A Social Revolution in Canada

From Black Bottle to Babbitt

The centre of modern-day Cambridge, ON was formerly called Galt. Indeed the old term is still heard today. It is only 14 miles from Paris, ON and broadly in the same region, the old Dumfries township. Galt was in the north part, Paris the south.

Both towns are watered by the Grand River, a source of power for many early industries. Galt perhaps had a stronger Scottish admixture, in part due to an influential Scot who owned lands on the Grand and solicited countrymen to work the fields.

However, Galt too had its share of American incomers. One was the builder and industrialist Absalom Shade who came in the 1820s from Pennsylvania and established distilling. Galt counted two distilleries by the 1840s.

In 1880, an Ontario politician and newspaper publisher, James Young, wrote a history of Galt. His comments on liquor there set out in miniature a number of themes discussed here recently. In a few neat phrases he charts a quickstep transition from frontier whisky culture to ordered, prosperous burg.

As he notes, it was a change the Province underwent as a whole within a single generation. In fact something similar had occurred in the United States.

Young notes that until “white-eye” whisky made its appearance, the workmen wanted rum. Once again, the same historical shift occurred over the border, just earlier.

But why did “white-eye” take over in Canada as well? Presumably rum could still have been imported albeit at higher cost. Whisky suited the developing farm economies, as surplus grain, not easily transportable or storable, was turned to spirit. The farmers got needed cash, or cash and spirits, from distiller-millers in exchange for rye, wheat, corn, oats, barley.

But also, it may be noted Slade came from Pennsylvania, home of straight rye whiskey. This can’t be unconnected to his distillery in Galt, in my view. It’s the same thing for the presumed taste inclinations of the many Americans in the township who came from the northeast where whiskey was the drink of preference from about 1800 on.

The many whisky distilleries around Lake Ontario’s north shore, settled in large numbers by Loyalists and later American arrivals, support this inference for Upper Canada as a whole, IMO. It is useful here to examine Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s spatial diagrams of the industrial geography, I’ve referred to her book a number of times here.

Now, the Scots know a few things about whisky, that’s the “drouthy” tendency drolly noted by Young.

Against this background, rum’s salad days were over. In contrast, it held on much more so east of Quebec. To this day rum is a strong seller in the Maritime provinces. Certainly, many Loyalists went to Nova Scotia and some other parts of the Maritimes. The question why whisky did not “take” as well there is an interesting one. Many American arrivals came from New England coastal states where rum held some market, albeit declining, through the 1800s. I wrote earlier here about New England rum’s attenuated career.

Cereal agriculture too probably was nowhere near as fecund in the Maritimes as in southern Ontario. And many parts were settled long before any Loyalists came, notably Newfoundland with its direct links to Caribbean trade, and these stayed to their old practices.

It would make an interesting academic study to know why rum prospered in the east but foundered in Ontario and Quebec after the American Revolution. I suspect the factors I outlined above may be decisive.

You will see that Shade did not actually want to supply liquor to his work gangs. This strategy was no doubt linked to the alteration occurring in “the public mind”, a term in another Canadian book from the same era as Young’s. Also, perhaps Shade wanted simply to advance productivity and avoid the kind of industrial accident Young mentioned. This boss mentality was a rising part of the new temperance zeitgeist (apologies in etymology proferred).

Let Young tell it in his own words:

Note re images: the second image above, of Galt, ON in the 1890s, was sourced from this Canadian Virtual Reference Library. The last two images were sourced from James Young’s Galt history linked in the text, via HathiTrustAll intellectual property in and to these images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Ontario’s Bad Old Whisky Days

“If The Boys Wanna Fight You Better Let ‘Em…” (from “Boys are Back In Town”, Phil Lynott, 1976)

Donald Alexander Smith was a teacher, and later principal, of Paris District High School in Paris, Ontario. Born in 1905, he was active in teaching for about 40 years starting in 1929. He held two honours degrees from Queen’s University in Kingston, one in history and political science, one in English. He was born in Shelburne, ON but relocated to Paris when taking up his first post and lived in the locality the rest of his life.

Smith wrote a two-volume history of Paris, At The Forks Of The Grand, the first of which was published in 1956. The book is catalogued in the main Ontario libraries and is an invaluable record to chart both contemporary and many historical aspects of the town. In his introduction, Smith states he felt that by 1941, many aspects of the town’s history were being forgotten. Also, some important records had been lost due to floods and other causes. He decided to write the history while it could still be compiled, or so much as was still possible.

In Volume 1, Smith has a chapter entitled simply, Whiskey.

Smith relied on many sources including newspaper accounts, regional histories, and anecdotal evidence. His tone is calm and assured and while the work is neither an academic nor a business history, the whisky chapter is full of interest. It discloses many facets of the role spirits played in Paris and environs.

To my knowledge, his account has not been cited in the numerous scholarly and other works on the history of liquor use, liquor control, taverns, distilling, and related topics in Ontario, except for a listing in the bibliography of Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s The historical geography of the distilling industry in Ontario: 1850-1900 (2000).

MacKinnon does not from what I can tell rely on the text on the account, not surprising as her subject matter is really different. Her purview is Ontario distilling from the standpoint of its historical geography. Also, she focuses mainly on the “Big 5” after 1850, especially Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker.

Smith gives a fuller account of the U.S.-born distiller Norman Hamilton than appeared elsewhere to my knowledge. He explains in good detail that Hamilton was an entrepreneur in numerous fields and successful in most. These included running a grist mill, gypsum plant, logging operation for whiskey kegs, raising hogs, and amassing real estate.

After retirement he joined a Congregational denomination and devoted the rest of his days to church work. (Jack Daniel did something similar later in his life).

Details are given of Hamilton’s three marriages and his beautiful home, Hillside aka Hamilton Place. It still stands in Paris and is a heritage landmark. The home was designed and built by U.S. friends of Hamilton in central New York, his old stomping ground.

Of whisky, Smith states that its original price, 13 cents per gallon, was not cheap because the liquor was not stronger than wine. This ostensibly odd statement makes sense to a whiskey historian though. Before 1860 whiskey often was sold diluted, Gerald Carson discusses this in his well-known, early 1960s The Social History of Bourbon.

The most impactful part of the chapter is the toll whisky took on social peace and family relations. Smith was not a bluenose as various parts of the book make clear, and his account of the fighting, riots, and general disorder caused by whisky in Paris for much of the 1800s has to be taken at face value especially as he often quotes detailed news accounts.

No wonder the abstinence forces gained ground after 1850. Of the many troubling stories told, the ones about the gangs building railways in Brant County are not least compelling. When the men came into town on weekends even the constable and night watchman feared for life and limb.

Some of the disorders involved a cathouse called the Brick, on the road between Paris and Brantford. Volume 2 should be consulted for more in its regard.

Suffice to say that the movie westerns of one’s youth are fully brought to life in the all-too-real events recounted by Smith.

A business directory states there were three distilleries in town in 1850. After Hamilton’s closed the others continued for a time but finally all shut, and only a few taverns were allowed licenses, by the late-1800s. This paralleled the growth of both religious and secular temperance movements in the area. So things did finally settle down.

Smith was a local notable and had solid academic training. Also, volume 1 of his book was only published in 1956, long after most of it was written. All this provides further reason not to doubt his veracity. He wrote popular history, but of the best kind.

Today, tranquil Paris evokes “anything but” the raucous whisky era evoked by Donald Smith. It is in fact a haven for artists and one of Canada’s few art colonies. This is explained by the Victorian charm of the town and beauty of its surroundings, watered by two rivers and edged by rolling green hills (not in winter!).

It is also explained by another, perhaps decisive factor. Norman Hamilton’s daughter, Elizabeth lived in the family mansion after the father’s death with her husband, Paul G. Wickson. He was a noted Canadian painter and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy. He specialized in pastoral scenes especially of grazing livestock and horses. He painted in the aerie at the top of the mansion, pictured above in its latter years and still graceful.

In the first picture above, the wooden structures below the church formed part of the Hamilton distillery.

Note re images: the images above were sourced from the County Of Brant Public Library Digital Collections, and also appear courtesy the Paris Museum and Historical Society. All intellectual property in and to the images belongs solely to their lawful owners or authorized users. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Whisky, Americans, and School Days in Early Ontario

In examining the annals of town and country distilling in mid-century Victorian Ontario, I doubt anything will emerge on the scale of the eight distilleries in the charming town of Port Hope. Not only was there a large number of distilleries for a tiny population, the whiskey had special cachet. So much so, one writer called it Canada’s Glenlivet.

We will return to these distilleries, and try to understand what made the whisky special. Port Hope is about 70 miles east of where I write, to the left along the lake I can see as I type these words.

But now, I will draw your attention to another Ontario town, the same distance from here but in the opposite direction. It’s Paris, Ontario, at least as pretty as Port Hope but of different aspect, more hilly and not on a lake, but on the forks of a river (Grand River).

Paris is in Brant County, north and west of the larger Brantford, ON. For those who know Ontario, you would take Highway 401 west from Toronto, on the way to London and ultimately Windsor, and take a number of jogs off that. I’ve also driven there from Cambridge, ON, home of Grand River Brewery, of Russian Gun Imperial Stout fame.

Paris was founded by a mix of Americans and British emigrants, and somewhat later than the Loyalist stronghold of eastern Ontario I’ve discussed before. Nonetheless some of the families were Loyalist or descended from same. One such, John Pettit, founded a distillery in Brant County. Another American did the same, in Paris: Norman Hamilton.

The main founder of Paris was industrialist Hiram “King” Capron, yet another American. His name is long-remembered in Ontario including for his many benefactions.

The pages below are from an 1883 history of Brant County. They outline Norman Hamilton’s career but also the social atmosphere that attended whisky in Ontario’s pioneer days. Calling it liberal would be an understatement, but it was typical of northeastern habits at the time, both sides of the porous border.

An odd thing is, 1883 is only some 30 years after the high-water mark of whisky’s reign (temperance mobilized after that to prompt a change in the “public mind”, to borrow a phrase elsewhere in the Brant history). That’s a big shift in one generation, I can’t think of anything really comparable in our time.

Understandably, given the writer’s mistrust of liquor and temperance stance – other parts of the book make this clear – he gets some of the whisky technics wrong. Canadian whisky almost certainly had more fusel oil in 1850 than in 1883, at least in a small place like Paris. Also, I doubt the pupils in question put their cup directly under the worm of the working still, although who knows. More likely they were given a diluted form of the drink by the proprietor.

The reference to the hard-driving, succeed-at-any cost Yankee perhaps reflects the dominance of a more conservative, Anglo-Canadian strain here by the 1880s. The old Yankee social presence, Loyalist or following in its wake, was diminished by a new, British-flavoured Canadian identity. The latter was fed by both organic development of our communities and increased U.K. immigration.

Ambitious Americans after 1850 clearly associated with their new land. John Wiser in Prescott became a British subject, for example, which had to smooth his path. (Hiram Walker never did that though, as far as I’m aware).

Still, if you read the separate bio entry on Norman Hamilton in the book, it is respectful and even admiring in tone. So maybe the Yankee reference wasn’t meant to be cutting.

Finally, do you know how Paris, ON was named? It wasn’t with reference to the French Paris, or the Paris of Grecian mythology. It was named after a plentiful local resource, gypsum – plaster of Paris. That is a satisfying explanation by my lights, plain and stolid as most of the people who founded this country and the one over yonder that provided much of its early base.


Note re images: the first image above of Paris, ON is from the website of Brant County, ON, here. The second and third images are from the Brant County history linked in the text, courtesy the digital library HathiTrust. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Whisky-Loving Canadian Yankees

Formative American Influence in Ontario Including for Whisky

A groundbreaking Canadian author was Susannah Moodie, née Strickland. She was an English immigrant who published books in the early 1850s on her experiences homesteading as a farmer, and then as a town-dweller, in Canada West aka Upper Canada, later Ontario. Her sister Catherine Parr Traill also published books on living in the Canadian bush for wide-eyed English readers. The two are considered key figures in the early history of Canadian writing.

Moodie arrived in the early 1830s and her books cover her experiences starting from then.

She is remembered for her mordant, rather critical perspective on her adopted country. Perhaps it fed an English proclivity at the time to view the colonies as inferior and dependant, as numerous travel and guide books of the period paint the New World in similar droll terms.

A profile of Moodie in the Canadian Encyclopedia explains that she saw as her purpose to guide prospective English emigrants, so they would have an accurate idea of what lay in store for them.

Be that as it may, it is not always easy to read Moodie, the asperity gets to you after a while. She was a bluenose, and seems to have represented a particular type of the educated-but-stuffy English middle class. Still, I cut her some slack as the books make clear her early experiences here were hard-going. The family had little money and no experience farming before they came to Canada. Unfortunately the area they settled, off a lake north of Peterborough (following a year on a farm near Cobourg), is hardly fecund. The site today is a piece of scrub much like when she first saw it.

After the farming debacle, the family moved to the town of Belleville, called the “clearings” in her writings. There her husband John Dunbar worked as a sheriff and she continued to write and publish.

A facet of her writing noticed in particular by Ontario social historians is her comments on her neighbours, who were mostly of Yankee origin, in other words the American incomers known as United Empire Loyalists. This group had left America after 1776 due to their sympathies with the Crown. They settled in a band of townships around the Bay of Quinte easterly on Lake Ontario, and along the St. Lawrence River further to the east. They also settled in other parts of Ontario and Canada.

In her first Canadian book, Roughing It, Moodie is hard on this element, treating them as canny rustics with few manners or scruples. These Americans or their progeny were sometimes called Canadian Yankees.

One part of their identity was the love for whiskey, vividly described by Moodie in an incident which occurred shortly after arrival to the new home. A teenager loaned them an empty decanter to help them set up home, which puzzled Moodie but she treated it as a local custom. When the teen returned to fetch the vessel, she tried to finagle whisky from the family, clearly at the instance of her father whom Moodie called Old Satan (the family name was Seaton).

Three types of spirits are mentioned in the account: whiskey, rum, and spirits. While it is hard to parse their place in the local league table, whisky by my reckoning came first, then rum, then spirits. So what was the spirits? Perhaps distilling writer Samuel M’Harry’s (1809) “neutralized” whiskey, run through the charcoal and leaving little taste according to him. The importunate girl implied you don’t serve rum to workmen, so perhaps in her view spirits was the cheapest thing to serve them. It’s not clear though because presumably spirits cost more than whisky due to the further processing to render them neutral and higher proof.

Another read of the alcohol hierarchy: rum first as it is imported and therefore the most costly, then whiskey, then plain spirits.

In any case, when the origins of the whiskey culture in Ontario are considered, here you see direct evidence of the Canadian Yankees’ love for whiskey. And they were a substantial element in the social matrix of settled Ontario for a long time. I have discussed that rye and corn were key components of the whisky made here from early days, just as they were over the border. Indeed Moodie makes the point in her writings that “Canadian whisky” was “different” from the whisky she knew at home.

This American transplant group must have stimulated a good part of the market for Canadian whisky, maybe even its make-up. Loyalist-settled Port Hope on Lake Ontario alone had eight distilleries at its peak in this industry before 1850 and its whisky had renown.

British immigration, much of it from Ulster – the Scots-Irish to the Americans – finally reduced the influence and identity of the Ontario Yankees. The Crown was always worried that the supposedly loyal citizens of American origin would turn on them. In the 1812 War some did in the sense of deserting to join American forces over the frontier. When the war ended they came back, not always to open arms.

Today, Canadians can exhibit mild anti-Americanism, almost as part of their identity. Ontarians seem especially prone. You see it in a lot of our humour, on CBC, and in many other ways. I always find it strange given that the U.S. quite literally played a large role in forming Ontario society.

We share so much after all, both countries were outgrowths, excepting the indigenous, French, and some other strains, of Mother Britain. In language, culture and institutions the influence of Britain has been hugely influential everywhere in North America.

At bottom, Canadians really do like Americans, for the things that count certainly. I think each side knows that when it comes to brass tacks.

And so, while it is not the whole story, the American role in forming our whisky ethos is significant. And of course some key founders of the industry were literal Americans, notably Hiram Walker and John P. Wiser. (Wiser succeeded to a Canadian, Payne who founded the first distillery on the site in Prescott – of his origins we are unaware). Incidentally another locus of Loyalist settlement was along the Detroit River…

Back to Susannah Moodie: once in Belleville she continued to worry over whisky, regarding it as mortal threat and she outlined her ideas to extirpate it from society. She supported, not prohibition, but education, and in this sense was remarkably prescient. She said children in schools should be warned against its abuse. She also thought severe addiction was akin to mental illness, in this sense forecasting the abandonment of a moral prism through which to view the problem. About our forthcoming legalization of marijuana, she would probably be horrified, but that’s another matter.

To get the full flavour her early encounters with Canadian Yankees, read the full account starting from page 60.

Note re image: the image above is from Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It linked in the text, courtesy the digital library HathiTrust. All intellectual property in or to image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image appears for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

A Luxury Liquor Store in 1845 Ontario

It comes as a surprise in reviewing trade ads for liquors and wines for mid-century Kingston, Ontario that a rich assortment was offered by at least one spirits and wine dealer and grocer.

Consider this list offered by R. (Robert) McCormack in his Princess Street store in early 1845, advertised in the British Whig.

Kingston, albeit it was then Upper Canada’s largest town (non-incorporated city) and lately capital of the United Province of Canada, was 150 miles distant from Toronto and somewhat more from Montreal. These were Canada’s burgeoning urban centres but many towns and smaller cities had an outsized economic importance in the 1800s.

What explained Kingston’s significance? Numerous historical and geo-political factors, all neatly outlined in this city history from the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Its position at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and eastern end of Lake Ontario, its Imperial garrison, its political importance (home of Sir John A. McDonald, a Father of Confederation and a municipal councillor when McCormack’s ad appeared), all conspired to make it a town of importance and therefore, sophistication.

Kingston received a boost in strategic importance after the 1812 War yet nonetheless had an American flavour from the United Empire Loyalists who arrived in the late 1770s and 1880s.

The town’s trade directories of the period speak to tanners, tailors, dry goods sellers, boot-makers, cabinet-makers and the like. These might not be expected to favour Madeira, Champagne, and French brandy, or to afford them very often if they did. Yet they were touted in McCormack’s tony shop, among other rare potations and fine groceries. The intended market was politicians, military officers, mandarins, ship- and factory-owners, professionals: Ontario’s top echelon, in other words.

Things changed after 1850. Kingston’s fortunes remained at par or declined, all explained in the historical outline linked above.

But at its “international” apogee, let’s consider what it offered by way of drinkables.

There was pale and “coloured” Cognac, Hennessey’s, say. 19th century Cognac drinkers had preferences, not just of age but colour. VSOP means Very Special Old Pale, yes?

There were two types of (presumed) malt whisky, from Islay and Campbelltown, among the best in Scotland then and now.

There was six year old Caribbean rum.

There was de Kuyper Dutch gin, or genever gin, still favoured to this day in parts of Canada although the market is very small now.

There was whisky from local hero James Morton, showing his output was considered good enough to be listed with the foreign specialties.

And Champagne. Claret. Sandeman’s sherry. Port. Two types of British beer, London porter and Scotch ale.

I doubt Toronto offered better in this early period. I’ll bet they threw some good parties. There is today (I’ve been there) a large LCBO in Kingston, the area still has gray block-stone buildings from the era being discussed. You can buy most of what I mentioned there off the retail shelf today.

It’s the continuity of history, but also the fact that the city, while not large (c. 150,000 people), retains its importance as a regional centre, not least via historic and prestigious Queen’s University.




Highwines, Neutral Spirits, Blending at Bourbon’s Dawn

Below I’ve appended pages from Harrison Hall’s 1818 The Distiller. Despite the letter to the Sun in 1908 that claimed it was printed at New York, the title page states Philadelphia. Hall seems to have been familiar with distilling in the northeast in general. I’m not sure where he was actually based but it appears to have been in Philadelphia. (There were two editions of this book, one from five years earlier, but both printed in Philadelphia as far as I know).

The “western” territories are clearly Kentucky and Tennessee, not Ohio. This western whiskey was made mostly from corn. It was also aged to some degree and improved by boat shipment. One can assume that a combination of inventory storage and subsequent boat shipment resulted in a product somewhat similar to modern two-year-old bourbon although whether new charred barrels were used, or always used, seems doubtful (too early).

Either way, this whiskey so liked in eastern markets was a proto-bourbon, clearly.

What was “fourth proof spirits”? The definitions varied according to state regulation. I have seen numbers between 100 U.S. proof (50% abv) and 120 (60% abv). This definition is helpful, from 1857, which pegs the proof number at 120 and also because it states fourth proof spirits are highwines. That ties in to the 1908 letter, and 120 proof is a typical range for whiskey-mash, 1800s or today.

However, even 90% highwines, let alone 94%, are not 60% highwines and the writer of the letter misses this, IMO. As I’ve shown, the highwines definition changed as stills improved over the 1800s. Hall admired double-distilled spirits – first run in a wash still, then doubling in the spirits still – because the foreshots were removed as were the feints. These are the impure fractions that correspond broadly to methanol and other low-boiling by-products and the higher alcohols generally called fusel oils, the high-boilers. But even white dog spirit of this type, or as results from a modern bourbon distillation in the column still, is very far from neutral in taste.

Once again everything is relative. Hall was contrasting double-distilled spirits, perhaps subsequently leached through charcoal, either with “singlings”, the first run from the pot still containing all the fractions of distillation, or double-distilled spirits tainted by addition of feints. But there is a reason white dog is called what it is…

Among various advances in distilling discussed by Hall in the volume, he mentions early steam distillation techniques. He also pumps up “neutralized” spirit, which he terms, in addition, “tasteless”. He states this is useful to blend with other distillates – gin, brandy – to form imitations. This was a frequent early-1800s practice, Canadian distillers did it too.

He states with rum there is so much oil in it such blending is actually helpful, it improves the product. Here we see an early glimmer of the blending rationale of the later-1800s.

A better analogy for 90%-94% abv highwines would be Hall’s neutralized spirits, not fourth proof whiskey. But how neutral was it? “Tasteless” seems pretty clear, mind you, and Hall had great trust in charcoal rectification. Yet, I’ve tasted Jack Daniel’s white dog after its run through the maple charcoal vat. Neutral it’s not.

It’s difficult to parse these sources over such a long period. Has any craft distiller, or any distiller, for that matter, built a 19th century charcoal leaching vat to see what it can do for white dog? Maybe Jack Daniel and George Dickel, the great Tennessee whiskey names, haven’t exhausted its possibilities.



From Highwines to Neutral Spirits to Vodka

On December 13, 1908 a letter appeared in the Sun in New York giving the writer’s opinion on neutral spirits and highwines. It followed an earlier correspondence involving at least two letters, from the appropriately pseudonymous I. Ball and Hy Hyams. I haven’t traced the earlier letters, but the one found reads as follows:

Mr. “I. Ball” and Mr. “Hy Hyams” both misunderstand what neutral or silent spirits really are. Neutral or silent spirits is the name of high proof double distilled rectified grain spirits. High proof means about 90 per cent. by volume of ethyl alcohol The corresponding name for high proof unrectified grain spirits is “high wines”.

The only difference between silent or neutral spirits and high wines that the former are made comparatively pure by fractional distillation of the mash, while the latter contain amyl, propyl, and butyl alcohols commonly called fusel oil or higher alcohol in addition to the pure spirit.

Whiskey is made from both silent spirits and high wines by reduction of these high proof articles to potable proof by the addition of distilled water. The whiskey made by reducing high wines has a raw, acrid taste due to the impurities, and that may be covered up by aging such whiskey in charred wood barrels. Such whiskeys have to the average drinker on impossibly heavy flavor. Whiskey made by reducing the pure spirits more nearly resembles the whiskey of our grandfathers.

Harrison Hall in a book entitled “The American Distiller” published at New York in 1818, says that the deservedly popular whiskey of that day was a “pure spirit” which was brought over the mountains from the Western distilleries at high proof. Hall says that the whiskey from this source was much less harmful than the high wine whisky then made in the Eastern States, in which the impurities were allowed to remain.


Washington, D.C., December 13.

I will return later to the assertion that a pure whiskey from “Western” distilleries, meaning probably from Ohio, was appreciated earlier.

The writer was probably a bureaucrat or lawyer in Washington. No doubt he or she was involved in the “pure whiskey” debate of the time, where President Taft finally decided that grain-derived neutral spirits could qualify as whiskey, not just the traditional type distilled at a low proof and aged in wood.

The statements of “Spiritus” accord with my earlier citations, the essential being that highwines changed over time by reaching a higher proof and yet still contained fusel oils evident to the palate. They are here named in the form of various higher alcohols produced in fermentation and which have a high boiling point.

The statement  that the assertive flavours of highwines can be “covered up” by charred barrel aging seems perhaps delphic unless you know that a year or two earlier, a new U.S. study suggested that fusel oil content in aged whiskey does not decline, contrary to earlier assumptions that it is altered by the effects of oxidation and interaction with barrel compounds. The new opinion therefore was that charred barrel aging – especially new charred barrel aging – simply added new flavours to the whiskey which disguised the white dog taste.

(I believe today the position is more nuanced. No doubt some of our readers know and should feel free to comment).

Now, what about his statement that GNS and highwines reach around 90% abv? Clearly Canadian distillers, see my earlier posts, were getting to 94% for highwines many years earlier. Indeed still today this 94% spirit, or between 94 and 95%, is used for aging as the base whisky in most of our large distilleries.

Well, Spiritus either simply was wrong, was rounding a bit liberally, or was relying on information of years past especially if he was a non-distilling functionary. A 90% abv or 180 proof U.S. product is well within the current U.S. definition to be whiskey… Or perhaps he meant that 90% abv highwines was redistilled to make 94% GNS. Anyway, not all North American distilleries probably followed identical procedures to make highwines and GNS. In toto their products probably showed variation of taste, salutary from a market standpoint.

16 years earlier hearings were held by a Royal Commission in Canada looking at the liquor traffic and prohibition issues. I’ve referred to it a number of times here. A John Wiser’s agent in Quebec, Louis Morin, also head of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, testified. Morin stated that high wines were sold by distillers at 50 overproof (150 British proof, or 85.6% abv). That was still the case in 1917 as we have seen.

He also said 65 overproof was also sold (94% abv) but for industry or scientific use only. He said the 50 overproof spirits was cut with equal parts of water for drinking purposes. Sometimes an extra part of water was thrown in if the vendor wanted to make “more money”.

Morin also thought the highwines of the three major distilleries supplying him were rather similar, he said he could not tell them apart in tasting. This suggests the variety in the Canadian market which one presumes existed resulted from blending expertise. See his testimony in 1892, here.

Where equal quantities of water and highwines were used to produce a potable drink, that produces when rounding 43% abv, a standard bottling strength for many years in Britain and its possessions and Dominions. That’s where the 43% comes from, it was the distillery bulk inventory standard of 150 OP proofed down 50% for the retail market.

This whiskey was drunk new or little aged unless the barroom stored the barrels for many years. Of course some may have, just as we inferred that the “aristocracy” in Port Hope, ON who were shipped the product in the same era by “rig” did so. Some of that white whiskey probably ended in their punch bowls too, cut glass not chipped ceramic, surely.

And so this highwines was the so-called raw, acrid new whiskey Spiritus thought inferior to plain neutral spirits. But many whiskey drinkers surely expected the whiskey taste. At 90-94% abv albeit unrectified, the highwines of the bar or drawing room punch bowl must have been more palatable at any rate than the common whiskey/high wines of old, anywhere from 50-80% abv off the still. Everything is relative.

This part of the market died out once the aging law came into force in the 1890s. The reason is obvious: distilleries couldn’t sell and barrooms couldn’t resell the highwines as “whisky”. Hence the taking over of the market by whisky showing some colour and wood taste.

When you think about the vodka craze launched in the 1950s and wildly popular ever since, it makes sense that people returned to an older tradition of drinking white spirits. Observers in the 1950s-70s were struck by the seeming novelty of a white spirit challenging the “traditional” brown goods whisky market. This was especially so since vodka was associated with Communist Russia and its hostility to western values, not least the consumer society.

Yet, it was one of those off-kilter situations perfect for Madison Avenue. In the early 1970s a Canadian vodka, the Alberta brand, advertised a Russian soldier being impressed with our vodka except for the tomato juice and other stuff we put in it. It made for good humour, advertising and sales.

But in fact, that brown whisky tradition was relatively new, assisted by aging laws that here, in the U.S., and Britain were only about 50 years old. The taste for vodka arguably reclaimed the older Anglo-American tradition of drinking white whisky, something never dislodged from the folk memory.

There was an important difference: the new vodka was clean and neutral in taste, no amyls or butyls left in it, or to speak of. But that was marketed as a plus. In effect, from the 1950s the neutral spirits refinement on the highwines took over a good chunk of the spirits market under another name. Neutral spirits had never been sold as whisky unflavoured/unmixed/unaged before WW II, but that was then.

Putting it another way, a negative was made into a positive, as often happens in the business of pitching our food and drink.

There is nothing left of the high wines tradition with the important exception of various products produced by our craft distillers. If you take them all together, Canuck and U.S., you will find a range that corresponds to the historical arc described in these posts. Some large distillers have released various white spirits of flavour too such as Buffalo Trace.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the original newspaper article linked in the text, via the New York Historical Newspapers digital resource. The second was sourced from this Alberta history site. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes.  All intellectual property therein or thereto resides solely in their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.





Mr. Greenhut Explains Highwines

The extract below (via HathiTrust) is from testimony in Congress by Joseph Greenhut, who headed a conglomerate of distilleries in the late-1800s in the U.S. It was known informally as the Whiskey Trust, based in Cincinnati. Greenhut was an early “raider”, in the 1970s sense, buying up and consolidating often-inefficient distilleries to rationalize production and raise profits.

By 1900, its power declined in the wake of financial and legal issues. It went into Prohibition insolvent but some of its brands later formed the core of National Distillers, one of four main liquor companies to emerge after Prohibition. That company later merged with Jim Beam, adding storied brands such as Old Gran-dad Bourbon and Old Overholt rye.

In 1893, Greenhut was testifying on the activities of the trust and his comments on highwines are a good capsule of how the term evolved. He explains that highwines at the highest strength formed “alcohol”, used in industry to “cut oils” due to its high strength but still retaining some fusel oils.

This was the same substance used to make Florida waters or perfumes as discussed in the 1870s Canadian engineering article linked in my previous post. Another term for this alcohol was, appropriately, cologne spirits.

Despite the modern (2017) sense of the term alcohol, this 1893 alcohol aka highwines aka cologne spirits didn’t mean completely neutral spirits. Greenhut explains that to make “spirits”, the alcohol was subject to further distillation and charcoal filtering. The engineering article said the same thing but called the spirits “whisky”.

Greenhut said 95% of his production was this alcohol and spirits. He doesn’t state expressly what the 5% was, but it was probably whiskey-mash distillate (under 160 proof U.S.) aged to make bourbon or straight rye. He calls it “some little stuff” and “highwines in olden times”.

To Cincinnati whiskey-makers c. 1900, whiskey was the product of blending “spirits” – neutral spirits with no detectable odour – with straight bourbon or rye. Elsewhere in the same volume (search under “highwines” to find it) it is explained that often the blend was 4:1 neutral spirits to straight whiskey. This was felt to make a superior whiskey since the straight whiskey on its own was too strong in character. Modern American blended whiskey is often composed in exactly this way, sometimes with added flavouring which is also mentioned in the testimony.

The Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania whiskey distillers still made their whiskey the older way: distilling whiskey-mash spirits under 160 proof U.S. and putting them away for years in the warehouse. Tennessee added as well the old technique of charcoal filtering before barreling and warehousing. The end result was a heavier, more emphatic flavour than the blender achieved but it was all a question of the different “classes” of whiskey, different markets and prices.

Canadian distillers used highwines as the basis for their blends, but fully aged once the aging requirements became law. I infer as well that once the first aging law was passed (1890s), any use of odourless neutral spirits by our distillers ceased in favour of using aged highwines (as the base), because little improvement to the spirit would derive from oak aging if it was vodka-like in quality.  The account in the engineering journal of the visit to Gooderham’s suggests it was using neutral spirits to make whisky, at least for the base (no reference is made in the article to addition of flavouring whisky). But that was years before the aging law came into force.

I should add too that procedures at the Big 5 Canadian distillers c. 1900 (Corby, G&H, Seagram, Hiram Walker, Wiser) may not have been identical in all respects.

The Scots distill their their base whisky for Scotch blends much as the Canadians have since the late 1800s save for some differences in mashing grains. The American highwines Greenhut was speaking of was made from corn, the Canadian mostly ditto. The Canadians also added flavourings sometimes to the blends, and some brands still do. It goes back to this time when blending was a rising technique in the international whiskey industry.

The point is, highwines originally meant the spirit from a whisky-mash before rectification with charcoal/redistillation or warehousing in oak. When pot stills and other primitive stills were used before steam-distillation in columns and rectifiers, this highwines was between 50% and 80% abv off the stills. But once column stills came in, the strongest highwines rose to 188 proof U.S. or 94.1% abv. It was this strongest highwines which was advertised, I apprehend, in the 1917 Moquin ad discussed in the last post except proofed down for sale to 85.6% abv.

Greenhut confirms in effect that the meaning of highwines changed, but what didn’t change was that highwines was never a perfectly pure product. Thus, it could be aged for whisky as some buyers surely did (gentry, maybe grocers, bars). The highwines could also be used for some industrial purposes, and to mix with wine for the Caribou-type product also mentioned yesterday, or punches. It was a white whiskey, broadly speaking.

Anyone who wants to know what it was like should try to find the Global alcool I mentioned. It is sold in Quebec in 94% and 40% abv versions and the latter must be simply the former diluted to 40% abv. Ontario for many years sold a similar “alcohol” (not vodka) but I can’t find it on the listings currently. The Global one was interesting, like a vodka but with traits of white dog whisky. No doubt some craft distillers produce a similar drink but unless aged for the requisite time it cannot be called whisky on the label.

Note re image: the image above of a fountain in 1870s Cincinnati was sourced from Wikipedia, here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes.  All copyright therein resides solely in its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

High Wines and High Society (Part II)

I stand by everything I said in my Part I, except I think it is likely that the highwines advertised in the 1917 ad by the Montreal merchant, Moquin, probably were not distilled at 150 OP (85.6% abv) but rather were simply sold at (diluted to) that proof.

I think they were probably distilled at 94.1% abv, based on this October 17, 1879 Canadian engineering article describing a visit to Gooderham & Worts, see pg. 298. The article states that the highwines were 165 OP, which is 94.1% abv. Now, was the article wrong and it confused the proof off the stills of what became the whisky sold with the highwines proof? It is possible, but taking the record as we find it, it sounds like Canadian highwines of large distillers in this period, i.e., post-Civil War to 1917 at least, were 94% abv.

Now, that does not quite meet the neutral spirits definition, generally taken as 95% abv and over today. Distillers know that a 94% spirit can have detectable odour and taste. I know it myself as the Global Alcool I discussed in Part I is sold in two versions, 94% abv and 40% abv (presumably just proofed down). I bought the 40% and can say it is not a neutral taste. I called it “gamey” in fact…

Spirit for vodka would generally be distilled at 95% abv or higher, and anyway for Canada is treated with charcoal or other methods to refine the taste to blandness. I doubt the Global product was so treated.

94% abv grain spirit is known in the distilling business as an intermediate product.

Therefore, I now believe that what was advertised as highwines in 1917 by a number of prominent Canadian distillers, was this intermediate distillate. It would still be capable of aging in wood as it contained detectable fermentation by-products (congeners) which would alter in aging.

Also, 94% abv aged grain distillate falls within the American whiskey definition. It is 188 proof, under that is the 190 U.S. proof ceiling to call aged grain spirit whiskey. This shows again the product was not completely bland.

On the other hand, it cannot be said the 1917 highwines, under this definition, was the same as white dog spirit used to make bourbon, straight rye, single malt, or Canadian flavouring whiskey. This post will modify my earlier statements to that effect.

Nonetheless I still believe that between 1860 and 1900 not every distiller’s highwines were so high in alcohol. Especially surviving smaller distillers may have produced highwines distillate at a lower proof, in the range of bourbon or straight rye or near enough.

Needless to say, anyone interested in commenting is invited to do so.

High Wines and High Society (Part I)

Of Patricians and Polloi Too

In this October, 1845 ad in the Canadian newspaper British Whig distiller James Morton of Kingston appealed for grain. Kingston was then in the United Province of Canada, now Ontario.

Morton asked for rye, barley, buckwheat, and oats. He also accepted Indian corn, but only starting from January following. There was surely a reason for this scheduling but at this juncture it is difficult to discern.

He addresses price, but for rye only. He explains he has “redeemed” an earlier promise to buy it at a named cost for 1844’s crop. He renews the promise for 1845 and 1846.

It is evident rye was vital in his distillery, as why mention its price and no other? It was, as discussed in my last post, used by him (the inferred distiller) in a mashbill of blended grains in 1851. The 1851 mashbill was rye, corn, and sometimes peas – and surely some malt for saccharification. Canadian distillers today usually mash from a single grain to make different distillates that are blended after or before aging. For much of the 1800s, the industry operated in a different fashion. It was similar to contemporary still house practice in Kentucky and Pennsylvania – and Scotland and Ireland too for the part of their production called malt whisky (see below).

There are many ads in Ontario newspapers from the 1820s on (at least) calling for rye and corn by distillers. This is not just in Kingston, but in southwest Ontario too as you see in this 1842 ad in the Western Herald by distiller George Elliott in Windsor. Sometimes other grains were added, wheat or oats usually.

Barley was used to make a Canadian version of malt whisky. Into the early 1920s one sees ads for such whisky next to those for Canadian, or rye, whisky. I discussed earlier that the McDougall Distillery in Halifax made both types but many Canadian distillers did.

Before the 1860s when Gooderham’s in Toronto and Walker in Windsor adopted the column still which permitted rectification of pure alcohol, these Ontario distillers were producing essentially a white dog spirit, something quite similar to what Kentucky and Scots distilleries made.

Often, they rectified it by using charcoal vat filtration, a version of what Jack Daniel still uses today. The product might then receive some aging, or often none. Two years was considered very old. In fact, ponder this ad from 1872 in Newmarket, ON. The merchant Henderson advertised the splendidly-named Gum Swamp Whisky at two years old but cautioned to order soon before the whisky “loses its flavour”.

Loses its flavour? Today we start at two years for almost any kind of whisky. This showed that many people still expected the traditional or “common” whisky taste, full of zest and oily grain notes. If you aged it too long, the wood taste and oxidation would rub out the taste. Today, it’s the opposite effect we want.

Nor can we think the 1872 ad was talking of neutral spirits becoming too woody and brown. Gum Swamp Whisky evidently was a local, down-home product, not the result of those newfangled stills in Windsor and the Big Smoke Toronto.

A modern craft distiller couldn’t come up with a more folksy, “country” name if he tried. You can’t beat the old days at being … the old days. Later, probably the inevitable gentility of better living resulted in Gum Swamp, an area near Barrie, ON, being renamed. The new name: Elmgrove. Somehow Elmgrove Whisky doesn’t have the same oomph.

Such spirit when new had the chemical-like notes, of pine, oils, flowers, characteristic of what was called high wines or highwines, a term still used in Canadian distilleries.

Indeed up to the 1940s some ads listed such highwines next to the usual lines of branded Canadian whisky. What was the highwines? This sumptuous 1917 ad from the Montreal dealer Moquin states clearly what it was, 50 OP spirits which is 85.6% abv. This is not significantly higher than the maximum distilling-out strength to call spirit when aged bourbon under U.S. law. 85% is 170 U.S. proof, 20 points under the maximum proof allowable to call the aged spirit whisky.

The difference between 85% abv and 94% is quite significant in terms of relative congeneric character. It may not sound like a lot, but it is. Also, the 50 OP level was probably lower 50-60 years earlier, more in the typical range for bourbon and straight rye.

By 1917, Canadian whisky had to be aged at least two years. The highwines mentioned, which are not termed whisky in the ad, were essentially unaged white dog. I don’t think this white whisky was meant to be drunk new, at least in Ontario, but rather aged by the buyer.

Some gentry bought highwines for this purpose following a practice of the lairds in Scotland whence many of them came. In a folksy 1958 reminiscence published in the Canadian Statesman, Melville Rae recalled all too briefly the hotel and tavern life of his grandfather’s era. This must have been in the latter half of the 1800s. Among the liquors sent out by “rig” to local aristocracy, “highwines” was included. Rae charmingly opined that this meant champagne but that is not so. They were buying kegged white dog to lay down in their cellars.

Ads for such highwines appear in the Ontario and Quebec press from the later 1800s until around WW I. See e.g., this 1866 ad in the British Whig.

Rae’s article originated in a Port Hope, ON newspaper, the Evening Guide (it still exists today via a couple of amalgamations under another name). In another article, Rae, something of a local historian and humorist, discussed the many Scottish families in the area. Port Hope was settled by United Empire Loyalists but acquired a British admixture after 1812. It reinforced and refreshed the Anglo-Saxon character, no doubt a Crown strategy to ensure Canada did not go the way Americans did, 1776 and all that.

As a further index of this self-aging practice, I recall reading another account some years ago where a Canadian squire kept his spirits in wood in the cellar for decades until they turned black.  I cannot find it again quickly but it will pop up sooner or later and I’ll cite it here.

In the 1917 Moquin ad, the many branded whiskies of G&H, Corby, Seagram, and Wiser are sometimes described as so much “UP”, say 25 which allowing for tolerance is 43% abv. This now disused standard was based on 100 proof being 57 % abv, not 50% as in the more logical American system.

The UP numbers are simply the bottling or kegging proof of whisky which, as I’ve discussed many times, was blended from a base of aged high-proof spirits and perhaps a little whisky of the older, straight type. The underproof number is not the distilling-out number, that is. But in the case of the highwines I believe it was, as the term is commonly understood to mean spirits meant to be aged for bourbon, straight rye, single malt, and Canadian flavouring whisky. It was not, I think, despite the word pure, neutral spirits let down to 85% abv. (Even if it was though, highwines 50 years earlier had to be what it generally means in distilling: the secondary distillation of a whiskey mash ready for aging).*

In 1917 and for some considerable time before, this vestigial, apprehended highwines tradition represented the tail end of the earlier, straight whisky tradition based as it was on low-proof distillation, crude rectification, and a little aging. All countries making whisky evolved and commercialized – Scotland big time – a more refined, blended whisky. But from the latter quarter of the 1800s, Canada finally sold just the blended type which became its national style for 100 years. However, in the last 20 years or so a few products, Lot 40 from Corby and Canadian Club single rye grain, say, have been released. These are a long-aged highwines, or at least have a significant component of that in the blend, and hearken back to the older tradition.

The only other inference from selling high wines – unaged spirit – is that it was meant for a downscale market. See for example its price in the Moquin ad, generally below that of the kegged and bottled whiskies. But Rae’s story belies the downmarket image as he was talking of highwines shipped to the carriage trade. No stinting needed there of course.

Still, some highwines may have been used by a mass market. Quebec has a tradition of drinking spiced and sweetened red wine with white alcohol added for winter celebrations, for example. A commercial brand well-liked is Caribou, pictured. Alcool is still sold today for this purpose which to my taste is an unrefined vodka, but the 1917 highwines would have had a more pungent taste yet, not to mention the 1860s’, probably.

An alcool I reviewed a few months ago, Global Alcool, appears to be prepared from 94% abv spirits but probably receives no treatment to make “vodka”. Hence the slightly “gamey” taste, a bit like overproof white rum perhaps. 85% abv spirits would have far more taste impact on the palate.

So with highwines I conclude there was an upstairs-downstairs effect. As far as I know, after the 1940s highwines was not commercially sold. Up to then, the “governors” of our town and country –  colloquial and apposite British connotation intended – made their own bourbon, straight rye, and malt whisky. What did it taste like after seven years or so? Like a lot of what you can buy by that description off the retail shelf today.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the 1917 article linked in the text. The second, from the April 16, 1859 issue of the Atlas in Port Hope, ON as found here, the website of www.PortHopeHistory.com, a site devoted to history of the Port Hope area. The third image is from the website of the Société des Alcools du Quebec, www.saq.com.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*[See Part II of this article, here, in which, among additional points, I modify my conclusions in regard to the distilling-out proof of the highwines. In fact I believe that proof was 94.1% abv and the spirit was diluted to 85.6% abv for sale].