On the Whisky Trail in Detroit

I had heard that Detroit was coming back before I got to Detroit. When I arrived in Detroit, I noticed that everything was geared toward continuing that uplifting message. It's on magazines, billboards, store fronts, and bumper stickers. It's even in the air. You can feel it. As I walked around downtown, the Tigers game just getting out, people were jubilant and—more importantly—outspokenly friendly. 

"I'm feelin' that jacket," a young guy said to me with a swagger as he walked by with a smile.

That's the other thing: the young people are dressed up. They care. It's all part of the rebirth here it seems—to beautify the downtown area in everyway possible, starting with themselves. You can feel the history in downtown Detroit because many of the original buildings from its glory days are still standing. They have character and integrity, and they're now being reformatted into modern workspaces, albeit with much of the original integrity retained. I was reading about a newer upstart this morning called Detroit Denim and how the owner wanted to bring manufacturing back to the city. "I couldn't have done it if I'd tried in Chicago, New York, LA, or San Francisco," he said of the enterprise; "I'd be dead in the water trying to pay rent." That's the call of Detroit right now. I'm wondering how many people are answering it, considering it's in places like Detroit that I think the future of drinking lies—cities where creativity and passion haven't been suppressed by skyrocketing rents and coastal pretense.

There wasn't much time for sightseeing unfortunately. It was the last Pistons game ever at the Palace of Auburn Hills—a sentimental night for Detroiters—and our group had a private luxury suite courtesy of the powers-that-be in the booze industry. There were people lining up outside, reflecting in the moment, collecting T-shirts, taking memorial photos, and basking in the last vestiges of a bygone era in Detroit. Me? I was merely an outsider, drinking a few Lot 40 rye whisky cocktails, eating the limited hot plate courses, and taking in the season's final match-up between Detroit and Washington. That is until I met Nakita Hogue who was standing in the hallway next to our suite while her family sat along the row in front of us. Apparently there wasn't enough space for them all to sit together, so she decided to buy a separate ticket, but stand next to the row in order to be near them. Questioning her about her situation and talking casually for a few minutes, I convinced her to join our suite party and sit behind her family comfortably. After completely falling for Niki and her husband Tim, along with their kids, I invited the whole family to come join us in the suite. We spent the rest of the evening talking about life in Detroit, hopes for the future, and the difference between our home cities. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Hogue family and I appreciated their candid perspectives. They were real, open, and genuine people.

But, as much as I enjoyed my time in the up and coming city, my primary business wasn't in Detroit. Just across the river, actually south of the city, is Canada—Windsor, Ontario, home to Hiram Walker distillery, the largest in all of North America. I'm not sure anything can prepare you for the sheer size and scale of the facility, a historic whisky center that's been operating in Canada longer than Canada has even been a country. The campus is absolutely gigantic and the volume at this point amounts to more than fifty million liters a year of proof spirit, a decent amount of which is contract work. There's not a major booze player in the U.S. that isn't contracting some amount of whisky from Hiram Walker, as the facility runs the full gambit of grains from barley, to corn, to wheat, to rye, each of which can be distilled individually or as a mash. Canadian whisky, however, is obviously the specialty. It's what built the Hiram Walker distillery into what it is today. According to Don Livermore, the master blender at the site, it was Canadian whisky as a whole that built the infrastructure for the former British colony early on. In 1867, when the provinces were aligned under one self-governing body, there was no income tax levied upon the newly-anointed Canadian citizens. The money needed to build the country's future roads, railways, and government enterprises came from taxes levied on the young nation's largest businesses; companies called Corby, Wiser, and, of course, Hiram Walker—the leading whisky producers of the time.

Hiram Walker today is owned by Pernod-Ricard who still allows Beam-Suntory, the owner of the Canadian Club brand, to produce the widely-known whisky onsite. While we were mainly there in support of HW's fantastic Lot 40 rye whisky, a brand that along with Whistle Pig and Masterson's has helped to change the reputation of Canadian whisky in the states, most of us were definitely interested in understanding the distillery's production methods entirely for a better understanding of the Canadian whisky category. The first observation that just blew my mind was how much grain Hiram Walker is going through on a daily basis. They have a number of gigantic grain silos near the entrance that only hold enough grain to get through a mere three days of operation. Standing next to the mountains of freshly-milled corn, the sight was truly jawdropping. The other facet of the HW production I find interesting is that all the grains are stored, milled, fermented, and distilled individually using various methods. You've got single column-distilled spirits (like American Bourbon and rye) and double-column-distilled spirits (distilled to about 94% near-neutral, just a step below vodka, like Scottish grain whisky). Considering the four grains being used, that's eight different whiskies right there. Then add a pot-distilled version of each grain, which bumps up the number of whiskies to twelve. Then add the sour mash formula and various other custom recipes and you begin to understand the flexibility of their operation.

Remember the thirteen-plus possible whisky types I mentioned above? Get ready to add a few dozen more possible permutations. Much like Scotland, Canadian producers do not have to use new oak barrels like Bourbon distillers do. There is a volume limit, but no standardization as to type (they can't use giant foudres or huge oak vats, for example). So now take your thirteen-plus Hiram Walker recipes and put them in new charred oak, refill oak, and refill Bourbon casks. That's basically three types of potential aging vessel for each style of whisky, not counting sherry-finishing, rum-finishing, virgin oak, etc. You can see where I'm going here. I'd advise you to drive out to Pike's Creek if you visit, the warehousing facility for Hiram-Walker about twenty minutes from the distillery. There you'll find more than 160 football fields...excuse me...ice hockey arenas worth of whisky warehouses, piled to the ceiling with upright, palletized barrels. They drill new bung holes right in the top in Canada and you can forget about dipping in the whisky thief. They have a tap that gets inserted right in the hole to pump out all that amazing juice! We tasted Lot 40 straight out of the barrel at full proof today and it was incredible. I hear there's a limited edition version of this coming out later this Fall. Get your wallets ready.

The nice part about traveling with other booze industry professionals is that it gives you the chance to hear about what’s happening in other markets, to share ideas, and cross reference your observations. Later in the evening at Wright & Co. in downtown Detroit, I had dinner with a number of other reps and suppliers who work in large markets and we chatted about everything from whisky to cocktail culture to bar experiences and beyond. I wasn’t alone in my earlier prediction; there are other people out there who feel the end of alcohol’s cultivated and over-complicated connoisseurship is near. We've gone a bit too far towards one side of the spectrum. “It’s going to swing back over to dive bars again,” one guy told me, “but this time around you’ll be able to get more than shitty draft beer or a vodka tonic.” That made total sense to me. The only reason I ever left the dive bar in the first place was because I discovered more interesting and flavorful drinks outside its comfortable confines. If you told me I could get a Four Pillars gin and tonic, a Lot 40 Sazerac, or a pint of Stiegl all while keeping my rock and roll jukebox, pool table, and diverse group of drinkers, I’d be there in a heartbeat. The problem is that you usually have to trade quality for comfort, or vice versa.

While Detroit is still considered up and coming, it's definitely on the forefront of this modern movement. The city's young entrepreneurs are updating its classical roots, creating comfortable drinking spaces with a bit of style and panache, while across the river, the Hiram Walker distillery is redefining its whiskies for the new era of drinkers. There's a lot to take in and a lot to learn from what's happening here. But that's why I'm constantly traveling, talking, drinking, and asking questions. I want to know what's next.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll