palate is spicy, with a gorgeous mouthfeel. Dry oak, bready wheat notes, spice, cream of wheat, sharp spices, anise, and menthol. The finish is full of rich, creamy, grain notes alongside nice spices and more blueberry. Because I used column distilled rye, primarily – the base is broader and less clean than defined rye whiskies like dissertation or lot no. 40 – but I like this. The high strength does wonders here, too – the finish has a developing spicy and grainy finish. The wheat is quite central, oddly enough, here – if I were doing this again I’d drop it to maybe 5% and increase the column distilled rye and red oak rye another 5% each. I’d maybe also drop the DD 15 Y.O. to 10% and increase the DD corn French oak by 5%. Regrets, regrets – but this was a lot of fun.