Canadian Whisky Perfected 1870-1894

 

1024px-Column_stillLegend: A. Analyzer B. Rectifier 1. Wash 2. Steam 3. Liquid out 4. Alcohol vapour 5. Recycled less volatile components 6. Most volatile components 7. Condenser

CANADIAN WHISKY MATURES BY THE 1890s

Between 1892 and 1894, a Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic was struck in Ottawa to study all facets of the liquor question. This arose in the wake of burgeoning pressure by temperance 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 their Alcohol And Temperance In Modern History: A Global Encyclopedia (2003).

In 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 he had previously worked for the Brewers Association of Canada as a chemist.

Richardson was questioned on a broad range of topics pertaining to alcohol and its different forms. He was asked at one point if he thought the law requiring aging of whisky was beneficial to consumers. In 1890, Canada enacted a law requiring that whisky produced here be aged two years (it is now three years). In this regard, readers should consider that two years under present U.S. law is the necessary period to call bourbon “straight bourbon”.

Richardson in the course of his answer, see from bottom of pg. 761, stated that Canadian distillers were now blending whisky from two types, i) a silent spirit (grain neutral spirits distilled to 94% abv in the column still), and ii) genuine whisky which required aging in barrel to modify its fusel oil naturally. He did not specify the percentages, but we know from the general literature on Canadian whisky that the amount of traditional whisky was quite low, from 5%-10%. This no doubt explains why many brands tested for opalescence in 1892 didn’t show any or only a slight amount, as I explained yesterday.

Richardson said Canadian distillers 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 spirit to silent (neutral) status. This is confirmed in Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s masterful study (2000) of the early Ontario distilling industry, the period in which a handful of industrially savvy distillers emerged to dominate the market: Hiram Walker, Gooderham & Worts, Wiser, Corby, and Seagram.

MacKinnon explains that up to around 1850, Canadian distilling used the pot still. Starting from the 1850s, some distillers invested in the new, 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 maple charcoal leaching might reflect that it is nothing new, simply a survival of 19th century practices. Tiny apertures in these materials would trap some of the oily matter, the stuff that gave the spirit a petrol smell and taste.  Canadian distillers used the same techniques as Jack Daniels vaunts today, but with the same limited results: spirit was further cleansed, but not to the degree getting it to 94% abv would do.

By around 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 or single column still and charcoal filtering days. So Ontario distillers started to add a little of the older whisky type to the silent spirit – all of it aged 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, which is why the name lingered to describe the new form of whisky, and/or the use of rye in a mixed mash led to the name due to the pronounced flavour rye imparts to any whisky.

Thus, by the 1890s when most of what was in the Canadian whisky bottle was made from corn, the name “rye” stuck to describe our whisky type.

When you read Charles Richardson’s testimony carefully, it is clear he considered the new Canadian whisky quite different from traditional whisky. It was preferable to the old form only when the latter hadn’t been properly aged, but he implied that genuine whisky (distilled at a low proof that is) was superior to the new blended form when properly aged. Hence his approval of the two year aging rule albeit two years may seem rather low to us today.

While stating 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 were not so reticent (a group of traditional distillers in Ireland, in particular). Uncertainty over what was whisky led to a legal definition being adopted in the next 20 years in Britain and the U.S. The decision was that silent spirit made from grain was entitled to the description, whisky. Canada followed the same path, as it did in regard to the blending revolution taking place elsewhere concurrently.

Richardson’s comments were probably lost on the Royal Commission members. I doubt they understood the technical reasons behind his testimony, and the discussion moved on to other topics.

What it shows for us is, by 1894 Canadian whisky was mostly aged neutral spirits and no longer straight. It had assumed the mild form we know today, e.g. Canadian Club or Crown Royal (the regular brands of these). But Canadian distillers recently have issued products whose character stretches back to an earlier time in the 1800s, when whisky had piney, petrol, or waxy notes. That was considered the “whisky” taste especially in a period when whisky was little aged if at all. Some of the new products taste like this again although as a group they are probably much better than anything the forefathers knew due to the longer aging they receive, three-12 years or more.

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