I’m peering into a three-storey high distillation vat violently filling with a milky sour mash of rye and corn. It’s a surreal movie moment, like Charlie and Grandpa Joe floating to the top of the deadly bubble tower Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, or being stuck like Luke Skywalker and pals diving into the creepy trash compactor on the Death Star. Outside, the air is thick with the aroma of toasted rye, inside, our bellies are warm with of one of Canada’s most famous liquid exports, Hiram Walker and Sons Canadian Club.
The Canadian Club Distillery was founded in 1858 by Hiram Walker, an American industrialist looking to expand into the alcohol trade, tired of lower profits from typical traded goods like grain and potatoes. The Detroit riverbank’s proximity to the US and lower Canadian taxes made his newly founded Walkerville community a haven for his fledgling business. When the city of Windsor came around, Mr. Walker refused to amalgamate unless many tax breaks were met, but that’s one for a different book.
The real question is, why did his whiskey rise to the top of the world, becoming a highly sought after beverage in royal palaces around the world? Well, for one it was only sold in sophisticated Gentlemen’s Clubs, simply labeled ‘Club Whiskey’. It achieved its high status thanks to rigorous testing and high standards. Hiram hired botanical lab technicians and often was seen toting his trusty walking/grain stick, with built in notches that collected grain samples at different intervals. The collected samples were then sent to his testing labs for quality control.
He built his mansion as a replica of a Florentine palazzo, a posh environment as any for its time, built for entertaining visiting royalty and the elite. The distillery also played an important part in the Prohibition days as illegal barrels of brown were shipped across the river to Detroit, and then to Chicago for mobsters like Al Capone to trade and guzzle.
In the basement, only recently unearthed, we’re shown a secret card room, and the mouth of a tunnel that once led across the river. There’s also an eerie trap door in the archive room, discovered to reveal only a pile of playing cards and newspapers strewn below leading into the network of tunnels. In the archive is a collection of almost every single edition of Canadian Club bottles that ever existed, and something particularly exciting: a 13-year-old barrel-aged bottle from the archives filled in… 1922. Almost 100 year old whiskey, wow!
We had the fortitude of having Canada’s foremost whisky guru, Davin De Kergommeaux along for the ride who described the aged bottle as having “varnish, nail polish, bitter oak and rye notes.” While not fit for typical consumption, Canadian Clubs signature brown sugar, caramel, fig flavours and straight to the gullet finish still shone through in this incredibly rare treat.
Down the street are the massive fermenters where whiskey precursors like mash, rye and barley distillers beer are brewed and then sent to the barreling plant. The typical tour of the Canadian Club Brand and Heritage Centre may not include access to all of the features mentioned above, but all are welcome at Walkerville, for a 1.5 hour tour with the incomperable Canadian Club Brand Ambassador Tish, a virtual encyclopedia of whiskey wisdom! Just a four hour drive from Toronto, the Centre is open year round but make sure to check the Canadian Club website for specific hours.
Click the slideshow below to view more pics of the Canadian Club Distillery.