The Great One scores big with a dazzling new home and a few splendid spirits
By Ted McIntyre
Situated on the northeast corner of the Niagara Stone Road roundabout at Line 3 Road, on your way in to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and in the midst of road construction, you can’t help but notice the new Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery.
Traffic is partly to blame. But so is the structure itself. Designed by award-winning Oakville-based Gren Weis Architect & Associates, and standing adjacent to sister winery Trius, the three-storey tower of the striking new Gretzky facility glows red by night through huge panes of glass facing the roadway, thanks to the crimson hue of its painted ceiling. Clearly visible inside the tower are a gleaming three-storey copper pot still and column still, custom-made by Kentucky’s prestigious Vendome Copper & Brass Works.
Essentially a separate winery and distillery connected by a covered walkway, the freshly opened facility is as photogenic inside as out. Within the walls of the 23,000 sq. ft. layout there’s a harmonious blend of glass, stone and rich woods. Two fireplaces, an eye-popping barrel wall behind the distillery’s tasting bar and numerous home photographs of the Gretzky clan add warmth and charm to the contemporary architecture.
But it’s the large water feature out back that may draw the most snapshots. A series of tiny water jets arc into an expansive shallow pond, with a curving patio to one side that will surely provide one of the most popular spots in wine country to enjoy a beverage. Once temperatures fall to below 7C later this year, however, the shimmering pond will be frozen over with the help of subsurface cooling and turned into a skating rink for guests. (Rumour has it there’s even a loonie buried in the centre!)
“From the start, our client (Andrew Peller Ltd., which operates Gretzky Estates beneath its corporate umbrella) wanted something representative of Wayne’s family history in Brantford—a rural property and a barn-like structure and backyard rink,” says Gren Weis architect Terry Martino, whose firm also designed Peller Estates, Trius. “There was a distinct intent to use traditional materials but in a more modern expression and enhanced with modern technology.
As with all companies, however, the proof is in the pudding—or, in this case, the libations. While the Great One has been producing wines in the region for 12 years—the past eight under the direction of Andrew Peller Ltd.—his first spirit debuted late last summer: Wayne Gretzky Red Cask Whisky. You might consider it a great wine pairing. Master distiller Joshua Beach, who studied his craft at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, uses grains sourced from Gretzky’s hometown, then finishes the distillation in Cabernet Sauvignon casks from the winery—hence the Red Cask name. That finishing process serves to subdue much of the alcohol burn and rye nose, allowing a myriad of favours, including brown sugar, leather, tobacco, oak, marzipan and vanilla, to shine through.
“I love the Red Cask,” says whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux, founder of the Canadian Whisky Awards. “I was doing a media whisky tasting in Calgary and poured four single malt scotches and Wayne Gretzky’s whisky, but didn’t tell anyone what it was. And it was voted No. 2 overall! And at $35, it’s very affordable. I didn’t expect it to be that good, given that ‘celebrity endorsement’ thing. But it was a happy surprise. Wayne has given Josh Beach full reign, but Wayne is not merely putting his stamp on it—he’s really invested in the company and the quality. I predict a great future for them.”
Beach’s next round of marvellous malts has just been unveiled: Wayne Gretzky Ice Cask Whisky (finished in icewine casks—see below). There’s also a cask-strength version—99 Proof (49.5% ABV)—in the offing.
While de Kergommeaux is a new fan of Gretzky’s creations, he’s also high on Canadian whisky in general. We had a chance to recently discuss the red-hot Canuck market, as well as the overall winner of the 2017 Canadian Whisky Awards, Masterson’s 10 Year Old Rye Batch PSA3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95G0aOni4s0
|Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Ice Cask Whisky – Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON ($59.95)Fresh on the heels of the critical acclaim of its Red Cask whisky comes the more premium Ice Cask edition. Featuring a slightly higher alcohol content (41.5% ABV vs. 40%) and a more traditional rye nose than its Red Cask brother, this whisky followed its more than three years of aging and blending with a final maturation in icewine casks. Consequently, there’s an element of sweetness, albeit a subtle one, both on the nose and palate. Do you remember that tartan-styled package of Mackintosh’s toffee? That’s what I got on the nose, along with butterscotch and a sprinkling of baking chocolate and spice. A touch of water opens up further chocolate notes, while the spice hangs on through sipping. The finish is buttery warm, a little smoky and holds for a spell, with more toffee aromas lingering in the empty glass. 88|
|Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Vidal Artisanal Spirited Wine – Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON ($29.95 for a 375 ml bottle)Here’s something different. The process begins with a selection of premium local Vidal grapes and a slow, cool fermentation from winemaker Craig McDonald. The aromatic liquid is then handed off to master distiller Joshua Beach, who double-distills it in a copper-pot to create an eye-opening spirit of 89% ABV. Age it in two months in stainless steel tanks and add pure local water and you get a crystal clear, 40% ABV spirit that, from a distance, gives off the distinctive floral Vidal aromas. But give it a swirl and the gin-like nose snaps you to attention with a waft of alcohol-soaked pears, with a little smoke thrown in once you get into its velvety contents. I don’t want to put a rating beside this one because, well, seriously—what do you compare it to? But it’s a creative expression worth adding to your bar. And it provides a whopper of a vodka substitute in martinis or a white rum replacement in mojitos.|
|Lot 40 Rye – Ontario ($40.20)Distilled in a single copper pot still, Lot 40 earned honours as Connoisseur Whisky of the Year (Multiple Markets) at the 2017 Canadian Whisky Awards. Its green notes of fresh rye grain might be off-putting to occasional whisky and scotch drinkers, but there’s beauty in its purity. Oak and clove is next on the nose, then cinnamon, bread, brown sugar and caramel. There’s spicy caramel on the first sip, and the 43% ABV is plenty evident. More oak follows, while a little caramel sweetness to hold it all together. There’s a bit of bitterness to the finish, but spice and rye persist for ages afterward. Something special. 92|
| Kacaba 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon – Vineland, ON ($24.95)
I always get excited whenever I walk into the quaint, quirky little tasting bar at Kacaba, knowing there’s always a knockout red or two waiting to be sampled. The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon is among those treasures. It has aged well in the bottle, yielding tobacco, wild blueberries, herbs and black cherries picked fresh from the forest floor, leading to a full-bodied, richly textured, spicy and savoury palate. Pair it up with lamb and rosemary or a nice ribeye with mushrooms. 90
|Kacaba Rebecca Rosé – Vineland, ON ($17.95)French-styled with a soft strawberry-candied nose, it’s a nice mix of acidity and rich red fruits on the palate with a little cranberry tartness on the finish. Pair it with chicken, or simply sip it on the patio this summer. 87|
| Trius Red “The Icon” 2015 – Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON ($24.95)
Straight out of the bottle—albeit with a quick decanting—the new release of the Trius benchmark shows much better than its youth might suggest. Earthy and smoky with black currants, wild red fruit and cocoa, this medium-bodied, French-styled Bordeaux blend of 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Cab Franc and 15% Merlot has a lovely touch of herbs and menthol. It’s smooth and well rounded for its tender age, and finishes with a subtle spice (each varietal was aged separately for six months, followed by an additional six months after blending). Pair it with grilled foods such as beef tenderloin with red peppers and mushrooms, or two- to four-year-old cheddar, suggests winemaker Craig McDonald. 89+ now, but I could see this one vaulting up the scale with a few years of further aging.