How We Make Our Whisky
It begins with buying the best ingredients
When developing a new taste profile for a whisky, our starting point is always the ingredients. All our cereal grains are sourced from Against the Grain Farms of Winchester, Ontario.
They supply us with top-quality yellow corn, Peruvian purple corn, heritage red corn, winter wheat, Ethiopian purple barley, standard barley and rye.
Importantly for us and many of our customers, Against the Grain sells only non-GMO produce. In addition, they're dedicated to renewing the production and use of locally grown heritage grains.
As a craft distillery, we place a tremendous emphasis on locally grown ingredients—not just to support our region's farmers, but also because we believe the unique composition of our local grains adds distinctive flavours characteristics of our products.
Next we prepare the grain
For large commercial distillers, the first step in making whisky is to grind the grain. They bypass what for us is a critical part of the grain-preparation process—roasting. Prior to grinding, we roast our corn, wheat and rye on site to caramelize the kernels.
Caramelization imparts many subtleties and nuances to the final character and flavour profiles of our whiskies. The reason mainstream distillers don't bother roasting their grains is that it's inefficient. Not only does roasting require extra time and expenditure, it results in a lower yield. Of course, if efficiencies improved the taste of whisky...
After roasting, we grind the grain ourselves. This permits us to control—with exacting precision—the fineness of the grind. By carefully adjusting the grind for each different type of grain, we bring out subtle flavour nuances that would otherwise be lost.
Then we ferment
The fermentation process begins with mashing the grains to convert the starches to sugars. Once added, the yeast will then feed on the starches and sugars, creating carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Our mashes range in size from 700 litres to 3,000 liters, and we typically ferment for 5 to 6 days. The length of fermentation is longer than normal for whisky distillation, but it's something we do to encourage fermentation of lactic acid. This contributes desirable esters (fruity, buttery and coconutty flavour compounds) that add interesting tastes and accents to our whiskies.
We continually adjust the fermentation temperature to achieve, for the particular whisky we're making, a target level of ester compounds. The mash is finished and ready for distillation when it has reached approximately 8% alcohol.
After that, we distill
During distillation, the fermented mash is heated, causing the alcohol to separate from the water. The magic of distilling is that it produces ethanol, the type of alcohol containing the purest aromatic and flavor compounds—and that makes fine, high-quality spirits.
During a distilling run, the various alcohols emerge from the still in stages. The distiller transfers the alcohols into containers through a series of "cuts." Each cut targets a portion of the distillate with a high concentration of specific alcohols.
The most prized cut, known as the "heart", is the middle part of the distillate. The heart has the highest concentration of ethanol and accounts for about 70% of the total amount of distillate produced in a run.
The foreshot, head and tail cuts, which make up the remainder, are less desirable due to elevated concentrations of unpleasant tasting or unusable alcohols.
Traditionally, most distiller have included some of the head and tail cuts in their final distillate due to sloppy cuts or to add volume. However, we strive to use only the heart. This is less efficient because it means we're discarding a greater portion of the distilling run, but the final product is rich in ethanol and the most coveted aromatic compounds.
To isolate the heart, we practice exceptionally tight cuts at the point where the head transitions to the heart and where the heart transitions to the tail. The tighter the cuts, the less likely the final product will contain, for example, methanol (used in gasoline) or acetone (nail polish remover), which cause off-flavours and hangovers. Since the discarded head and tail portions contain some ethanol, we don't throw them away, but rather re-distill them in future batches of the same spirit.
Bottom line: It costs more to make a high-quality whisky because keeping only the good stuff means discarding more of the total distillate produced. In the end, however, the whisky speaks for itself.
Finally, we age our whiskies in American white oak barrels
We acquire our barrels from the legendary Independent Stave Company of Kentucky, barrel supplier to 8 of the 9 top bourbon distilleries. The barrels are constructed from American white oak staves that have been air-dried for 18 to 24 months.
The longer the staves are allowed to season naturally outdoors, the better. Seasoning increases the porousness of the wood, which eventually permits more of our spirits to permeate the barrels during aging.
A key differentiating factor in our whisky-aging method is that we use barrels that are heavily toasted and lightly charred. By comparison, most bourbon-style whisky distillers use barrels that are lightly toasted and heavily charred.
The reason we've chosen to apply extra toasting is that it encourages the formation of compounds that impart distinctive flavour characteristics—such as the delicious vanilla and spicy accents for which our whiskies are known—while also allowing the whisky to age longer without becoming "over-oaked."
Each whisky in our product line is aged in barrels that have been custom toasted and charred by Independent Stave Company to our precise specifications for that particular whisky.
We then store our barrels in the distillery's unheated rickhouse, purposely exposing them to Ottawa's extreme seasonal temperature fluctuations. The wide swings in temperature cause the pores in the wood to expand and contract vigorously throughout the year.
Over time, this encourages more of the spirits to seep farther into the wood and extract larger quantities of the desirable compounds responsible for flavour and colour.
The result is an acceleration of the aging process—and a whisky that's genuinely unique and worthy of bottling.
North of 7's whisky products are aged a minimum of 5 years and counting. In 2020, we were voted "Best Artisanal Distillery in Canada" at the annual Canadian Whiskey Awards in Victoria, BC.