It seems logical enough. If Canadian whisky is supposed to be a reflection of Canadian raw ingredients and skill, why not age the stuff in barrels made from Canadian oak?
Though few people know or perhaps care, virtually all Canadian whisky is aged in barrels made of wood from U.S. forests. The reason: supply. Most forests responsible for the main species used in whisky aging, quercus alba, or white oak, lie south of the border, in Minnesota and the eastern and southern states, most notably Kentucky and Missouri. That's where wood for U.S. bourbon and big-brand Canadian whisky tends to be sourced.
But the species also grows in pockets of Southern Ontario, a fact that gnawed on independent Canadian distiller John Hall of Forty Creek whisky fame. Mr. Hall had for years wondered whether our cooler-climate, slower-growing - and therefore tighter-grained - trees would impart more finesse to the finished product.
Now Canadian whisky is coming home.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Hall began taking online orders for Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve, a new spirit he finished for three years in Canadian oak barrels following a primary maturation in U.S. oak.
The result is sublime. I tasted a barrel sample a couple of weeks ago at Mr. Hall's Grimsby, Ont., headquarters, where the spirit will be bottled for a September release.
It's full-bodied yet deliciously smooth with notes of vanilla, raisin and fig that evolve into a spicy, honey-nut cereal quality. Mr. Hall, who's lingered over more barrel samples than I, thinks it even carries a note of maple. How's that for Canadian?
"I really am very happy the way it has turned out," Mr. Hall said as we savoured glasses in the tasting room at Kittling Ridge, a Niagara winery he also owns and which shares space with his expansive Forty Creek distilling operations. "I don't know what is going to happen when the whisky tasters compare it to others. It's just very unique."
Mr. Hall made about 16,000 bottles of Confederation Oak Reserve ($69.95), which, like his other excellent whiskies, is distilled from all three main whisky grains: corn, rye and barley. Most will be sold through his website (FortyCreekWhisky.com) and distillery boutique, with the balance made available later this year through LCBO stores in Ontario. Each bottle will carry a number, so customers can reserve a bottle to match a birthday or anniversary.
Oak is a key flavour component in whisky, arguably more influential than the base grain from which it's distilled. As the spirit matures (for a minimum of three years in the case of most fine whiskies, but usually much longer), it draws out colour, texture and flavour through the pores, imparting nuances that can range from vanilla to coconut to buttery sweetness. Barrels also can be charred to various degrees, lending a toasty quality. And chemical changes can alter flavour, turning, for example, harsh acids into fruitiness.
There are three main oak species used in making whisky and wine, quercus alba and two species native to Europe, quercus petraea and quercus robur. Oak is the preferred wood for both whisky and wine because of its physical strength and purity. It contains none of the harsh resins that can that impart off flavours.
Mr. Hall's excellent Canadian oak adventure began with a few giant trees he discovered in Brant County, 60 kilometres from the Niagara distillery. At 3.3 metres in diameter, they were slated to be chopped down because of their old age, estimated at about 150 years. That meant they started life in or around 1867, hence Mr. Hall's patriotic whisky name, Confederation Oak.
In contrast, fully grown oak trees in the southern United States take just 60 to 80 years to reach full maturity, the product of a warmer climate that accelerates growth. The result is a trunk with wider grains and lower levels of astringent tannins but a more assertive flavour - more coconut and sweetness than the subtler vanilla and nutmeg-like spiciness of slower-growth oak.
Lovers of fine Bordeaux and Burgundy wines may appreciate the subtleties of Canadian oak. That's because French oak trees, the choice of most premium-wine producers, grow just as slowly in France's cool climate, reaching roughly 150 years before harvest. (That said, some wineries do rely on American oak for aging robust wines that can harmonize with the bolder profile of the U.S. wood.) As it turns out, Confederation Oak Reserve isn't entirely Canadian. The barrels were made south of the border. Big domestic-whisky brands, such as Seagram, once produced barrels in Canada from U.S. oak, but no more. So Mr. Hall consulted with a fledgling Niagara company, Canadian Oak Barrels Inc. of St. George, Ont., which recently began supplying a few domestic wineries such as Lailey Vineyard of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., with barrels made from Canadian wood that's dried here but is sent to a Missouri cooperage for manufacture.
"I'd be embarrassed to say what the barrels ended up costing," Mr. Hall said with a smile. Here's a hint: While French oak reigns supreme at about $950 for a new, 225-litre barrel, double the cost of its U.S.-oak counterpart, "Canadian is in the middle, but slightly higher now because of the dollar," said Matt Roberts, sales representative for Canadian Oak Barrels, which has even sold barrels to foreign wineries.
There's also some American flavour in Confederation Oak Reserve. As with his other Forty Creek whiskies, Mr. Hall matured the individual corn, rye and barley components in U.S. oak for six to 10 years. The components were then blended into a single batch and left to harmonize in the Canadian barrels for three years.
Why not use Canadian oak exclusively? It's a stylistic preference as well as a cost issue, Mr. Hall said. "It brings my whisky to a point where I can then use the real valuable barrels like a Canadian white oak barrel for the finishing, to give it all the nuances it needs."
Still, I wouldn't mind sampling an all-Canadian Forty Creek whisky. I may even be prepared to pay more than $69.95 for the pleasure.
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