For those of you who know me in person, you’ll know that I am a self-proclaimed Padawan whisky nerd (Star Wars reference). That is why I was absolutely thrilled when Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery invited me to visit their distillery and vineyard at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Wayne Gretzky Estates is an award winning winery and distillery owned by Peller Estate and Canadian legend Wayne Gretzky. Their most popular products include the Wayne Gretzky Cabernet Merlot, Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Riesling and Wayne Gretzky Red Cask Whisky.
True to its name, the distillery is an ode to the Canadian hockey star and entrepreneur, Wayne Gretzky. It’s facilities include an outdoor skating rink next to the vineyard, a fireside whisky bar and a modern yet cozy dining room for corporate events and wine tastings.
When we arrived at the distillery, we were welcomed with Pumpkin Spice cocktails made by on-site mixologist Zac Kvas. The cocktails were created using pumpkin and cinnamon infused Wayne Gretzky Ice Cask Whisky plus a shot of Wayne Gretzky Red Cask Whisky paired with house-made vermouth and Dillon’s bitters. The cocktail tasted very similar to a spiked Pumpkin Spice Latte and pumpkin infused whisky is surprisingly delicious!
Our visit continued with a mixology class with Zac which included smoking hickory into Wayne Gretzky Ninety-Nine Proof Whisky and creating cocktails with lavender syrup. This was followed by a fun and interactive dinner with wine and cocktail pairings for each course. Each attendee got to vote for the best pairing (either wine or cocktail) and the losing sommelier/mixologist had to drink from a boot while the winner drank from a miniature Stanley Cup in true Gretzky fashion! Though the wine was very thoughtfully chosen, the cocktail paired with our lamb entree stole the show. We were served a glass of whisky with honey syrup with mint on the side in a hickory smoked glass, . Refreshing mint flavours with a bit of smokiness!
The following day, we had a winery tour conducted by Craig McDonald, head winemaker and Vice President of Wayne Gretzky Estates. Craig walked us through the fermenting process and let us sample some wine from the barrels. Similar to whisky, wine develops part of it’s character from barrels. Additionally, it develops flavours from the grapes used and the yeast. As the yeast metabolizes the sugars from the grapes, it produces alcohol. It was very interesting to sample wine at different stages of production.
Then we turned our attention to the whisky! We had the opportunity to tour the whisky distillery with Master Distiller Joshua Beach. Josh holds a Masters in distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland (the same alma mater as Dr. Don Livermore of J.P. Wiser’s and Lot 40 fame) and previously distilled for Odd Society Spirits based out of Vancouver. For those of you familiar with Odd Society, you’ll know that they create amazing vermouth and craft spirits so it is no surprise that Wayne Gretzky Ninety-Nine Proof scores a whopping 93/100 on Distiller.com.
Wayne Gretzky Estates Distillery makes 2 core expressions:
1) Wayne Gretzky Red Cask: Whisky finished in Red Wine casks used to age wines from the Estate
2) Wayne Gretzky Ice Cask: Whisky finished in the Estate’s Ice Wine casks
In the past decade, there has been a huge influx of whiskies being finished in different casks. This is because the barrel plays a huge role in the character of the whisky. Many distilleries will import sherry, port, brandy or even beer barrels in order to achieve certain characteristics. However, most of the time, the exact previous inhabitant of the barrels are not publicized. A unique characteristic about whiskies made at the Gretzky Estate is that the barrels used the finish the whiskies are from their own wines.
Along with the two core expressions, the estate has special releases such as the Ninety-Nine Proof which is bottled at 99 proof (49.5% ABV), Wayne Gretzky Canadian Cream and also some Estate-exclusive small batch wine spirits.
As mentioned before, Master Distiller Joshua Beach is no stranger to craft spirits – you can currently find three artisanal craft wine spirits for sale at the distillery: Vidal, Muscat and Rose. Unlike traditional spirits, these are distilled at a lower ABV which allows the sweet and delicate flavours from the grapes to shine through – perfect for cocktails!
Thank you Wayne Gretzky Estates for the amazing visit! Personally, my enjoyment of whisky increases significantly when I understand how it’s made or why it takes on certain flavours. It was such a treat to be able to see the distilling process and chat with some true whisky lovers.