Saturday, October 26, 2013

Forty Creek, Barrel Select

stats: Canadian Whisky, 40%, no age statement, $25

I’ve been feeling somewhat conflicted about this post for the past few days. Forty Creek Barrel Select is a whisky that I really like and some unique methods are employed in its production. But the distiller has made some statements while describing his whisky making process that I’ve taken exception to. The issue at hand is important and I feel the need to discuss it, I just don’t want to focus too much one small negative aspect of an innovative distiller who’s creating great whisky.

So, we’ll start by taking a look at what makes Forty Creek Barrel Select special. After spending 22 years as a winemaker, John Hall wanted to do something different and expanded into producing spirits when he purchased the Kittling Ridge Distillery in 1992. Over the last 20 years whisky has become his main focus. This fact was emphasized last year when he changed the name of the distillery to Forty Creek, making it eponymous with his whisky brand.

The vast majority of modern whiskies are made with either distiller’s yeast or brewer’s yeast (or some combination of the two). Bringing his winemaking background into play, John Hall has chosen to ferment with wine yeast, taking advantage of the unique qualities it adds to his whisky.

Aside from malt whisky (which is made solely from malted barley) most modern whiskies are made from a mixture of grains, which are typically combined prior to mashing and fermentation. But at Forty Creek the three grains used (corn, rye and malted barley) are kept separate and made into individual whiskies, which are later blended together. This emulates the standard practice of the wine industry, where different grape varietals are made into individual wines before being blended together (if the grapes are mixed together prior to fermentation, the wine will be labeled as a “field blend”).

Continuing to follow the winemaking tradition, each of the three base whiskies at Forty Creek are aged separately as well. In order to accentuate the individual qualities of the different grains, the whisky from each one is aged in a different type of oak barrel: lightly charred for the rye, medium charred for the barley, and heavily charred for the corn. After 6 to 10 years in these barrels, the whiskies are finally blended together before being aged for a further 6 months in sherry casks.

The actual distillation process carried out at Forty Creek is also somewhat unique, but this is where I have a bit of an issue. While discussing his still setup, Mr. Hall essentially makes a blanket statement that whisky made in column stills is inferior to whisky made in pot stills. He also insinuates that because his whisky is made in a single pot still distillation that it is superior to double or triple pot-distilled whiskies.

A lot of people around the world have romantic notions of pot stills and a corresponding bias against spirits produced in column stills. While perhaps not completely baseless, these feelings are for the most part unreasonable.

Pot stills are easy to understand. Liquid with a low level of alcohol (wash) is added to the vessel and then heat is applied to its base. The more volatile components of the liquid (mostly alcohol) turn to vapor, rise up and escape through a tube connected to the top of the still. These vapors then move into a condenser where they are cooled and turn back to liquid. The process is usually repeated once or twice more to achieve the desired concentration of alcohol.

The way in which a column still works isn’t so obvious. A tall cylinder has a series of metal plates inside, spaced out from top to bottom. These plates are riddled with small holes, allowing the passage of liquid and vapor. Alcoholic liquid enters the column from the top and steam is pumped in at the base. As the liquid moves down and the steam moves up, the liquid is heated causing the alcohol to evaporate out of it. At the same time most of the steam will re-condense back into water. The mostly alcoholic vapor flows out of the top of the column and into a condenser where it is cooled, becoming a liquid again. The waste liquid (mostly water) is drained out of the bottom of the column. The perforated metal plates simply serve to spread out the liquid and slow its movement as it descends inside the column, allowing the steam to heat the liquid sufficiently. It is a little more complicated as the diagram below shows, but that’s basically how a column still works.

In addition to the fact that it’s not easy to understand how a column still works just by looking at one, their lowly reputation may be due in part to appearances; they resemble the type of industrial equipment that might be used to make gasoline. But the real issue at hand is the degree to which the spirit has been distilled. When the concentration of the alcohol coming out of the still goes up, the character of the original ingredients that gets carried through to the spirit diminishes.

Column stills are more efficient than pot still because they function in a continuous process as opposed to a batch process. A pot still is loaded with liquid, heated for a time to separate out the alcohol, then the remaining liquid is emptied out and the cycle is repeated. With a column still, as long as you keep feeding wash in at the top and steam at the base, it will continue to produce spirit. The column still can also put out highly concentrated spirit, above 95% abv (the legal maximum for whisky by most definitions), whereas with pot stills it’s hard to get the abv much above 80%.

So yes, you can make bad whisky with a column still (and plenty is). But that doesn’t mean whisky from a column still has to be bad. Let’s look at some numbers. We’ll start with some pot still examples from Scotland: doubled distilled Longrow comes off the still at 69% abv, two-and-a-half times distilled Springbank at 71%, and triple distilled Hazelburn at 73%. Auchentoshan, which is also triple distilled, comes out at 81%. A quick look at the laws that regulate how Bourbon is made reveal that it must be distilled to less than 80% abv. The vast majority of Bourbons are made in column stills, and while few distillers publish the numbers, I suspect that many of the better quality Bourbons are distilled to a lower number than the legal maximum of 80% abv. The degree to which a column still concentrates alcohol is easily adjusted by changing its internal configuration. There may be a little more to it, but I believe that it’s mostly a matter of how many metal plates are used along with the number and size of the holes in them.

Consider some of the top names in Bourbon: George T Stagg, William Larue Weller, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, The Parker Heritage Collection, Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition releases. Those are some serious whiskeys, all of top quality, and every one of them made in a column still.

Conversely, it is possible to make bad whisky in a pot still: low quality wort from high yielding strains of grain, short fermentation times with fast acting yeast, and finally a quick distillation driven by high heat. Pot stills are no guaranty of quality.

Of course there are some grey areas to consider too. The first is a piece of distilling equipment known as a thumper (or a thump keg, or a doubler). This is a closed vessel that, if used, sits between the still and the condenser (the diagram shows on being used with a pot still, but they are also used with column stills). It’s partially filled with water and the pipe coming into it from the still will have its opening below the water line. Another pipe goes from the top of the thumper to the condenser. The vapors coming off of the still will cool a little as they bubble up through the liquid in the thumper. That cooling causes some of the water in the vapor to re-condense and stay in the thumper. The vapors that exit the thumper now have less water than when they entered, so the alcohol has become more concentrated before moving on to the condenser.

Even though it functions by cooling rather than heating, some people consider the thumper to be a type of pot still. Nearly six years ago Chuck Cowdery wrote a great post about a Bourbon that was claimed to be the product of pot still distillation even though it was actually distilled in a column used in conjunction with a thumper.

I’m basically on the same path as Chuck here. You see, the main still that makes most of the wkisky at Forty Creek is a 6000 liter combi-still (combination still or hybrid still). It is basically a pot still base with a column still on top of it. Some of the wash starts in the pot, and once it heats to the point where it starts to vaporize, more wash is fed into the top of the column. The vapors move up through the column stripping alcohol out of the wash that is coming down and at the same time losing some water content along the way. The diagram below is just an example of this type of still.

John Hall has been somewhat of a pioneer in a Canadian whisky industry that has been slow to innovate, and for that he deserves credit. The spirit coming off of his still is at 65% abv; a sure sign of quality distillate, and as I said above I really like this whisky. But I get a bit rankled when I hear claims of the superiority of pot still whisky which clearly infer inherent inadequacies in the output of column stills. I also think it’s disingenuous to call the product of a combi-still a single pot still whisky, and I find it revealing that every photo of the still on the Forty Creek website either has the column cropped out or is taken from an angle that makes it barely visible.

Okay, enough of my column still crusade, time for a glass of whisky:

The nose is fairly complex, with subtle fruit and delicate floral aromas, but it’s the butterscotch notes that seem to stand out above the others.
While it doesn’t evolve dramatically on the palate from start to finish, there is good complexity throughout and all of the flavors are well integrated. Butterscotch, vanilla and spice notes are the most obvious flavors, but stone fruit, nuttiness and a floral aspect are all present as well.
The warm, spicy finish is smooth and of reasonable length.

It’s refreshing to see a Canadian Whisky that breaks from tradition. Next time I visit Montreal I may have to take a detour through Ontario and see if I can hunt down some of the Forty Creek bottlings that aren’t available in the U.S.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and constructive article. It is rare to see (at least to me) anyone call John Hall out for his - at times - less than completely truthful claims.

Yes, he's a pioneer. Yes, he's making good whisky. But, no, his whisky isn't always great and he does stretch the truth at times.

Another thing that he implies is unique to his operation is the separate distillation and maturation of the grains (corn, wheat, and barley). I'm not sure about this but think other Canadian distillers also follow this practice if not completely, at least to some extent.

Again, thank you for a very educational article.

portwood (aka @65glenfarclas)

VT Mike said...

Thanks so much for the compliments, it's nice to know that the hard work I've been putting into my posts is appreciated.

I did consider talking about other Canadian distillers also keeping the grains separate through distillation and maturation, but my research was inconclusive. I've read that Canadian Club makes makes different component whiskies (not sure if they are single grain though) but blends them together before aging. From an article in Malt Advocate I learned that Crown Royal makes five different component whiskies. Two are lighter in style (but no grain content was mentioned). The other three are heavier style "flavoring" whiskies. One is 96% rye, one is more than 30% rye and it sounds like the other is less than 30% rye. All five of those are aged separately, and they are blended together before bottling.

Anonymous said...

I certainly taste the butterscotch and floral notes on the pallet at the start, but I get this yeasty wave that comes through towards the last leg leg of the taste, right upon swallowing. I'm curious as to what would lead to this in the distilling process.