An Interview with Master Blender, Bill Ashburn | Forty Creek Distillery (Grimsby, Ontario, Canada)

This year has been quite a challenging one for many distillers, but potentially even more so for Ontario distillers. It’s been a hard 18 months of pandemic restrictions with not a lot of payback on the governmental side of things. Yet, whisky keeps flowing to the mouths of Canadians willing to support their domestic industry. Among those distillers are one of the big players in the Ontario whisky game, Forty Creek Distillery.


On September 18th, Forty Creek held yet another Whisky Weekend and launched their latest limited edition bottling, Forty Creek Master’s Cut. The first cask strength expression of Forty Creek whisky. Cask strength has been a growing trend in the Canadian distilling scene since the successful launch of Hiram Walker Distillery’s Lot No. 40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old Canadian Rye in 2018 and Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye shortly after. Thus, following along with the growing consumer demand for bigger and bolder Canadian spirits, Bill Ashburn decided to take on the concept of cask strength but with his own signature approach.


Bill is Forty Creek’s master blender and has been with the distillery since John Hall acquired the plant from Otto Reider in 1992 after many years of winemaking with Kittling Ridge Estates in Niagara. John and Bill grew Forty Creek for almost 30 years to become an Ontario distilling giant, with John winning numerous awards for his blending skills along the way. I had a great opportunity to ask Bill some questions about the future of Forty Creek and how he got to where he was today amidst Forty Creek’s newest step forward.

Before we talk about this year’s Forty Creek Whisky Weekend let’s explore how you got to where you are today? How did you go from a college student to master blender?

Bill:
My experience spans across both the wine and spirits sectors and at an early stage in my career, I acquired a strong affinity for the art of masterful blending. Prior to my Forty Creek days, I gained extensive experience in aged products, blending and product development while seconding the winemakers at a nearby Ontario winery. Fuelled by this initial interest in distilled spirits during my college days, I decided to make the transition from the wine industry to a distillery based in Grimsby. From ongoing experimentation to being mentored by a knowledgeable German master distiller, I learned the process of blending spirts from start to finish. To this day, no spirit has left the distillery without receiving my stamp of approval.

What led to the spark that made Forty Creek into a big name Canadian whisky producer?

Bill: The Forty Creek story began back in 1992 when myself and the Forty Creek’s founder joined forces, aligned in the pursuit to create flavour-forward whiskies and to carve out a bold new path for Canadian whisky. It was a relentless challenge that took us eight years to plan, perfect and produce. In the early 2000, we gave Canada its first taste of Forty Creek Whisky with the launch of our signature Barrel Select, and from day one, there was no denying that Forty Creek was a force destined to change the Canadian Whisky landscape. Our reputation quickly grew with the support of whisky enthusiasts who appreciated our approach to craftsmanship, year over year delivery of ground-breaking innovations and our consistently smooth depth of flavour that pushed the boundaries expected of Canadian whisky. Last year, Forty Creek was named Whisky of the Decade and in 2021, we took home ten Canadian Whisky Award medals as well as three medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, including a Double Gold Medal for Forty Creek Barrel Select.

So according to Whisky Magazine, you originally distilled the spirit that became the Forty Creek 22 Year Old Rye back in 1989 when it was formerly the Reider Distillery. What was the process like to make you want to keep those specific barrels so long before bottling?

Bill: Back in 1989 I was given the opportunity to mash, ferment and distill a small batch of rye intended to be a new vodka by Mr. Rieder. I completed all the steps through distillation in a very hands-on process. The resulting spirit was quite rough and was not deemed suitable for its original purpose, so we decided to put it down in barrels and see how it matured. In 1992 when Mr. Rieder left the organization and John Hall came on John and I tasted the liquid in the barrels and found it was still extremely rough and needed more time. From that point on the barrels were simply put aside and forgotten in our Barrel Warehouse for several years. Once rediscovered, we had a completely different tasting experience – the liquid in the barrels was fantastic. We ended up bottling it in 2018 and it went on to be named Canadian Whisky of the year by the Canadian Whisky Awards in 2019.

How has Whisky Weekend grown in your eyes since that first crazy day in 2007 which saw Forty Creek Small Batch set the mark for a long term relationship with Canadian whisky lovers?

Bill: Whisky Weekend has been Forty Creek’s marquee event for the past 15 years, providing a platform to introduce new expressions, foster a sense of community among our customers and reinforce our relentless commitment to quality and innovation. What started out as a grassroots festival of dedicated Forty Creek fans and whisky enthusiasts has evolved into the largest online whisky festival in Canada. The challenges that 2020 brought to us all created an opportunity to bring more people together safely online which is how Whisky Weekend at Home was born. The response was incredible with more than 2,100 live streams of last year’s event. This year, we’ve built on that experience to deliver an even bigger event, that opened the door to new and existing Forty Creek Whisky fans. With a live performance from Juno Award Winning singer, JJ Wilde and a whisky masterclass session, we saw over 2,500 viewers across the country tune in to see the show.

In regards to your newest special release, Master’s Cut, there have been some questions regarding the final bottling proof, 48.5% ABV. For a relatively young cask strength whisky, how come the proof ended up relatively lower then some might have expected?

Bill: Our loyal followers have been asking for a cask strength whisky for quite some time. I have been working on producing a cask strength whisky for a number of years to get the right profile to remain true to the Forty Creek style. Master’s Cut is cask strength whisky done our way. The liquid was a result of a re distillation of some mature whiskies to a low 44.5 % alcohol. The resultant distillate was aged in a mixture of once used Bourbon barrels and experienced Canadian Whisky barrels. After 5 years the Whisky had gained alcohol to 48.5% due to preferential evaporation of water. It was removed from the barrels, lightly filtered and bottled at cask strength.

Forty Creek was acquired by Campari Brands some time ago and, to my knowledge, does some bottling operations for their various brands such as Wild Turkey Bourbon and Appleton Rum. Where do these changes leave distillations of Forty Creek Whisky?
How much of Forty Creek’s whisky is still produced and bottled at the site in Grimsby?

Bill: In 2014 Forty Creek was purchased by Campari. This gave us the scale and global best practices to continue to expand our journey without changing our process. The Niagara region and our people will always be at the heart of our process, and we’ve always done things differently – just last year, when the pandemic hit, we were quick to switch production to create sanitizers which were donated to help meet demand in the local community. What really sets us apart as a brand is our people, community and commitment to innovation and our craft. With Campari’s help, we’ve been able to do more, give more back and even extend our reach in Canada, now being successful in all Provinces and in foreign markets such as the Ukraine and Mexico.

With 2021 finishing up and 2022 around the corner, with the changes that many have seen in the beverage alcohol industry, where do you see Forty Creek heading as the landscape of Canadian Whisky and global alcohol demand changes?

Bill: The premiumization of our brand as Canada’s original craft distillery reinforces our commitment to innovation and creating the highest quality whisky with unbeatable value. We believe we have an important role to play in adjusting consumer’s perception of what a premium Canadian Whisky can be. We are always constantly working on innovations, some for the near future such as the 2022 limited release and others that are further out. One thing I will say, is we have something big on the horizon for next year.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, a lot of craft distilleries have been petitioning provincial governments for more reasonable taxation rates for spirits production since they assisted in supplying hand sanitizer during a drought nation-wide. As someone who’s been involved in Canadian whisky for quite a long time, what taxation and regulatory changes would you like to see here in Ontario?

Bill: At Forty Creek, we believe that putting consumers at the center is the right approach to support the industry so hopefully any future regulatory change will be guided by this principle. For example, the ability to deliver cocktails from our on-premise partners is a positive development. From a tax perspective we have seen countries, such as the United States, stepping up in support of the craft distillers industry by putting in place tiered tax models at Federal level. These have proven to be inclusive solutions that could certainly go a long way in providing support for craft distillers across Canada as well.

Finally, given Forty Creek’s location to the great wineries of Niagara, are there some producers that you yourself would love to work with on a future collaboration project? Are there any Ontario wineries or distilleries that you would suggest fans of Forty Creek check out?

Bill: Our recent Ontario only limited release, Taproom – a collaboration with Niagara’s premiere craft distillery, Bench Brewing – is a great example of a local Niagara partnership that reinforces our relentless commitment to innovate whisky products that Canadians love. Through Taproom, excellence in craft beer and mastery of craft whisky come together in search of the equilibrium between liquid and oak barrels and beer and whisky. The unique collaborative aging process involved Bench Brewing aging beer in Canadian Oak barrels that previously housed Forty Creek Confederation Oak Whisky, then returned to the Distillery to be used in a secondary aging of the whisky blend. The result is a whisky that delivers an outstanding flavour profile with spice, hops and an appealing bitterness paired with a citrus and mint aroma. It’s now available for sale at the LCBO and FortyCreekWhisky.com for a limited time.

You can find out more about Forty Creek Distillery, and the story behind it and Bill’s journey in the world of whisky, at fortycreekwhisky.com and on Instagram @wearefortycreek!

(Images used in this post were taken with permission from Forty Creek Distillery and belong to Forty Creek, Campari Brands and all other owners.)

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