A WORD ON WHISKY: An interview with Chris Thompson

Mark DeWolf | Cocktail Confidential

Forty Creek Brand Ambassador, Chris Thompson, is used to creating a buzz about a product. Prior to coming to Forty Creek, he worked as the general manager of Ravine Vineyard Estate — a prestigious Niagara winery — where he was charged with making a visit to the estate an experience.

Previously, he developed tourism experiences in Niagara Falls, and for the last quarter century, he has owned and operated his own entertainment company, which includes production management of concerts and events.

It’s all served him well in his current position. I sat down with Chris to talk about Forty Creek’s past and present.

Occasions: How did you attain the position of Forty Creek Brand Ambassador?

Chris: I get asked that question all the time. When I first started at the company, I ran all of our retail and host programs. My job was to entertain guests and provide project knowledge, which has always been a love of mine. In that capacity, I had the great pleasure of spending time with John Hall (the original owner and distiller) and Bill Ashburn (Master Blender).

I was always picking their brains about how we do things. I was probably talking everyone’s ear off. I always love hearing our back story and learning more about the approach we use to make great whisky that is distinct and unique. I think eventually they got tired of me asking questions. I was driving people crazy in the distillery so they ended up saying ‘why don’t you go and do your dog and pony show outside the distillery walls?’

The timing was right, as John had sold the business to Gruppo Campari and so they needed someone to be face of the brand. I was certainly happy when they ultimately decided on me.

Occasions: Can you speak about John’s legacy?

John still works for the distillery as a consultant, but is wrapping up soon. When I came to work at Forty Creek, I quickly realized that we have a great story in John.

From my experience in the concert business and building attractions, it’s very important to tell a great story. John is a tremendous personality. He certainly carved a new path in the Canadian whisky world but what intrigued me most was John’s one on one approach.

Forty Creek wasn’t built on mass advertising. John went out to stores, introducing the whisky to one consumer at a time. It’s a philosophy that we still utilize to this day. Even now, that we are part of the Gruppo Campari portfolio, we haven’t lost our individuality or sight of the importance of personal contact.

If you look at Campari’s brands, there are a lot of unique products each with their own unique story.

Occasions: How does Forty Creek stand out from other whiskies from a taste perspective?

For many years, Canadian whisky was considered ‘the brown vodka.’ You almost felt compelled to mix it with cola or ginger ale. Forty Creek has always been made in a bolder, more distinctive style. If you compare it against our competitors, I feel it is big on flavour, a little bit bolder but still has a remarkably smooth finish. For me, Forty Creek whiskies offer the best of both worlds. Even our Copper Pot which is quite spicy has a smooth finish.

Occasions: Is it your grain blend that is responsible for this distinctive character? Do you use less corn?

All of our whiskies are a blend of three grain whiskies. Actually, corn always has and continues to be forward but the boldness achieved in our whiskies is an amazing testament to John’s and our current team’s skills and commitment to blending.

John and current Master Blender Bill Ashburn, who has worked with John side by side since beginning, are really masters of the blend. They take distillates made from corn, barley and rye and weave them into a tapestry that is something original. It’s amazing what you can do in the blending process. Barrels, of course, also play a role. We have a pretty diverse selection of them in our library. The majority are once used Bourbon and vintage Bourbon casks but we also have new American white oak and Canadian oak barrels. Everything we make is a blend of different barrels and years.

All our whiskies are made from spirits aged a minimum of three years, but some that we are currently blending with were made in the early 2000s. Blending is what we originally hung our hat on and what we still do.

Occasions: The demographic of the whisky drinker has changed a lot recently. Would you agree?

Certainly we’ve seen this trend of mid-20 something men and women, who are totally engaged and plugged into whisky, coming for quite a number of years. They aren’t just interested in cocktails. They also want just a straight up good whisky, which plays to our advantage.

Occasions: Flavoured whisky is also popular. How has your distillery reacted to this segment of the category?

The majority of our portfolio is good straight up whisky, but we have done a couple flavours to react to it. Of course, we decided if we do it, we could do it better. For example, our Forty Creek Cream, which is our alternative to Irish cream which has been met with huge demand.

We actually can’t make it fast enough. And we have our Spiced Whisky. I thought I would be the wrong guy to talk about spiced whisky. First of all, ours is full strength. Secondly, it doesn’t go overboard with the sweetness level. It’s balanced enough that a real whisky enthusiast could appreciate it. The key to both is starting with a real brand name whisky. The base of our cream is our Barrel Select Whisky.

Occasions: How has current cocktail culture influenced your work?

When I first started this role, I didn’t realize how much time I would spend with bartenders talking about cocktails. I am having a lot of fun with it. The ingenuity and innovation is tremendous.

When I go out to work with a bartender to work on cocktail development, the idea is to teach them about the unique flavour of the brand and then collaboratively work together on a cool cocktail that emphasizes the flavours. It seems anytime I go into a new market, I leave with two or three awesome recipes that I’ve jotted down on a napkin or put in my phone. Some of them have become some of our core collection of cocktails we like consumers to experiment with.

The Welder

1 Serving

  • 3/4 fl oz Forty Creek Copper Pot Canadian Whisky
  • 1/4 fl oz Aperol
  • 1/2 fl oz lemon juice
  • 1/2 fl oz chili syrup*

Directions: Build cocktail in shaker and shake with ice. Serve in a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with a chili.

Variation: Top with ginger beer for a long drink. Serve in a high ball glass.

*To make chili syrup place 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar and 2 chilies in a saucepan set over medium-high heat. When the sugar is completely dissolved, remove from heat and let cool. Strain to remove chili peppers. Refrigerate until ready to use.

 

Occasions recommends: 

Forty Creek Barrel Select, 750 ml, $27.98

Forty Creek Cream Liqueur, 750 ml, $28.49

Forty Creek Copper Pot, 750 ml, $30.49

 

Next week: We go behind the stills to see how Crown Royal is made.

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