Whiskey and Down Home Humour

A number of newspapers in 1855-1857 reprinted the story of a Kentucky editor’s “exclusive drink”, or favourite recipe as we would put it. The one below is from the Opelousas Courier, in Louisiana, July 21, 1855.

Now the Kentucky people know whiskey, they invented the premier American version of it.

Is it reading too much to discern a jape against the emerging cocktail culture? Maybe by 1855, the pioneering work of Dr. James Crow done, his “red crettur” aged for years in charred wood was so good that this recipe expressed the final verdict of the cognoscenti.

Or maybe the editor, John D. McGoodwin, was just one funny dude. He seems to have been involved only briefly in the newspaper business in Paducah, KY. Perhaps his interest in whiskey and comic routines explains why.


Below, an image of modern-day Paducah:


Note re images: the first image is an image I took from the news story referenced in the text, available via the Chronicling America digitized newspaper resource. The second image is from the Kentucky Tourism website, www.kentuckytourism.com. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Three Beers and a Shot

Some reviews.



A recent craft offering, I’d guess Loose Lips is brewed by Cool Brewing in Toronto. The Cool company brands are mass-market styled but it supplies many very distinctive brands for the craft brewing segment, basically it can brew anything and very well.

This beer has (what seems) the Cool yeast background and general company style but is fuller-flavoured, maybe like some Canuck brands of the 1950s. It’s the “Canadian” taste with something extra. With this you want good fries and a banquet burger after the hockey game.

Nice packaging too. I wonder how many under 50, even well-educated, get the double entendre of the name and design.

This would be a great beer, as well, for a Canadian Legion oyster party. Do they still hold them? If so I’m there.



This IPA is just as the name “industrial” suggests but in a craft sense: heavy duty, big brush strokes vs. pointillist, a little rough around the edges. Lotsa taste, where an oddly elegant pineapple/tropical entry is run over by a dank/blackcurrant finish. Good to bolt one of these after “one of those weeks”, or at a monster truck rally. It’s another way of saying, me like.



This offers the Kolsch style, popular in Ontario at the moment as is Vienna lager. The beer is very well made, clean, all-malt, with the straw-like, loamy taste characteristic of much helles and pils. Similar in IMO to Creemore Kolsch (apparently rebranded under the Mad & Noisy name and coming back soon in new livery).

I admire the brewing skill but the particular taste profile just isn’t my thing.

George Dickel is the other Tennessee whiskey, made since the 1950s but with roots in the 1800s. Very different to its brother-in-arms, Jack Daniel, both submit to the blandishments of the 19th century-era maple charcoal vat. It has an effect surely on both although it’s not always easy to pinpoint how.

This Dickel is the best I’ve had in years. For a long time, a taste akin to “crunchy vitamins” was notable in the palate. Now, that element is subdued in favour of a buttery, light smoky quality and mild straight whiskey character of which corn is the driver. It drinks neat extremely well. A winner and my whiskey surprise of 2017.

A Journalistic Primer on Whiskey

This 1904 story, published in Yorkville, South Carolina but reprinted from the New York Sun, sets out whiskey facts for the average reader so he (or she) would better understand the developing dispute in Washington concerning the proper definition of whiskey. Here was the premise as stated in the paper:

… the unenlightened average man, who knows nothing about the merits of the dispute, who meekly deposits the price and takes what the barkeeper hands out, stands in bewilderment, for by drinking of it he knows not the difference between rye and Bourbon, straight and rectified…

The article does a pretty good job, even by today’s standards, of explaining what’s what in a fairly technical area after all. I’d quibble with the implication that good blending should exclude neutral spirits. That was too strict a test, as indeed President Taft’s decision showed some years later (allowing whisky to include any distillate from grain). Also, the piece didn’t account for the fact that some distillers age the neutral element which makes  a difference to the final character.

In other words, requiring that blends be composed of all-straight whiskeys is too onerous, much as great results can flow from that practice. Indeed Beeretseq has always maintained that all straight and single malt whiskeys, except I suppose for single-barrel whisky, is a blend, in the sense that barrels are mingled which are drawn from different parts of the warehouse or different warehouses, and often different years. Each barrel can show a fair degree of difference from another even when the yeast and mashbill is the same.

And then there are regional and annual changes in grains, or weather impacting the barrels. And the stave matrix in each barrel is never identical to that in the other barrels. Etc.

But anyway that issue aside, the 1904 article is a good primer, even today, in that it doesn’t support blindly any one type – it all comes down to quality, to what’s in the glass.

It must have taken some fortitude for a newspaper in the south, in 1904, to print this kind of article, with Prohibition’s breath hot on the doorways of editors’ offices. Almost all if not all of South Carolina must have been dry by then, too. York county, on the northern border of the state, had a Scots-Irish background though, so liquor interest probably continued despite pressure by  temperance advocates. And there was an ostensible justification: to enable readers to follow a developing story in Congress.

Despite the clarity the article afforded, it’s a fair bet that even most who read it, let alone the great numbers who never saw it, remained in the dark about whiskey and its different types. No doubt even today albeit the odd article appears in the general media to the effect of the one from 113 years ago, most imbibers have no inkling of what whiskey really is or how the types differ both within, and between, the great whiskey nations.

A Meeting of Whiskey Titans

Before the first war, there was a minor genre in American, and surely Canadian, journalism: a wending description of a junket. I’ve mentioned a few of them in these pages. One was a banker’s outing in the midwest to sample the real burgoo. A couple were tours of breweries and distilleries. The best of them have an understated humour, something not hard to achieve in the day before the sound-bite, relentless jargon, and “personalities” shouting over their guests came to define the media.

This was a time when leisure was appreciated for what it was, people “set” awhile, had harmless fun, and beverage alcohol usually was part of it but not the greatest part. At most it facilitated literary flights by men who manage peoples’ money, or an impromptu running race or fishing outing (no fish was ever caught, one editor ruminated), or just chanting a few hearty songs.

This July, 1898 story fits the bill mentioned, but has deeper interest for those who plumb the history of spirits. A group of newspaper editors from Maysville, KY went on a trip up north to visit Hiram Walker Distillery in Walkerville, Ontario.

That’s a group of Kentuckians making homage to a Canadian whisky shrine, and not just that, but Kentucky boys from Maysville. Maysville, at the north end of the state on the Ohio River, is not just any town in the land of colonels, green hollows, and red-eye gravy. No sir, that’s where bourbon may well have been invented! You can look it up. I’ve been to Maysville, formerly called Limestone and a point from which corn whiskey was shipped on flatboats down the Ohio to French New Orleans and other markets which helped define the whiskey-type (the long trip in wood and motion of the boats helped create the character). While Maysville was only in Bourbon County, KY for three years – the county lines kept changing – it is very likely the burg had a lot to do with making bourbon a chieftan of the whiskey-race.

So why would Maysville grandees sally forth to another whisky locality? Coals to Newcastle? Well first, Canadian Club had achieved great success in the United States in the 1880s and 90s. It sold for the same price as good straight whiskey and while not a straight whiskey, people obviously liked it. Perhaps the fact that it was 100% aged, versus the American blends which used unaged neutral spirits to supplement the straight element, was part of it. Or the fact it was imported. Or both. Word about CC obviously had gotten down to those green hollers down there in the cream of the whiskey belt (ahem).

And perhaps Hiram Walker & Sons invited and hosted them, to make friends and glean some good press even in the heartland of American whiskey renown.

The trip is described in a somewhat more decorous tone than some of the others I mentioned. This was probably due to the fact that the Kentucky editors didn’t want to offend the native industry too much. Also, Prohibition was just 20 years away and its chilling effect was already making itself known across the country, what the bourbon historian Henry Crowgey called “a wave of Victorian rectitude”. It was the summer and there was room in the papers for a story of mild levity and potential excess, but things had to be kept in bounds.

Still, the party clearly had a good time and the Hiram Walker people entertained them royally. There are no taste notes on Canadian Club, no pointillist comparisons with the nectar of sour mash. That would have been potentially embarrassing either to Kentucky or Ontario. It was a matter best left for private counsels on the steamer wending toward home. That is, we don’t know if the scribblers thought CC was better than the finest home product, worse, or on par. They hardly mention drinking alcohol, except obliquely when “punch”, and “Champaign”, are mentioned.

I’d have to assume a skosh of CC went into each bowl despite the reputation Walkerville had at the time as a temperance town, odd as it may sound. And Hiram Walker’s men surely slipped a few flasks to the visitors before they ascended the gangplank to leave Walkerville.

The trip was made by rail, boat, and carriage and one of the best parts is the delight the Kentucky people took on encountering the bracing cool winds of the Great Lakes in July. (Have you ever been to Kentucky in July…?).

At day’s end, it was two great whisky traditions having a parlay, and like all parlays between Americans and Canucks since the 1812 War ended at any rate, it ends in good humour and handclasps. The Americans are the best friends we ever had, and vice versa. Even something as important as national traditions in whiskey can’t get in the way.

The newsmen didn’t hold back though in one respect: the layout and construction of the Walkerville plant obviously impressed them. As they put it:

The steamer landed the crowd on a pretty lawn in front of a large three story brown stone building. The building and its surroundings, clean gravel and stone walks, the pretty lawn with patches of lovely flowers, with a crowd of sturdy Canadians, in white flannel suits, off at one side engaged in a ball game,(bowling on the green), and an orchestra discoursing sweet music at the opposite end of the lawn, suggested a summer resort, but such was not the case. The
building contains the general offices of Hiram Walker & Sons, proprietors of the famous “Canadian Club” distillery. The establishment is an immense one that puts to shame our Kentucky distillers. They can get a good many points from Walker & Sons. The various buildings of the plant are brick surrounded with drives and walks, while within all is scrupulously neat and clean.

See, in Canada we don’t do low flagstone still houses stained with creepers and moss, good as the small tub whiskey was from those Kentucky grottoes. No, we make a beverage alcohol plant look like a Brahmin playing ground or a modern university campus. That’s Canadian savvy too you know.

Note re images: the first image above, of Maysville, KY, was sourced from this municipal website. The second, the Canadian Club Brand Centre, was sourced from this Windsor-Essex tourism site. Intellectual property in both belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Whiskey’s Role in Early Settlements, Part II

A quote which illustrates well the role of distilleries in the North Country of New York (see Part I of my account yesterday) appears below. It is from a news article written in 1902, 11 years before Katy Parker’s account I discussed yesterday. The 1902 piece discusses also many matters pertaining to the land-owning brothers, David and George Parish, who opened an area in Oswego County for settlement. The county is south of Lake Ontario at its eastern end, somewhat west of St. Lawrence County and the general area I discussed yesterday, but part of the same region with a similar economy and propinquity to Canada.

A distillery was one of their enterprises.

This interesting clan were originally British but had re-established in Germany to pursue their mercantile interests, whence they departed to invest and settle in the United States.

The 1902 story was written in the light of both of an official history, the Hough book mentioned, and personal accounts of aged residents. It confirms everything Parker stated down to the principal grains used for whiskey, corn and rye.

Contemporary manuals on distillation, notably Samuel M’Harry’s 1809 The Practical Distillerpublished in Pennsylvania, also refer to these grains as the main whisky grains.

M’Harry gives varying combinations: all-rye, all-corn, and mixes either equal or where one predominates. Clearly, the grists varied depending on price and availability. Also, most of the whiskey then was sold new, the concept of aging whiskey was not unknown but was in its infancy. A white dog spirit made from corn or rye would show less refinements of taste, less difference I mean, then the fully-aged article. Only later did corn-based bourbon and rye-based whiskey acquire geographical significance and that came finally with the concept of straight whiskey.

Dealing in grains but also cattle was a key part of distilling then, directly or indirectly. American-born Canadian distiller J.P. Wiser had worked as a cattle dealer in the North Country before moving to Prescott to take up distilling there (see footnote in my Part I account).


George Parish not only continued the distillery business, but greatly increased it. He took much of what the settlers had to sell, which made a market for them, and for years the town was as prosperous as any in these parts, corn was usually $1 and rye fifty cents per bushel. These he converted into whiskey and sold at twenty or twenty-five cents per gallon. It was pure whiskey, much better than the most of what’s sold today at ten times that price. In those days the people did not think they could do a haying, raise a building, or do a logging job without a good supply of whiskey.

Accordingly there was a more or less local market for the whiskey, but it was only a fraction of what was made. For years it was drawn in barrels in large quantities to Fort Covington, where, I suppose, it was shipped by boat to Montreal and other places along the St. Lawrence and the lakes. At one time, owing to some duties, a long building was erected which stood one end in Canada and the other in the States, in which the whiskey was stored. When “the coast was clear” I suppose the barrels rolled right over into Canada.

The hauling of this whiskey was quite an industry and afforded the farmers a considerable revenue. Nearly all those nearby the village took a hand in it more or less, while some made it a continual business for years, to wit, P. Piper, Bailey Cross, Foster Brownell and Charles Gibson.

The distillery stables would hold one hundred and one head of cattle. These were bought of the settlers and as soon as fattened on the refuse or mush of the grain were driven to Montreal and sold. The cattle were fattened in the winter time. In the summer they bought and fattened hogs. These were mostly driven to St. Regis where they were slaughtered and shipped by boat.

All this traffic, as may be seen, and as I have stated, made Parishville a live and thrifty village. Then, too, it was on the Turnpike, the main thoroughfare on which daily passed four-horse coaches, with much other travel, and had the largest and best hotel on the road.

Whisky’s Role in Early Settlements

Whiskey in the St. Lawrence Lowlands

Earlier, I have written of the vivid reminiscences of Walter B. Leonard, a retired showman from the North Country of New York. He hailed from the part south of the St. Lawrence River east of Lake Ontario. Ontario was to the north and Quebec further to the east.

Ogdensburg and Potsdam are two of the larger towns in the region. The main counties are St. Lawrence and Franklin.

Writing in the 1930s, Leonard recalled his father’s hotel and saloon in Morley, a small crossing a few miles from Potsdam. This was the late 1860s, when he was a teenager.

The account is full of colour and recalled a time when beer and liquor were usual incidents of small town life, part of running a hotel which served varied meals and hosted many special gatherings fondly evoked by Leonard.

If I had a wand and could conjure my own tv program, I would do a Waltonstype show based on his memoir. “Life in Morley” is a good name, or “Morley’s Hotel”.

The prohibition movement hadn’t made much headway in that part of the country then, but finally penetrated the established centres of influence: church, colleges, editorial rooms, legislatures.

Forty years before the Civil War, liquor was even more a part of daily life. It is common to read statements to this effect for early America in general, but not often does one encounter tangible evidence of it. This was provided by Katy Parker, a local historian in Potsdam. In 1913 she wrote a multi-part history of early settlement in Parish, NY for the Potsdam Herald-Recorder. Parish was one of the pioneer towns founded in the area after 1800.

One part of her history deals with the importance of distilleries to local life and the economy. It covers a period more or less co-terminous with the 1812 War. She includes the accounts of a farmer showing daily purchases for his farm. He was someone, she said, who had always been respected as a solid citizen and Christian. Yet liquor figured very large in the accounts, gallons and gallons of whisky and other drinks next to quotidian purchases of lumber and the like.

The liquor was partly used in connection with “training”, which I think must have meant training cattle and horses to carry agricultural implements. (We remember this meaning in the term “drive train”).  Anything to do with the labour of  a farm, especially clearing land and raising buildings and fences required liquor to ease the travail. Sugar and “ginger” also figure in the accounts. Ginger is our old friend from the cocktail posts I wrote a while back, no doubt it was used with the sugar to make early cocktails.

The author’s calculation of distillery profits is, well, sobering. The profit declined when a tax on liquor was re-imposed to help fight the 1812 war with Canada, but as she notes, Mr. Hoard, her example of a county distiller, didn’t stop on that account although he grumbled.

Her account makes clear this liquor was sold new off the still, no aging. It would have been distilled once or twice and probably rectified roughly through charcoal in a tub. It was likely full of fusel oils, but people drank it all the same.

It was this background that enabled a tolerant attitude to booze in the time covered by Leonard’s recollections and well into the 1800s. By 1913 when Katy Parker wrote, times had changed. There is a wondering tone in her account, as if to say, how could things have changed so radically in just 100 years?

A book written in Canada in the 1880s, dealing with Chateauguay, a part of Quebec south of Montreal settled by British immigrants, states that the American North Country sent plenty of contraband whisky to the area. The writer, oddly to my mind, considers that the whisky was based on potatoes (see p. 179). It is odd because Parker mentions the classic American whiskey grains of rye, corn, and barley as the basis of Hoard’s distillations, not the potato.

Maybe some New York distillers did use potatoes, perhaps too in the riparian counties east of St. Lawrence County. Anyway, the book does confirm that lots of whiskey was made upstate in New York in the early 1800s and found its way to Canada.

Of course, what is across the water from Ogdensburg? Prescott. Who founded a distillery there? John P. Wiser, one of the Big 5 in Ontario before consolidation in the 1920s. What did Wiser make? Rye whisky. Where was he from? Oneida County, NY, just south of the region we are talking about.* What did Hiram Walker, another American, make in Canada? Rye whisky. Two communities separated by a border but of largely British origins and unified culture, making the same kind of whisky after rum lost its hegemony in the wake of the American Revolution.

Later, the whisky types, although not so much the ingredients, diverged, but until the Civil War cousin-distillers would have made similar products: rye- and corn-based whisky, with not too much aging, and lotsa taste from rudimentary distillation. And yes, maybe some potato spirit crept in there, an early form of vodka.

Note re images: the image above of Ogdensburg was sourced at this geneology site. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*At least one account stated he was Vermont-born, see this obituary in 1911 in an Ogdensburg paper. At all events he had an extensive American background before moving to Prescott.

[See as continuation Part II of this account].


A Vodka Jamboree

Assemble the vodkas … (tap tap with bar spoon on glass) and the Overture begins.

Two of them are not technically vodka. The Global, sourced in Quebec, is “alcohol” or neutral spirit, distilled at 94% abv and reduced to 40% for this bottling. I assume the distillate comes off the still at 94% since the SAQ actually sells it at that strength too – you read it right. If Global sells a 94% abv, evidently that is the basis for proofing down junior to 40%.

94% abv, or 188 U.S. proof, is a typical distilling out target for neutral spirits, GNS not intended for vodka that is. For vodka, you want it generally at 95% abv or between that and 96%. In some places indeed, e.g., the U.S., it must be 95% + (190 proof or >) to be apt for vodka. Plus, vodka by law must be charcoal-treated.

I believe this Global spirit is similar to the grain whisky of Scotland and Canada before aging if it is made from grain anyway. The label is rather vague on where it is made, and does not indicate the fermentable base. Global is an East European drinks empire but has facilities somewhere in North America too, apparently. I’d guess it is a rye- or potato-based spirit but can’t be sure.

The Sobieski is a well-known Polish brand, rye-based, reasonably-priced.

The Askalon is made in Israel, and given distillation originated in the Middle East and that Jews lived for 1000 years in Poland and elsewhere in East Europe where vodka quality is a byword, one would think they know how to make vodka. At least, that’s the romantic explanation.

The Dillon Method 95 is a vodka-type spirit distilled from Niagara grapes, not called vodka as such since not made from grain.

Each is excellent and different. The Global is very full-flavoured, a touch fruity, quite different from “vodka” when tasted side by side. The Sobieski is creamy, sharp, bracing, with maybe a faint smell of charcoal. The Dillon method 95 is sweet and also creamy, I can’t really tell the substrate is grapes, it just tastes like a very good, full-bodied vodka.

The Israel one has a note of flint or stone, with a full taste, faintly spicy and smoky. It almost reminds me of arak, which the company makes too. Could the vapours of the arak somehow get into the tanks of vodka … stranger things have happened, but a first-rate spirit either way.

Keeping with my musical theme, it’s a vodka jamboree, and Chris Spedding provides the closing music, as The Who did the opening.



Shades of Light and Dark

In my last post I indicated that from early days a hallmark of Canadian Club, which applies to Canadian whisky in general, is that it is aged for years in wood barrels. The law requires now at least three years of aging, originally it was two. CC well exceeds that, even for the base brand, as it has been aged at least five years (to our knowledge) since c. 1900.

Canadian whisky is almost always composed of what has been termed a heavy and light component. The heavy one is distilled generally under 80% abv, the light one at about 94% abv. The streams are combined when new and then aged, as for CC, or aged separately and blended at maturity, as say for the Wiser`s brands.

The situation in Scotland is similar, their “grain whisky” is our light whisky and it is aged and then blended with malt whisky to form one of the blends of commerce, Johnnie Walker Black Label, say.

The light whiskies in both places have some secondary constituents, compounds apart the ethanol and water that give flavour and body, often called for convenience congeners. But the heavy whiskies have far more congeners since they are distilled in a less thorough fashion. The idea is to get a balance of flavours by blending them, and also the grain or light whisky element is cheaper to produce than the heavy whiskies. This means the products can be sold at a lower price than a bottle containing 100% heavy whisky (a single malt in Scotland, in Canada a rye whiskey distilled under 80% abv).

The grain or light whiskies aren’t quite neutral and spirit of a slightly higher purity is employed to make vodka, for example. Also, vodka is subjected generally to charcoal filtration to further cleanse and purify the spirit. Grain whisky going into the barrel for years to be blended with heavy whisky on the other end doesn`t need such refinements and indeed they are probably not desirable as they will detract somewhat from flavour in the same measure.

Still, the grain or light whisky element is quite neutral in character as compared to the boisterous flavour of a malt or straight rye (or bourbon, brandy, tequila, heavy rum or other spirit of the older, pre-grain spirit type).

The Americans have a blended whisky too but they don’t usually age the neutral element. Why? In 1943, a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington on the liquor industry shed some light. Philip Buck, a federal lawyer, stated that American distillers, the “experts”, saw no advantage in doing so.

What he meant was, as grain spirit was virtually pure ethanol, it had little flavour from congeners. Therefore, it was ready to drink, just as straight whiskey aged four years, say, is ready to drink. The straight whiskey, albeit starting as heavily congeneric, is modified by the long barrel aging into a pleasant-tasting drink. This results from the many chemical interactions in the barrel, between congeners in the barrel deriving from fermentation and between these and substances extracted from the wood.

Straight U.S. whiskey has so much wood in it too due to aging in new charred oak barrels that blending it with white neutral spirit lends some of that character to the latter – there is plenty to go around so to speak.

Then why do Britons and Canadians age the neutral (or near-neutral) element? The real reason may be, marketing. As Canadian Club’s lawyer explained in 1909 to President Taft, consumers were thought to want a whisky that had no fusel oil (a term for some of the unpleasant congeners in new spirit) yet one that was aged.

Technically, as Philip Buck saw in 1943, these two things are at least partly inconsistent. A new spirit without fusel oil – vodka for practical purposes – doesn’t need aging. Yet the public, probably from the years before neutral spirits existed in the market, had the habit or reflex to want aged whisky. The answer: give them a product which was largely neutral-tasting – no fusels – but age it anyway. This seems to have been the business strategy in both Scotland and Canada where blended whiskies emerged concurrently in the later 1800s. (Of course too, the aging would improve the small amount in the blends that was straight to start with, in the CC way of doing it that is but not otherwise).

Maybe too aging the neutral spirit produces a different kind of drink, especially as the straight part wasn’t as woody/complex as if aged in a new charred barrel in the U.S. Also, some chemical reaction would take place by virtue of aging the neutral component that perhaps was felt to benefit the palate. Oxidation of ethanol, which produces green apple flavours, is an example.

Well-aged Canadian whiskies, although generally having only a faint straight character, do get a certain richness and complexity from the wood content (sugars, tannic acid) in both the heavy and light elements. It may have been accidental, but a Canadian style certainly emerged finally. Canadian Club`s website calls it an almondy richness and I agree with that. Another way to describe it is a cigar-box quality.

The regular Canadian Club used to be labeled six years old and I think it was better when it was, but it is still an almondy drink, and even more so for the iterations you can buy at nine, twelve, and twenty years age.  It`s another style, different from Scotch mainly because the heavy element is different – straight rye (often) instead of malt whisky. It is not because of the light or grain whisky element, which is similar organoleptically in both countries. As is the barrel.

Canadians generally use less of the heavy element in their blends than the Scots, although hard information is not easy to come by. From all I have read and heard, I think most Canadian whisky uses under 10% heavy or flavouring whisky. The Scots probably use 25-50% malt whisky in their blends, depending on the quality. Of course, straight rye is a pretty assertive drink (buy some Lot 40 to see), so it doesn`t make sense to argue the additions should be parallel in this sense, but still, the average Scotch blend has more character than the average Canadian whisky, IMO.


Hiram Walker Glitters at the Bar

In 1908-1909, Hiram Walker was involved in a contest with American food authorities as to how its star product Canadian Club would be labelled. Its primary goal, that the product was entitled no less than straight bourbon or rye to be called whisky, was completely vindicated.

This resulted from President Taft’s decision in 1909 that whisky was any distillate from grain brought to proof for beverage purposes. This would include neutral spirits from a column still but exclude, say, a “whisky” derived from molasses or apple juice.

Some had argued that Kentucky and Pennsylvania straight whiskeys, 100% distilled at a low proof (generally from 140-160) and aged in new charred oak for some years, were entitled to the appellation whisky but not the product of the column or patent still which rendered a virtually flavourless alcohol at 95% abv.

It is very interesting to read the arguments of Canadian Club, which were very ably put by its lawyers including Joseph Choate, a New York grandee who had been the U.S. ambassador to England.

First, what was Canadian Club? Choate described it much as the company does today on its website: a whiskey composed of “two streams” mingled when new and then barrelled for five years. One stream was neutral in character, the other a straight whisky intended to confer the flavour. Choate doesn’t state if the barrels were used or new, presumably they were used as the case today for most Canadian whisky. He also didn’t state the proportions of straight and neutral whisky mixed, but I’d guess the straight element was under 10%. Today, the amount varies (for Canadian Club) depending on the line extension.

One purpose of this explanation was to show that the Canadians aged their neutral spirit, in distinction to the Americans who mixed it fresh from the still with straight whiskey to form their version of blended whisky. This showed, at least, that blended whisky did not take one form and there were different ways to “flavour” ethyl alcohol made from grain.

Choate gave a masterly exposition to President Taft – the oral argument was in person – which moreover turned the tables on the straight whisky exponents: not only was neutral spirit fully entitled to be called whisky, but really straight whiskey was the newcomer not patent still whisky! Hiram Walker’s counsel stated that before the Civil War, most whiskey was sold new and was rectified in some fashion, typically by leaching in charcoal vats and sometimes by re-distillation. This was “high wines”, made in a pot still or perhaps the three-chambered, steam-driven still that was an improvement of same.

Choate said some of this older-type rectified whisky was coloured with burnt sugar and flavoured with something, depending on the area and consumer preference. Choate said when the patent still came in use c. 1872, it performed in one operation what had taken two or three steps the older way, to rectify that is new whiskey of its rank fusel oil taste.

While an adroit argument, it tended to minimize, as any good lawyer will, the weaker parts of the case. American whiskey aged for years in wood was advertised in the market well before 1860. Many examples can be given from newspaper ads, see e.g., here, four year old Monongahela rye in 1847. See also Henry Crowgey’s classic Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking. He gives many examples of aged whiskey in the market in the first quarter of the 1800s. This was long before the continuous still was in general use.

As Crowgey also explains though, that whiskey was not necessarily aged in new charred oak, hallmark of the straight whiskey style. So Choate was right in the sense that whiskey aged in new charred oak didn’t become commonplace until after the Civil War. And it is new charred oak that really makes straight whiskey what it is, not uncharred oak or reused charred oak. Still, a barrel of any kind will mature whiskey after a spell of a few years, as we know from Scots single malt. Cognac had long been aged and was sold as such certainly by the 1700s. And the benefits of the new charred barrel in Kentucky were recognized as early as 1826.

Choate might have been asked, why was whisky coloured to begin with…?

Also, the patent still marked a new era as compared with spirit distilled, even multiple times, in a pot still and rectified in one of the old ways. I have tasted new Jack Daniel’s both off the still and run through the maple charcoal tub. The maple version is cleaner but not by all that much. This is presumably why from the late 1800s Jack Daniel gets a full period of aging in the warehouse.

All in all though, Choate made a good argument: the Kentucky people should not have a lock on what constitutes whisky and indeed their best form of it was developed concurrently (more or less) with his client’s form. It gives pause certainly to anyone who argues that patent still spirit isn’t “real” whisky.

Below (via HathiTrust) is a good summary of the arguments.


Note re images: the first image, of Joseph Choate c. 1898, was sourced via Wikipedia at his biographical entry, here, and the second from HathiTrust as stated above. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their lawful owner or user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Irish Drink in the Diaspora

Today is as good as any to ruminate on the state of Irish drinks by which I mean, the kinds we get in Canada, a typical export market one assumes.

First and foremost in visibility and lore, Guinness Stout. I’m sure the draft and “widget” (black can and shaped bottle) versions please a lot of people, which is good for them and Guinness, but in my view, from a craft/artisan/historical standpoint, it’s rather plain stuff. In particular, the sizable raw grains content, maybe 40% based on reading over the years, doesn’t do them any favours.

Guinness does make some sterner stuff, but doesn’t send it here, not even a special release as a nod to the franchise. No Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. No West Indies Porter. Not even Dublin-brewed bottled Extra Stout, a better drink than draft Guinness and the widgets. At least, I’ve never seen them in Canada.

Still, I’ll try the draft occasionally, and given the turnover for Guinness this week, chances are of getting it as good as can be outside Ireland. But Guinness will never have my real attention until they release something much closer to the roots of the beer: all-malt, very well-hopped, and containing a measure of aged or vatted beer. It could do this as a premium draft, or premium bottled beer.

Fortunately, the craft world offers many beers in that tradition. Ontario-brewed Clifford Porter is an excellent, full-flavoured standard strength porter, it’s replete with historical character.

There are a few c. 8% abv stouts you can get locally which probably deliver a taste quite close to the 1800s heyday of London and Dublin porter. So options exist, but I find it odd that Guinness, with its charter origins in creating that kind of beer and long history, doesn’t want to go there.

Certainly it is a pattern in consumer products companies, but not all of them follow a similar path. Heineken restored its original, all-malt formula about 20 years ago (all markets) and the beer is better for it.  AB-InBev makes a number of craft beers via its programme of backing into the business. Molson Coors offers Creemore Lager in Canada, and so on. There`s the mass market, and the niche. The niche reinforces the main franchise, it`s win-win as I see it.

As to whiskey. In my estimation, the standard brands aren’t as good as they were and that includes most of the premium versions. I know them since the 1970s and they all were more oily and “fresh leather”-tasting than now, whether blends or single pot still.

The only one I had recently that had the old taste, and was truly outstanding, was Redbreast 21 year old. Perhaps this is simply that it was made at a time when the classic mashing formula, barley malt and raw barley, was allowed to express its full character. It’s a great whiskey, but to paraphrase Ogden Nash ( I think it was), “[great] whiskey is nice but has a price”.

I’d assume as for Guinness, the idea to extend and expand sales internationally has resulted in adjusting the palate for broad appeal. Fair enough. Business is business, and if they’re making a good return I can`t gainsay it, but will look to other options for whiskey of expressive, traditional character.