In Part 1 of the Toronto Whisky Society’s visit to the Hiram Walker Distillery we covered how they handle their grain, the mashing process and fermenting process. Next we move on to:
Distillation is essentially selective evaporation to concentrate a substance and remove unwanted portions. In the spirits world, there are two types of stills: Continuous or column stills, and pot stills. At Hiram Walker, they use both. Hiram Walker has two continuous stills used for whisky production, one for their rye and one for the other grains. both are fully copper and have dozens of plates over their 60+ foot length. For anyone who has seen column stills at a small distillery, these will blow you away. They are, as are many things at HW, MASSIVE! The columns serve to concentrate the liquid to approximately 70% ABV on the first pass, and the copper removes the sulphuric flavours from the juice. Some batches are passed through the still a second time, to bring it up to a higher proof in the ~94% range, depending on the grain. There are other columns stills on site that bring the ABV even higher, which makes it a neutral grain spirit suitable for vodka and liqueur blending.
Other batches are put through the copper pot stills they have on-site. A run through these stills brings the ABV up to ~ 80%. One of them is specifically for the Lot No. 40 line of 100% Rye whisky, while others are used for experimentation purposes. We tried to get Don to reveal some tidbits of what innovative new ideas are coming down the pipeline, but he was understandably tight-lipped!
There are a couple of other stills on site that aren’t often used these days, but Don did express a desire to do some testing to see how the end product compared when run through the different stills. We really hope that desire comes to fruition!
Distilling using different methods and equipment, as well as varying the temperature to which you heat the liquid allows the distiller to control which congeners or flavours make it through to the end product. Using a pot still, the congeners that evaporate at lower temperatures tend to be very vegetal and pungent, and are typically excluded from the end product and called the “heads”. The congeners that evaporate at very high temperatures tend to be soapy and waxy and are excluded as the “tails”. What’s typically left in the middle are the floral, fruity and spicy notes that are often associate with whisky. By using a column still and then a pot still, the distillers at Hiram Walker are able to eliminate the unwanted flavours and achieve their desired flavour profile.
Quality Testing and Sensory Assessment
Before the spirit can be sent away for barreling, there is a quality assurance team that tests each batch. These tests are looking for a precise quantitative measure of ABV and other chemical properties, as well as qualitative assessment of the spirit’s aroma and flavour. The quantitative is important for the government, to ensure product safety and a recording of the tax they’re owed, while the qualitative is more about the consumer experience. There is a team whose members are all experts at detecting particular aromas, and who smell the batches to check for unwanted elements. If a batch doesn’t pass this sensory, it may be passed through a still again to become a neutral spirit, or disposed of. We couldn’t take many pictures in here, but here’s a mini-still they use for some testing.
Barrel Drain & Fill
We left the distillery and headed across the street to the barrel draining & filling building. There, Stephen Stacey showed us the process they use to receive barrels from the warehouse, which are unloaded, un-corked (de-bunged), drained, filled, re-corked and re-loaded, all automatically and all in a matter of minutes. For smaller or experimental batches, there’s a manual station where new make can be pumped in and hand-filled. There is a constant stream of trucks heading back and forth between this building and barrel storage all day long.
The barrels that are no longer useful due to defect or leakage are also broken down here and disposed of.
The bungs that seal the top of the barrels are coded with information about the grain type, batch date and more info, to ensure it’s properly recorded and tracked before heading to the next, and most lengthy step of the whisky making process: aging.
Storage and Aging at the Pike Creek Warehouses
After a delicious lunch of salad and pizza, generously provided by Hiram Walker and arranged by Jessica Allison, the Events Coordinator at HW, we headed out to the Pike Creek warehouses, about a 10 minute drive from the distillery. These 16 warehouses cover an area equivalent to 132 professional ice rinks and currently hold about 1.6 million barrels! They’re also subjected to natural temperature swings, and aren’t heated or cooled. Because of the location of this warehouse, in the most southerly part of mainland Canada, surrounded by bodies of water – Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, Lake Huron and the Detroit River – the temperature and humidity fluctuations are massive, meaning it’s an ideal climate for aging whisky. As we’re just getting over winter, the temperature in the warehouses is currently very low, and we were shivering not long after going in. Standing in the doorway, the variance between the sunny and warm outdoors and the warehouse was astounding!
When we first went into the warehouse though, the cold wasn’t the first thing that struck you… it was the smell. Oh that glorious smell! Aromas of oak and whisky in the air, greedily being taken in by the angels. It’s almost enough to intoxicate you. In fact, if the doors to the warehouse weren’t opened hours earlier to air the place out, it would actually kill you! Big thanks to Larry Allison for opening it up and letting us in, and to Donald Campbell who organized the visit but couldn’t join us there! Don took us around into a few of the aisles to see the barrels. We had to use flashlights, as there is no electricity in the warehouses, but we got to see some incredibly old barrels, some up to 70-80 years old (multiple uses of course)! The barrels were incredibly cold too, as they retain temperature for much longer than the air around them. Again the sheer scale of it was mind-boggling, and this was only 1 of 16 warehouses on site!
We then got to what was one of the highest highlights of the tour: cracking open some casks and sampling! We got the chance to tap 3 casks: Wiser’s Red Letter, Wiser’s 18 and Lot No. 40.
Knowing our penchant for writing reviews (and cask strength whisky), Don and Jessica had arranged to pour us 200ml sample bottles of all three so we could enjoy and dissect them at home! The photo quality isn’t great, but if you look closely, you can see pieces of the cask floating around in the juice! Be sure to look for reviews here and on the Reddit Whisky Network in the near future!
Just as the barreled whisky has to wait in the Pike Creek warehouses, so you’ll have to check out Part 3 where we look at the final steps in the process and make our own custom blend!