On March 24th, a few founding members of the Toronto Whisky Society were given the opportunity to tour the Hiram Walker Distillery and we want to share that experience with you in a few posts over the next few days. For any of you who don’t know, the distillery was built in 1858 by Hiram Walker, an American businessman who helped grow Canadian whisky to be the dominant whisky genre in the world for a time, and established brands that are still around today. The operation in Walkerville, Windsor, Ontario has survived (and thrived in the face of) challenges including religious opposition, prohibition, intense competition, and a number of mergers & acquisitions and today is still the largest beverage alcohol distillery in North America. Brands made at Hiram Walker include J.P. Wiser’s, Lot No. 40, Gooderham & Worts, McGuinness liqueurs, Malibu Rum, Lamb’s Rum, Polar Ice Vodka, as well as a number of other competitor brands that they contract distill for.
The Toronto Whisky Society has built relationships with people at Hiram Walker and Corby Spirit and Wine, its parent company, and had a Reddit AMA with Dr. Don Livermore 3 months ago, one of only a handful of people with a PhD in brewing and distilling in the world! Dr. Don joined Hiram Walker in 1996 as a microbiologist and worked his way up to his current post as Master Blender. When Don offered to bring a few of us from TWS in for a full-day tour, where we’d get to see the entire whisky process from grain to glass we were very enthusiastic participants! Through descriptions and pictures, we’ll try to give you a feel for the experience!
The First Impression
The first thing you notice when driving along Riverside Drive by the distillery – especially if you’ve been to any local craft distilleries before – is just the sheer scale of this operation. Hiram Walker is BIG! There are about a dozen buildings in the couple of blocks of street the distillery encompasses all dedicated to different parts of the operation, and connected via pipes and overpasses. It’s seriously impressive! We met up with Don at their Brand Centre, got an overview of the day, and then went to take a walk to the first step in the on-site process. The walk from brand centre to grain receiving is about 750m, and there are buildings on the right and left the entire way. While we walked, Don gave us a really neat overview of Canadian whisky from its inception as home-based moonshining operations, through the American Civil War, Canada’s birth, the prohibition era, booms and busts all the way to the present day. He also tested us with some ‘alternative facts’ thrown into the middle of the story and we quickly got a sense of his dry sense of humour, which made the stories even more entertaining! Here are some pictures of the brand centre and the walk along Riverside Drive:
Grain Receiving & Storage
When we got to the far end of the distillery grounds, we were met by Kristy Fregonese, who is the gatekeeper of the grain at Hiram Walker. The distillery takes in tens of thousands of trucks of grain every year, and each one is tested for its quality and for various diseases and impurities that occur in grain. Kristy showed us the various grain types they bring in, some examples of grain loads that failed the QA inspections, and told us about the diseases she tests for and how the tests are done. Interestingly, one of the most-used and most reliable tools is Kristy’s olfactory system! She has trained her nose to detect certain smells that belie a disease or quality issue, and can reject an entire load of grain on smell alone!
We then jumped ahead to the very end of the process, where the spent grain is collected and processed as “distiller’s grain,” a protein-rich starch-less product that is sold to farmers as cattle feed. This process of using distillery by-product for animal consumption has been happening for centuries, and completes the whisky cycle from farm to farm. Notice the differently coloured layers in the cross-section of the pile, that almost look like strata in a rock face. Those are layers of different grains (lighter = corn/wheat, darker=rye) that pile on top of each other as different mashes are distilled over time. The grains travel from the distillery building to the vents in the roof via underground pipes and are constantly pouring in.
We then went to the grain silos, and walked around on top of the building. They use sonar to detect the grain level in each individual >100ft column, which is a bit of an upgrade vs the original method of dropping a rope in from the top and measuring! We then went outside for a magnificent view of the distillery, the Detroit River and the Detroit skyline. It was a sunny 20 degrees out, which made for some incredibly breathtaking vistas.
A huge thanks to Kristy for showing us around the grain operations at Hiram Walker. We learned a ton about grain and got a new appreciation for the impact that grain quality has on the final product!
Mashing & Fermenting
We then took a walk back to the mash-house and distillery itself, all while getting more jokes and stories from our host, Don. We then heard about the mashing and cook process, which at Hiram Walker is highly automated, and incredibly precise. The grain at Hiram Walker is hammer-milled into a fine flour and is then piped into a large continuous mash tun, where it gets mixed with warm water, nitrogen & enzymes and cooked to begin the process of breaking down starches into sugar. We got a taste of the wort, or end product of this process, which is a fairly sweet yet starchy porridge.
The wort is then pumped into fermentation tanks. Having seen these at multiple distilleries before, we weren’t prepared for the scale of these things Sitting dozens of feet tall and with a capacity of nearly 200,000L each, they are absolutely MASSIVE! And on top of that, there are 39 of them, all continuously at various stages of fermentation, draining or sterilization.
Yeast and enzymes are added to the wort, and the yeast begins to convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. We looked into a few fermenters at various stages, and what looks like a rolling boil inside, is really just the CO2 bubbling to the surface constantly. We got a taste of the fermenting corn that sits at about 15% ABV and it was less sweet and quite tasty. I suggested they consider releasing it as a beer, but there wasn’t much of an appetite for it… oh well.
They ferment their mash for 3 days and then it’s ready for the next step: distillation. But for that, you’ll have to come back to the site tomorrow when we cover Part 2 of our day at Hiram Walker where we see the stills and head to the warehouse!.