Canadian Club’s Dan Tullio: The Godfather of Whisky

Mark DeWolf | Cocktail Confidential

Beam Suntory’s Master Ambassador of Canadian Whisky has earned his title and his moniker. To many, Dan Tullio is better known as ‘The Godfather of Whisky.’ The nickname is well-earned. Tullio has been working the whisky trade for 36 years and over that time, has earned numerous distinctions for his efforts.

A native of southwestern Ontario, Tullio, like other university students, was applying for a number of jobs in the Windsor area as he neared graduation in 1980. He could have landed at General Motors or one of the other large manufacturing plants in the area, but as Tullio says of his application at Hiram Walker, “I nervously submitted my resume — with sincere hopes that they would even look at it! Then I got the call and after several kind and breathtaking interviews, I landed here and the rest is history.”

Had his name been drawn by one of the others, one would presume he would have figured out every component of those businesses, like he has Canadian Club and the other Canadian Whisky brands now owned by Beam Suntory. We sat down with Dan to talk about his career and the whiskies he represents.

Occasions: Can you describe your career progression at Hiram Walker?

Dan: I started out in the computer department as a junior programmer. I spent two to three years there, and in doing so got to know the various departments and methods of production. Then I moved on and have worked in a bit in production, then marketing and sales. It’s the latter where I garnered a lot of what I would call “trade intelligence.” To understand this business, you have go out into the field, with the men and women selling our brands on a daily basis. Not only are these folks knowledgeable about our award winning brands, but they have the inside knowledge on what the competition is doing. Sharing this information with me is invaluable, as this triggers ideas for future innovation so that whisky drinkers, mixologists and retailers get what they’re desiring.

Occasions: Although your position has grown to welcome new Canadian Whiskies within the Beam Suntory portfolio, you’ve spent much of your time working with Canadian Club Premium. What’s it like working with such an iconic brand?

Dan: Canadian Club Premium is certainly the flagship brand. It’s what turns the lights on. Amazingly, in the 158 years since Hiram Walker, the visionary that opened a distillery here in Walkerville, Ontario, we’ve gone through four different owners, but the recipe has stayed the same. We still use a double distillation process for the four distillates we produce (corn, rye, rye-malt and barley malt). The corn distillate is sweet, while the rye grains generate distillates that are spicy, peppery, a bit sharper on the palate. By combining these four different spirits in a specific ratio as created by our Founding Father Hiram Walker, and aging in new and used white American oak barrels, [this] contributes to the terrific character and smoothness of Canadian Club.

Technology, of course, has changed over the past 158 years, and quite honestly I haven’t tasted any original whisky, so I don’t know if the liquid tastes the same, but it’s gotta be pretty close. I honestly say this because the types of fermenters have changed from wood to steel, which are more efficient.

Also, originally there was more room between barrels in the tall rack-warehouse, and aging facilities which would have allowed them to breathe more, affecting how the spirit matures. It’s all about the love and attention we give the whole process, from the receipt of grain, to the final step when aged Canadian Club gets put into the bottles.

Occasions: What else makes Canadian Club distinctive?

Dan: In addition to the smoothness, the spiciness is a result of using a higher percentage of rye and rye malt in the blend. We also have the ability to obtain first use Jim Beam Bourbon Barrels. Unlike other producers using older barrels, we are getting more wood components during the maturation period into the liquid. Wood for us is more than just a timeline. The more times distillers use re-use barrels, the less solids are imparted. Having Jim Beam as a sister brand, it really helps to get then up here to Canada, because as an America Bourbon, they can only use their barrels once.

Occasions: There has been a resurgence of brown spirits recently. How does Canadian Club fit into the mix (pun intended)?

Dan: We are very lucky today to have a group of young, passionate mixologists throughout North America. They are like chemists. They know how to prepare whiskies a wide range of ingredients. They are looking for a base whisky that, when they add these ingredients, isn’t camouflaged and the whisky flavour comes through. Canadian Club performs very well in this context. The higher percentage of rye-grain distillate id key!

It’s really amazing to see these new consumers who are much more knowledgeable than in the past. Today, whisky drinkers are enjoying a number of signature cocktails including some pre-Prohibition cocktails. Old-Fashioned cocktails are huge! Of course, the Prohibition era was very important for our brand. Our founding father Hiram Walker had the foresight to move the distillery from the other side of river (Detroit), seeing that prohibition would happen. From 1920-1933, the brand really grew. We quenched the thirst of our neighbours to the south. We were selling, legally, to some interesting customers such as Al Capone. Canadian Club truly has a great history.

Occasions: How does the brand keep on trend?

Dan: It’s all about listening to the consumers. It’s important to us also to speak to influential people within our industry. There are groups of mixologists that we get together with and talk to about our whiskies. Of course, we also take a look at our competitive set and we’ve created a template that allows us to create craft-style whiskies. Finally, when launching a brand, it is about properly educating our sales people, so they can answer questions correctly and speak intelligently about our brands.

Over the past five to 10 years, I’m experiencing that more than ever — consumers are quite knowledgeable about all spirit brands. And when it comes to Canadian Whisky, we make our customers aware of the unique key points of differentiation between us and the other brands on the shelf. In turn, we very often learn from these folks what they are seeking. Then to stay on-top, innovation is key.

Occasions: One brand that seems to fit what you are talking about it Chairman’s Select 100 per cent Rye. How did it come to be?

It’s the right product, from the right brand, from the right team, at the right time. As a company, we are very proficient at making very good rye distillate (Chairman’s Select is distilled at Beam Suntory owned Alberta Distillery, well-known for their proficiency in making rye distillates). After fermentation of 100 per cent rye grains, we distill at a lower 64 per cent alcohol strength, which retains the natural rye spicy flavour. Then it goes in right into brand new white American oak barrels with a #4 char . . . the most aggressive char, so that we can obtain the most flavours that a barrel can generate during maturation. We also use ex-Bourbon barrels. At the distillery, we have tall, thin tin [steel] warehouse that we age our whisky in both new and used oak. Also, we have stone [mason] warehouses. The Tall Thin warehouses aggressively mature the whisky in the barrels because of the extreme temperature changes experienced out west in Calgary, not only from day to night, but from summer to winter. In the Stone warehouses, the maturation is much more consistent because of the thick walled construction, not totally effecting a great temperature variance form season to season. And the craft in making CC 100 per cent Rye Whisky is, “the mingling of the whiskies together using 100 per cent rye that was aged in new and used barrels…in both steel & mason warehouse.” Now this is something we talk to our customers about!

Occasions: Any cocktails you recommend with the Chairman’s Select 100 per cent Rye?

Dan: Mixologists really experiment with this brand, using it as the base spirit. Why? Because that rye-spiciness comes through the cocktail quite beautifully, after adding their ingredients, making their own version of a ‘classic’. My own grown-up daughters made a great cocktail with it recently. Using an elegant lowball glass, they loaded up a glass with clean ice (ice that is younger than 24 hours old) then added a measure of Chairman’s Select 100 per cent Rye, half a measure of Amaro Nonino (Italian liqueur) and a couple dashes of orange bitters. Finally, they zest an orange rind over the drink so the aroma only (not the acids) flowed across the top of the glass. Delicious! I think I taught them well!

Occasions: What’s next on the horizon?

Dan: As for what’s coming down the pipeline, we are looking at the individual components in the manufacturing process (type of grain, fermenters used, column vs pot distillation, type of wood — not only American oak, warehousing facility & location, water source, etc) that go into making a great whisky for inspiration. Considering the other brands in our portfolio include LaPhroaig, Auchentoshan and our Japanese whiskies, there will be some intriguing and super delicious ideas. Coming up with new products keeps our company moving forward, and makes our retail partners and more importantly, our consumers, very happy.

Occasions recommends:

  • Canadian Club Classic 12 Canadian Whisky, 750 ml, $28.98
  • Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye Canadian Whisky, 750 ml, $28.49
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