CANADIAN WHISKY MATURES BY THE 1890s
Between 1892 and 1894 the Canadian Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic held hearings to study all facets of the liquor question. This arose in the wake of burgeoning pressure for legally-enforced temperance by well-organized advocates across the country. The work and results of the Commission are well-described, here, by Jack S. Blocker, Jr., David Fahey, and Ian Tyrrell in Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: a Global Encyclopedia (2003).
At a hearing in Ontario in 1894 the Commission took evidence from a Charles Richardson, described as holding a lectureship in chemistry at the Ontario Veterinary College. In his testimony Richardson stated that he had previously worked for the Brewers Association of Canada as a chemist.
Richardson was questioned on a range of topics pertaining to beverage alcohol in its different forms. He was asked at one point if he thought the law that required aging of whisky was beneficial to consumers. In 1890, Canada enacted a law stating that whisky produced here must be aged at least two years (today it is three years). In this regard, readers should consider that two years under present U.S. law is the necessary period to call bourbon whiskey “straight bourbon”.
Richardson in the course of his answer stated that Canadian distillers were now blending whisky from two types: i) a “silent spirit” (a grain neutral spirits distilled to 94% alcohol purity and largely free of disagreeable-tasting fusels), and ii) whisky which retained its fusel oil component and required lengthy barrel- aging to remove the off-flavours.
He did not specify the percentages of each, but we know from the general literature that the amount of non-silent whisky in the blends was quite low, generally 5%-10%. This probably explains why many brands tested for a opalescence in 1892 didn’t show any, or only a slight amount, as I explained yesterday. (Cloudiness is a sign of fusel oils and therefore the presence of traditional whisky).
Richardson testified that Canadian distillers had devised this new blended whisky only since the time they were able to produce “silent spirit”, which he said was “fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years ago”. He said before that, distilling technology did not permit rectifying the whisky to silent (neutral) status. In other words only long barrel aging produced a clean pleasant taste albeit one not neutral certainly.
Richardson’s explanation is confirmed in Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s masterful study (2000) of the historical geography of the early Ontario distilling industry. This was the period in which a handful of industrially savvy distillers emerged to dominate the market by 1900: Hiram Walker, Gooderham & Worts, Wiser, Corby, and Seagram.
MacKinnon explained that up to around 1850, Canadian distillers used the old fashioned pot still. Starting from the 1850s, some distillers invested in the newer, three-chambered column still (a form of it is still used in France to make Armagnac). The spirit was brought to 50 Over Proof in the old British proof system, or 85.6% abv. The new distillate was then filtered in vats holding layers of charcoal, stones, and felts. Readers who are familiar with Jack Daniels and its maple charcoal leaching might reflect that it is nothing new, simply a survival of general 19th century practices. Tiny apertures in these materials trapped some of the oily fusel matter, the stuff that gave the spirit a petrol smell and taste. Canadian distillers used the same techniques as Jack Daniels still vaunts today, but with the same limited results: the spirit was further cleansed but not to the degree getting it to 94% abv purity would do.
By the time of Confederation (1867), the most ambitious distillers were using yet newer technology which involved condensing the spirit in a second, rectification column. The first column got all the alcohol out of the weak cereal beer, the second one brought it to 94% abv or practical neutrality. The old charcoal vats were dismantled, and the era of modern distilling arrived.
The new vodka-like drink didn’t taste like the whisky people remembered from the pot still or single column still, charcoal filtering days. So Ontario distillers started to add a little of the traditional whisky to the silent spirit type, with all of it aged for at least two years after 1890. This became the Canadian whisky style, and the original straight whiskeys dropped out of the market.
Some of those older whiskeys were straight rye made from all-rye or a mash in which rye predominated, which is why the name rye whisky lingered to describe the new blended form.
Thus, by the 1890s when most of what was in a Canadian whisky bottle was made from corn, the name “rye” stuck to describe our national whisky type.
When you read Charles Richardson’s testimony carefully, it is clear he considered the new Canadian whisky quite different from traditional whisky. The blend was preferable to the old form only when the latter hadn’t been properly aged. That is, he implied that traditional whisky distilled at a low proof was superior to the new blended form when properly aged. Hence his approval of the two year aging rule although by the time that rule became law most Canadian whisky was blended. Aging might improve the taste but it was the silent spirit that did the brunt of the work to make the drink palatable.
While opining that adding real whisky to silent spirit cannot copy real whisky Richardson stopped short of calling the new form factitious or adulterated. Some in the international whisky industry at the time were not so reticent including a group of traditional distillers in Ireland and U.S. bourbon makers.
Uncertainty over what was really “whisky” led to a legal definition being adopted in the next 20 years in Britain and the U.S. The decision in both places was that silent spirit made from grain (vs. say sugar) was entitled to the description of whisky. Canada followed the same path, as it had earlier in regard to the blending revolution that gave rise to this problem. In other words U.K. and U.S. distillers were adopting blending when Canadians did, it all happened around the same time.
Richardson’s statements were probably largely lost on the Royal Commission. I doubt the Commissioners understood the technical reasons behind his testimony, and the questioning soon turned to other topics.
What this history shows us is that by 1894 Canadian whisky was mostly (aged) neutral spirits and no longer straight whisky. It had assumed the mild form we know today, in other words, e.g., Canadian Club or Crown Royal.
But Canadian distillers recently have issued products whose character stretches back to an earlier time than the 1890s, when whisky still had piney, petrol, or waxy notes. That was considered traditionally the “whisky” taste especially at a time when whisky was little aged if at all.
Some of the new products from Canadian distillers taste like this again although as a group the whiskies are probably much better than anything known in the early 1800s. This is due to the longer aging they now receive, three to 12 years or even more.
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