Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014's biggest whisky story in Canada...

"A great whisky is like a good book. Within the first moments it grabs your attention and entices you to want to know more. It has vivid descriptors, good story lines and all kinds of personality. You simply can't put it down. You reach the dénouement and find yourself thrown in different but unexpected directions and then you are so pleasantly surprised by the ending that it leaves you hoping for a sequel" - John Hall 2009

That's one of the very first things John ever said to me as he poured me a sample of Forty Creek Confederation Oak. John's personality was relaxed, easy going but passionate. In the 5+ years I've known him that attitude has never changed & his love for what he does never wavered. So on the eve of Graham's 35th birthday - March 11th 2014 when I received a personal email from John stating that he had sold Forty Creek I was a bit shocked and honestly quite saddened. But in John's true style, he wanted to let me and a few others know before it was announced publicly the next day. Gruppo Campari had reached an agreement to purchase 100% of Forty Creek for $185.6 million dollars. 

And there it was in black and white: One of the last Canadian independently owned distilleries was going to belong to a global & prosperous company. John would stay on as chairman and whisky maker but all other aspects of the business would now be in the hands of the Gruppo Campari team. Forty Creek fans around the globe pondered and questioned aloud what was "next"...

In all the madness, John remained... John. Which again, comes as no surprise to those of us who have had the privilege to get to know him a bit better. So it also came as no shock that when I asked if I could interview him, the answer came back with a large sly grin - why yes, of course....  :) In the event you have been living in a cave in the Borneo forest let me give you a bit about the history of the man that created Forty Creek Whisky.

John had many jobs but by the late 60's found a passion in wine making which lasted for 30 years. He noticed in 1990 that Scotch single malt and bourbon were really starting to become popular but the opposite seemed to be happening in Canada where our whisky heritage was stagnant and slowly dying. John is a bit of a creative butterfly and loves challenges so in 1992 he decided he would start his own whisky distillery in a small town called Grimsby Ontario. Considering the history of some of the other distilleries in Canada, he was coming to the party almost 100 years a little late and with no whisky making experience. To the outside world this must have seemed like a crazy hair brain idea that would be doomed to fail... and yes, there came scary moments. Not long after his first whiskies were listed in the liquor store he received a letter stating people were simply not buying it and if that trend continued Forty Creek would be delisted and not picked up again. John's tenacity kicked in and he began to travel by car everywhere in Ontario to promote a product he believed in. It paid off and as it's been said many times, the rest is history. 

My interview with John:

What still inspires you get up and go to work every day? 

"There is an old saying that goes: If you find a job that you love you will never work a day in your life. So going to work really is not in my vocabulary since I still love what I do. There are two key factors that inspire me greatly. When I was 12 years old my mother said: "Johnny if you are going to do a job do it well or don't do it at all". That not only inspired me but her wisdom also showed me the way to enjoy my job so that it really did not seem like work. The second inspiration comes from all the Forty Creek fans that have supported me through all the years through emails, meets or tweets. Their support always encouraged me to continue my pursuit to make the best whisky I could and for that I thank them all so very much."

Has becoming one of the leading Canadian whisky innovators changed you as a person?

"I don't feel like it's changed me but I've noticed I seem to have a lot more friends!" (He laughed quite heartily at that one)

When you look back at your career what defining moments are you most proud of?

"Oh there are so many. I think the moment that I will always be the most proud of was the the day I realized all my hard work in creating Forty Creek had finally paid off. The whisky had brought new life to Canada's National Spirit. And you know as Canadians we tend to be very modest when it comes to national pride. Our spirit seemed to be fading away the last couple of decades and it wasn't in the spotlight anymore. Scotch, bourbon, Irish and other world whiskies were suddenly taking center stage and to put it quite bluntly Canadian whisky was sitting on an old wooden stool at the back door of the theater. We were slowly losing an icon. That would be like losing hockey or maple syrup. Can you imagine? Maybe people don't realize it but it wasn't just a railroad that built this beautiful country. Whisky production was also instrumental from the east to west coast and everything else in between. We simply couldn't lose that, it's part of our heritage. So, knowing that Forty Creek provided the spark to regenerate the excitement, romance and pride is a very proud moment in my life. I think Forty Creek not only has provided a new taste expression to existing whisky enthusiasts but also has brought new consumers to a category that was almost non-existent and dying. Canadian whisky is back in the running and the world is watching." 


Now that you are the chairman and whisky maker how many days will you be on the road?

"Well looking back to when I was introducing Forty Creek I was on the road 160-180 days a year and considering there are only 120 working days in a year you can see where I couldn't have been counting the days because I wasn't really working, I was truly having fun. Last year I may have been on the road a total of 85 days and for the new year it will be much less. I'm content with that."

So, now that you have sold Forty Creek where do you see you and the whisky going?

"Well, presently Forty Creek is only available in most of Canada and in some areas of the United States. It's like the old commercial: "Only available in Canada? Pity". So had I continued on my own, the whisky could not have grown globally. I think now that it's in the hands of Campari you will see them expand so that every province has it in Canada, I'd like to see it being sold internationally across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. You know yourself how many requests we have received from so many different countries and we simply didn't have the resources to expand the market. I'm still the whisky maker so the quality and integrity of Forty Creek will not change. Campari has an existing network worldwide and although it may take a few years they are the company that is going to share Forty Creek with the rest of the world, after all it's won all sorts of international awards. So fans be patient, in the next 5-10 years I think you'll see Forty Creek on an international plateau. As for me, well I'm looking at slowing down, taking more time to spend it with my family. There are some really nice properties on lakes available and my fishing rod is starting to call to me more and more often. Whatever comes our way, I'm looking forward to the next chapter and writing it. That is a given because after all, I'm still having fun and not really working."

If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting out with their own dream what would you say?

"No matter what comes your way, always follow your dreams. After graduating I didn't land the job I thought I would get at the local whisky distillery but I didn't give up. I worked hard and although it took almost 22 years, not only did I land the dream job at a distillery, I opened & owned one. So that's my advice. No matter how small or large your dream is, don't give up on yourself. We only live once so be here and do everything to the best of your ability and do it with passion and respect. The day will come when you realize your dream and when it comes time to move on, you will be able to do that without any regrets." 

I have no worry in the world when it comes to what's next for John and his lovely family. If anything we might get to see him even more often in our neck of the woods (some really great salmon fishing this way, hint... hint...)

So that's the story that totally rocked my whisky world for 2014.  The end of an era but the beginning of a new and hopefully exciting chapter that will lead to a world wide domination for Canadian whisky!!!! 

Ok, that's my dream...  

To the next chapter in all our books.  May you choose wisely where your next adventure leads.

Cheers John, one of my favorite whiskyfabric weavers!  



  1. ‎I loathe to suggest anything improper but I do hope John's legal counsel were made aware he let you and a few others know of the transaction before it was publicly announced and that none of that group acted on the information. Insider trading is taken very seriously by the authorities and can have severe and costly ramifications.

    1. Thanks for your comment, however Forty Creek was a privately owned company and insider trading doesn't apply.

  2. Grupo Campari is publicly traded.

    1. Although Campari is, the sale was not taking place until June 6/14 so anyone could have used that information. Nothing illegal took place or was shared and it's quite normal for press releases to go out to a select few prior to going public but again thank you for expressing interest in the subject and my blog. It's appreciated.