Come One, Come All For David Allan’s Pure Rye Whisky!

This Canadian whisky advertisement is from 1871, in Guelph, ON. It has a striking elegance which results from both skill in design and economy of expression.

Perhaps the native practicality of the Scottish-born distiller and miller, David Allan, led to such pleasing results.

David Allan’s father, William, bought a small mill on the Speed river in Guelph as a rude, wood-frame building, in the 1830s. Father and son were builders and architects with European experience. They expanded the operation to include a distillery, fulling, and furniture business.

The Allans were connected to Sir Hugh Allan (shipping, finance, and more) in Montreal who is well-known to anyone versed in Canadian business history. The Allans were among the elite capitalists of their day.

The Guelph distillery of David Allan sold thousands of barrels of whisky and other liquors per year, a good example of a distillery that resisted the growth of the Big 5 in Ontario. These were Gooderham & Worts in Toronto, Hiram Walker in Windsor, Seagram in Waterloo, Wiser in Prescott, and Corby in Belleville.

David Allan became ill in 1877 and this apparently foretold the end of the operation, but c. 1870 it was doing well. The product line is interesting to parse.

The “old rye” was probably pure spirits, perhaps blended with a straight rye (whisky mash) component, aged a year or two in barrels. Malt whisky was a Canadian version of Scottish malt whisky. Not all Canadian distilleries made a malt whisky, and in this case perhaps it was a nod to Allan’s Scottish origins.

“Com. whiskey”, that is, common whiskey, was perhaps unaged rye whiskey mash, or maybe alcohol (see below) proofed for drinking strength.

Alcohol was probably distilled at 94% abv, sold for industrial purposes, while pure spirit (95% abv or almost) was alcohol further treated with charcoal or re-distillation to remove all residual secondary constituents. The percentages of alcohol in these types may have been lower though, depending on the type of still used by Allan in 1871.

Old Tom gin was the pure spirits or alcohol flavoured with juniper, sugar, and citrus or other things to make a sweetened gin. There was no dry gin offered, which perhaps meant the local market hadn’t yet developed the taste for London Dry.

Toddy was probably one of the whiskeys sweetened with sugar, ready for hot water to make the now-disappeared 19th century staple, whisky toddy.

It is hard to know for certain though on the composition of these without recourse to distillery records. Each distillery probably made something different anyway, especially smaller ones, and the trade terms mentioned had no legal definition at the time.

It’s nice to know a distillery will once again operate in the old Allan milling complex: see this report out of Guelph a few months ago. It states that a development called Metalworks will build a new distillery and restaurant in the old Allan mill complex. Some of Allan’s original buildings are pictured in the account, looking spruce as ever. They built well, those Scottish engineers…

Note: The above image was sourced from the Gazetteer And Directory Of The County Of Wellington for 1871-1872, published by A.O. Loomis & Company in Hamilton, ON. This volume was reprinted by the Wellington County Museum in the 1970s. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

The Mexican Village of Coronado, CA

I’m adding one more menu from 1967 (courtesy the New York Public Library, in terms of the introduction of Mexican cuisine to a mainstream audience in the U.S.

It’s from the Mexican Village, established as a small cafe in 1943 in Coronado, CA, on the peninsula of San Diego Bay. While Cafe del Sol had approximately a 50-year run, Mexican Garden did it one better: it closed in 2009-2010, so almost 60 years in business. The restaurant was enlarged numerous times, as this interesting report from 1990 observes.

Before I go further, I should say I’m well aware that the type of cuisine introduced to Americans as Mexican since the 1960s, is i) not really new, ii) usually a hybrid of Mexican and American food traditions. It’s not new because ever since the 19th century in the southwest, Mexican and Spanish-American foodways have interacted with “American”. The styles that emerged have been broadly called Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex, or more recently for southern California, Baja-style aka Baja-Cal and Fresh-Mex.*

Even before the 1960s this cooking was available in Latino enclaves in the southwest and sometimes diners and other informal eateries.

There are differences too amongst these categories and within them, depending on the region/town and sometimes the restaurant. (Angelenos like crispy tacos, the Texans like the soft kind, etc.).

As to the hybrid nature of the food, in general things like wheat-based tacos (vs. corn), use of cheddar cheese, use of beef and more meat in general as well as guacamole and sour cream, were largely American contributions.

However, the northern belt of Mexico, the provinces of Baja California, always ate something closer to American Mexican food than the other five or six regions which often differ quite a bit among themselves.

But rather than go further here, I will focus more on what American restaurateurs offered to diners as “Mexican” from the 1960s.

The menu below shows the approach of Mexican Garden, which was clearly more adventurous than Cafe del Sol as it presented not just a few Mexican dishes, or non-Mexican dishes gussied up to sound Mexican, but a full array of Mexican dishes familiar to us today.

Rather than describe each one, read them for yourself, but before you do, note how American dishes similar to Cafe del Sol’s were also offered: charcoal steaks, lobster, fish dishes, fried chicken, sandwiches, foods familiar to a mainstream audience. I think Mexican Garden always hedged its bets, covering both ends of the spectrum that is, indeed it seems this continued to the end.

Coronado is well south of L.A. and its conurbation, not so far from the Mexican border, and it had the Navy base as a natural constituency. It’s not the same IMO as being in Santa Barbara or L.A. itself and seeking a mainstream audience. I doubt a restaurant with that menu could have done it in L.A. in the 1940s, although if I’m wrong I’m happy to see the results!

At a minimum, Mexican Village was a gateway to a new category of American ethnic dining and paved the way for restaurants like Cafe de Sol and indeed another Mexican Village, this one started in 1965, in L.A. Its menu for the core Mexican items is not all that different to the Coronado original but it offers many more dishes. Some sound regional Mexican or perhaps reflect the current Baja-Cal cuisine.

I don’t think there was an ownership connection between the two Mexican Villages, but they are linked surely spiritually. You can read the L.A. restaurant’s menu – it is still going strong – and its own interesting history, here.

I’ll deal with the drinks of the Coronado Mexican Village in a separate post.



* I am speaking broadly here, today, distinct Mexican regional cuisines are often available in Los Angeles. The popular Baja-style takes inspiration from the work of modern chefs in nearby Baja California, Mexico. This is relatively new though, and the hybrid, Americanized form is still the type generally understood in North America as “Mexican”.

The Master’s Will

Red Red (and Other) Wine of the Country

I had linked, but hadn’t reproduced, the 1967 Cafe del Sol menu discussed in my last post.

Below (click for perfect resolution) is the wine section of the menu. With regard to beers, there are only four, but Coors was highly reputed at the time – and better than today I can attest from personal experience. Two Mexican imports were available, one was Carta Blanca, available in the U.S. since the 1930s. It was included in the New York Wine and Food Society’s 1940s beer and food tastings I’ve discussed earlier.

What was El Paseo Gold Rush sparkling wine? Perhaps a bulk or house sparkling, given the price and the name: El Paseo is an historic Spanish enclave in Santa Barbara, CA.

Of the foreign wines, Liebfraumilch makes a de rigeur appearance – I recall my family buying it in this period, from Deinhard IIRC. Almaden was a domestic mainstay then, is it still? Note the taste note, precise and forward-looking, indicating region of origin (Santa Clara).

Only the Sauterne strikes a clearly anachronistic note, as the sweetness would not suit service for dinner today.

“Pink” wines are back in fashion. A French one was offered, a Portugal version, and two domestics. I haven’t been able to trace the Santa Nella, surely another California label of the time.

The note on Buena Vista’s Zinfandel is again in perfect pitch – Zin did become a California classic and the pedigree described is correct to my knowledge. Buena Vista was a venerable California winery of high repute, but today is not operating I believe. But many of the other names are as strong as ever. I always liked Wente’s chardonnays with their characteristic pineapple note.

Beaulieu, speaking of pedigree, needs no introduction. And everyone knows Louis Martini. These are classics of the California vineyards and restaurants like Cafe de Sol helped make it so with their forthright support for the local.

The 19th century poem included applies just as much today as then, Mondo Vino notwithstanding. The only modification needed is to substitute irrigation (often) for rain.

The legend “Cocktails” perhaps was meant ironically as none are mentioned, although the word might have meant the main types were available. But withal, this menu looked resolutely to the future of bibulous refreshment in America.

It is in striking contrast certainly to countless menus of the day, from tony restaurants and wine and food clubs, which featured wines of France and Germany, and sometimes Italy and Spain, to the exclusion of what was made in their own back yard.

Cafe del Sol struck no such pretensions. It introduced more gingerly the Mexican dishes hinted at in the building design and the menu graphics, but got there finally. The television news story linked in the italicized note in my post yesterday made it clear that in latter days the menu was fully Mexican, at least that was my conclusion.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from, and appears courtesy of, at the page linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Chile Relleno – ¡Olé!

Cafe del Sol Wowed Southern California

California pioneered many innovations in food and gastronomy in America. As a larder for the fruits and vegetables that are indispensable in good cuisine, as well as repository of a viticulture stretching back centuries, it has everything necessary to support good dining and good living. Did I mention its place on the long littoral of the Pacific, ensuring access to good fish and seafood from its full length? What it doesn’t have was shipped by fast refrigerated rail from “the East” and later by plane as necessary.

Hence its pivotal place in the history of wine and cheese tasting as I discussed earlier, its creation of an array of salads including the famed Caesar and Cobb salads, and its interest in market cuisine of which world-famous Alice Waters is avatar in Berkeley. California invented the Moscow Mule (1946, at the Cock and Bull Pub in L.A.), and the ancestor of the Martini (Martinez). It came up with the Bloody Mary. Oh, it had something to do with craft beer too.

It started the trend for “warehouse”-style restaurants of which the first was probably the Old Spaghetti Factory in the 1950s, a former pasta plant. Its eclectic mix of bare factory walls and pillars with old chandeliers, lanterns, and ceiling-suspended chairs created a new style in American and finally world dining.

(This alone created a huge industry in faux/distressed period piping and ductwork – in a word in industrial chic).

While California did not of course create Mexican cuisines, the propinquity of Mexico and large number of Latino residents whose cultural capital included foodways made it a natural gateway for Mexican food and fusion with American dishes.

Julia Child later in her life spent a lot of time in California especially the Bay Area, paying obeisance to the new trends after her own revolution in American culinary habits. We once saw her close up walking through a restaurant, I think in Sonoma, the mirthful smile just like in pictures.

And so by the 1960s, the earlier food traditions brought by the settlers from the East, more or less standard American, underwent modification starting of course with restaurants.

Still, to show an interest in Mexican food in the 1960s was unusual. Mexican immigrants were regarded as an underclass and their foodways did not receive much investigation from the culinary establishment. To be sure ethnic restaurants could be found, mainly Italian, German, and Asian of course, but Mexican food was a no-go. Even fast food stayed away until Taco Bell started to expand and introduce people to its simplified version of some Mexican classics.

But being the cradle of the American food revolution from the 1960s – c. 2000, California could not ignore the great storehouse of Mexican cuisine.

The way the new interest first manifested was how restaurants were named and designed. Thus, a Mexican ambience was created without necessarily offering very many Mexican foods.

The Cafe del Sol is a perfect illustration including the evolution of its menu. A 1967 menu is preserved in the archives of the New York Public Library. It shows that this restaurant, located initially in Montecito in a plaza – it later moved to adjoining Santa Barbara – offered a mild “casa” exterior design. The menu featured a similarly restrained Latin design motif.

When you look for the Mexican food, there is relatively little, but some. A couple of appetizers, one or two of the main dishes – I’m not sure paella qualifies.

But the elements of the future food revolution are in place. Apart from the building design and “atmosphere” being Mexican, as the menu explains, the first page is devoted entirely to non-food matters. It discusses the history of Santa Barbara and Montecito. It talks about winemaking in the area and some unusual 19th century history in that regard. It tells a romantic story. This didactic but charming style – they didn’t write like Beer Et Seq – would have appealed to an educated and aspirational middle class. Food became interesting, something to think about, enjoy in an enhanced context.

But most of the dishes were standards of national or continental cuisine: steak, sole amandine, frogs’ legs, coq au vin, beef burgundy. Only one main dish seemed Mexican: enchiladas with chile relleno and refried beans. But there was guacamole as an appetizer, probably familiar to many diners from its use in salads, and chile relleno again. The germ was there.

And look at the wines: California was solidly represented through its up and coming marquee names of Concannon, Louis Martini, Beaulieu, Wente. That was a harbinger of larger changes to come both in California’s world famous wine culture and food too. “Local” in wine encouraged a similar approach to food and ingredients.

In the mid-1960s, restaurants which stressed gastronomy, meaning its European and especially French roots, did not focus on local wines. Food and wine societies had made forays, but in general good wine meant nothing Californian. It was middle class restaurants that pioneered the discovery of the quality and distinctiveness of California vineyards. Indeed the trend started in the 1930s and even before as I explained in earlier posts but was delayed in … fructification by the Depression and WW II.

In later years, the Cafe del Sol’s menu became fully Mexican. The restaurant lasted until 2014, approximately a 50-year run, impressive for any restaurant. The site briefly became a conference locale, then was purchased by principals of the Magic Castle to become a further location for the well-known magicians night club and restaurant in Los Angeles. However, that has not occurred as yet as far as I know.

Looking back some 50 years, the menu of Santa Barbara’s Cafe del Sol seems rather dated. But it was actually ahead of its time, and the restaurant’s longevity proved that.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the website of California news channel KEYT 3 which featured a story on the Cafe del Sol, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Taproot of Canada’s Whisky Heritage

Yesterday, I mentioned E.A. Owen’s important early study, the 1898 Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement. His chapter on whiskey is worth reproducing (see below, via HathiTrust). It gives the flavour of whiskey’s importance in early pioneer life and for the rye and corn in its composition.

Owen mentions the migrating North Carolinian Davis clan in numerous respects, but does not mention their distilling history or John Davis’ implantation of the practice in Norfolk County in Canada. This was probably to avoid casting an important pioneering settler in a negative light, in the mind that is of late-Victorian Ontario.

The importance of rye and corn in distilling is highlighted. Readers may also consult pg. 370 of his book for another reference to these grains in whiskey-production. What this shows is that second-grade wheat middlings or other miscellaneous leavings of the mill weren’t always used for whiskey.* Often, purpose-grown rye and corn were mashed, grains familiar to Americans for spirit ever since the Scots-Irish and various Germanic communities had settled Pennsylvania and down into Appalachia from the early 1700s.

One third of Pennsylvania was German stock by the time of the Revolution, and Germans used rye in their own distilling and for breadstuff. Many famed Pennsylvania rye or other whiskeys had German-American origins including Michter/Bomberger and Old Overholt.

The origin of rye in American distilling may lie with them, especially as the korn distillates of Germany and some adjoining lands use rye as a base (e.g., in the Netherlands for genever, or formerly). The Ulster Irish came first to America though, some as early as 1717, and may have resorted to rye since, i) it grew well in Pennsylvania,  and ii) was not in competition for baking, as Anglo-Saxons always favoured wheat for bread.

Be that as it may, rye and corn were well-established in the North American distilling of whiskey by 1800, one need only consult the Pennsylvanian Samuel M’Harry’s distilling manual of the period, to which I have often referred.

Today, the County of Dover is one of Ontario municipalities, the main towns are Delhi, Port Dover, and Simcoe. Simcoe is the largest at some 13,000. It is named for John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, newly created in 1791 to accommodate specifically the needs of a settler community whose cultural specificity differed from the French element which dominated in Quebec. Hence the partition of the lower and upper St. Lawrence basin into Lower Canada and Upper Canada.

Simcoe allocated much of the land settled by Loyalists, to whose needs he was unusually attuned: this Eton- and Oxford-educated Briton had led loyal Americans in the famed Queen’s Rangers in the Revolutionary War.

And so the ironies of history: the British army and navy in the period drank brandy, rum, wine, and beer, depending on rank and availability. Whisky was then not an English drink (see my earlier posts and citations), meaning not typically one and not a military one certainly.

Yet the British army-supervised settlement of English Canada permitted the implantation here of a whiskey tradition. It was formerly associated with remote Scotland and Ireland and rural America especially on its frontier; the latter directly, and the former proximately with a possible role for German distilling practice, are the taproot of Canada’s whisky heritage.





*There is no question substantial quantities of wheat were also distilled in early Upper Canada. The economist Douglas McCalla has documented some of this activity in his articles, and other evidence attests to it including popular histories and antiquarian studies. For McCalla’s work, see e.g., the table for wheat production in his 1983 article, “The ‘Loyalist’ Economy of Upper Canada, 1784-1806”. At the same time, as I’ve mentioned earlier, American distillers were no less familiar with wheat for spirit as shown by Samuel M’Harry’s and other early distilling manuals, e.g., Harrison Hall’s (wheat has a good yield but “too high a price“). The choice of rye and corn finally as “the” distilling material in the U.S. and Canada was driven by the optimum cost/yield ratio and perhaps too a catering to the public sentiment that wheat should be reserved for bread. Still, some wheat was always distilled for liquor, “white wheat whiskey” was a commodity on both sides of the border in the late 1800s, for example.

The Distilling Davises of North Carolina and Ontario

Long Point, ON is a sandy projection in eastern Lake Erie which fronts on the townships of Norfolk County. They were settled by thousands of Americans after the Revolutionary War who came from the Canadian Niagara after making the crossing at Niagara River. They had petitioned Governor Simcoe for land to recompense losses for supporting the Crown in the late battles. Simcoe wanted to open up the area around Long Point, which was largely virgin forest and by its location and other factors felt suitable for settlement.

Many may not realize that not all Loyalists were Northeasterners: quite a few came from the south, as far afield as North Carolina and Florida.

R. Robert Mutrie is a modern local historian in Ontario who has placed online numerous materials printed in hard-to-find local publications. Some pertain to the Davis settlers of Long Point and can be read here.

The Davis clan originated in Orange County, NC and migrated to Upper Canada after an earlier, exploratory visit. John Davis set up a well-constructed mill and distillery in Norfolk County. Quite a few details are known, as the account linked above, The Davis Family of Norfolk County by James Stengel, shows.

There were two stills for example with a known capacity, the second smaller and obviously the spirit still. This is drawn from license records discussed by Stengel whose account is referenced in an academic fashion. John Davis was granted a licence to operate these stills in 1800.

What is further of interest is that the Davis family were distillers and brewers on their plantations in North Carolina. Stengel makes the point distilling was a family tradition, implanted to Canada.

This 1898 book, a well-known chronicle by Egbert A. Owen of early Norfolk County, ON pioneer life, explains that rye and corn were used in distilling. Numerous ads attest to the same appearing throughout Ontario in the first decades of the 1800s.

These grains were not the only ones used in early Ontario distilling but rye and corn feature prominently in many early accounts and ads. They were the basis as well of American distilling.

As there were at least 200 legal distilleries in Ontario through the 1840s, and as much of the province was settled by Americans, it is obvious general whiskey knowledge arrived here as a cultural acquis, given too that before the Americans came, whiskey, as I discussed earlier, was not a usual drink here.

But Stengel’s account is an example where specific distilling expertise came to Canada from the U.S. as well.

Note: Stengel calls John Davis a “pioneer distiller” in Norfolk County and a “pioneer industrialist”.


Liquor in an Early Ontario Catholic Community

I have often mentioned the importance of the British element, mostly Protestant, in early (white) settlement of the United States and Canada, in terms that is of language, law, culture, and public institutions.

There were always exceptions to this rule, of which many could be cited. Spanish and French influence in the southwest and parts of the southeast, e.g., Louisiana and Florida, led to sizeable Catholic populations, as did the French implantation in Quebec and some other parts of Canada. Maryland’s Catholic English community played a part in settling northern Kentucky and provided numerous families who founded noted whiskey distilleries, the Medleys, say.

The role of black Americans is now being explored as well, witness the New York Times story earlier this week on a black family whose patriarch, Nathan Green, was a mentor and valued aid to whiskey chieftain Jack Daniel.

An example of this historical mosaic can be felt closer to home, in a context we have been exploring recently, the early settlement of Ontario.

Peterborough is a small city in south-central Ontario, north of Kingston in the backcountry to the area settled by Loyalists along the shore of Lake Ontario.

Its lands were allocated somewhat later, therefore, and Loyalists and later American incomers had less influence there than along the lake.

The Hon. Peter Robinson, after whom the city is named (at least in part) – Peter’s borough – was a Canadian notable, New Brunswick-born of an American grandee family who came to Canada after the Revolution.

Robinson held office in Upper Canada’s Legislature and in 1825 implemented an ambitious plan to bring 2000 Irish settlers to what was then called Scott’s Plains (now Peterborough). These were poor farmer-tenants, Catholic, lured by the promise to own their own land. He went to Ireland to meet prospective emigrants and was impressed by their determination and, often, literacy. This is an early example of traditional religious divides being modified in New World conditions.

Robinson was a far-seeing, can-do example of noblesse oblige. He represented the enlightened side of the Family Compact who ran the province then. We miss his like today.

The details of the emigration, the travails incurred and successes finally realized, are well described in a six-part series by Patrick Leahy in the Peterborough Examiner in 2015.

19th century Peterborough was evoked in a series of articles in the 1920s by Francis Hincks Dobbin (1850-1932), a journalist and historian in the area. Dobbin was of American origin but came to the area as a child.

F.H. Dobbin’s accounts were collected by his son in 1943 and published in Our Old Home Town (J.M. Dent & Sons (Canada) Limited).

Given his long life span, they provide a fascinating look at early pioneer society and its later evolution. Clearly Dobbin had absorbed lore from older residents when active in journalism and his accounts ring true in light of much other information I have gleaned.

Dobbin was writing when Prohibition in Ontario was still in force as he refers to the fact that liquor was not commercially sold. He doesn’t state in so many words he was a teetotaller, but seems in any case to have approved of tight control on booze. He notes how the public attitude changed from the 1850s, and is of the clan who consider alcohol to have been a decided danger to the community.

Nonetheless his commentary is enlivened by a dry humour, as this story from the book shows.

How Dobbin would be amazed at the Ontario of today! The easy availability of beer, liquor and wine would shock him, given too it is sold in attractive outlets owned by the very government which had put an end to the liquor traffic in his day. (He would also be surprised that the close-fitting cap with “lugs” over the ears has come back as a fashion item, you can see them in the chic parts of town from Toronto to Tel Aviv).

Something of the presence of liquor in early Peterborough County can be gleaned from this extract from Dobbin’s book.

The reference to Cavan may have meant Cavan in Ulster, Ireland, a mostly Catholic community near the Irish border. There is also a Cavan outside Peterborough, but one way or another Hammon’s Irish roots are evident.

While Dobbin pays respects to the zeitgeist of the 1920s, some of his comments reflect an understanding that liquor played a measured role in society. He states that a decorum was observed when liquor was used on social occasions. A pour of “two fingers” was correct. Three was “ample”. To take more raised eyebrows. At the same time, he recounts the abuses. One problem in town was the “Irish Fighting Factions” would go at it: clearly the Irish Catholics vs. the Orange Irish. Even then, he states the enmity was not really serious, it was more to show who was the stronger group, as in a prizefight one might say.

Although Peterborough was not a Loyalist centre, Dobbin’s description of the “bee” system for barn-raising, house-building, and so on, is similar to that for pioneer communities closer to the lake: the pail of whiskey was indispensable.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Peterborough today encompasses Peterborough County and a wider area as described in its website. It was formed in the 1880s but is an outgrowth of the Diocese of Kingston, established in 1819 from earlier Catholic presence. Despite all the social changes since Peter Robinson’s Peterborough, Catholic presence in Peterborough is still notable: the small city, c. 82,000, counts seven Catholic churches.

Finally, contemporary Peterborough, ON may have little resonance for our British readers, but one feature may interest them. Selwyn, a community within 10 miles from the city, houses the private Lakefield College School. Prince Andrew, Duke of York spent six months at the school in 1977 in an exchange program and has maintained ties to the school ever since.

Note re images: the extracts shown above were drawn from the book by F.H. Dobbin cited in the text. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Extracts are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Black Watkins – Porter and Elderberry

The Englishman George Watkins wrote a brewing manual, The Complete English Brewer, in numerous editions in the second half of the 1700s. He advised to use elderberry juice in making porter as it emulated in home conditions (he said) the aging of a large bulk of porter in commercial breweries.

You can read the passage here, see especially pg. 129, in the 1773 edition.

It appears the dark red juice was favoured also for the colour it lent, but clearly the sharp fruity notes were meant to emulate the winy taste old beer can assume. Watkins advised to place the juice in the cask as conditioning was being completed, and he instructs to drink it within about 15 days from bunging. Presumably the juice would not ferment out completely in this time and thus lend its full flavour, as he refers to “good body” in the drink.

A few modern brewers have used elderberry in brewing. A U.K. brewer actually made a stout with it, the name escapes me for a moment but it was sold at the LCBO briefly. It was nice but the effect of the fruit was faint, at least to my palate. The local brewpub, the Granite, made an elderberry porter a few years ago. It was nice but the fruit didn’t as I recall contribute that much.

When I heard that Sapporo-owned Unibroue brewery in Quebec put out an elderberry wheat beer – another fruit spin on its Wit series called Ephémère – I tried to get a bottle as soon as possible. The reason was I assumed the juice was added at the end of fermentation, as for Watkins’ beer, and I wanted it fresh before the sugars were used up. Ephémère is unfiltered and some conditioning must continue in the bottle or so I assume unless it is pasteurized now, but I don’t think it is.

I was not successful in getting a bottle near release, which was 4-5 months ago. I did find one in Montreal last weekend, and here is my impression.

The fruit notes were noticeable and in this case the flowers of the plant were added which contributed a Muscat note as the bottle labelling states. Withal it was akin to adding a dash of cranberry juice to beer. You get something sharp and fruity at the same time, a racy red fruit edge.

This element in porter would emulate lactic acid production from bacterial microflora in the aging vessels or brewery environment. Port was sometimes added to stout in Britain, and other fruity things, perhaps all an echo of the 18th century aging and blending methods which made for a sharp estery drink. The Black Velvet, a combination of Champagne or cider with stout, is broadly similar.

Finally, I added the glass shown to a Black Velvet I made, a blend of perry, Russian Stout, and black lager in this case. It was very good, the fruity or sharp parts from the wheat, pear, and elderberry blended well with the sweet malt and hops.

I wonder though if the elderberry taste in the Unibroue was muted after some five months aging. Certainly the colour lasted, as you see in the image.

You can buy elderberry juice, the ones I’ve seen are blends with cranberry. So just adding that to porter should make a Black Watkins, I’ll dub it. For hyper-authenticity, it should be added to a nearly full bottle of unfiltered porter or stout, stoppered and left to sit for two weeks. I may do this soon.

Caution re elderberry: based on my reading, the variety generally used for wine and jam both here and in Europe is not poisonous but most types of the genus are. This means the fruit should be cooked to ensure safety. Watkins’ juice almost certainly was a reduction by boiling and therefore had undergone heat treatment. I don’t know what Unibroue uses, but anyone proposing to make elderberry juice or a derivative product at home should ensure the fruit is cooked first.



Yankees, Whisky, Broken Heads, and Amity in Old Ontario

In a series of posts last month, I made what I consider a comprehensive argument that whisky in Canada has an American origin both as to the social custom of drinking it and the materials entering its manufacture.

Whisky of course is ultimately of British origin, Irish and Scottish*, but it implanted in the American colonies early and received in particular a boost from Ulster Scots immigration in the 1700s.

The page set out below (via HathiTrust)provides further support and context for this view. It is authored by John Mercier McMullen, an Irish immigrant of the 19th century who is often termed Canada’s first historian. It is from his History of Canada, issued in multiple editions in the 19th century. One may note its compressed but forceful explanation of the immense importance of “Yankee ways” in the early development of Ontario.

McMullen confirms what I inferred earlier, that the British settlers who arrived after the initial Loyalist and other American influx did not alter the social fabric of society. While McMullen speaks of “rural” society, it must be recalled that almost all Ontarians lived outside of Toronto then – the majority still do – and the province counted numerous regional centres of importance.

Rather than impose their customs, the British incomers adapted easily to “Yankee ways”. McMullen notes this was facilitated by a common ancestry (British) and language. Further in the chapter he mentions the numerous varieties of the Protestantism these peoples shared while noting some Catholic presence as well.

McMullen was almost certainly born Irish Protestant, probably in Ulster. In any event he understood well the cultural unity of the Anglo-Saxon groups he described.

He was born in 1820 and, unusually for his time, lived all the way to 87. He lived in Brockville, ON, a heartland of Loyalist settlement. The first edition of his History was published in 1855, and further editions appeared into the 1890s. Thus, he lived through the period when much of the history he wrote took form or followed upon events still within living memory.

For example, some Canadians who were, say, 80 in 1855 arrived as children with their Loyalist parents in the 1780s. And many Americans came here after the 1780s Loyalist migrations, so some were first-generation even in the 1850s.

A portrait of McMullen and some further biographical detail appear in this source, a webpage maintained by Doug Grant who is a local historian in Brockville.


*There may be a Germanic component to the first American whiskeys in the form of rye in the mash. I discussed earlier the theory that German-origin whiskey-makers influenced bourbon, see here.



Wolfhead Distillery

Appreciating vodka is a rather nuanced art: the vanishing point appears distressingly early. By this I mean, it is hard to distinguish among brands given the drink is a neutral spirit to begin with, indeed is subjected to further treatment (often by charcoal filtering) to earn the vodka designation.

Yet, differences there are. These can be discerned probably after a maximum of one drink. After that, the vanishing point has arrived. The palate is too numbed and the drink too clean to worm out (sorry) any further differences.

Still, a one-drink tasting, apart from its inherent decorousness, does offer the possibilities of connoisseurship.

So let’s talk.

The feedstock used – corn, rye, wheat, etc. – probably has some influence even if only in parts per million. The human senses of smell and taste can pick out very subtle differences. The water used, especially in proofing down for bottling, has an influence too. Demineralized water is often used, maybe distilled, but in practice the waters are not identical.

Other variables are the final distilling-out proof, which can vary slightly, and the type and other details of charcoal filtering. Some vodkas have a faint burned wood note from charcoal filtration, for example.

This leads me to the vodka pictured, from a craft distillery in Amherstburg, ON, Wolfhead Distillery.

The distillery is on the outskirts of a historic town on the lake, in Windsor-Essex County, a fertile farming region in southwestern Ontario.

The distillery makes its own vodka in a copper pot-and-steel or aluminum column still set up. It has whiskey aging but none to sell of its own since too young. It sells under its name a whisky sourced from Hiram Walker in Windsor, a mix of a well-aged corn whisky and a younger, five year old rye whiskey. (I’ll return to the whisky soon).

The vodka is extremely good. The base is wheat. I didn’t get whether malted grain or artificial enzyme is used to convert starch to sugar, probably the latter. It has what seems a light farina-like scent, and a creamy taste. There is almost no bite, no “alcohol” notes as many vodkas have.

The label states the drink is filtered with limestone but what that means exactly I don’t know. I was told the groundwater in the area percolates through limestone beds and this water is used in mashing. Whether pulverised or other limestone is used in some way in final processing I can’t say.

At $35 a bottle, it is worth the extra money and trumps the average Russian or Scandinavian import. I tried it at room temperature as I’m not sure that chilling wouldn’t reduce some of its distinctiveness.

The house sells a banana-infused version of the vodka, and a coffee-flavoured whisky, both are excellent with good natural flavours. The same applies to an apple and spice-flavoured whisky.

I didn’t buy the regular (non-flavoured) whisky as it is treated with wood chips and to my mind this took away qualities of the drink. It’s too woody IMO and the balance isn’t right.

The business grew out of a wood palett processing business in the area, which of course ties in to barrels or at least expertise in choosing them. It’s a pleasing transition, from one arborial-based pursuit to another.

The building is well-designed with a bar on one side and the retail counter on the other. There is a line of beers as well available at the bar, made by a brewery somehow connected to the distillery. I liked the IPA, but other beers need some work, IMO.

The still is behind the rear glass wall. An outdoor restaurant completes the picture. It should be very successful and I look forward to when its own whisky will be released. I was told that a rye whiskey is aging distilled at a low proof in the alembic, so straight in other words, and high proof spirits were produced using the columns and are aging as well. The rye whisky on its own, and a blend of that and the high proof whisky, will be placed on the market in due course. At least that’s how I understood it from the staff.

All good news, and a picture perfect example of the vitality of distilling in Ontario today.