From Hockey Sticks to Barrel Staves: A Wayne Gretzky Distillery ProfileBy Blair Phillips
Wayne Gretzky decorated his National Hockey League career with records. In the history of the sport, only five players have scored 50 goals within 50 games. During the 1981-82 season, Gretzky did it in 39. He holds the record for the most goals in a season with 92, and the most assists in a season with 163. In total, Gretzky racked up an astonishing 2,857 career points—no one else has even reached 2,000. In his first ten NHL seasons, he was awarded the title of Most Valuable Player nine times. His 51-game scoring streak is as improbable to break as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
One of the factors in Gretzky’s success was his team strategy. He was precise with the puck, knowing exactly how to find open ice. Instead of the opposing team having to worry about covering one superstar, they had to contend with the entire line.
THE GREAT ONE IN WINE COUNTRY
Gretzky retired from the NHL in 1999, but he wasn’t content to sit in a rocking chair polishing his trophies. Instead, his retirement led him down the path into wine, and then the whisky game. He traded his stick in for staves, opening his winery in Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake—wine country.
Wayne Gretzky Wine / Photo Credit: Wayne Gretzky Estates
The distillery is on the same 23,000-square foot property as Gretzky’s winery. A path separates the two structures, with fields of grapes growing in every direction. Both buildings are nostalgic, designed to look like his grandfather’s barn, where Gretzky skated for the first time as a toddler.
INTRODUCING JOSHUA BEACH
The charcoal-filtered water used for Gretzky’s spirits is from a local Unesco-protected watershed. But as vital as watersheds are to this growing region, the big story behind Gretzky’s spirits is Master Distiller Joshua Beach. Beach studied at Heriot-Watt in Scotland before spending a decade brewing and distilling in Europe. He returned to Vancouver, Canada to get the Odd Society Distillery up and running, then spent three years as their co-distiller.
Joshua Beach / Photo Credit: Wayne Gretzky Estates
Now relocated to wine country, when the stills were first fired, Joshua sent wine through the gleaming Vendome rig. The trial run, showing off what grapes can do in a still, produced three artisanal wine spirits. The distillate was a tight cut, brought up to 90% ABV, then diluted to 40% ABV for bottling. The first is a Vidal Spirited Wine—a sweet grape eau-de-vie balanced by a slight bitterness that dries off the pure floral finish.
The second is a Muscat Spirited Wine. The nose is rich with floral, tropical fruits, star anise, licorice and a fruity wine-gum-like palate. Confections such as grape powder and marshmallow enhance the flavor profile of the spirit. Finally there’s a Gamay Noir Rosé Spirited Wine finished for three months in cabernet franc ice wine barrels. The bottled spirit has a fruity roundness with just a touch of barrel spice bringing equilibrium to this incredibly smooth 80 proof spirit. It draws notes of pineapple, strawberry and pillowy soft oak tannins.
The distillery has a gleaming eight-plate pot still and fifteen-plate column still which offer options and diversity in flavor. For the whisky, grains come through the door where they are first milled, then vacuumed into a mash cooker as either a 100% corn mash or a rye mash comprised of malted and unmalted rye. Then it’s a five-day ferment before distillation.
Wayne Gretzky / Photo Credit: Wayne Gretzky Estates
Joshua’s nine years of experience have given him a speciality in enzymes and mash. “It’s a blend of science and creativity,” he explains. “Making yeast food.” If yeast had its own Michelin Guide, people would look up to Joshua like the French do with Joël Robuchon. Joshua pulls the cuts off the still by flavor at approximately 58% ABV, which fills 15 full-size barrels a week.
The Gretzky barrel program finds life next door at the winery offering a supply of four to seven-year-old barrels. Casks that are considered spent for wine are revived when filled with spirit. The high proof spirit wakes them up. “Big flavor colors come out of those barrels,” explains Joshua. With a team of winemakers to draw from that know the art of balance as backup, Joshua blends all three of his whiskies.
WINE FINISHED WHISKIES
The proprietary house blend is the Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask whisky, made from a base profile of sourced corn whisky, flavored with aged rye and malted rye whiskies. This whisky is finished for four months in American oak red wine casks. It exhibits Joshua’s blending style, to integrate all of the flavors into one tight, cohesive unit. His whiskies are layered—a sum of their parts.
Joshua then released Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Ice Cask, a whisky that’s finished in ice wine casks. Ice wine arguably brought Canadian wines to the international stage. The dessert wine is made from grapes that freeze while still on the vine. The juice is refreshing and naturally balanced, making the wines coveted and highly decorated. For the whisky, Joshua amped up the blend’s rye and included some older whisky. The punch of rye spice assists with balancing the barrel’s Vidal character. But the road to this blend wasn’t as smooth as the whisky. After 100’s of blending trials, only two blends made the cut, with Gretzky ready to assist in choosing the blend. The result is a tight-integrated Canadian whisky with Vidal sweetness.
The final whisky is Joshua’s lineup is his masterpiece—No. 99 Ninety Nine Proof. This whisky ramps up the amount rye in the blend surpassing the amount in the Ice Cask. The art in this blend is the diversity of flavors woven together into one. The whisky was finished in ex-cabernet sauvignon barrels for at least 100 days then bottled at, as the name suggests, 99 proof.
NEW HIGHLIGHT REEL
Off from the distilling room, overlooking a bottle shop that featured a towering barrel-studded wall, is a tasting room that offers an immersive tasting experience. Three big screen TV’s won’t be showing Gretzky’s hockey highlight reel. Instead, they display Joshua’s whisky highlights from the entire distilling program. We watch as Joshua pours samples from the three whisky bottles and three wine spirits. He smiles and says, “We want to do well-crafted whisky.” Based on what we’ve seen so far, he’s done just that.