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Meet John Hall of Forty Creek

By Dominic Roskrow

John Hall is a wine maker who has revolutionised Canadian whisky making by bringing new thinking to it and taking it in to new territory. Now he's changed his company's name to focus on whisky properly. Here he answers our questions

Please tell me about your business in 2012 and in particular the increased focus on whisky.

John Hall: 2012 marked my twentieth year as a first generation Whisky Maker! When I started in 1992, most of the trade did not think I would survive. But here I am 20 years later continuing to lay down whiskies and expand my whisky expressions. As you know, I am a wine maker by trade and when I started my own winery and distillery in 1992 I called it Kittling Ridge Wines & Spirits. In 2012 I decided to re-brand and change the name of the company to Forty Creek Distillery. This re-branding of my company accomplished two goals. First, it provided consumers with a much better connection to the bricks & mortar of where Forty Creek whisky is made. Secondly, internally, it clarified our company priorities for the future - continue to focus our efforts on handcrafted Canadian Whiskies. In 2012 we launched three new Forty Creek expressions: Port Wood Reserve, Copper Pot Reserve and Forty Creek Canadian Cream Whisky.

How do your whiskies differ from other Canadian whiskies?

I really don’t attempt to compare my whiskies to other Canadian Whiskies. My goal was to try to bring craftsmanship back to Canadian Whisky. As a winemaker, I saw back in the late 80s the Scotch Whisky industry stepping up its game, developing fine single malt scotch whiskies and the bourbon fellows beginning to produce small batch bourbons but in Canada between 1985 and 1995, 15 distilleries had closed. The industry was rationalizing and the Canadian whisky category was continuing its decline. Right smack in the middle of this, in 1992, I decided to open a distillery and laid down my first whisky barrels. I was looking forward to having a new creative canvas to paint on – exploring flavour profiles, different grains, ageing techniques. I wanted to create renewed interest in Canadian Whisky. After all our country icons were Hockey, Maple Syrup and Canadian Whisky, The country was built on the railroads and whisky. I thought we needed to try and resurrect Canada’s national spirit. It took me almost 10 years to make it and another 10 years to do it. But, recently, Canadian whisky sales have turned around with growth in 2012. Forty Creek continues to lead this industry growth.

Having a background in wine making and being a first generation whisky maker and being an independent, I think has provided me with the necessary elements to bring something of real importance to the Canadian Whisky category. My winemaking experience brings a sensitivity for capturing the nuances of varietal grain. Being first generation, while I respect tradition, I am not bound to it. Being an independent can certainly have its competitive difficulties but at the end of the day I don’t have to worry about stock prices or shareholder dissatisfaction. I can do it my way.

Are we seeing big changes in Canadian whisky and are these exciting times for the sector?

Yes, I think very exciting times for Canadian Whisky. 2012 saw the first growth of Canadian Whisky in many years. I believe we are on the edge of a Canadian Whisky Revival. I believe the consumers that fuelled the growth for flavoured vodkas are beginning to move on. Their pallets are more mature and they are looking for a richer taste experience and are beginning to turn to brown spirits.

For a long time you were seen as a lone innovator. Are there others coming to the party now?

There is no doubt that the craft distiller movement in Canada has been modest compared to what we have seen in the USA. In Canada it is much more difficult to establish your company within the spirits business versus the wine or craft beer categories. And sometimes people enter the business for the wrong reasons. They enter for the romance not knowing the regulations, the distribution and support that is needed to establish a distillery. Hopefully the exploding micro and artisan distilling movement in the USA will inspire more start-ups in Canada. Diversity and innovation in an industry is beneficial for the entire industry and especially for customers!

How are the big companies responding?

I believe the large companies are responding favourably.  I believe they realize that smaller craft distillers bring an enhancement to the spirits category that invites new consumers to the category without threatening their business. Large companies have very deep resources in all aspects of their business and they will continue to dominate the landscape. But, we are seeing some innovation and investment from the large companies and that is good for customers and the category.

Who is drinking your whisky? Both in terms of consumer profile and markets

One of the interesting things about Forty Creek is that its appeal seems to transcend whisky categories and it is enjoyed by Canadian Whisky, Scotch and Bourbon Whisky drinkers alike. I think, because of the way I make Forty Creek, the taste profile is very versatile. Indeed I believe we have opened up many whisky enthusiasts to taking a closer look at Canadian whisky.
We appeal to many younger consumers because they are open to trying new taste experiences. Sometimes, it can be difficult to convince an older, brand loyal consumer to try something new, but we have many of our customers tell us that their son or daughter introduced them to Forty Creek.
It is really fun to hear those stories. We often hear from new customers who are introduced to Canadian Whisky for the first time with Forty Creek. This is very gratifying as it suggests that Forty Creek is bringing new consumers to the whisky category.
Right now, Forty Creek is only available in North America. I have had requests from all over the world but I have limited my distribution to North America due to the significant growth the brand is experiencing.

Have you seen an upsurge in interest in Canadian whisky in general and your whisky in particular?

We are seeing growth in Canadian whisky sales for the first time in many years. I believe that we are experiencing the start of a renewed interest in Canadian whisky. This is driven by the fact that many younger consumers who were consuming white spirits are maturing and looking for a richer taste experience.
The industry has finally woken up and is introducing new products and experimenting with concepts such as flavoured whiskies and whisky liqueurs. This draws attention to the category, offers more diverse product selection. Overall this is great for customers and suppliers alike. I think Forty Creek has played an important role in renewing the interest in Canadian Whisky both in terms of the consumer and the other whisky suppliers. Forty Creek remains the fastest growing Canadian Whisky in North America.

Please tell me about your most recent whisky releases, and what makes them special.

They are: Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve

I believe to be one of the best whiskies I have made. I only wish I had made more of it! The 2013 release of Port Wood was the second release of this whisky style. I started this whisky in 1999 by making a tawny port style wine from Niagara grown grapes and aged the desert wine in new White Oak heavy charred barrels for 10 years. In 2009 I decanted the port and filled the vintage barrels with my aged rye, b arley and corn whiskies, where they aged together for another 2.5 years prior to bottling. I am fond of vintage ports, so making my Port Wood Reserve not only presented me with a wonderful whisky but also some fantastic vintage tawny port style wine! This whisky is like a great novel. It has a captivating beginning. The colour is mahogany gold with red flashes and huge legs that never leave the glass. Concentrated aromas that constantly evolve, deep vanilla, marmalade, ginger, black cherry, fig, dates, spice, clove, cinnamon, chocolate, tobacco, honey and smoke. Then the middle is full of character development. Full bodied, rich and satin like, various dried fruit flavours framed nicely by oak, anise, hickory, almond, and walnut. And finally the ending leaves you satisfied. Everything comes together in a long lingering finish.

Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve

This new addition to the Forty Creek family provides a very bold, big, rich, spicy whisky. The rye whisky component is much more dominant in this expression adding some wonderful spice to the aroma, spice flares mid-pallet and on the finish of this whisky. While the corn and barley are less dominant they do bring added complexity so the whisky is not just one dimensional. Well aged corn whisky is bringing some creaminess and weight to the whisky while the barley gently adds some very nice nuttiness.

What are your plans for the coming 12 months?

Over the next 12 months, I will be finalizing my limited special whisky selection for release in September, 2013. I will continue to spend a lot of time in the retail market developing Forty Creek and introducing our new Copper Pot and Cream Whisky to additional Canadian markets. Meeting Forty Creek customers through shows, retail bottle signings and restaurant events is always enjoyable. We are investing in the distillery with significant capital investment this year. And of course continuing to explore my passion for additional Forty Creek whisky expressions.

In an ideal world where would you like your business to be in five years?

Ideally, I would like to be able to develop additional export markets for Forty Creek outside of North America. Canadian whisky is an iconic representation of our country – enjoyed worldwide. I would like people to have the opportunity to enjoy the best of what Canada has to offer on a more global scale.

Finally, are you optimistic about the future and why?

Yes – very optimistic! I have always been a glass half full' kind of person, but I truly believe great things are ahead for Canadian whisky and Forty Creek.
As Canadians, we are slow to embrace change, but with so many great things happening in the world of whisky internationally and customers that are thirsting for new and exciting taste experiences, the industry is finally being propelled into innovation.
I am very proud of the contribution that Forty Creek is making in creating unique, quality, hand-crafted Canadian whiskies that Canadians can brag about!