Corn Used in Kingston, ON Distilling in 1826

William Garratt was a merchant and distiller in Kingston, ON. His distillery was sometimes called Distillery Yard in public advertisements, and sometimes just Garratt’s Distillery as seen in this 1831 issue of the Kingston Chronicle where it is mentioned as adjoining a potash factory.

Below is an ad, dated 1825 but appearing on August 11, 1826 in the Kingston Chronicle, requesting in this case only rye and corn to make whiskey. The hogs refer to Garratt’s use of the spent mash of the still to feed livestock for market. Livestock management was a frequent accompaniment to distillery operations in early years.

This “piggery”, as termed in some reports concerning Garratt, got him in trouble later as some citizens did not like the noisome results of an animal pen in their city.

Sometimes, Garratt’s ads request delivery at “Market Square” in the city centre – a market still operates there in summer at least – and sometimes Distillery Yard, or both. He may have moved his locations over the years.

I believe he is the same Garratt as in the grocery firm Cullin & Garratt. His distillery likely emerged out of rectifying whisky onsite, just as Hiram Walker rectified wheat whisky in Detroit at his grocery before moving into distilling.

(F.X. Chauvin of Windsor, ON wrote an excellent study of Walker’s career in 1927 as an academic thesis. It is now available I understand in published form, but in any case can be read in its original form online. The work is most instructive on this early part of Walker’s career, indeed on Hiram Walker in general including the origin and characteristics of Canadian Club).

Ads by Garret for corn, rye, and other grains appear regularly in the Kingston press for at least 10 years from 1825, I did not check after.

To the best of my knowledge, Garratt descended from a  Loyalist family who arrived in Kingston in the 1780s.

These ads don’t prove corn was grown around Kingston, a port which could have received shipments of this grain from the U.S. Given, though, other ads in the same period elsewhere in Ontario requesting rye and corn for distilling, it is highly likely it was grown locally. In any case, it obviously was used to make whisky in Garratt’s distillery.

A number of American distilling texts recommend varying combinations of rye and corn to distill whiskey in the first quarter of the 19th century, Samuel M’Harry’s is one. 2:1 rye to corn is one of the recipes he discusses.

Grain composition for liquor (anywhere) would have varied with price and availability, but clearly both corn and rye were used in Ontario whiskey for many years before 1840.


Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Kingston Digital site linked in the text.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




How Canadian Whisky Got the Edge – How It Can Again

Canadian blended whisky was perfected towards the end of the 1800s, as I discussed earlier. It was, and is, our version of blended Scotch and blended American whisky although presenting some unique features.

The idea was to combine a large amount of near-neutral spirit, virtually emptied of non-ethanol compounds created in fermentation, with a small amount of highly-flavoured straight or heavy whisky, and then age the two together. This was said to create a pleasing taste and balance, as much of the market would not accustom to the strong taste of “uncut” straight whiskey.

This estimation was correct as even blended American whisky outsold straight whisky by a considerable margin before WW I. In part it was cheaper, but the taste factor mentioned cannot be discounted.

In recalling this history, one can assume a lot of 19th century straight whiskey, even when reasonably aged, had an oily, congeneric taste. The average bourbon or straight rye today probably tastes much better.

In the battle before Prohibition between the “rectifiers” and the Kentucky and Pennsylvania straight whiskey-makers, the former argued for many years that their product had almost no fusel oil. They used this as a marketing tool, as seen in the ad annexed from Gooderham & Worts from 1907. Hiram Walker placed similar ads in the Canadian and U.S. press between the onset of Canadian Club (1888) and WW I.

Part of this argument and pitch was that contrary to the consensus of Victorian science, fusel oil did not disappear in aged straight whiskey. This is true, as a series of well-known studies between 1900 and 1910 showed that levels remained constant in aged American straight whiskey.

Of course, the odour and taste of the whiskey changes as the barrel imparts many pleasing qualities (the wood gums). Also, various chemical reactions occur due to oxidation and other factors, leading to new flavours. But fusels remain in the spirit, as for brandy, tequila, heavy rum, and similar.

In high concentrations fusel oils can be dangerous, but the amounts in matured whisky are not unusually harmful. Even the old lore that fusel oils cause bad hangovers is disputed by modern science.

Fusels are a group of higher alcohols, especially butyl and amyl alcohols, within the feints or tails of the distillation stream. Feints are the final fractions, the least volatile, after the ethanol has been collected.

In a typical two-stage bourbon or rye distillation, they can be controlled especially in the doubling stage, where a doubler or pot still is used to “polish” the spirit and raise the ABV by about 10 proof points.

Nonetheless some fusel oil content remains and this is desired in fact, otherwise the spirit would be too bland as foundation for the traditional bourbon or rye palate.

Hiram Walker evolved a complex, multi-column distillation method to reduce fusel content to practically nothing, but he blended this spirit with some high-flavoured rye distillate – made that is in the American way – and aged both together in the barrel for at least five years. Canadian Club is still made this way today.

The Hiram Walker plant now makes CC for the current label-owner, Beam Sapporo of Japan. I’d guess a 94-95% abv spirit is used as the base whisky – so not as neutral as a 96% spirit meant for vodka – and is blended for aging with a rye spirit double-distilled as for a typical bourbon or straight rye (well under 160 proof or 80% abv).

I tasted the product again the other day. It has features of “alcohol” and aged whisky, with spicy and leafy notes as well as some barrel sweetness. When the label had a six year statement it seemed a little richer in taste and smell, but when used in mixing, its typical function I would think, this factor probably is unimportant.

Indeed around the year 1900 CC was marketed at various times between five and seven years old, reflecting the demands of current inventory.

The real difference between Canadian and American whiskey in my view is that the bourbon and straight rye tradition did not implant here. For the rest of it, there is no material difference in the two traditions of whiskey-making, nor should there be considering that the raw materials used are the same – corn and rye mostly – and the taste for whiskey came here with the Loyalists and other Americans.

As to why bourbon and straight rye did not develop (or survive) in Canada, there could be many answers. We have a much smaller population than the U.S. The market for straight whiskey – always relatively small even in the U.S. – vodka outsells all whiskey categories – may not have been large enough in Canada to support production here.

Second, to distinguish themselves in the international market and especially for U.S.-exports, Canadian distillers probably wanted to focus on what made them different. The CC style of whisky did, as the base whisky part was aged as long as the straight part, contrary to U.S. blended whiskey where neutral spirits (unaged) typically form the largest part in the bottle.

The aging of the Canadian neutral element lent an additional note of quality and may have been the key to success for Canadian whisky, taking a leaf here from blended Scotch. It is this wood note that may be the “rare old whiskey flavour” mentioned in the ad above.

Finally though, one may reflect whether the old lore about the unique nature of Kentucky whiskey is really true. When revisiting Old Forester recently, an old name in Kentucky bourbon, I was reminded how rich and distinctive the Kentucky product is. I have never had a bourbon, even from Indiana let alone another state, that has a similar quality.

Some straight rye, notably from Pennsylvania and Maryland, equalled the best Kentucky whiskey in my view, but beyond those three states, I’d have to say I’ve rarely if ever had a product in the Kentucky class.

The extremes of climate in Kentucky may explain this result better than any other factor. Having visited the state some 20 times between 2002 and 2012 in different parts of the year, this factor always made an impression. That had to explain a good part of the quality of the Kentucky product as the extreme heat in summer would force the whiskey into the wood, and then back again with the cold, in a way and to a rhythm probably unequalled elsewhere.

Water can be imitated, distilling methods, physical warehouse features. But the climate in Kentucky may well be unique and may explain why a bourbon tradition did not arise in New York, say, or Louisiana, much less Ontario. Ohio became for a time a great distilling state – for rectified whiskey, not bourbon.

In tasting the relatively recent Canadian or Canadian-origin “straight” whiskies, e.g. CC Chairman’s Select 100% rye, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, WhistlePig, Lot 40, while good and distinctive none of them have the “Kentucky” taste.

It may be our distillers decided long ago to focus on what they do best and leave the Kentucky-style product to its home base. The success of Canadian whisky, still a large seller in the land of bourbon, attests to their good judgement.

In terms of the future though, and see these recent figures from the Distilled Spirits Council, Canadian whisky will encounter more competition from bourbon and straight rye. It used to outsell them, but not at present.

As about 70% of Canadian whisky production is shipped to the U.S., this is a material factor. In 1994 when Lorraine Brown’s book was written that I reviewed yesterday, it was 86%.

The answer is to increase without stint the supply of a straight-style product. In the end, the fact that it is not “like” the Kentucky product may be a strong point – the distinctiveness.

Note re image: the first image above is an ad in Duluth Evening Herald, July 2, 1907, sourced from the digitized newspaper resource of, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.







Revisiting “The Story of Canadian Whisky” by Lorraine Brown

Many years after first reading it, I’m re-reading the late Lorraine Brown’s 200 Years of Tradition: The Story of Canadian Whisky, published in 1994It’s good to read it now, since I know much more than when I first encountered it.

A company of which she was a principal had designed a special exhibit for the former Seagram Museum in Waterloo, ON, and the book grew out of that. That was a superb museum, housed in an ex-stone barrelhouse. I visited there numerous times and it was inexplicable to close it. It should be set up again, bigger and better.

Lorraine Brown was also an experienced journalist who focused on science and environmental topics. Together with her research work for the exhibition, this meant she was the right person for the job.

The book is well-designed and attractively illustrated with many period photos, drawings, and diagrams. The technics of distillation and other steps in whiskey-making are well-explained. There are a few nuggets, as when she explains that 85% of Canadian whisky on average is base whisky – this means flavouring whisky content would average 15%.

Another nugget is her speculation that in the 1860s Gooderham & Worts made neutral spirit for whisky – she may be right about that based on my own research. See the engineering publication discussed in this post.

The book is Seagram-focused, which is understandable given its genesis and that Seagram sponsored publication. (There is an excellent short introduction by Charles Bronfman).

But it reviews the background to the other major distilleries as well, especially Molson, Gooderham & Worts, and Hiram Walker. Wiser gets good coverage, Corby’s past is outlined too. There is a briefer discussion of other distilleries in Canada at the time including some out west.

A long chapter deals well with temperance and prohibition in Canada. Of course, the onset of the Bronfmans post-Seagram family is well-handled. Their particular genius for making Seagram a global force in distilling is expertly explained.

The historical introduction is somewhat cursory and a number of things are said I don’t agree with, for example that corn was first grown in Canada in 1840. I’ve discussed here ads in Ontario newspapers by distillers requesting supply of corn years before 1840. There is also other evidence corn was grown here and used by some early distilleries.

See, for example, the 1898 Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement by E.A. Owens, I discussed it here a few weeks ago.

It is certainly true that most corn as the century wore on was imported from the U.S., but local corn was used in distilling in the early 1800s according to sources I’ve discussed here earlier.

She recognizes albeit in a general way the “Yankee” (Loyalist and other American) role in the creation of a whisky tradition in Ontario, but also asserts an influence by “Scottish and Irish settlers”.

She suggests our whisky style is a blending of these influences. I don’t agree with that, except perhaps in the sense that malt whisky was a small item of sale for many distilleries here in the 1800s. In my view, our whisky heritage is in a direct line from what was started in the U.S. in the last quarter of the 1700s.

Scotch-style malt whisky – it was sort of Scotch-style – was made in Perth, ON but this died out with WW I.

Canadian distillers blend in a way similar perhaps to the Scots, using aged base and heavy (or straight) distillates, but that doesn’t really reflect influence of Scots immigrants to Canada.

Also, she seems to consider whisky purely “Gaelic” in origin whereas it is clear grain distillate has been made for centuries in a northern belt across Europe. Perhaps it’s a question of how you define whisky, but the blurring is important in regard to potential German influence on American and Canadian distilling practices.

The possibility of German contribution is not addressed from what I could see.

There was of course Scots-Irish influence on whiskey’s rise in the U.S., especially Pennsylvania, and therefore indirectly here. Perhaps she meant Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots) when speaking of Ireland and Scotland although she mentions the latter in connection with Ontario as I read her.

The book does of course reflect its time. At least twice she refers to a “decline” in the distilling industry in Canada, which has now been reversed I believe. And of course there was no craft distilling movement to consider, or U.S. bourbon or Scottish malt renaissance. It was all just beginning.

In some respects her topical commentary is still relevant, as when she explains the heavy toll government taxation takes on the industry and indirectly consumers, or the importance of exportations of Canadian whisky to the U.S.

My main cavil is that the book did not examine distilling in Ontario more closely before the Big 5 gained traction from the 1850s. In my view, those early years established the taste for Canadian whisky, and its palate. This was an increasingly rectified and aged cereal distillate in which corn and rye figured largely as time went on.

She does state that 200 distilleries were licensed in the United Province of Canada by the 1840s but appears to consider that most did not make a mark on our whisky culture as compared to the Big 5 again.

To my mind this does not take enough account of the reputation, say, the Morton distillery in Kingston had, or the highly regarded distilleries in Port Credit. Distilleries such as those helped establish the palate of Canadian whisky.

She speculates which of the Big 5 started the keynote practice to blend base and flavouring whiskies, but that technique was well-known in the U.S. at the times in question (and Scotland).

Also, blending was not something only a large distillery could do although the large plants perhaps achieved a greater consistency than smaller shops.

Net-net, the book was an excellent effort and enjoyable to revisit. It got much right and covered a lot of ground.

The book was particularly impressive from someone who must have known little about the subject before starting her work for the Seagram Museum.

Ms. Brown, who died a few years ago, made an important contribution to understanding the long and fascinating history of Canadian whisky.








Royal Distillery’s Heyday and Whiskies

Some details follow on the Royal Distillery in Hamilton, ON. It appears the distillery closed some time after WW I started. It was in business about 25 years.

I don’t know the causes of expiry and as I stated earlier, relatively little has been written on the distillery. Corby today markets a Royal Reserve made at Hiram Walker in Windsor, so perhaps the Royal Distillery or its brands were bought by Corby before WW I, or by another predecessor of Corby or Hiram Walker.

The images below are from Hamilton, Canada: Its History, Commerce, Industries, ResourcesIt was published in 1913 by the City of Hamilton.

Two whiskies are shown, one is eight years old, and the other five. Royal Reserve, as the name suggests, was the marquee brand. Both would have been rye whisky. This was the staple by then of Ontario distilling with some exceptions. For example, in Perth in eastern Ontario there was a history of distilling Scots-style malt (to which we shall return).

The distillery buildings are almost totally gone, however, a small brick block, described in city records as the distillery office, still stands at 16 Jarvis Street. You can view it here.

I am not sure where that building was located on the original site. It looks different from the three-story structure shown in the foreground. Perhaps it was nearer the water toward the rear.

You can see in the Google view where Royal’s aging warehouses once stood, the sites are now apartment buildings.

You can see too in the Google view that the 16 Jarvis Street building is of late-1800s vintage but built on an older stone foundation.

Tanya Lynn MacKinnon, in her study in 2000 of the historical geography of Ontario distilling from 1850-1900, speculates that the distillery was built on the site of a former brewery or distillery. See in particular the discussion from pg. 175.

Her reasoning is that the distillery was apparently built and equipped in 1888 and had fully aged whisky to sell after 1890. She considers that to start operations on the scale needed so quickly, the site probably was adapted from an earlier use.

The stone foundation at 16 Jarvis Street suggests indeed there was something there before.

She explains too how the venture for Royal Distillery ran counter to a then seemingly fixed five-member industry oligopoly. Royal was prepared to and did stand up to the established names. In fact, it quickly passed the two smallest members in sales, see again her discussion.


The letter below, sourced from Ebay here, shows that the main brands were the five- and a seven-year-old whisky. Probably, the seven-year-old one, like the eight-year-old one shown above, was marketed under the Royal Reserve name; a difference of one year would depend more on current inventory than anything else.

The distillery’s manager, William Marshall, wrote the letter. His discussion on proof shows that the whisky was typically sold at (rounding) 43% abv, not too dissimilar to today’s 40% abv norm in Canada. One or two Canadian whiskies are sold at 43% abv, as well.

Note re images: the images shown are sourced from the books or other publications linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



1902 Canadian Whisky Snapshot With a “Royal” Note


The above is from the 1902 Montreal Liquor Industry Gazette. It’s an interesting document, mostly in French, which combines trade ads with articles of interest to the wine, spirits, and tobacco trade especially on taxation and regulatory matters.

The full source document can be viewed here. The distillers represented were by 1900 the main distillers in the country.

Hudon Hébert were surely a broker or wholesaler, representing Corby distillery of Belleville, ON.

L.A. Wilson was Lawrence Wilson, a driving force behind the Montreal Victuallers Association which published the Gazette mentioned. I would guess Empire Rye was sourced by him from one of the extant distillers in Canada, although perhaps he had a small distillery.

A William Wilson distilled earlier in the century in Montreal, perhaps Lawrence was a descendant. In one of Jack Sullivan’s articles in his historical whiskey blog he shows a blurry image of a bottle of Empire Rye carried by a New York dealer around the same time, M. Salzman & Co.

I’d think that was Lawrence Wilson’s rye, or his sourced rye, finding a market outside Canada. An additional reason is one of the advertising pieces for Morris Salzman reproduced in the article shows him as an importer of liquors.

But what was Hamilton Distillery? Extrapolating from the ad, it sold Canadian whisky aged from 2-7 years. Two years was the minimum aging requirement enacted in 1890. The pricing seems to follow the progression of maturity, but proof differences may be a factor also, e.g. the 25 vs. 40 UP.

Hamilton Distillery was more typically called Royal Distillery. It is an outlier in Canadian whisky history as relatively little exists (that I could find) on it. It was a sizeable operation, of which a small portion, a low-rise brick building, still stands at 16 Jarvis Street in Hamilton.

Royal Distillery was founded by a teacher, industrialist, and sometime mayor of Hamilton, Benjamin Ernest Charlton, in 1888. From a standing start it grew to rival the Big 5 distillers in Ontario, all of whom are represented above except Wiser, unless Wiser was supplying Wilson or Chaput.

1888 was late to start a distillery in Canada especially of the scale of Royal Distillery. I’ll have more to say soon on this little-known aspect of our whisky heritage.

Looking at Seagram quickly, three types are represented, a malt, a rye, and a white wheat whiskey, the latter probably was near to modern vodka.

The rye was represented in different ages based on the prices shown, and perhaps different blending formulations. Its heritage is extremely interesting as one of the owners before Joseph Seagram, long-lived, multi-talented William Hespeler, had a German background. See this illuminating Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on him.

The Canadian Encyclopedia profile on Seagram states Seagram rye was originally called Alte Kornschnapps. That term might have been simply a translation of old rye for the local market in Waterloo, ON and environs, an area dominated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, who arrived after the American Revolution, and other German-speakers, who arrived in their wake from Europe.

Or, perhaps Hespeler’s korn originated, as Pennsylvania rye whiskey may have, strictly with a German Rhineland and Palatinate distilling tradition brought to America.

I discussed in a recent post that rye whiskey in early Pennsylvania settlements was sometimes called schnapps…

Corby’s top of the line was I.X.L – I excel – probably aged circa 7 years. Hiram Walker’s famed Canadian Club was 5 years old in this period. The age moved around somewhat, between 5 and 7 from my reading. To this day I prefer that particular brand at the top end of its range, 6 years old is ideal and the current bottlings seem somewhat younger.

I should try it again. Batches vary, bottlings vary – indeed of all whiskeys and in brewing too – it makes learning about it all the more interesting. When you get a particularly good one, you know.

That happened recently with a bottle of Woodford Reserve straight bourbon. It was richer and much less congeneric than in the years after first release.

I recently bought a Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye that is particularly rich and brandy-like.



A Solace From Albion to the Deep South of America

We need our medicine… (Comment of Keith Moon to Ringo Starr in the 1978 biographical film of The Who, “The Kids Are Alright”)

It is impossible to understand the extensive use of beverage alcohol of all types in early North American society without appreciating the rudimentary state of medicine and pharmacy then.

Sickness was a constant threat, often termed “ague” or “fever”, in the south this was often simply malaria. This problem lasted long in America, as even in 1948 an aged H.L. Mencken could recall the frequency of malaria and other epidemic in the Baltimore of his youth. Listen to his recorded reminiscences here (from 5:15, for two minutes). He explains conditions c. 1885 which seem unimaginable today, and this is 250 years after Virginia was permanently settled…

Mencken speaks too, I should interpose, of his famous penchant for alcohol, but oddly deprecates his undeniable reputation as a beerman. This excerpt from the interview contains his comments on alcohol. The interviewer referred to specific works from the 1920s in which Mencken praised the beer styles of old Europe, but Mencken said this was “exaggerated”.

On the other hand, he speaks with great fondness for the best whiskey juleps made in pre-Prohibition New York, which is rather more pertinent to our present subject matter.

And so back to old Virginia: There were no sulpha drugs to treat infection, no medical anaesthetic of any kind, no operating theatre, no emergency department. There were doctors, sometimes, and their services were extensively used, but their arsenal was limited and often counter-productive.

In this atmosphere, alcohol was viewed as a panacea, a welcome counter to the slings and arrows (often quite literal) of a frequently hostile and forbidding new world. From 1650-1850, this was the general picture both in the U.S. and Canada where the primeval forest was still being conquered and new settlements established.

In 1898, Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century was published by the historian Philip Alexander Bruce. He gives full recognition to a quasi-medical role for alcohol in early society, as follows. (The term spirits as used here encompasses all alcoholic drinks. Footnotes are omitted but you find them in the link mentioned below).

The liberal use which was made of spirits by all classes was not simply due to the indulgence of an appetite for liquor inherited with that English blood which has always gratified itself so freely in this respect under English skies. It was supposed to have a favorable influence upon the body from a medical point of view. The “morning draught” was a popular expression in the Colony long before the close of the seventeenth century. This was the draught with which the day was begun, and it was the popular belief, a belief doubtless formed with the most delightful facility, that such a draught was the surest means of obtaining protection against the miasmatic exhalations of the marshes. The taint of sickness in summer lingered about the oldest settlements, and at all seasons followed in the track of settlers on the frontier engaged in cutting down the forest, who thus set free the germs that invariably lurk in a mould created by rotting leaves and decaying wood. This assured a large practice to all who made any pretensions to the art of the physician.

While this context for early drinking is undeniable, at the same time, Bruce’s Victorian rectitude disguises that liquor was also resorted to, as it always has been, for pleasure. This is shown by the great variety of drinks available to early planters and indentured labour. Slaves were permitted use of alcohol as well on some occasions, as Bruce details.

So many wines and spirits were imported that it is impossible alcohol was simply viewed as a medical therapy: the lush cellars of the gentry were a testament to connoisseurship in drink, plain and simple.

In fact, I believe Bruce was something of a connoisseur himself, as he devotes over 20 pages to detailing the alcoholic culture of early Virginians. You can read it all here, from pp 211-234.

For the drinks used in general, he had this to say:

In addition to beer and ale, the liquors most generally used by the wealthier planters in the early history of the Colony were sack and aquavitæ. With the passage of time, madeira became the most popular form of spirits with the members of this class in use at meals, and punch, manufactured either from West Indian rum or apple or peach brandy, at other times. The people at large drank rum or brandy if a strong drink was desired. Mathegelin, a mixture of honey and water, was also consumed. Among the lighter wines in use were claret, fayal, and Rhenish. It is a fact of curious interest, from our present point of view, that the rarest French, Portuguese, and Spanish wines and brandies were found in the ordinaries of Virginia in the seventeenth century, and the rates at which they were disposed of were carefully fixed by law. Where now only the meanest brands of whiskey can be bought, madeira, sherry, canary, malaga, muscadine, fayal, and other foreign wines were offered for sale. Had there been no popular demand for them, they would not have been imported.

The term acquavitae here IMO meant spirits distilled from wine, i.e., brandy, or from sugar, that is rum, or from non-grape fruits, such as applejack or pear brandy. As some beer was made from malt, or imported, we can’t dismiss that some alcohol was distilled from it. However, another historian of the period has dismissed out of hand the possibility that whiskey of any kind or origin was consumed in the Old Dominion as discussed in my previous post.

Indeed it seems Bruce agreed judging by the way he refers to whisky in his last lines above.

Having earlier reviewed the role of whisky and some other drinks in early Ontario society, the picture is virtually the same: alcohol used as a therapeutic but also often for social diversion, and permeating all levels of society, even the church.

The lower strata had beer, or beer substitutes, and more often cider or other fruit wines. The gentry and prosperous middle classes had a wide range of French and Iberian wines and spirits available to them, similar to what was sent to the Tidewater in the preceding 200 years. Increasingly after the Yankees came to Ontario, whisky’s footprint widened steadily.

North American colonial societies were largely consistent in their early bibulous habits. Correlatively, they reacted similarly, that is mostly with enthusiasm, to the temperance and abstinence waves when they came.

This was true from well south of the Mason-Dixon to its border region and on to Pennsylvania, New York and Upper Canada.

So the pattern ran, from Albion down to planter country, and indeed beyond to the Caribbean, with the exception that the temperance fighters never conquered the mother country. That was a schism that developed with time in Anglo-Saxon culture, although the roots of temperance can be found in Britain, too.









In Old Virginia, Whisky Was Infra Dig.

John Fiske was a New England-born writer and historian, working in the latter 1800s.

He authored many books including a multi-part history of Old Virginia and adjoining regions, Old Virginia and Her Neighbours. While, today, his reputation is (as we gather) as a non-professional historian whose writing is coloured by enthusiasm for social Darwinism, his work is full of tenor and moment.

It has real insights for the social historian, in my opinion.

His comments on the drinks favoured by the planter class in the Old Dominion, so basically from founding of the Virginia colony to approaching the Revolution, are instructive.

A wide range of drinks was consumed – beer foremost with cider and many imported wines – and spirits too. For the latter, rum and brandy figured mainly. Cider and other fruits were distilled sometimes to make applejack.

What was whiskey’s role? Almost nothing. Fiske seemed not to like the cereal liquor, and perhaps this affected his judgments, but still, he states clearly that whiskey, indigenous or imported, had no writ in the Old Dominion.

This is not surprising, as until the 1800s, whisky, as I’ve discussed earlier, was simply not an English drink. It had adherents in Scotland and Ireland, from crofter to laird, but was strictly a regional preference in Britain until quite late.

And so, if English-origin Virginians did not seek to make or drink whiskey, who did in America?

It had to be the Scots-Irish and the Rhineland Germans, as countless writers have stated, to my mind with good reason. And when did they arrive? Not until the last three quarters of the 1700s.

Virginia, famously settled at Jamestown in 1607 and propelled initially by the Virginia Company, had existed for over 100 years before the Scots-Irish and German incomers started to make a cultural impact in America.

Now, true it is that in the early 1600s whisky was relatively novel even in Scotland and Ireland, at least in society. It was still emerging from the misty vales and Highland hills as a semi-licit invigorator.

But still, the best French, Spanish, and German wines and brandies were imported for the First Families and other English emigres on the Tidewater and inland. Had whisky any market or cachet in southern England whence most Virginians and many Marylanders came, it would have been available too. It wasn’t.

Did they drink juleps scented with mint, those second sons and retinues? Very likely, but with brandy, as the oldest recipes for spirituous juleps attest.

Read John Fiske on old Virginia. He cites another historian, Philip A. Bruce, who had more to say – a lot more – on the bibulous preferences of old Virginia. More to come soon, from that quarter. Is there a hint of Puritan disapproval in Fiske’s phrase, “a minute account of the beverages… [our emphasis]”?

A safe bet we think – a metaphor Fiske would not have liked either.

The Salad Days of King Rye

As early as the 1850s, a wines and liquors catalogue in New York, Cozzen’s Wine Press, lauded Monongahela whiskey as “famous”. It listed Bourbon whiskey too, offering both these in festive hampers with the finest wines of Europe and old Scotch and Irish whiskeys. The market for Cozzen’s wares was the carriage trade and arts circles, and the flower of Pennsylvania and Kentucky whiskey had their favour.

Strange it is in many ways, as these whiskies had only come to maturity as it were in the last 30 years. 1821 marks the first time bourbon is mentioned in print, in an ad in Maysville, KY by a local merchant. In 30 years both these whiskeys had become bywords for quality in liquor, and soon the reputation reached around the world.

It’s hard to think of an exact analogy, but Ontario ice wine furnishes an example of a sort. It grew from a standing start 30 years ago to a secure place in the pantheon of sweet wines. India Pale Ale, over approximately the same period as bourbon and Monongahela rye, also came to major prominence.

IPA as understood today, meaning with the American hop smack, hardly has more than a generation behind it.

The high water mark of rye whiskey appreciation was the eve of World War I. Whiskey, need it be said, had a Janus-face. One side was the smooth, equable visage of the gastronome. He spoke in dulcet tones – for refined taste, quality, tradition. The other side was contorted, angry, shouting for a shut-down of the liquor trade. We know which side prevailed.

The long years of the Volstead era permanently altered the quality image of whiskey. Rye came back, bourbon and gin and the rest, too. But they were never regarded with the same epicurean delight as before the Kaiser’s war. The Depression and a new system of liquor regulation put paid to that. Anyone bruiting the merits of whiskey did so almost furtively, apologetically. There was the odd exception, Bernard De Voto’s celebration of bourbon, circa 1950, is well-known.

Finally, a change occurred, with hundreds of writers since the 1980s elucidating the many gradations of palate in good whiskey. All to the good, but somehow it seems, at least to me, that whiskey’s golden age has been irretrievably lost.

Partly this was due to loss of artisan methods and the disappearance of most regional styles of whiskey.

Even in Kentucky it was said the various counties had different flavours of whiskey. Something in the air may have particularized the yeast used in some counties. Or, a particular way of working or style of equipment made the whiskey of a district different from all others’.

Maybe something new will replace what was lost. The craft distilling industry together with the revived big distillers may in time produce something to rival the choice and quality that used to exist.

(I don’t exclude Canada here except it is my perception that the industry consolidated much earlier than in the U.S. with a resultant narrowing of whisky styles).

So, to evoke the high point of whiskey appreciation in America, read the words below from 1914. They are from a valentine to the industry published by George Washburne, a Kentucky trade publisher I’ve mentioned a number of times.

The Hamburger Distillery was in South Brownsville, PA, a famous whiskey town watered by the Monongahela River.

Whiskey historian Jack Sullivan has profiled its owner at the turn of the 19th century, Philip Hamburger. He had taken over the place from the founder, surnamed Jones. As Sullivan notes, Hamburger contributed to the national perception that Monongahela whiskey was a choice product. Nonetheless that aura had existed long before, certainly for the high end of the category.

In my view too, what “made” Monongahela rye was its aging, initially noticed (we can infer) from shipping the whiskey from afar. A similar quality was finally achieved methodically by warehouse aging at the distillery itself.

It’s interesting that the Hamburger distillery and no doubt many others in the “Mon” valley used artificial heating in the warehouse, seeking to accelerate aging and maturity.

This aspect clearly lifted Pennsylvania rye to another level. Perhaps it was the key to emulating the whiskey when shipped by barge and ship to distant markets. If Mon whiskey had remained the country white rye made in countless sections of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it would never have achieved world renown.

Anyway, enjoy the modulated tones of A.M. Hanauer below. His style, typical of the period, combines literary flair with American down home. It is the precise obverse of the declaiming Carrie Nation with her axe.



Note re images: the images above are sourced, via HathiTrust, from the volumes linked in the text. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.










Nectar From the Leafy Monongahela Valley

The following is from an 1882 history of Preston County, West Virginia, by Samuel T. Wiley:

… a few copper stills in the county added the small amount of their production to the large quantities of the Old Monongahela rye whiskey, conveyed by boat from Brownsville and Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and thence sent all over the world. This pure old Monongahela copper pot distilled rye whiskey was of world wide renown, and often graced the board of prince and potentate of the Old World. It took its name from being principally distilled in the Monongahela Valley.

Recently I’ve been focusing on the whiskey tradition of Eastern and Central Pennsylvania, one often associated with German Palatine immigrants. This whiskey preceded rye distilling over the mountains in the southwest section, from Bedford to Greene counties as well as Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. It was the latter distilling, especially along the Monongahela river, that became known as Monongahela rye whiskey and acquired fame throughout the U.S. and beyond.

In fact, Monongahela whiskey’s repute began before the Civil War, certainly by the 1850s it was known nationally and even earlier in specific markets.

Since rye whiskey was made all over the granary of Pennsylvania, why did the Monongahela version became so well-known? It was famed in its own right and as the predecessor to Kentucky bourbon.

Names connected to this tradition included Dillinger, Bridgeport, Overholt, Gibson, Sam Thompson, and Large, but there were many others. West Brownsville, right on the river, was a locus of production in the later 1800s, home of old Sam Thompson.

The Monongahela river rises in north-central West Virginia and flows northward to end in Pittsburgh where it joins the Allegheny River to form the mighty Ohio. It’s a traverse of 130 miles, often through rich rye-raising country and edging the green Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania.

Rye whiskey was shipped by that route to Pittsburgh. From there it was sent downriver on Ohio flatboats to New Orleans, whence to world marts.

The transport in wood barrels improved the whiskey due to changes of climate, the time of transit, and rocking on the water. Water transport was an early means to improve liquors. What started with utility ended as both that and a technique to improve quality.

From Scotch whisky to Madeira – and India Pale Ale – examples can be cited of liquors made famous in part through being sent far afield.

It is obvious, or I think it is, that this transportation factor was the key to success for Monongahela whisky, a whiskey whose flavour equalled the euphony of its name.

The navigable Monongahela waters made it convenient to send whiskey upriver for transhipment to distant American cities and the world.

You can see the pattern by continual references in the literature to Pennsylvania “country whiskey” or similar terms, e.g., mountain dew, common whiskey, moonshine. The latter were new whiskey,  white or nearly so whereas long-shipped rye whiskey was red-to-brown and sweetish from the effects of the barrel. The two were almost different products.

The same thing happened to bourbon: country corn moonshine became a lush, brandy-like spirit thousands of miles away by virtue of long shipment on the water.

Both Pennsylvania rye and bourbon ended by being successfully aged at the distillery: a similar quality was achieved to the shipped article. An analogy is ale long-stocked in England as compared to pale ale sent to India. Porter long-vatted in Dublin as against foreign stout shipped in wood to … everywhere.

The extremes of temperature in Kentucky resulted in a very flavourful product, all that whiskey moving for years in and out of the barrel frame with the cycles of cold and hot. Despite differences in climate the warehouses of the Monongahela rye distillers achieved a high quality as well.

I had the chance to taste original Michter’s Original Sour Mash whiskey many times, a rye-heavy whiskey which was a classic Penn State type despite being made in an eastern county. You could taste subtly the forest in it, it had a cool, autumnal quality vs. the gothic richness of Kentucky whiskey deriving from the crazy extremes of heat.

Finally, the Pennsylvania industry died out; Kentucky’s endured. Rye is made in Kentucky today of course, and now in many places, including Pennsylvania again by revivalists, so perhaps a great Pennsylvania distilling tradition, based on rye, will rise anew.

A Canadian rye whisky, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye, offers plenty of flavour and quality. In past years it was used to flavour the blends of Alberta Distillers but some is bottled on its own now under the Canadian Club label. Some other bottlers feature whisky from this source too, at different ages and proofs. WhistlePig rye is an example, featuring bottlings recently that are partly aged in Vermont.

Selection is important here, I’ve never found WhistlePig to have the richness of the CC version, but perhaps the bottler wants it that way.

I’d think the CC Chairman’s Select is similar to the best old Monongahela whiskey even though made far away. Stylistically it follows the old Mon style: distilled at low proof, made mostly from rye, and aged for long years in new charred oak.

It would be nice though to have it at 50% abv proof, the old bonded U.S. strength. Or if that’s an unwarranted U.S. intrusion, how about 57.1% abv, the old Imperial proof standard? I’m there.

Note re image: the second image above was sourced from the Large Distillery page here at, a site devoted to chronicling the distilleries, brands, and memorabilia of pre-Prohibition distilling. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Berentzen Korn

Distant Ancestor of Rye Whiskey?

I’ve been meaning for some years to get a bottle of German korn. In fact, when researching recently various questions relating to the origin of rye whiskey, I found a 2004 post of mine on the forum of, America’s premier online bourbon forum, indicating an interest to taste this.

Well, 13 years later, I finally did.

It is sold at LCBO for about the price of a standard vodka while being 32% abv, under vodka proper by eight points. This doesn’t bother me and I’d guess the reason is because the drink typically is drunk neat, often with a beer alongside. I imagine the producer considers it tastes better at the lower proof and indeed the mouthfeel is soft and silky.

If consumed usually with beer – so more alcohol – probably it is felt it should be sold weaker than a standard vodka. I don’t think maximizing company margins is a factor, in other words.

32% is still plenty strong anyway.

The taste is excellent but it’s vodka-like, it tastes like a high quality vodka. I was hoping for some of the character a distillation at lower than a presumed 94-95% abv would produce. There is I think a faint grain note, it reminds me somewhat of Global Alcool I bought in Quebec last year that I’ve mentioned a few times here.

That one had a slight “gamy” note, I think I called it, which I liked as it showed the quasi-whisky character. This Berentzen though is closer to standard vodka than the Global.

I note from the company’s website that it offers the well-known Doornkaat schnapps, at 38% abv which it indicates is triple-distilled, while Berentzen korn is double-distilled. The extra distillation to the former might impart a touch more neutrality, but it’s faint, as I’ve had the other drink over the years. The main difference is surely the abv difference and both are wheat-based.

Perhaps some German korn does offer a whiskey-like taste, general online comment suggests this is so. But in any case the Berentzen is quite distant from your typical “white whiskey” sold by numerous distillers in North America.

It’s very good though, I’m not sorry I bought it. Occasionally I like an ounce of vodka straight, the different brands do taste different despite the neutrality mandated by law. And it will be useful for Bloody Marys and Martinis.

I always wonder how close to neutrality early 1800s distillers got. Their trade ads and other evidence, for example, Samuel M’Harry’s distilling text, do claim a tasteless character in some spirit produced. Sometimes they call it alcohol, sometimes pure spirit. These are distinguished often in ads and other sources from various sorts of whiskey: rectified, common, old, etc.

I have a feeling it was in fact possible to attain a high degree of neutrality, not that it would have been very economic before perfection of the column still. The need for repeated distillations or charcoal filtrations using more fuel and manpower, etc. would have dissuaded distillers although it appears some offered it, perhaps at a premium to their regular product.

All this to say, I feel the current taste of this drink may not resemble the typical korn of the period when the Palatinate emigrants came to Pennsylvania and adjoining areas. That white spirit was probably closer to white whiskey or white rye, at least those I’ve tasted, than the korn from Berentzen.