Friday, August 22, 2014

Canadian Club® Whisky Tour

For two days straight, and most of the time with a drink in my hand, I immersed myself in the world of Canadian whisky at the Canadian Club® Brand Centre in Windsor, Ontario. I had the opportunity to explore the historic heart of the prohibition - including the the speakeasy that once hosted Al Capone - take part in a mixology session, a whisky tasting, and even sign a barrel at Canadian Club®'s barrel aging warehouse. I'm so happy I took part in this exclusive media trip. I had a lot of fun while learning all about Canadian whiskies.

Once I arrived, the first thing I noticed was the Brand Centre's elegant and classical architecture. Constructed in 1894, it reflects the grand and stately 16th century Italian renaissance style. Not only was it the world headquarters for the Company distillery, it also housed the many interests of the company, including farming, real estate, the Lake Erie and Detroit River Railroad, the Mettawas Hotel in Kingsville and other small enterprises. Today, the building is a testimony to the perseverance and commitment of a company that, for over 150 years, has dedicated itself to the craft of producing Canadian whisky. 

Tish Harcus, Canadian Club® Brand Ambassador, greeted us with, you know it, Canadian Club® whisky (Twitter: @Canadian_Club, Facebook: Canadian Club). Tish insisted that everyone should have a drink in their hand at all times inside the Brand Centre.

Yep, I like Tish :)

With drinks in hand, Tish led us on a tour of the Brand Centre. By the way, no ifs or buts about it, I truly believe that no one in the world knows more about the people, the history and the craftsmanship behind Canadian Club® than Tish. It's absolutely amazing hearing her share historical facts and countless stories about Canadian Club®’s origins from 150 years ago to present day. She is a walking Canadian Club® encyclopedia!

Okay, back to the tour. This is Hiram Walker's Sampling Room. It houses some of the oldest, and most valuable Canadian Club® whiskies. That's Hiram Walker in the middle. He was a successful grain merchant who founded Canadian Club® in 1858. 

A bottle of 1884 "Club Whisky" on the left and a bottle of 1929 "Canadian Club" on the right. Back in the day in America, the whisky was known by the name "Club Whisky" because it was sold exclusively in the finer gentlemen’s clubs of the era. Eventually, Club Whisky's popularity around the world began to affect the sale of American Bourbon in the United States. This forced the U.S. Government to require all Canadian distillers to put the country of origin on their label, and that is why "Club Whisky" became "Canadian Club".

Throughout its history, thousands of visitors from all over the world have passed through these beautiful rooms in the Brand Centre. Such amazing history in these walls.

Hiram Walker's office

Original accounting books with payroll entries. Hiram and his sons' names can be found under "Management". 

Before we go on, it's important to talk about the Prohibition as it had a tremendous impact on Canadian Club®. On January 16, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution took effect, prohibiting the production, transport and sale of alcohol in the United States. However, the Liquor Control Act in Ontario did not prohibit the manufacture and export of liquor. Bootleggers and gangsters residing in border cities like Windsor, Ontario, took full advantage of this loophole. The waterways between the United States and Canada became a smuggler’s paradise, carrying 75% of the liquor supplied to the U.S. during Prohibition. Before long, Canadian Club® whisky's production increased as the result of the incredible demand and became the #1 smuggled whisky in the U.S. To avoid detection from U.S. authorities trying to intercept smuggled shipments, coded telegrams were prepared and received at the distillery from figures like Al Capone, The Purple Gang, and Atlantic City Treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.

The entrance of an underground tunnel used for smuggling. It goes underneath the Detroit River with its exit in the U.S. side.

During Prohibition, knockoff distillers, using names similar to Canadian Club®, tried selling low-grade alcohol as the real thing. Counterfeit Canadian Club®, such as those shown below, ran rampant during Prohibition. The problem with counterfeit Canadian Club® whisky was more than economic; it was a public health issue, too. The fake stuff could cause blindness, loss of hearing, and worse. Canadian Club® distributors helped protect the brand by urging patrons to request Canadian Club® by name at the bar.

It was during Prohibition that Canadian Club® introduced its infamous “Gate Bottle” design, a bottle that featured an etching of the front gates of the Canadian Club® headquarters in Windsor, Ontario. The “Gate Bottle” had a shorter neck to prevent breakage during shipping and was curved to fit into shipping crates. Savvy Canadian Club® fans soon discovered that the curved bottle could also be hidden in their boots, fitting snugly around their lower leg. Hence the term “bootlegger” was born. “Gate” bottles were also designed to weigh more than their predecessors which allowed a crate of Canadian Club® to sink easily into the depths of the Detroit River. Rumour has it that there are still thousands of bottles resting at the bottom of the river that were thrown overboard during Prohibition to avoid detection by the authorities.

In 1933, 13 years after Prohibition was instituted in the US, the amendment was repealed, and US citizens were once again able to legally enjoy their favourite spirits.  the same year, Canadian Club® placed one of the largest neon signs ever produced in Times Square and erected similar signs in major cities throughout the U.S. From then on, Canadian Club® remained in great demand and became an international favourite.

Infamous gangster Al Capone was a big customer of Canadian Club®. For business meetings at the Canadian Club® headquarters during Prohibition he wanted to ensure conversations weren't heard, so he suggested that parties go somewhere to speak “easy.” Meetings with Capone and others were conducted this room in the basement of the Canadian Club® headquarters, which many call the original “speakeasy.”

Hey, it's Al Capone! Hey, that's a bullet hole! I guess that's what happens when you put whisky and badass gangsters with guns in the same room.

After our tour of the Brand Centre and all that talk about whisky we were due for a tasting.

We had cheese & chocolate paired with Canadian Club® Premium, Reserve Triple Aged, Classic 12, and Sherry Cask. My favourite out of the four was the Reserve Triple Aged. It was warm and creamy with a hint of oak, nutmeg and caramel.

We wrapped up the day with a fun mixology session. Tish taught us how to make several Canadian Club® cocktails for the summer. Tish made us many cocktails and we happily finished them all. Did I ever mention I like Tish? 

Out of the handful of cocktails I had, the Canadian Club® Old Fashioned and the Canadian Club® Caesar were my two top choices.

The next day, we visited Canadian Club®'s barrel aging warehouse. Canadian Club® is the only Canadian whisky that blends its rye with other raw ingredients prior to aging (they believe that pre-barrel blending improves the quality of the whisky). FYI, for a whisky to be called Canadian whisky, it must be aged in an oak barrel for at least three years. All Canadian Club® whisky is aged in oak barrels for at least 6 years and sometimes up to 20 years.

In the barrels, the spirit undergoes subtle changes by extracting sugars and by the chemical reaction between air, wood and water. When it merges after six years in a climate control environment, it is a light, smooth, mellow whisky, honey in colour with a nose of caramel and soft oak, and an aftertaste of orange rye and toffee. The matured barrels of Canadian Club® whisky are returned to the distillery to be drained, refilled and sent back to the maturing facility. The drained whisky is reduced to 40% alcohol and sent to bottling. The labelled bottles are then put in cases shipped to our distribution centre. From there, Canadian Club® whiskey is shipped to over 150 countries around the world. 

We tried whiskies right out of the barrel!The 6-month old, newly distilled whisky (left) was barreled at 72% alcohol. Clear as water but man, it was overly strong, fire-y and unpalatable. The 15-year old whisky (right) had a lovely orange-y tint and was really light and smooth.

My signature forever etched in a Canadian Club® barrel.

Even though a great deal has changed since Canadian Club®'s very first bottle, especially with technology evolving over the years, Canadian Club® remains true to the recipes that were originally developed by Hiram Walker. Every bottle of Canadian Club® whisky is the product of over a century of commitment, and their legacy of craftsmanship and quality is unparalleled. 

  Thanks Canadian Club, and Margret Bourne from Praxis PR, for inviting me on this incredible trip. I now have a new-found appreciation for Canadian Club®, its history, as well as the art of making whisky. I also met some great people! And here are photos to prove it :) Fun times with Christine Pantazis (@CPantazis) of Christine Pantazis Digital, Chanry Thach (@theREALchanryof The Hungry Gnome, Mark Munroe (@MarkMunroeMusic) of Addicted Magazine, and Andrew Gunadie (@gunnarolla) of gunnarolla.

All photos by Chanry Thach

What? A Canadian Club® flask with my name on it? What a sweet gift! 

Congratulations! You made it all the way to the end of the post! You must be tired and/or bored by now so I think you deserve a break :) So sit back, relax and watch Andrew's video about our Canadian Club® tour. Remember to subscribe to his channel!