The Twelve Barrels Story
A Canadian Whisky Pioneer, a World Champion figure skater and a kid trying to revive their story. This isn’t a story that you have heard before.
Sit back, get cosy and grab a whisky. Make it a double while you are at it.
First, we have to start all the way back in 1853, stopping in the 1890's and then we will fast forward to this century!
In the early 1850's, Napanee, Ontario's wheat crops provided the local gristmill owner with more wheat then he could sell as bread to the townspeople. With the wheat, John began to distil whisky. Pure genius! Although it was exceptionally smooth, it didn't have a whole lot of flavour. John then heard of a magical grain, rye. This pioneer of Canadian Whisky now had a smooth and flavourful product for the villagers by combining both wheat and rye in his recipe.
John, pictured above, ran the distillery until the time of Canadian Confederation. This is when significant whisky taxes were imposed. John had priced his whisky so the local farmers who supplied him with grains could afford it. Prices were forced up, and business went down.
John's son, George, went on to become one of Canada's first professional hockey players and World Champion figure skater in 1896. While George was growing up, he would use his dad's whisky barrels to practice his "fancy skating" jumps, as it was called back in the day. George became quite good at jumping these whisky barrels. On a frigid winters day, people all across the county came in horse and buggy to see George's showmanship. What began as a showcase of his figure skating talents was finished with a jump of twelve whisky barrels. The crowd roared as he came down with a smooth landing.
Circa 1910. George, pictured above, was quite the character and by the number of medals on his shirt, he could definitely skate.
George is also credited with bringing hockey to Europe. His European tour to showcase his figure skating talents soon became a 7-year trip spreading the game of hockey beginning in Paris, reaching to Scandinavia and finishing in London.
In 1896 the Brooklyn Eagle wrote "…George gained the undisputed title of champion of the world in his profession. His repertoire of steps, tricks and figures is now a long one. Among other things he can do twenty-three different grapevines, fourteen spins, seventy-four figure eights, and over one hundred anvils on foot without stopping".
That is enough spins to make me dizzy just reading it.
Although whisky techniques and knowledge have vastly changed since John began distilling, Twelve Barrels is still loosely based on John's original 1853 recipe. Our name and attitude are inspired by George and his dedication to what he loved to do and his drive to push the boundaries. Twelve Barrels is for those who live as John and George did, willing to take a leap, follow their passions and enjoy life's adventures.
My story begins with making wine. I was sixteen making wine from grape juice, sugar and bakers yeast that I bought from Walmart on my lunch break. As I still lived with my parents, I was forced to conceal my operations under my bed in order to avoid detection. Why go through the trouble of making my own booze? Well when you don’t have a fake ID, and neither do your friends, someone has to come up with a solution!
My friends loved it but one batch just wouldn’t ferment properly. It only reached 7% alc and there was too much sugar in the wine to drink. 30 litres of 7% alcohol was 30 litres too much to waste. There was no going back; my only alternative was to buy a still.
This is a picture of the first batch of wine I ever made. Weird how grape juice turned out to be clear and blue after fermentation. The orange bottles were made from mango juice. From this wine to Twelve Barrels...it has been quite the fun journey.
My parents soon caught me. They were not impressed in the slightest. I told my mom that I could be up to a lot worse things… it brought her no comfort.
I now had the freedom to brew outside of my bedroom but my mom wouldn’t let me into the kitchen to brew. I think she was afraid I was going to strip the paint right off the walls!
So when I made my first batch of beer, I had to do it outside. I couldn’t have picked a worse time. It was early summer and the flowers were at the height of their pollination. You could see yellow bits of pollen falling into the boiling pot.
Imagine Sour Patch Kids and tree bark, those were the tasting notes! It was one of the few products of mine I couldn’t drink. Just like my wine, I put the beer in the still. What's the worst that could happen? The result, crappy beer became crappy moonshine.
I then bought oak chips that were meant for ageing wine, I took pretty crappy moonshine and made it into somewhat drinkable whisky a couple months later.
This is what my desk looked like in my dorm room in the first-year of university.
This brings us to 2015. I wanted to get out of my basement and get experience working in the industry. I contacted over 300 distilleries from all over the world pitching the same story I just told you. I got 298 rejections, 2 job offers and one heck of an opportunity. I moved to the Northwest of England to work at the Lakes Distillery. The distillery was less than a year old when I arrived, they were well funded and the founding team had lots of experience. This was my opportunity to learn how to make whisky and gather an understanding of how a new whisky distillery finds its footing.
When I arrived home, my passion was never stronger and had the knowledge to make a fantastic whisky. Throw in a lot of hard work and you have the recipe for Twelve Barrels.