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Whisky, Rye, Bourbon, and Scotch.
These are just a few of the names that tug my heartstrings. It's hard to have a bad day when you get to work with such a beautiful spirit. Mashing, fermenting, distilling, and ageing are all so beautiful, unique, and complex. I've talked with specialists from all of those areas, and each one will tell you that their specific aspect of whisky production is the most important to crafting a great whisky. I've learned that they're all right.
We started Top Shelf in Perth, Ontario, because of the deep whisky-making history in the town. Our first batch of whisky ended a 100-year distilling drought in the town (legal, whisky distilling, at least). It felt like we were releasing a new iPhone, the lineup wrapped around the building. At one point in time, four distilleries were operating simultaneously in Perth (the population was only 1000 people at the time!). The most famous of these distilleries was McLaren. John McLaren even went so far as to call his product Scotch (something still illegal these days). These distilleries all showed up in Perth because they found that the water in the Tay River closely mimicked the water the Scottish settlers used back in the motherland. We still use that same water today; however, it has likely changed significantly over the years, so we increase the hardness even further in-house.
If water is the first building block in making a good whisky, grains are the second. We wanted to support local farms with our Perth Whisky, so all of our grains are sourced from within Ontario. The farmlands around the distillery that grew rows of barley have been replaced by maize (or corn). We decided we would borrow a page from our Southern cousins and make corn the backbone of our whisky (similar to bourbon, where maize must make up 51% of the grain bill). Our corn is sourced from within a 50km radius of the distillery and it makes up roughly 75% of our grain bill. We use close to equal parts of rye and barley to make up the remaining percentages. The barley has been malted, but the rye hasn't.
We combine these two building blocks (water and grain) into our mash tun. Mashing is a process that takes around 8 hours, and is essential to making any grain spirit. In mashing, we extract all the nutrients, flavour compounds, starches, and sugars. Most of the alcohol potential in the grain is in the form of starch - basically a big long chain of sugars. Unfortunately, our little friends called yeast can't eat these big chains, so, during mashing, we break up the starches into bite-sized pieces that we call fermentable sugars. If we do this step correctly, we will have happy yeast, and if we have a happy fermentation, so we eventually have a satisfied distiller.
I find it easy to maximize your yield with fermentations, but you lose out on some fermented magic when you do. I often hear of distillers pushing their fermentations out in 2-3 days. It's a great way to maximize yield; however, most of the flavour development comes after the yeast produces the alcohol (alcohol is a precursor in much of the flavour chemistry). So after 2-3 days, you have alcohol but no flavour. We opt for a 6-day fermentation, and that way, we know we're distilling with the best "distiller's beer" we can.
Once our fermentation is complete, we can add our wash to our 100% copper hybrid pot and column still. Another 8-hour process follows. We distill using three distilling plates - these plates act like percolators, purifying the distillate as it travels through the column. We have to be careful not to filter too much, as we can strip the flavour we worked so hard to craft. For comparison, a vodka distillation would use all 16-plates (vodka and whisky are very different in terms of taste!). We distill to roughly 75% abv or 150 proof. We let the spirit rest for some time before proofing with the purest water to 110 proof.
Our "new-make" spirit is now ready for the longest part of its journey, the days and years it spends in a barrel. 3-years minimum - Canada was the first country in the world to require a minimum age for whisky! We source our barrels from the only craft cooperage in North America - Kelvin Cooperage outside of Louisville, Kentucky. All of the barrels we're now purchasing are virgin casks. First, we had a combination of virgin and once-used casks (from Jack Daniels and Heaven Hill)! Now we use a combo of once-used barrels (used by us!) and virgin casks. The profile has been changing slightly over the years, and each batch is getting better than the last. Despite all that we've learned since filling our first barrel 5 years ago, there is no well of knowledge more profound than that of whisky, and I can't wait to spend another five years learning and crafting this beautiful spirit.
Pour out a drum and kick back as you watch this carefully crafted spirit grow from batch to batch.
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