Craft artisan whisky making. There is arguably no Canadian distillery that has so wholeheartedly embraced this concept as Grimsby, Ontario’s Kittling Ridge Estates Wine And Spirits. While some may be unfamiliar with the name Kittling Ridge, its less likely that the name of the distillery’s flagship whisky, Forty Creek, has flown under the radar. The company made its mark on the whisky world several years back with the release of its Barrel Select standard expression. In more recent years the distillery’s output has been wonderfully augmented with a series of unique limited releases. Each of these whiskies bears both the hallmarks of the Canadian style and the fingerprints of a distiller at the height of his craft.
I hate to say it, but for those of us who may have started off our dramming days by diving into the heavy, malty complexities of Scotch, Canadian whisky will most likely be something of an acquired taste. Its sweet, spicy character has more in common with bourbon than it does with the amber blood of Scotland. Having said that, much like anything worth trying, it’s worth investing the time to learn the intricacies of the subject before forming an opinion. Canadian whisky is a journey unto itself, and a rewarding one at that.
To quote Canadian whisky authority Davin De Kergommeaux, John K. Hall, the man at the helm, is “a chemist by education, a winemaker by trade, and a whisky maker by passion”. John has almost singlehandedly brought the prestige and national pride back into Canadian whisky. In ages past, the world was quite enamoured with this singular drink. It has served as both the saviour of parched American palates during times of prohibition, and as the trendy ‘it’ drink in earlier decades. Up until the last few years however, it has rarely been afforded the accolades we Canucks would like to be able to boast of.
But as Mr. Zimmerman once said, ‘The times, they are a-changin’’.
Aside from John Hall himself, if anyone in the spirits world has been instrumental in helping pull Canadian whisky back into the spotlight, it would be the aforementioned Davin de Kergommeaux. Davin’s brilliant book ‘Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert’ is essential reading for anyone who endeavours to learn a little more about Canadian whisky. At some point in the future I’ll be looking at pulling together a few words on Davin and his book so let’s not dwell too deeply on that here, but I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Davin has pulled together a few great pages (Chapter 24) on Kittling Ridge, in which he does a beautifully concise job of setting the scene regarding Forty Creek and the Kittling Ridge distillery. I could sit here, play armchair hack journalist and regurgitate all of Davin’s hard work for you, but I’d be doing an injustice in paraphrasing, and instead will highly recommend you do yourself a favour and grab a copy of his book.
And finally…for those looking for a little more information direct from the source, the Forty Creek website is absolutely top notch. One of the best out there, to be honest.
A quick final note before we jump into some tasting notes…
While there’s no age statement on these Forty Creek releases, it’s a fair assumption that they are all built from fairly young whiskies. It should be noted however that much (if not most) of Canadian whisky is served up relatively young. I bring this up not to suggest that age is a qualifier in any of the following notes or scores, but simply to say that there is an awful lot of complexity packed into these bottles. Each one a rewarding experience in its own right.
I sat down one morning a few days back (yes, I said ‘morning’…what of it?) with seven different expressions of Forty Creek and my tasting note book. The results…well…see for yourself.
Forty Creek Barrel Select
Nose: Vanilla. Caramel…maybe butterscotch(?). Nutmeg. Chocolate. Salty dough. Lemon. A dusting of cinnamon. Toasted marshmallow (actually…have you ever burnt one over a campfire? There you go!). Smells of fresh baking. Almost dessert-like in ways. Great cohesion. Very easy going.
Palate: Spicy warm arrival that develops into a cinnamon / ginger / molasses cookie note. Creamy fudge (like the candy shops in Banff, my local mates).
Thoughts: John knocks it outta the park with his entry level expression.
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve
Nose: Warm hot cross buns. Rye bread. A neat little bit of almost an ashy / peppery nip. Allspice. Slightly minty. A touch of smoke. Savoury notes too. Oddly enough, there is a slightly metallic tang here (no…this isn’t mere synesthesia from the name of the whisky).
Palate: Wow…way more tangy than the Barrel Select. More on tart fruits and zippy spices. Big rye notes. A lot of spice. Sticky saucy notes.
Thoughts: Good whisky. Even without overthinking the name of this one, we are moving closer to Scotch territory now.
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
Nose: Chocolate. Raisin and massive purple grapes. Rye grains, but…now some sweet corn bourbon notes too. Lemon pepper. Tart cherry and gooseberry. Seems like a lot of sherry influence here. A mixed bag of citrus zest (lemon, lime and orange shavings). Vanilla cream and clean oak.
Palate: Caramel apple. Christmas cake. Less complex on the palate than the nose would lead you to believe. Almost too easy actually.
Thoughts: Lots to this one for those who are olfactorily-inclined. I could pick notes off the nose of this one for hours. Extra points here for the nose alone.
Forty Creek John’s Private Cask No. 1
Nose: Warm chocolate. Cadbury’s Fruit And Nut bar. Some white chocolate too. Nice spice blend. More cereals and porridge-y notes now. Crème brûlée. Poached pear with a touch of pepper and old ginger. Vanilla cream and just a little banana cream too. Rye. A slightly sour tang. Very gentle…very approachable.
Palate: Melted chocolate over tart fruits…with a shake of mixed spices over the lot (cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger). Tangy again. What kind of cask play is this, I wonder.
Thoughts: Would likely make a Canadian whisky convert of most anyone.
Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Cinnamon and raisin bagels. Butter tarts. A slightly meaty, Bovril aroma (like those little bags of beef ring crisps you can get in the UK). Our mate Davin De Kergommeaux found celery (good nose, Davin!), but I’ll go further and say it’s more like celery salt to me. Chocolate. Dill. Old Dutch Bar-B-Q potato chips. Salty and a little smoky.
Palate: All works in an odd sorta way on the nose, but on the palate…not so much. Quite tart. I wish this had had a little less time in bed with the port. Too wine-heavy for my liking. Dried fruits and spice.
Thoughts: I’m a big fan of the uniqueness of the nose, but wish it all held together a little better. Extra point for the nose.
Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve
Nose: Creamy? More fruits now than we’ve seen so far. Crème brûlée…again. Vanilla. Caramel apple. Chocolate ganache. Rye and all purpose flour. Toffee, ginger and pepper. Lively red fruity notes. Not far off the nose of the more mature Alberta Premium releases, but sans the dusty dunnage notes.
Palate: Fresh woods and creamy custards. More vanilla cream here with some fruity notes. Chocolate. A touch of smoke. The aforementioned crème brûlée is here too.
Thoughts: Simple: I love it.
Forty Creek Heart of Gold
Nose: More of a spicy rye character now. Substantial wine notes. Massive bucket loads of jarred prunes (think those little jars of baby food). Slight smoked meat note. Damp wood. Pepper. Lots of spice. I’m getting a vague iodine (almost urine…sorry!) note here somewhere.
Palate: All prunes again. Some smoke. Dried fruits and moist rye bread. Having trouble pulling more out from around that prune character.
Thoughts: Not the integrated whole I had hoped for. Don’t get me wrong though…still a top notch whisky. Think I’ll go back to the Confederation Oak.
Sincere thanks to my mate, Piers, for helping pull together so many of these wonderful whiskies for me. You’re a good man, Piers, irrespective of what most people say. Love ya, brother.
Big cheers to Canada’s best whisky maker, Mr. John Hall.
– Words & Tasting Notes: Curt
– Photos: Curt
I’d have to conquer with you, my favourite Forty Creek Whisky to date is definitely the Confederation Oak.
Why so violent? Too many viewings of Braveheart?
I “would” CONCUR with Curt, if I had a chance to taste all of the range. I did like the Confederation Oak, which I first tasted at the distillery store, my best taste experience with 40 creek ever. The Portwood is a little anaemic compared to something like Amrut Portomova, but still pleasant. I really enjoy the Heart of Gold, but it’s been too long since I tastes the Confed to rank them. Someone may be sending me a sample of the private cask. At that point I should have a better idea.
I was at the distillery store a month ago and did a side by side of the Confed Oak and Heart of Gold. The Confed Oak was significantly better.
Great to see this comparison – I’ve been a fan of most Forty Creek’s and the nicely curved plastic mickey of Barrel Select is the staple whisky I pack for a ski-tour in the mountains!
Gotta agree on the Portwood – found it a bit to syrupy-sweet myself. I noticed Jim Murray has quite a range in ratings between batches so maybe it’s been quite variable (regardless of whether one agrees with his ratings).
I actually HIGHLY enjoyed the Heart of Gold. Found it had a great mix of rye spice and some more classic sherry and nutty spices that reminded me of those apple-cinnamon/brown sugar oatmeal packets. Less syrupy than some Forty Creeks (and general Canadian whiskies). Didn’t notice the prunes so will have to try again.
I’ll have to find a bottle of Confederation Oak too – my brother had a bottle once but those were in my early days of appreciating whisky…
It’s all pretty decent stuff, and Confederation Oak is a step up (and should be, at the price asked) but, like almost every young distillery, Forty Creek’s best days almost certainly lay ahead of it, so my enthusiasm for its current stage of development is reserved at best. It’s hard to get worked up over anyone’s constant treadmill of NAS/next big thing marketing when you know that they’ve got long-term stock put away in warehouses because, at heart, they understand the real value (to the whisky, not just the sale price) of age maturation.
I have tried the confederation, Portwood (second release) and the Heart of Gold. All of them enjoyable.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that the distiller is aiming for a completely different profile than most Scotches and single malts, and should not be compared to them.
I would like to see them bottled at natural cask strength. That would be a treat.
Forty Creek – Heart of Italy?
Are you referring to the tragic sale of FC to Campari for multi-millions?
Yup. Get the stocks while you can. I foresee less for us and more for the international market, if they even continue the special releases…
It’s a good illustration that, although whisky is a business, what’s good for business isn’t necessarily good for whisky. All the industry people make all the right positive noises, but does Campari care about the product itself? From the story appearing in the Hamilton Spectator:
In a news release, Campari said it wanted Forty Creek because the distiller has the fastest growing Canadian whisky brand and has a strong position in the American market.
“We are absolutely delighted to announce today the acquisition of Forty Creek Distillery,” said Jean Jacques Dubau, Campari’s managing director for North America. “Through this acquisition we enter the very large and appealing Canadian whisky category (and) position us for further growth in our core U.S. market.”
So Hall, after selling his “labour of love”, stays on as chief whisky maker and chairman, which probably would have had to happen anyway for appearances’ sake, but the folks above him – much like those running Diageo – would be just as happy making hamburgers (happier, if it made them more money or put them in a better position to do so), even as, all the while, the whisky industry keeps talking about its strong sense of quality values and (in Forty Creek’s case, Canadian) tradition. At least Forty Creek didn’t go on about being an “anti-industry renegade”, like Bruichladdich did (and somehow still does), before being flipped for big bucks.
I’m not overly concerned about this deal, although I am surprised at the speed at which John Hall was willing to to sell the company. But that could be chalked up to his desire to see Forty Creek distributed internationally, and not him overtly selling out. And every bottle of Forty Creek showing up on international shelves could mean one less bottle of Crown Royal or Canadian Club in it’s place, which is nothing but good news for our reputation abroad.
If you consider another whisky brand that was bought five years ago by Campari, Wild Turkey, the results look promising for Forty Creek. Wild Turkey has seen near 10% growth for each of the last few years, Campari spent fifty million dollars building a new distillery to double production to deal with international demand, and there have been no complaints yet in any drops in quality (but this only deals with the blending and bottling of current stocks under Campari’s ownership, no word on what the new distillery will be producing down the road).
Campari is trying to make money, no argument there, but they are still capable of caring about and showing respect to a brand. They know that to expand into the international market, they have to sell a product better than what’s already out there (Jim, Jack, and Evan) and cutting quality in Kentucky would only save them money in the short term. So putting out a lower quality Forty Creek for their “core American market” would’t help them sell against CR and CC, especially since it’ll probably be more expensive.
Really, the one thing I worry about with this deal is the lack of availability of special releases here in Canada, as limited as they already are.
I also site this interview with John Hall on WhiskyCast as further evidence. Although he could be misplaced in his views, he has some very solid reasons for selling to Campari.
The optics, to me, are a little sketchy – first, In February 2013, Hall “sold the Kittling Ridge name to Magnotta Winery Estates to concentrate entirely on whisky” and now he’s selling the company… to concentrate on whisky (and to take his first vacation in 22 years?). Without a massive expansion, I don’t see the benefit of reaching 190 countries, unless it’s to spread the product razor-thin and style Forty Creek as a super-premium, which would price it beyond the majority of its current drinkers. And WITH a massive expansion, what happens to the small, handcrafted, approach of “unique personality” currently touted on the website:
“Forty Creek Whiskies are distilled using 2 small copper pot stills. Each of my pot stills has its own personality and provide a particular character to my whiskies. The art of capturing the heart of the distillation is one of the handcrafted elements of using the traditional pot still.”
Campari is capable of caring about a brand, but do they care about this one and in what context? Looking beyond this deal, has bigger been better for whisky in terms of ownership in general? Leaving aside which is more likely for a moment, would most whisky drinkers rather see Diageo or any of the other big players acquire more independent distilleries or see some of their current distilleries break off as independents? Large companies are making money hand-over-fist (and it’s a reasonable motivation for them to do the things they do), but, from a consumer’s perspective, if all the moving and shaking doesn’t result in better whisky, but just rather the dilution of quality in order to reach the four corners of the earth, I don’t see the benefit. But then again, I don’t think many of these moves are made with the benefit of the whisky, or the consumer, in mind.
Forty Creek – Heart of Darkness…
Spreading the current stock thin to fit the international market is a possibility, but consider what that stock is. Although I’m quoting a figure from Davin de Kergommeaux’s site that doesn’t have a citation, Forty Creek has the capacity to produce 550,000 cases of whisky annually, which means it’s more than double that of a world-wide Islay brand like Lagavulin (250,000) or Bruchladdich (167,000), neither of which I would consider “razor thin”, save the current temporary Bruichladdich shortage. If both those brands are world renowned and quite internationally available, there should be no reason that Campari can’t meet demands in other parts of the world with a brand with twice the volume, even without the massive marketing and shipping budgets of Diageo and RemyCointreau.
And speaking of already having double the output of Lagavulin, a decidedly modern and industrialized factory of a distillery, I wouldn’t say that a distillery expansion for Forty Creek would necessarily cut back or diminish their reputation for handcrafted and unique whisky. But this is arguing from an optimistic point of view, Campari could force John to put in a huge column still to churn out cheap, high proof blending whisky, instead of buying him a third pot still if they choose to expand.
I’m not saying that I like what’s happened in Grimsby, I’m just saying that this could (and I do stress “could”, it’s no guarantee) be a positive move for expanding the Forty Creek brand.
If those figures are correct, amazing that Forty Creek can get that kind of yield out of two small copper pot stills, doing separate runs for rye, barley and corn for later blending, when Lagavulin and Bruichladdich are dealing with barley alone and their stills are both larger and more numerous. It is possible, I suppose, given that Forty Creek uses reverse osmosis from Lake Ontario, so there’s never a lack of water.
And, just as you’re not saying you like what happened in Grimsby, I’m not arguing that it wasn’t a good business move for Hall, Forty Creek or Campari, or that it won’t result in greater access for more people to the whisky worldwide (which is a benefit), only that it might not be a benefit to consumers in terms of product quality and price going forward.
It might not be the apocalypse, even for Forty Creek, but if you’re just a consumer – and not part of a trade association, or selling whisky, or selling books about whisky – is there anything to get excited about in terms of cheaper or better whisky ahead for you?
Forty Creek releases it’s Evolution today at Whisky Weekend in Grimsby. Yes there is marketing and hype, but they tend to turn out a good product. Cheers!
What a day! Looks like FC has released a winner again. Great nose. Initialy like a cab franc ice wine. I think this one will sell out quickly.
Now tha Campari owns FC and plans to take it worldwide….who knows how many excellent special releases are left?
Watching the leaders debate during the most important election since (maybe) confederation. A few cc of Confederation Oak is helping to numb the effects of the rhetoric. What a nose! What a palate!
Don’t worry Jeff, I haven’t bought a bottle of confederation oak since 2010 when it was released. This is the original batch, a bottle of which I opened 2 days ago.