Forty Creek distillery defies Canadian whisky’s lackluster image. The brown spirits boom has largely overlooked the category, which has suffered from its reputation as a lighter, cheaper spirit with less flavor and complexity than Scotch or American whiskies. But Forty Creek, located in Grimsby, Ontario, has always aimed to change that story. Founded in 1992 by John Hall, a winemaker who sought to restore the reputation of Canadian whisky, Forty Creek has helped reinvent the category by focusing on flavor, pot still distillation and top-quality cooperage.
Over the years, the distillery has won a slew of awards from experts including Market Watch sister publication Whisky Advocate. Forty Creek’s success paid off in March 2014, when Gruppo Campari fully acquired the distillery for $168 million (C$185.6 million). Hall continues to serve as Forty Creek’s chairman and whiskymaker.
“Forty Creek is born out of national pride, curiosity and entrepreneurship, but it really starts with flavor,” says Andrew Floor, vice president of marketing for dark spirits at Campari America. The core Forty Creek range, which is now available nationwide, includes four offerings. Hall avoids traditional mash bills, instead distilling and maturing each grain separately before combining the whiskies in a final blend.
The brand’s flagship expression, the 40-percent alcohol-by-volume (abv) Barrel Select ($21.99 a 750-ml. bottle), is aged in a variety of barrels at different char levels, resulting in a flavorful spirit with notes of vanilla, walnut, white pepper and spice. The 43-percent abv Copper Pot Reserve ($29) is made in the same style, but has a bolder, richer flavor profile. The 40-percent abv Double Barrel Reserve ($55) is finished in ex-Bourbon barrels after blending, exhibiting strong vanilla, spice and nutty notes. The 40-percent abv Confederation Oak Reserve ($65), which was created to celebrate Canada’s Confederation in 1867, is matured in Canadian oak barrels, which are denser than American oak barrels because of the country’s cooler climate. In addition, the distillery offers a handful of limited-edition offerings, which are released in small quantities in the United States. “The brand is on fire in Canada,” Floor says. “The fact that a Canadian whisky is doing so well in its home country speaks volumes about the quality of the product. It’s the pinnacle of what whisky from Canada can be.”
Integrating A Brand
Since the acquisition, Campari has focused on integrating Forty Creek into its portfolio. “We spent the first few months trying to get our heads around this wonderful brand we had purchased,” Floor says, noting that the rest of the first year focused on expansion and distributor realignment. “Forty Creek was established in only around 20 markets. Now, it’s national.”
Campari also brought Barrel Select’s pricing up to the national average of $21 in most markets. “We wanted to make sure we were more consistent across the country on Barrel Select, which is the primary expression in the portfolio,” Floor explains. “We had to lift the price. It’s just so inexpensive for the quality of the liquid.” He admits that the price increases posed challenges, including volume losses in a few markets, but adds that Forty Creek remained flat at the end of its first twelve months in Campari’s portfolio. “Despite all of that turbulence, the brand is doing well commercially,” he says. “Now that we’ve built the foundations, it’s time to start accelerating.”
Despite strong reviews, Forty Creek has struggled to throw off the Canadian whisky category’s reputation. “People in the United States have a perception of Canadian whisky as being benign, smooth, easy drinking and relatively cheap,” Floor says, noting that the average price in the category is only$11 a 750-ml. bottle, according to Nielsen. Bartenders and the trade initially assumed Forty Creek had a similar flavor profile. “If you think of Canadian whisky in that way, it just doesn’t fit in the consideration set anymore,” Floor notes. “When I started introducing the brand not as a Canadian whisky, but as a new whisky that happens to be from Canada, it changed the conversation completely.” By focusing on flavor, complexity and parallels with the early days of the Bourbon movement, Forty Creek has piqued interest both on-premise and off-premise. “We’re talking to people in the same way that they already talk about American whiskies and expanding their repertoire to include a like-minded spirit,” Floor says, adding that Copper Pot and Barrel Select have particularly captured the attention of bartenders. “We start with Copper Pot because it has a stronger flavor profile that cuts through in a mixed drink. Double Barrel’s Bourbon barrel finish makes it perfect for classic whisky cocktails.” Confederation Oak and limited-edition releases do best off-premise and with collectors.
At Dirty Habit in San Francisco, bar manager Brian Means carries the full Forty Creek range, but he admits the bias against the category is alive and well. “We try to sell people on the whisky,” he says. “It’s our duty as bartenders to educate consumers on brands we’re excited about and get them to expand their horizons.” Means’ Canadian Tuxedo cocktail ($13) has helped introduce new drinkers to the category. The drink blends Forty Creek Barrel Select, Lustau Manzanilla Sherry and Byrrh aperitif and is then aged for three months in a used rye whisky barrel that was washed with cold-brew coffee. “It was our best-selling cocktail—we ran out of it within two weeks,” Means says. He’s working on a new batch, made with the Copper Pot expression, that will age for six months.
“Forty Creek is a pretty unique whisky,” Means notes, citing its distilling and blending process, which is very different from American whiskey production. “If servers ask me to recommend a Canadian whisky, I pretty much always suggest Forty Creek.” The brand’s offerings sell for $9 to $16 a 2-ounce pour at Dirty Habit. “The price point is insane—they’re very inexpensive,” he notes, adding that the whiskies sell quite well. “I’m surprised by how much Canadian whisky we go through.”
Building On Success
Texas is one of the top markets for Canadian whisky, and that’s true for Forty Creek as well. John Hall spent years building the brand in the state. “There was a lot of hand-selling, a lot of individual relationships,” Campari’s Floor says. “When people tried the whisky, they fell in love with it.” Kevin Stein, Austin regional manager at the 75-unit Texas retail chain Twin Liquors, agrees. “John Hall has spent a lot of time here in Texas,” he says. “Sometimes I just run into him in one of our stores—he’ll walk the aisles and talk with folks about whiskies.”
As a result of these efforts, the brand has taken off, and its success isn’t limited to one demographic. “In some of our more suburban and rural locations, the Forty Creek Barrel Select has really hit its mark,” Stein says. “But with the boom in whiskies, we’re also seeing success with the higher marques of Forty Creek. Double Barrel Reserve is the best-seller in Austin because of the cocktail culture. Consumers there are pretty receptive.” He notes that Confederation Oak and other limited offerings have an audience as well. “Confederation Oak got such great press that a lot of our collectors picked it up,” Stein says. “They’re not necessarily regular Canadian whisky drinkers—they’re just whisk(e)y enthusiasts. Canadian whisky hasn’t traditionally garnered those kind of reviews. That’s what I love about Forty Creek: It’s re-engaged our staff in taking people over to Canada.” He credits the brand with inspiring a number of other new Canadian whiskies, which have also helped reinvigorate interest in the category.
The brand also performs well in Louisiana, Arkansas and Georgia, which Floor credits to the previous distributors. “The fact that we haven’t had presence in the big whisky markets at all is very exciting for us,” he says, citing New York, California and Illinois as the strongest opportunities. “We believe there’s potential for explosive growth.” Campari’s marketing targets 30- to 45-year-old whisk(e)y drinkers. “They’re not necessarily connoisseurs, but they enjoy whisky,” Floor says. “Forty Creek is very democratic. It’s about flavor. The brand doesn’t have any pretensions.”
Campari sees huge potential for Forty Creek as the brand widens its reach. “Word of mouth is slowly getting out, and people who try Forty Creek keep coming back,” Floor says. “This brand was built by word of mouth in Canada, and that will be our approach here as well.” The company isn’t seeking to take share from other Canadian whisky brands. “I want to talk to American whiskey drinkers,” Floor says. “It isn’t about stealing a consumer from one brand to another. American whiskey fans and millennials in particular already want to broaden their horizons.”
Forty Creek’s potential won’t just be a boon for Campari—the distillery has a broader role to play. “As mixologists move from Bourbon to rye and American whiskies, they’re going to look for something new,” Floor says. “Forty Creek has real potential to be the vanguard of a Canadian whisky revival.”