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Food & Drink

What it’s like to be a master whisky blender

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Forty Creek’s master blender Bill Ashburn celebrates 35 years in Canadian whisky

What it's like to be a master whisky blender

It’s all in the first sip. Enjoying your favourite whisky in your favourite glass (neat or on the rocks, we don’t judge); that first, long-awaited sip is often the most enjoyable. Bill Ashburn—Canada’s leading whisky expert and Forty Creek Whisky master blender—has made it his life’s mission to make each sip that follows just as memorable. 

With deep knowledge and experience in the art, science and business of whisky-making, Ashburn decided to elevate his passion for blending by carving out his name in Canada’s whisky landscape. Forty Creek Whisky was officially born. 

Three decades later, the Grimsby, Ontario-based company has become a Canadian whisky giant. Both Hall and Ashburn have been subject to many industry awards. In 2020, Ashburn was titled “Canada Master Blender of the Year” by the New York International Spirits Competition and his Confederation Oak Reserve blend was titled “Whisky of the Decade” by the Canadian Whisky Awards.

Ashburn’s focused vision, innovation and leadership helped raise Forty Creek to the top of the Canadian and global whisky category. He was the mind behind the launch of the brand’s signature Barrel Select, and his unique vision for new expressions has garnered national and international appeal. 

What it's like to be a master whisky blender

As he celebrates 35 years as a master blender, Forty Creek is celebrating with him by launching a unique limited-edition whisky called “Art of the Blend,” an expression of both his dedicated craft and their local roots. This special blend will be available nationally at the end of September and is infused with local Niagara grapes harvested in the darkest hours of winter—beautifully fusing the art of winemaking and whisky-blending. And with this new blend, Forty Creek will also celebrate a new look via a relaunch of their classic Canadian whisky blends in brand new packaging.

Ready for an inside look into the life of a master whisky blender? In conversation with Toronto Life, Ashburn gives an exclusive look into his 35-year journey and where he plans to go from here. 

Could you tell us how you came to work as a blender? 

In 1980 I graduated from Niagara College in the Chemical Engineering Technology Program. I had wanted to enter the wine industry—which I had always been interested in—but the timing wasn’t quite right. I worked for an oil additives company for about seven months until a position came up at Jordan & Ste-Michelle Cellars. My role there allowed me to get involved in maintaining liquid consistency and product development. 

In 1986, the company I worked for was sold to a competitor, and I went looking for something else and found a spot at Rieder Distillery as a blender. Two great mentors, Mr. Otto Rieder and Gerard Cohn, encouraged me to continue evolving my passion for flavours and product development. When John Hall purchased the company in 1992, he brought excitement and passion for the business I had never witnessed before. This opened my eyes to the exhilarating industry we work in and how new products and positioning can make an impact.

What it's like to be a master whisky blender

What does an average day look like for you? And what does it mean to be a master blender? 

My average day starts early, with tasting what will be packaged that day to ensure taste consistency. I taste liquids, check, analyze, and work on new products and ideas throughout the day. Being a master blender means you are the custodian of the brand. It is your responsibility to maintain the integrity of the liquids.

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What’s going through your mind when creating a new blend, and what’s the best thing about being a whisky blender?

It’s all about bringing in new styles and flavours pleasing to me. Different, but within, the family is always my goal. Seeing people enjoy our products is [also my favourite thing about being a blender].

Have you got any tips or tricks that you use to broaden your flavour vocabulary? 

I have always found that just listening to people when they are tasting or enjoying products is a great way to learn. Not everyone perceives aromas and flavours in the same way, and it is important to hear other people’s descriptions. I also read a lot, probably to the point of obsession.

What do you personally look for in a whisky, and what is your favourite blend, and why? 

I want a whisky that is approachable yet full-flavoured. I like to be able to sip it and enjoy it. My favourites tend to change, but my consistent go-to in our product range is Forty Creek Confederation Oak. It is an all-around pleasant whisky.

What are your favourite pairings for your go-to whisky? 

You cannot go wrong with the sensation of whisky and dark chocolate together. Whisky and smoked salmon, I find, also go particularly well together.

Can you tell me about any projects you’re working on or recent whiskies you’ve particularly enjoyed creating? 

Art of The Blend, our 2022 release coming out this September, was conceived to bring together a lot of different aspects of my career in the alcohol industry. Blending various lots of whisky and then adding in a touch of luscious Niagara wine just brought it to a whole new level. In the background, I continue working on new and unique blends and techniques that will hopefully come to market in the upcoming years.

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Visit fortycreekwhisky.com to learn more about the company’s history and shop their blend selection. 

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