Windsor

Hiram Walker: Inside North America's largest beverage distillery

Hiram Walker master blender Don Livermore is the man in charge of crafting the award-winning products coming out of North America's largest beverage distillery.

Windsor Morning's Jonathan Pinto meets Hiram Walker master blender Don Livermore

Hiram Walker master blender Don Livermore shows off his distillery's massive fermentation hall 2:24

Windsor may be known mainly as an auto town, but it's also a major producer of beverage alcohol.

The city is home to Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd, North America's largest beverage distillery. The facility makes 48 million litres of alcohol every year.

A number of items are produced here, including Polar Ice Vodka, McGuinness Liqueurs and Lamb's Rum. The most famous product, however, is award winning Canadian whisky — and the man in charge is master blender Don Livermore.

Hiram Walker & Sons is located on Riverside Drive East in Windsor. (CBC News)

"Master blending is all about the ingredients that we use in our process," Livermore says.

"For Canadian whisky, we use the grains corn, rye, barley and wheat. We ferment them separately, we distill them separately, we age them separately in different kinds of barrels and then we put them together at the end as a recipe, like our forefathers had once done."

Livermore — who has a PhD in brewing and distilling — has been with Hiram Walker for 18 years, the past three as the master blender. While the job involves the promotion of his product through travel to whisky festivals and other industry events, Livermore is also intimately involved with the operations in Windsor.

"Ultimately, we're looking for the quality of the spirits. Probably the most important thing that I do in a day is organoleptic analysis. [That is] smelling your whiskies, tasting your whiskies — making sure we're hitting target on what we want to try to achieve as a J.P. Wiser whisky."

Livermore only refers to Wiser's whisky, even though the distillery is known as the home of Canadian Club whisky as well.

What smells?

In case you're wondering, the yeasty, bread-like scent that comes from the distillery is not a result of the cooking, fermentation or distilling of the grains.

It is actually caused by the drying of the grain material left over from the distilling process. This protein-rich substance is used by farmers as animal feed.

That's because J.P. Wiser's and Canadian Club are owned by different companies. Canadian Club is owned by Suntory, a Japanese firm. J.P. Wiser's is owned by French company Pernod Ricard, which also owns the distillery itself. As a result, Canadian Club is produced in the same distillery — but Livermore does not design the blend of that whisky.

So how is the whisky made? It all starts with the aforementioned corn, rye, wheat and barley, grown here in Essex County. The grains are ground into flour and combined with malt and water. It is then cooked and becomes mash. The mash is placed into massive four-storey tanks in a room called the fermentation hall. Yeast is added, and the mash ferments for about three days, becoming alcoholic. Click the video above to view this impressive area.

After the fermentation, the resulting product is distilled multiple times, becoming a clear liquid, and placed into wooden barrels. The whisky is then aged at a warehouse on County Road 22 in Lakeshore, Ont. near Pike Creek. There is no electricity inside the facility — not even lighting — due to the risk of explosion from the alcoholic fumes present.

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      Under law, Canadian whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years — but it's often much longer. Wiser's sells an 18-year-old whisky, for example. The whiskies are then blended — different proportions of grains and ages come together to form the various products.

      Livermore says being creative and innovative in blending is the key to a good Canadian whisky — and what makes it distinct from other types of whiskies.

      As for how the master blender enjoys the fruits of his labour, Livermore says it all depends on the situation. Aside from enjoying it neat, he'll also drink it with ginger ale or in a Manhattan cocktail.

      "That's the wonderful thing about Canadian whisky — we design very unique products for each occasion."

      About the Author

      Jonathan Pinto is a reporter/editor at CBC Windsor, primarily assigned to Afternoon Drive, CBC Radio's regional afternoon show for southwestern Ontario. Email jonathan.pinto@cbc.ca.

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