In Part 1, we covered grain, mashing and fermenting. In Part 2, we covered distillation, QA, barrelling and aging. Now we’re going to look at the final few steps in the whisky making process, our own attempt to do Don’s job of blending, and a trip into the Whisky Archives.
This step is where Don’s creative muscles are exercised. Unlike a single malt scotch, which is a single grain whisky (malted barley) blended with water (unless cask strength) and bottled, or an American rye or bourbon, which has all the grains distilled and aged as one spirit, Canadian whisky makers age each grain separately, and then blend them together to create a finished product. This has its own distinct advantages, as the blender can put his or her own fingerprint on the product by playing with proportions and whiskies of different ages. Don took us into a room where the blending takes place on a small scale when creating a new whisky. He also showed us the room where batches of finished product are tested against the “gold standard” samples to ensure it meets the flavour profile and specs of the intended product before bottling. Unfortunately, there were a number of competitor products that HW produces out and in process at the time that we went through, so we weren’t able to get any pictures of those rooms. However, we were able to get some pictures of the full scale blending room, where massive tanks connected to computers will automatically blend according to the recipes inputted by the master blender. These tanks are where the drainage lines go when the barrels are emptied, and again the scale was incredible. We got to see tanks not only for whisky, but also for their other product lines, including the rums and liqueurs.
We also saw a chill-filter system which was a new experience for us and looked very cool. Of course as whisky snobs, we tend to dislike chill-filtration, but understand the use of it from a mass consumer perspective.
Bottling & Packing
The final step before the whisky is ready for sale is bottling and labelling and we were shown this facility by Ewart Reeves who is a bottling engineer. At Hiram Walker they have 3 bottling lines, two of which are very high speed. The bottles come in from suppliers in their finished cases upside-down, are placed on the bottling line, moved around by conveyors and suction-cup robots, filled automatically, labelled at high speed by some pretty sophisticated machines, and then re-boxed and taped for shipping. Along the way are QA checks, both manual and computerized to ensure every bottle meets quality standards.
Unfortunately, the number of pictures we were able to take of this step were limited, because it was primarily competitor products being bottled at the time of our visit. We also can’t show the labelling machine, as the only line we could show was bottling Malibu rum, which has pre-printed bottles. Overall, a very impressive high speed facility and a big thanks to Ewart for showing us the ins and outs and answering a number of questions for us! This is the final step before the cases get shipped out to be over-priced by the LCBO, but thankfully it wasn’t the last part of our day:
Tasting Room & Blending Experiment
After the tour of the production process, we had an incredible afternoon with Don in the tasting room of the brand centre. In this room, Don and Jessica set up a massive line-up of samples for us to nose and taste, and Don walked us through the entire process again using the spirits. The samples included:
- new make of all types of grain (corn, wheat, barley, rye) and distillation processes
- different ages and cask types (virgin oak, refill, ex-wine etc) for each grain
- other wine and spirit types used in the blending process (per the 9.09% rule of Canadian whisky)
Don walked us through a number of slides while having us nose the samples talking about a variety of topics that ranged from normal whisky geek topics to full on chemical analyses. It was incredible to hear that level of detail from someone who knows the chemistry of whisky so deeply. We can’t go into too much detail here, but some topics he covered include:
- the effects of the different distillation methods on spirit flavour and aroma
- the impact of malting vs enzymes
- the impact of wood quality on spirit and the difference between new wood, re-fill and different char levels (the subject of his thesis)
- the chemical reactions that occur in mashing/fermentation/distillation/aging and the aromas/flavours that result
- the impact of finishing on flavour and how the chemical reaction takes place
All these and more, complete with molecular diagrams and a myriad of graphs, ie whisky geek heaven!
We then got to take what we had learned from the session both intellectually and through tasting the many samples, and blend our own custom whisky! Below are the full details of what went into the blend, which resulted in a very tasty, balanced whisky with a ton of depth. We then did blend in a few drops of port to see how using the 9.09% rule would affect it, and most agreed it was better without that additive.
Here’s the breakdown of our custom blend, with a bit of water added to dilute to 50% ABV. (DD=double distilled corn, star=single column distilled, Special=copper pot distilled, NW=new wood, red oak=red oak)
After that, we also got to try the as yet unreleased Northern Borders Collection:
- Gooderham & Worts 17 Little Trinity Three Grain
- Pike Creek 21 Single Malt Finish
- Wiser’s 35yr
- Lot No. 40 Cask Strength
While we had tried a few too many samples to take any tasting notes for a review, we nearly all agreed that the Lot 40 was the star of the show, followed by the Wiser’s 35 and then the other two. Can’t wait until these are released in the Fall, as they are must-buys!
A huge thanks to Don for leading this incredible session, as well as to Jim Stanski, VP of Production and Paul Holub, VP of HR for dropping in, sharing some conversation and some whisky with us!
A Visit to the Whisky Archives
After we were done in the blending room, Don took us downstairs to the Hiram Walker Whisky Archives, which was way cooler than we probably expected it to be. In the archives are centuries of books, records, slides etc, covering everything from marketing materials to sales records to blueprints to tasting notes and so much more. There were also many shelves of incredibly old bottles that had us all giddy with nerdy excitement. Big thanks to Jessica who is currently in the process of organizing it all, and to Don for sharing this amazing room of whisky history with us.
To everyone at Hiram Walker Distillery who made Friday such an amazing experience – Don, Jessica, Kristy, Stephen, Paul, Jim, Ewart, Donald and Larry – thank you so much for the time and effort you put into this for us. It was the most in-depth and interesting distillery visit most of us have ever had, and we’re blown away by the hospitality and investment of time and energy you put into it. What’s most exciting to us is that a company as MASSIVE and long-standing as Hiram Walker isn’t stuck in its ways, or simply reverting to the mean or lowest common denominator, but rather is innovating and responding to mainstream consumers and aficionados alike, trying to satisfy all niches of the whisky-loving community. We look forward to seeing what else you have coming down the pipeline in the years to come!