David Allan’s Pure Rye Whisky!

The above Canadian whisky advertisement, from 1871, has a striking elegance resulting from skill in design and economy of expression.

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

David Allan’s father, William, had bought a small mill on the Speed River in Guelph, Upper Canada in the 1830s, a rude, wood-frame building. Father and son were builders and architects in the old world. They expanded the mill to include a distillery, fulling operation, and furniture-making.

Father & son were connected to Sir Hugh Allan in Montreal, of shipping and finance fame, well-known in Canadian business history. The Quebec and Ontario Allans were among the elite capitalists of their day.

The Guelph distillery of David Allan sold thousands of barrels of whisky and other liquors annually. It was a good example of a country distillery that resisted the incursions of the expanding “Big Five” 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 which likely foretold the end of distilling, but around 1870 the business was still doing well. The product line is interesting to ponder.

The “old rye” was probably pure grain spirits, i.e., fairly neutral spirits distilled at a high strength, perhaps blended with a straight rye (genuine whisky) component, and aged a year or two. The malt whisky was a Canadian version of Scots malt whisky. Not all Canadian distilleries made a malt whisky, in this case it was probably a nod to Allan’s Scottish origins.

“Com. whiskey” meant a common whiskey, perhaps an unaged rye whiskey mash – a moonshine in effect. This type of whiskey was often used in punches and various hot whiskey drinks.

“Alcohol” was a grain neutral spirit but perhaps less processed than pure spirits and meant for industrial (non-beverage) use. It is possible too though that alcohol and pure spirits were the same thing, with one a higher strength to suit usage as an industrial solvent. Some distillers are known at the time to have sold an industrial version (alcohol so termed) at 94% ABV, say, while an 86% version was sold for beverage purposes, of course to be cut with water.

Old Tom gin was likely pure spirits flavoured with juniper, sugar, and citrus or other things to make a sweetened gin. No dry gin was advertised, and perhaps the local market hadn’t yet developed a taste for London Dry Gin.

The toddy was probably a whiskey sweetened with sugar, for mixing with hot water to make a now-disappeared Victorian staple, whisky toddy.

It is hard to know for certain though the exact composition of these products without recourse to distillery records. Each distillery probably made something different, especially the smaller ones. And trade terms in common use at the time had no legal definition.

Happily, a distillery will once again operate in the old Allan milling complex: see this report in Guelph a few months ago. A development called Metalworks will house 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 added 9/12/2019: We understand the distillery at Metalworks is now open, see details reported last April in Guelph by Guelph Today.

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.