Canadian Whisky Mashes Circa 1850 and More

James Morton, an early Ontario industrialist, is well-profiled in an entry by historian M.L. Magill in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Morton’s interest to us is by virtue of his twin activities as brewer and distiller in Upper Canada as it was known in his period of activity.

Distilling and brewing sometimes occurred under the same business roof. Other examples in Canada are the early Molsons in Montreal and Kingston, the Walkers in Windsor and the Harts in Trois-Rivières.

Morton had a complex financial and business career which did not end well, as Magill profiles. But he is remembered as a pioneering industrialist and capitalist who suffered at least in part due to an inadequate credit system.

In terms of his whisky, “Morton Family Proof” achieved high regard in Canada into the 1860s, on a par of quality with George Gooderham’s whisky in Toronto and Hiram Walker’s in Windsor. Despite the death of Morton before Confederation, his distillery continued until about 1900. The site, which includes original buildings, is now a heritage centre. On the period map below it is, as far as we can tell, the “1” on the figure on the recessed land point on the left, about middle of the picture.

Morton learned the whisky business from Thomas Molson (of the Molsons in Montreal) who operated an early distillery in Kingston. It was later taken over by Morton and a partner and finally operated solely by Morton.

Morton was Irish-born, an Ulsterman, as some other distilling families, e.g., Meagher. A few had English roots, e.g., Seagram, Molson, Corby, Gooderham, Worts. Some I presume were of Scots ethnicity such as the head of McDougall Distillery in Halifax, N.S. Some were, I believe, Loyalist, say Smith Sherman Halliday of Maitland, ON (Borst, Halliday & Co. Distillery)*. John P. Wiser in Prescott and Hiram Walker in Windsor were American-born.

Today, whisky-distilling in Britain is thought of as Scots or Irish, but the English made whisky too in the 1800s and before, indeed the tradition has returned in recent years. For an Englishman or a Scot to set up a legal still was six of one, half a dozen of the other. We must remember too that styles such as gin only became well-defined from the mid-1700s. Dutch gin was and is, in its most authentic form, a young whisky. It stimulated finally the creation of London gin, but only after a time.

Jan Melcher was a Dutch immigrant who set up a distillery in Quebec in the 19th century. Against this background, his non-British origins are not that significant…

The British cultural connection to whisky was abetted by an apt market in south-central Ontario, formed as it was to a large degree by the Loyalist influx. There may have been few Loyalist distillers proper, although I’ve seen no definitive data considering that the United Province of Canada had a couple of hundred distilleries into the 1840s and probably many illicit ones. But that the Loyalist settlers formed a ready market for whisky is a reasonable inference given whisky had a correlative rise in the U.S. across the border whence they came.

Rum was the favoured hard drink in northern U.S. and Canada before the American Revolution but it declined steadily, as against whisky, from the early 1800s. I have written earlier how the enduring taste for rum in Quebec was ousted in part by illicit whisky made in northern New York State along the St. Lawrence River.

Morton’s beers would have been barley-based as for all ale and porter in the early years of brewing in North America, i.e., beer of British inspiration. His whisky was not, though, despite the presumed inclination of a British distiller to use barley malt or at least all-barley in the mash.

We can conclude this from an interesting statement in the 1851 Notes on North America by James Johnston. In the book, Johnston quotes an unnamed, prominent distiller in Kingston whom I’d guess was Morton. The comment is of interest as showing the mash bill at the time of a prominent Ontario distiller. The account states that Morton used “chiefly rye and Indian corn, but sometimes pease also – all ground up together”. There is a somewhat unclear reference to barley malt, which I think meant that distillers got a greater rendering from rye and corn than barley. Some malt was probably used in an unmalted rye/corn mash to convert the starches to fermentable sugar, hence the “chiefly”.

Peas have a long albeit minor history in brewing. Its transfer to the distillery is not surprising.

The fact of contributing an ill-taste means two things: first, flavour was important, the market, at least for a certain quality, didn’t accept a spirit from any old grains. Second, the very fact the peas gave a taste shows the distilling did not in this period produce a neutral product. If it did, no taste of consequence, bad or otherwise, would derive from the feedstock used regardless of type.

This reflected the type of stills in use prior to technological sophistication of the industry, either a wood or all-metal pot still or the three-chambered steam-operated still (a kind of linked pot still system). The column still, where the steam came in direct contact with the wash, and related abandonment of charcoal leaching tubs, came later although not much later. Tanya Lynn MacKinnon records the history in her masterful economic study (2000) of the early Ontario whisky industry.

A mixed rye and corn mash was being used contemporaneously in Kentucky distilling. It was probably the case too for some Pennsylvania and Maryland distilling albeit primarily rye is associated with whiskey in those states. Samuel M’Harry, an early writer (1809) of a distilling text, was a Pennsylvania native. He recorded whisky mashes from all-corn to all-rye with various percentage mixes in between. So did fellow-American Harrison Hall (1818) who mentioned wheat as a good feedstock for the still except for its high cost. These distillers clearly were looking for the best yield (alcohol) at the best cost, with an eye to quality at the higher end.

There seems no reason to think it was different in Quebec and Ontario but grain supply and prices must have varied in different localities, hence different practices.

From 1850 at least, corn generally formed the majority of the Canadian mash with rye in minority, as was typical for bourbon. This ties in to improved boat and increasing rail transport for these commodities. E.g., almost all the corn used in Canadian distilleries in the 1800s came from the U.S. Use of various wheat-based middlings or “shorts” by some distilleries in Canada is documented especially in the first decades of the 1800s, but rye and corn emerged as the standard mash by 1850, or so I infer e.g., from MacKinnon’s description of the mashbills at Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker in the 1850s.

Rye even in small amount gives a definable taste to whisky. We see that today even from the Canadian standard blends. Ergo “rye” became the name attributed to such whisky. Possibly too some of those 200 early central Canadian distillers used all-rye, but that evidence is not necessary for a reasonable supposition as to the origin of the term rye whisky.

Oats occasionally were used in Canada in lieu of rye for this purpose. Small amounts were also characteristic of Irish distilling practice although this was later abandoned in favour of malted and unmalted barley only. Oats are mentioned in the American books too but its flavour was not always liked.

The Canadian whisky industry has evolved in its practice. Today, typically grains only of one variety are mashed and distilled. Different distillates are blended before or after aging, although exceptions exist, e.g., for the “bourbon” made in house by Seagram in Gimli for blending. Some bourbon mash whiskey has been made in Ontario as well, Last Barrels is an example. Change is ongoing, indeed today’s industry is not quite what it was 25 years ago.**

A product such as Corby’s Lot 40 with its very forward flavour deriving from distillation at a low proof was unknown in the market then. Its introduction, and the introduction since its launch of a few similar products (the Canadian Club green label, Dark Horse, Masterson’s, etc.) was the result of calls for change by enthusiasts and the industry’s perception that it should offer a product comparable to a bourbon, straight rye, or single malt.

I believe the Canadian industry over time will introduce more products of a straight character. It is possible it can retain and even grow its present share of the market with products whose base is largely composed of aged neutral spirits. But even if so, a greater number of straight-type products will offer a better bulwark against the raft of bourbon and straight U.S. ryes now available, not to mention single malts, Japanese whiskies, and some Irish whiskies. As well, it has its own gastronomic justification.

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* Later, I saw that a Halliday distillery (under that single name) existed on the Toronto waterfront at least between 1849 and 1851. It is marked on a number of drawings of the area, to the west of Gooderham’s site. Whether it is connected to the Maitland one I cannot say, but I’d guess there is a connection because Halliday also had some kind of depot or presence in Montreal.

** I should add I am addressing here the large industrial producers, not artisan distillers.

Note re image: the image above was sourced here from Toronto Public Library. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.