The Marquette and Other Markers on the March to New Wine

D.S. Marvin was a grape grower and breeder in Watertown, NY in the late 1800s. In an 1879 article in the journal The Rural New Yorker he wrote the following on the suitability of different grape species for “our climate”:

“We must reject all European grapes”, he says, and almost all their hybrids (or mixtures with other species, typically native American ones). Of course this is enology of 130 years ago; that was then. Since his era, world-class quality has emerged in the form of California and Australia Cabernet Sauvignon, Californian and Oregon Pinot Noir, and perhaps Zinfandel; Ontario icewine and probably our Riesling; New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; and no doubt numerous other examples.

People of course will disagree here, I’ve never had New World Chardonnay that equalled the best white Burgundy, maybe I’ve been unlucky.

But Marvin’s point remains valid I think in general terms for the central, eastern, and southern parts of North America – that’s a big area.

What do wineries grow around Watertown, NY today? One of them, Coyote Moon, states this on its website:

… we grow … Marquette, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, La Crescent, and Brianna… [These are] Northern Climate grapes created by the University of Minnesota to grow in the colder climates. Coyote Moon’s Northern Climate wines have been very well-received and garnered accolades across the country. These wines are on the cutting edge of the wine world and opening taste buds, and wine drinkers, all over the world to a whole new type of wine.

Take Marquette as an example, it is a hybrid with a complex parentage, see a description here from the University of Minnesota. It states in part:

Marquette’s high sugar and moderate acidity make it very manageable in the winery. Finished wines are complex, with attractive ruby color, pronounced tannins, and desirable notes of cherry, berry, black pepper, and spice on both nose and palate. As a red wine, Marquette represents a new standard in cold hardy viticulture and enology.

Wines and Vines notes in an informative recent article that a Vermont winery cultivates Marquette like Vinifera (which it also grows):

Shelburne Vineyard is one of just two wineries in Vermont to grow vinifera grapes. Instead, winemaker Ethan Joseph focuses largely on Marquette, a hybrid grape less than a decade old. Developed by Peter Hemstad at the University of Minnesota and released in 2006, Marquette is a complex hybrid of V. riparia, V. vinifera and French hybrid cultivar Ravat 262. One of its grandparents was Pinot Noir. In many ways, Joseph treats Marquette like a vinifera grape, and the resulting wines have garnered critical praise including four Best of Show awards at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition.

[Read more at:
Copyright © Wines & Vines].

The Riparia or sand grape is yet another native American species.

The story also explains in detail Shelburne’s aging and oak program. The winery initially used American oak, but later switched to other types due to the vanillin in the American wood being too prominent – a story familiar to those with the pertinent English beer historical knowledge. The winery now uses Hungarian oak.

I was discussing recently Norton’s Virginia, a red wine grape which holds great promise both for international distinctiveness and quality. Yet, it is a grape said to need a long growing season and like the Vitis aestivalis it largely descends from, is typically seen southerly or in mid-south-western areas. Virginia, Missouri, Arkansas are the main states it has done well, sometimes under the alternate name Cynthiana.

Note: Old books sometimes treat Norton’s Virginia and Cynthiana as closely related but different cultivars. Recent genetic mapping has established they have the same DNA; it is different growing areas that resulted in apparent specie differences.

If Cabernet Sauvignon can be grown with reasonable success in many parts of the Northeast, I wonder if modern viticulture and enology can’t contrive to grow Norton’s Virginia/Cynthiana in Niagara, especially considering the climate change factor.

Be that as it may, the work of University of Minnesota and other work to develop species for ideal adaptation to local climate may produce an outstanding grape which becomes a new global exemplar.

Maybe the wine world of 2030 will feature four or five new star grapes from different regions of North America. What will Ontario’s contribution be? We have done pretty well already with icewine! Perhaps one of the new cold-climate varieties will do stellar work here for a dry wine.

Our current wine regulatory framework will have to evolve though to accommodate any such developments…

I’ll be visiting a couple of southern U.S. cities soon, not quite in Virginia, but near enough. I hope to snag some Norton’s Virginia and give my own assessment soon.

As for Marquette, I need to get down to Clayton or Watertown to check it out at Coyote Moon. (Maybe fellow Ontarian Alan McLeod, who writes on beer,will join me. He likes a glass of wine sometimes, I think, and doesn’t live too far from Clayton).

Coyote Moon’s 400-acre vineyard is in Clayton on the St. Lawrence River, a 20-minute drive north from Watertown.

That’s the Thousand Island Region, one of the classic transnational regions in North America, which probably explains the Union Jack in one of the images above. It features along with the Stars and Stripes in a parade which Canadians were probably asked to join.

Coyote Moon also has a distillery in Clayton. And the likelihood of good beer in the area being absent is, shall we say, zero. Win-win-win.

Note re images: The first image above is via HathiTrust from the source linked in the text. The last three are from the Village of Clayton website, here. All images are the sole property of their lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Thank You for Your Wine, Virginia

Sweet Virginia, Not Foxy Lady

Histories of American wine and viticulture record many fascinating stories, some with resonance to this day. 19th century growers and breeders fought long and hard to overcome difficulties of climate, blight, financing, and transportation in seeking to produce and supply a reliable, acceptable product for the public.

Despite the challenges, thousands of wineries existed in the country before Prohibition. Most of the grapes were grown in California but many eastern states and Canada too had significant winery operations with supporting vineyards.

Many popular wine varieties were based on indigenous, often Labrusca, grapes. Blending was sometimes done with these and locally-raised Vinifera.

I have seen many ads, included along with the touts for whiskey and beer, for dry Catawba, say.

Foxy grapes were never confined only to the sweet wine category, often derided today as pop wines.

One grape that resulted in commercial application is Norton’s Virginia, a red wine cultivar derived mostly from Vitis aestivalis. This is a native American grape species encountered by early explorers and colonists.

Aestivalis has four main sub-species and is found in a broad range of eastern North America. See a good description of the main species in Wikipedia, here, and from the Missouri Botanical Garden, here.

In an early study (1866) of the American wine industry, George Husmann (1827-1902) wrote the following of Norton’s Virginia (by astringent he means dry, clearly):

Even allowing for some overstatement, the lyrical invocation of Norton Virginia’s merits is striking. And while Husmann notes certain limitations of the grape in geographical terms, we must bear in mind the date of writing, and that he was writing too of humid climates. Many regions in the east are not typically humid; southern Ontario, for example.

Husmann was a German immigrant – Germans did important early wine work in America, another analogy to early U.S. (lager) brewing. He continued his work in Hermann, Missouri where he lived at the time his first book was published.

He later relocated to California and encountered many challenges there (some personal) no less than in the Show-me state. Late in life, he supported further grape varieties for different types of wine, driven largely too by his belief that what grew best locally should inform the field planting.

Still, he never lost faith in Norton’s Virginia, and supported its use to the end.

An attraction of the grape to many in the 19th century was its lack of the fox character, one that famously – infamously – characterizes the Labrusca species: after all it is the iconic “fox” grape.

The fox term is generally taken to refer to the musky or gamey note of native American grapes and most hybrids that derive from them.

The Norton Virginia is still cultivated, indeed has had a modest revival mainly in Missouri and Virginia. There are many interesting reports on its performance. Some are enthusiastic, reporting notes of earth, deep clean fruit character, yet with something different to distinguish it from Viniferas.

See e.g. this robust report from famed English wine authority Jancis Robinson. It’s from 2012, on some vintages from Chrysalis, a noted Virginia producer of Norton Virginia wine.

Other views are less sanguine, one noted “burnt” edges to the wine. It is always difficult of course to draw conclusions from any given assessment. So much depends on context: the taster, the vintage, the vineyard, the winery’s techniques.

Still, Robinson’s comments are telling in my view and may presage, as she seems to hope herself, a wider revival and influence of this grape.

Yes, that was 2012 and we are now in 2017, but five years is a blink of an eye in wine-historical terms. It takes time to turn around a very long, heavy, and powerful ship.

Still, it must be noted that Robinson shares the traditional wine establishment view of fox character, “almost rank”, she calls it.

Ultimately I feel that objection will fall away, for the next wine renaissance that is.

First, all taste is relative – think of the broad range of flavours of Vinifera winemaking – any specific flavour can catch on at any time. (Why is Sauvignon Blanc with its cat’s pee flavour not rank…?).

It may go too far to suggest all taste is arbitrary, but inherent quality is mostly driven by a complex of historical, social, economic/technical and cultural factors.

The fact that Norton’s Virginia has good antiquity, over 250 years, was early acclaimed by experts, and is an authentic product of North American terroir, suggests to me it could be a path forward to a different wine world.

I would think, given the characteristics of the species from which the cultivar emerged, that it could be grown with success in Ontario, or a related cultivar.

This may be easier than trying to adapt Viniferas to our climate: we have had some successes to be sure, especially for white wines, and icewine, but the reliable production of a great red wine type here seems elusive (while many good quality wines acceptable for table purposes exist, to be sure).

There may be hundreds of other heirloom varieties, or new hybrids that can be devised from them, that offer the magic formula, that would make it beer’s IPA.

Maybe it will never be one grape, from every region certainly, but I foresee that each region may soon develop its bellwether native variety wine, with some cultivars being common to most of them as occurs for the classic Vinifera types.

Vinifera will not disappear any time soon, nor should it. But taking a cue again from the history of hop-culture and brewing, there is no reason that distinctive local varietal character should be eschewed; to the contrary.

For any of this to happen, a sea change will be needed in the mind of the stewards who have guided the industry since the end certainly of WW II. They did good work in their day, but a new day is dawning IMO. Not that there is no precedent for it: a harbinger is the new respect accorded historical grape varieties in places such as Spain, Greece, Italy.

The influence of Californian and Australian alcohol levels and fruit character on European wines is another example.

But the push needs to, or will in any case in my view, be wider and deeper than that and extend finally to using native American grapes to found dominant new styles of wine.

For a final analogy to beer, I would cite the environment the U.K.’s “Campaign for Real Ale” (CAMRA) is confronting in Britain.

CAMRA from its inception in the early 1970s has stood for a specific type of beer processing and dispense: cask-conditioning. This is due to its long history in England and tendency to increase the quality of the beer.

Yet, new trends have caught on in beer in the last 30 years, in Britain no less than elsewhere. CAMRA is currently considering if it should abandon cask-conditioning as its raison d’être and convert itself to a general beer lobby, one which promotes interest in beer quality irrespective of how it is carbonated or served.

Even I was doubtful some years ago that CAMRA should change, but I now think it is inevitable. I see the wine picture as no different: the many moving parts of the wine business, from Napa to the Ontario LCBO, from Epernay to the Hunter Valley, will need to look at wine differently in the next generation.

Nore re images: the first image shown, of a hybrid Norton grape cluster, was sourced here and is copyright Don Kasak. It used by permission under Creative Commons Licence Attribution 4.0, see the full license terms and conditions via this link.  The second image is from George Husmann’s book linked in the text and is available via HathiTrust. All intellectual property in the work resides solely in its lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




Returning North American Wine to Terroir

In brewing, hops with North American origins, generally hybrids from crosses with European hops, became a central part of the brewing renaissance.

From the 1960s onwards, to a small number of the older hybrids grown on our hop farms, notably Cluster, a large number of new hops, starting with Cascade, was added. Cascade was released to brewers c. 1972 and resulted from USDA research in cooperation with large brewers looking for a domestic replacement for the German Hallertau.

It was found the new hops had vigorous tastes, quite non-Noble and in some cases rather new, e.g., the grapefruit taste of Cascade. Some of the new hops continued the musky or blackcurrant notes of the venerable Cluster.

Craft brewers and their customers were not inhibited by such novelty – tastes considered inferior in Europe and even here by large breweries whose brewmasters were formed under European influence.

To the contrary, the new tastes were welcomed, of which “IPA” is the great showcase to date. In fact, it has now partly colonized English brewing: rather ironic given IPA is English to begin with.

Why did something like this not happen to wine? In wine, it went resolutely the other way, with Vinifera grapes, led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Zinfandel (of European origin), being planted extensively here after WW II to supplant the Labrusca and other native varieties or hybrids that had the musky flavour noble Vinifera did not.

Despite that a lot of wine was sold before Prohibition tasting of North American terroir, most of it was uprooted quite literally except to make jam and grape juice. To be sure wine is still made in the U.S. from Concord and other native grapes, but it’s the low end of the market. The mid-market and upper are dominated by Vinifera.

I speculated yesterday that the overwhelming prestige of the European wine tradition, the fame of the great vineyards of France and Germany, explained this development, hence the particular features of VQA in Ontario but also the general mien of wine culture in North America.

The European influence could not be resisted and so we sought to grow their grapes here, even in places where the soils and climate could never really accommodate them. This produced good results in some cases, e.g., California reds, some whites in Ontario, and not so good in others.

Wine is viewed a peg above beer in status, it was and still is. I’d infer the prosperous classes who drank wine were by nature deferential to Old World influence: wine would be just one example.  One may look at classical music, art, literature, design, cuisine, and more to see how strongly European culture dominated our thinking until quite recently.

But today North America has acquired the confidence to bruit its own products and ideas in many fields; wine is still not one of them, though. (There is the odd exception, or quasi-exception, Ontario icewine, say).

Beer was never as intimidated by European hauteur. Even in the “bad old days” (pre-craft) it wasn’t, as evidenced by the corn or rice it contained and the funky Cluster hopping. Yet our wine culture remains considerably colonized, from the east coast to the west and the same for Australia and New Zealand. Chile too, for wines viewed as in the top rank.

When you think about it, there is no logical reason for this. First, there is the relativity of taste. Second, some Vinifera or wine from the old countries can have, shall we say, idiosyncratic flavours. Sauvignon blanc is noted, or rather prized, for its catty taste – cat’s pee, it’s an honorific. From N.Z. to Napa to Ontario and Bordeaux, all sauv blanc has that taste.

Why is that not foxy…? Because it’s from France, noble. Some Riesling has a characteristic diesel oil taste, “petrol” they call it, preferably with clipped English intonation. Why is that considered noble and the wild fruit tang of Delaware or Catawba is a peon in comparison?

What about the stenchy Brettanomyces tang in some Rhone wine, and others? I had a Cahors recently that oozed the taste from every drop, yet the lore of the famous black wine is all-intoxicating, all-conquering.

To reach both full cultural and gastronomic maturity, we need to rediscover the best of our own wine tradition, best meaning what makes it distinctive but also interesting to drink. In the 19th century, there were already thousands of grape varieties being bred and studied in the field by American grape growers and plant breeders.

This resulted in some notable grapes, grapes that even got attention in France. A good example is Norton’s Virginia, still grown especially in Virginia and Missouri.

Could Norton’s Virginia be the IPA of the wine world? There are grapes of a similar species native to the northeast and into southern Ontario. Why don’t we grow them, or re-grow them, maybe further breed them, and see what results?

The right wine can be the wine world’s answer to the highly influential Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (from 1981) and Liberty Ale (1975). Not to mention shifting some lucre for their makers who at the beginning were insouciant of foreign influence.

More soon on Norton’s Virginia.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from, here. All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Coming of Wine’s IPA

The New Sensation Will Be – Labrusca?

We look in these pages at the diverse aspects, often historical, of beer and whisky. Sometimes we broach culinary matters and the world of wine.

I was thinking about wine recently when examining the 1930s wine menus of the The Old Mill, the venerable restaurant and well-known event space and hotel in Toronto.

The list shown below, from the website linked, offers some surprises, e.g., Australia was active in international wine markets even before World War II. Note too that notable shippers such as B&G and Paul Bouchard have an old history.

But the list mainly reminds us of the wine world in Ontario before the 1980s.

Interestingly, the menu was the “bourgeois” version – a deluxe version was available on request. Presumably this focused on the great Bordeaux estates and Burgundy villages, vintage Champagnes, and the finer Rhine wines.

There were many wineries in the province before Prohibition here (1916-1927). Prohibition didn’t actually cover wine, you could still buy it at the cellar door of a few wineries that were permitted to operate.

But the general atmosphere – no liquor stores, no cocktail bars, no beer or taverns – discouraged development of a robust wine industry.

After Prohibition wineries started to get back on their feet but depression and then the war inhibited their normal development, as in the U.S. Consolidation affected the industry from the 1930s, as in brewing.

The well-known Canadian Chateau-Gai brand issued from a merger of five wineries before the war. Chateau-Gai was a staple for decades after WW II, especially its “Champagne”, a stand-by at Canuck weddings.

Canadian table wines then were generally made from native grape varieties or Vitis Labrusca, the foxy stuff that makes great jam and sacramental wine but was not felt suitable for good dry wines. For that need, Vinifera was born – Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay, etc.

On the west coast of the U.S. starting in the 1950s, and ultimately almost everywhere in North America including Ontario, the decision was made to jettison lower-grade juice or fortified wine grapes, in the East often Labrusca, for high-quality Vinifera varieties with concomitant improvement in fermentation procedures (e.g. yeast selection) and barrel-aging.

Famously, the wine riches of Sonoma and Napa resulted. And since the 1980s in Ontario, led by pioneers such as Paul Bosc of Château des Charmes in Niagara, still comparatively young at 81, we have developed an increasing reputation for excellent Vinifera, especially Rieslings and Chardonnays.

Certain grape hybrids, all or almost all developed in Europe, are also authorized, especially for red wines. There are hybrid whites too, notably Vidal Blanc in the international showcase, Ontario ice wine.

Wikipedia well-summarizes the Ontario part of this story and its lynchpin, VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance):

In addition to the requirements regarding sources of grapes, VQA wines may be made from Vitis vinifera grape variety and approved hybrid varieties. …. Ontario uses a range of vinifera varieties and notably permits the use of Vidal, particularly in the production of some of Canada’s icewines.

VQA wines may be made with grapes from relatively small agricultural yields per vine (which increases quality), they meet specific sugar or brix levels at harvest, and the use of additives is regulated. There are also standards regulating the use of certain types of packaging and closures. To receive the VQA designation, wine must undergo testing by the regulating bodies. There is no standard location on the bottle for the VQA logo.

These are the Ontario wines you see sold in the LCBO, most “VQA” that is. For a fuller understanding of the VQA system Claudia McNeilly’s compelling article yesterday in the National Post is most helpful

She also addresses certain limitations to VQA that are increasingly apparent after a successful run of some 30 years.

To carry the VQA designation the grapes (generally) must be 100% grown in Ontario from varieties authorized by VQA, as stated. Conforming to regional or sub-regional origin rules entitles vintners as well to use the related appellation, say, Prince Edward County, or Niagara Bench.

Wineries here can make and list with LCBO a wine that does not meet the VQA’s organoleptic test to be marketed. But there is less incentive to produce them, as VQA wines earn winemakers more profit due to a sizeable break they get on the provincial mark-up portion of the selling price.

No Labrusca, to my knowledge, or other native grape species*, are permitted for any VQA table wine. An Ontario farmer may grow such or any varieties he pleases and sell it at the winery gate, but it is unlikely one will see such wines at LCBO as it supports the VQA framework.

This situation results from the wine world of 40 years ago, a “top-down” philosophy intended to protect consumers and improve overall quality. Broadly, the same approach occurred elsewhere except that you can still buy table wines, say in New York State, made e.g., from Labrusca wines. Many are the sweeter, pop-type wines that were popular in the 1970s.

I find this interesting by comparison to how craft beer has developed. In craft brewing, the star hops – always the keynote for beer flavour – are mostly types developed from crosses with European “noble” varieties, but they were developed in North America from the 1960s to today.

These include the Cascade hop, Centennial, Mosaic, Citra, Magnum.

These names have a magnetic resonance when appearing on beer lists and have done much to grow small-scale brewing to the point the large North American breweries are in decline or need to ape the small guys to retain market share.

The hybrid grapes authorized by VQA were developed in Europe, Vidal say, under tutelage therefore of European ideas and learning.

The idea was not to change the tastes bestowed by antiquity and tradition, but improve hardiness, resistance to disease in particular. After all, American root stalks were used famously to restore even the noblest vines ravaged by the Phylloxera pest in the late-1800s.

Still, in North America, except for ice wine and a few special types perhaps, few hybrid grape wines have achieved the cachet of the great varietals of Europe: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, etc.

In contrast, many of the new, fashionable hops have a decided musky taste, sometimes called dank – foxy, you might say. Or if not that they are strongly citric or tropical fruit-like – enfants terrible compared to the revered Saaz, Fuggles, Goldings, and Hallertau hops of Europe.

The new darlings, or hops much like them, were once rejected by European brewers and even by North American brewers making the finest beers, due to their unusual flavours.

European hops by comparison had pleasing floral and mineral tastes, at least in the estimation of the great brewers of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. North American hops, with flavours largely imparted by the soils of our hop-growing regions (initially different parts of North America but now largely Washington State and Idaho), were felt rather lesser.

That was then. Taste is famously relative, and given the huge range of flavours in the culinary field there is no reason our hops shouldn’t find someone’s favour, by dint of terroir, the uniqueness, or simply for market advantage. In the vernacular, it’s turning a negative into a positive.

In fact this did happen finally. The grapefruity, often dank “IPA”, or India Pale Ale, is the marquee example. The type is originally English but now usually is American in taste, even in England. I don’t mean the “bitter” of the pub, but fizzy, cold IPA as usually marketed.

So why not develop our own musky and dank dry wines, or other wines with distinctive local flavours? Some may gain cult status to be acclaimed finally in Europe’s capitals. Why hasn’t this happened already?

Ah, wine is different you will say. Certainly wine everywhere and not excluding North America has been faithful to the Bacchic European heritage. This is the wine of the poets from time immemorial, of romance, of haute dining.

That tradition was never American or Antipodean, it was Greek, Roman, and finally gloriously French, German, Italian.

It was powered by Sauternes, Mosel, Champagne, the classified growths, scented fine Burgundy, and the ritual of table, song and poem to go with it.

So inspired and influenced, elite wine societies and other taste-makers including finally legislators in some cases, arranged to supplant local production seen as inferior. Yet those foxy wines often enjoyed popular favour.

Henceforth, wines of European ancestry would be produced as more suitable for la table and good restaurants.

It’s not that Europe and those here under its influence didn’t accept U.S. and Australian wine finally – they did, but only when European grape types entered the composition.

This legacy is still dominant in New World winemaking today, of which VQA is a part. We have over 180 wineries now in Ontario, when there were perhaps 10 around 1980. VQA can take the credit for a lot of that growth. The story is similar elsewhere, most famously in northern California.

(Did New World taste in wine did influence Europe too? Yes, the phenomena of Mondovino and Robert Parker may be noted. But still, the grape types that are the foundation of the New World’s éclat in wine are European).

Beer developed differently. There was no sophisticated cadre to lead a progressive, informed development. Instead, beer developed in an anarchic way via a motley of (initially law-breaking) homebrewers, eccentric rich sons like Fritz Maytag in San Francisco (Anchor Brewery), and freewheeling beer writers. In the U.K. the beer lobby CAMRA has promoted traditional cask ale since the early 1970s, to good effect..

Especially in America, beer enthusiasts were open to everything and anything, from chile beers to “sours” to Stygian stouts tasting like pitch. They welcomed the emergence of locally-grown hops that tasted strongly of the lands they grew up in – of terroir – vs. England’s Kent, Bavaria, and the Czech Republic.

If the new hops weren’t noble, who cared? And so a revolution in brewing resulted.

Wine’s gentility has prevented something similar happening but encouraged by “garagistes” and other independent thinkers, this will change soon I think. Some genius will invent a dry red or white wine from all-native grapes, or perhaps rescue one from 19th century annals, that will sweep the wine regions of North America, thence to gain world success.

It will be wine’s IPA and more.


*Vitis Labrusca is the best known of the Vitis family other than the European-origin Vitis Vinifera. The former is native to the Northeast and certain extended areas. Other Vitis species are also native to parts of North America. Labrusca types include Catawba and Delaware as well as the famous Concord. But other species, or hybrids derived from them, are grown as well and winemakers outside California, especially in the east, sometimes make wines from them. Each of the Vitis family at least originally and various sub-species within them were adapted to growing best in certain regions and became associated with those regions. For example, Labrusca does not do as well in dry arid climates, therefore California, as in the eastern states.



Lunch on the Humber

The Old Mill in Toronto is a long-established restaurant and banquet centre, what is now called an event space. It has long been been associated with sporting clubs nearby including a golf course, and added a hotel almost 20 years ago.

The site is the banks of the Humber River, flowing to Lake Ontario through the western part of the city. The Old Mill is nestled in the leafy, somewhat hilly (for Toronto) Kingsway section. A series of mills of various kinds was built there starting in pioneer days. They all burned ultimately.

As far as I can tell, no distillery was ever associated with that particular milling centre.

The restaurant was established in 1914 by a developer who took charge of the derelict site as part of laying out much of the Kingsway. I don’t live near there but get out there sometimes on walks and on my bike.

The Kingsway combines Ontario white bread ambience with a dose of downtown-style diversity. The latter is exhibited in the restaurant scene on the main drag (Bloor Street West) but probably too now in the residential population.

The Kingsway has its own feel anyway, and The Old Mill is a nerve centre.

The Old Mill has generously made available on its website a series of menus from the mid-1930s, mid-1940s, and mid-60s. One of them is pictured, from 1970. The other images herein are also taken from The Old Mill’s informative website.

This menu, while to some degree reflecting the approach of contemporary country clubs in North America, also demonstrated prevailing culinary values in Canada.

The word conservative comes to mind, although in truth it’s a value-laden term that doesn’t really mean anything at bottom.

If you compare the lunch menus of The Old Mill from the 30s and 40s, they are very similar: not much changed over that long period. The same is true of the dinner menus, which are more elaborate versions of the lunch menus.

Since 1970 Toronto has undergone many food revolutions, both ethnic and mainstream, increasingly too in synch with what is going in any large North American city and indeed beyond.

Today, a vegetarian option or more than one is obligatory almost everywhere. In 1970, not a single main course offering was vegetarian.

In the 1960s the fare at a solid place like The Old Mill was based on beef, chicken, ham, lamb, and a fish or two. The fish was usually either halibut, salmon or trout (none really associated with our Great Lakes, which provided many species for the table then and still does).

The food was probably excellent, as all these dishes will shine if made with good ingredients carefully. The Old Mill always had a good reputation and retains it to this day.

Ham steak and pineapple … it was a staple of restaurants all over North America at one time, and not just cafes and diners. The genius who thought to place a pineapple ring, usually canned (in fact the dish tastes best that way) on a ham slice, probably kicked off the craze.

Probably it started in the early 1950s although earlier origins would not surprise. Chicken-in-the-basket with honey pot nearby was a dish of this class – I’m sure some Old Mill lunch menus featured it.

Calves liver is a rare, um, gutsy move for a restaurant in Canada then. I know some people who still won’t eat liver in any form, except a skosh of pate, perhaps. Even then they need to get down one or two of my best Martinis to go for the … gutso, sorry gusto.

I remember roast beef houses serving calves liver with bacon in the 1970s, so perhaps there was always an active subculture rooting for it. British incomers would have helped given they knew faggots at home and other old-fashioned dishes based on liver. (Faggots probably is Roman in origin in England, think of the Italian fegato...).

The Victorians anyway were much less squeamish about innards than the post-Second war generations, and Toronto had distinct Victorian vestiges in the 1960s, not just in architecture. (Heck, we still have a Hotel Victoria, I tweeted an image of it the other day).

Halibut steak is a solid performer – still as good as ever although harder to find now. And the sauce Meunière if well-made would have done it no harm.

Scrambled eggs with sausage seems a little odd perhaps as a lunch dish, but really it was a brunch-style offering, it makes sense to offer it in a country club atmosphere.

And so all-day breakfast, quite the rage today – McDonald’s finally got with the parade – is not really new, like a lot of things in the culinary field.

Cold cuts sounds a bit pedestrian, but people must have liked it and it’s the most expensive dish on the menu! The short ribs is classic mid-century North American cooking, a fine dish in fact but again hard to find today.

Look at the Old Mill’s 1930s wine menus, Chilean white and red wines are well-represented. It’s not a phenomenon of the last 20 years.

Now the curried lamb sounds a little exotic, but not really, curried dishes have been solidly English and British Empire/Commonwealth since the mid-1800s at least. Still, it offered some spicy variety. It was probably popular among travelled businessmen and ex-army officers.

The creamed chicken, a staple of 1950s menus and a once-popular club dish, has gone the way of the dodo.

The desserts are classic North American. The spumoni – oh where did you go I used to love that! – was probably somewhat daring, the Italian population was starting to burgeon here and this was a nod in an establishment context.

Maybe the cold cuts showed Italian influence too, it isn’t a British or old stock American thing, or was a bow to the German crowd out in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON, settled by the Pennsylvania Dutch from the 1780s.

The cheeses hit the main bases then: good local cheddar – Ontario makes some of the world’s best; Quebec Trappist Oka, the Port Salut-type I wrote about a while back; and “blue”, probably Roquefort.

It’s all good Anglo-American food, and made right most palatable although not very fashionable (most of it) today. Almost all the starters too are non-starters on today’s menus, the oysters and maybe smoked salmon apart. All the soups are out of style today, jellied consommé?

The herring was probably great. It was a “Continental” standby for decades after WW II, perhaps encouraged by the many German and Swiss chefs in hoteling and catering then. You almost never see it now except at German or Scandinavian restaurants and Jewish delis.

I wonder what The Old Mill serves for lunch now… maybe I’ll hie out there soon and find out.

But good for them not to forget their past, I like that.






A Chat About American Rye Including Jim Beam’s

[Friendly caution to our beer and historical-anything readers: contemporary technical rye whiskey discussion ahead].

Pictured is the rebadged rye of Beam Suntory, now 90 proof vs. the former 80 proof Yellow Label (Jim Beam Straight Rye). It’s called Pre-Prohibition Style vs. simply straight rye for the old Yellow Label (now discontinued). The new one is straight too though, the label states this as well, in effect at least four years old.

Beam still produces (RI)1 Straight Rye, at 92 proof seemingly a ratchet-up, and maybe different batching, of 80 proof Old Overholt rye, in turn also seemingly the same recipe as Knob Creek Straight Rye. AFAIK, all these are the same mashbill but different proofs, selections, and/or ages.

Truth to tell, having tasted them for years except the relatively new Prohibition one, they were very similar in palate. They all had a pungent, not all-that-appealing flavour which to me was the Beam signature, also seen in its various bourbons.

When I was active with, some of us called it the yeast taste, a potent background flavour common to the bourbon and rye. Hence thinking it was one Beam yeast used for fermenting rye and bourbon mashes that imparted the taste, although perhaps there was another explanation.

It’s still in Beam’s bourbons, e.g. I noticed it in a recent Knob Creek, but is almost completely absent in the Pre-Prohibition rye.

If one mixes any of these, the effect won’t be noticed, but drunk neat, the Beam “smack” was always very distinctive.

This taste must have evolved at the Clermont and Boston distilleries of Beam in the last 20 years or so, as I’ve tasted 1970s Beam bourbons at Kentucky gatherings and they don’t have it. Those bourbons were richer and more caramel-like than today’s, “carmul” as my good American friends would say (we say, car-a-mel, long “a” vs. their short “a”).

Old Gran-dad bourbon had a similar taste although as made at National Distillers in the 1970s was different again, more fruity and rich. Yet apparently the yeast for Gran-dad used at Beam came from National Distillers and is different than Beam’s yeast for its own brands, so who knows.

I wonder if the type of rye traditionally used at Beam may impart the taste in question since the bourbons use some rye too of course.

Since I like these whiskeys neat, small differences mean lot, and I was very happy to note that Pre-Prohibition rye doesn’t have the taste. It is rich, very drinkable neat, silky-sweet, and if it has any of the yeast smack it’s just a hair. Personally I think a different yeast is used to mash this formula.

It’s excellent value given where bourbon and American rye prices are these days.

A few large distilleries today mash rye, Beam does, Heaven Hill (Pikesville, Rittenhouse), of course MGPI in Indiana. Jack Daniel does a rye now too, rather bland IMO – I don’t know why since the white dog had a strong new-whiskey taste, but aged it seems a different animal.

There is also Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve Rye, all pot-distilled, I believe, in the small Versailles, KY plant. It reminds me of Woodford Reserve bourbon for years after its original release, fairly congeneric albeit my last WR bourbon seemed older in taste, quite an improvement. But I’d guess the rye hasn’t had time to age more than four years.

The pot-distilling, while salutary historically, requires years of aging to bring around.

There is also Sazerac’s Barton 1792 Distillery’s Fleischmann Rye, still made in Bardstown for a limited market and hard to find. Excellent product for the price.

Finally, Wild Turkey has a rye, in 101 and regular proof iterations. I’ve never been a fan of the profile, certainly good for cocktails though.

Diageo’s George Dickel rye is from MGPI except for the maple charcoal leaching. I’m not really a fan of the MGPI profile for rye, I find it rather harsh (“Blue Tide”) but maybe I haven’t tried it old enough.

There are countless craft distillers doing rye of course, but the products I’ve tried are quite young and don’t get at the aged side of the taste spectrum, which is the traditional one at least for 100 years or so. I.e., aging starts at four years old and often climbs much higher.

I had a Sazerac 18-year-old rye dram courtesy my friend Gary Hodder recently that was outstanding. The taste you get in old rye is quite different to old bourbon, kind of gingerbread-like or – again a term I used to use on the board – old damask curtains.

The Sazerac 18-year-old rye was either made years ago in Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY, formerly Ancient Age Distillery, or possibly in Louisville at “Old Bernheim”, now Heaven Hill’s distillery in Louisville, rebuilt 1992 as New Bernheim by UDV/Guinness (predecessor of Diageo) and tanked.

Beam Suntory has a Canadian rye too, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye made at Alberta Distillers. It’s very good when well-batched and selected*, all aged in new charred oak, but quite different to the Kentucky ryes in the stable.


*Just as an example, currently if you buy some CC brands in Ontario you get a free mini, so I got a mini of the CC 100% rye that way. It was light-coloured and lean in taste, not as good as the full bottles currently on the shelf which are rich and malty. Hence maybe the freebie? Of course we don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. It made a good addition to a brandy-based Sazerac cocktail. 🙂






Time Has Come Today

This late-1800s brewing entry in Chambers’ Encyclopedia states that pale ales received two-to-four months storage, mild ales, one week, export pale ales (IPAs), 10-15 months. See bottom-left hand corner, pg. 36.

Unlike today, you needed time to ensure pale ale was in the right condition for drinking. Time gave it a clearer appearance and took out some of the yeasty notes. A slow continued fermentation slightly raised the alcohol level and generated some CO2 as well.

The Scottish Chambers brothers, founders of a famed encyclopedia, had a high reputation for conveying scholarly expertise but in a way the intelligent layman could understand. (Indeed there are similar data in contemporary brewing and scientific journals).

In a time when yeast management, brewing sanitation and refrigerated storage were nowhere near today’s standards, two-to-four months was not a derisory period. Beer had to last sometimes as well over a warm spell and other uncertain weather.

Dry-hopping in part was designed to protect pale ale from the risks, we we saw in the discussion by “Aroma” yesterday.

It is tempting to think Aroma was brewing author and authority William Loftus, as in another part of the volume I linked he recommends the latter’s book The Brewer which went through numerous editions 1850s-1870s. I don’t think Aroma was Loftus though, in part because his IPA directions differ somewhat from Loftus’.

E.g. Loftus likes a mix of German and English hops; Aroma is an all-English hop man. Aroma speaks of blending aged and fresh hops; Loftus does not refer to aged hops.

It is hard to remember in our day of pasteurization, crash-cooling, filtration, and reliable refrigeration how perishable beer is. It will turn sour fast if not “kept” properly, sometimes in a day or two…

While over time storage time steadily narrowed as I mentioned for all beer, not least lager, to think AK was not stored, or kept, for much of the 1800s would not be correct. AK was an ale for keeping, certainly but the keeping period varied with the intended market.

The designation “K” for beer on its own or in doubled or greater number, KK and the like, surely meant keeping as well. Mild ales if long stored were sometimes designated XK or just K with multiples for stronger beers, which often were kept longer.

While brewery ads were sometimes inconsistent, I believe the K meant the same for bitter beer as other classes long aged: stored.

We don’t really have, today, the kind of beer Aroma referred to. Few beers use all-English hops in North America. Beers that do, including in England, rarely are stored long enough, and not in uncoated wood, to approximate to the Chambers’ description. Even where wood barrels are used, American oak barrels almost always are enlisted.

American wood was not used by English pale ale brewers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however. They thought it gave the wrong flavour to beer – it’s the vanillin, “chardonnay” taste familiar also in bourbon whiskey.

The wood used was sourced in the Baltic generally, so-called Memel wood from Lithuania and adjoining areas. You can still get it. Memel tended to impart a neutral quality to beer. Brewers liked that, they wanted the beers’ inherent qualities to shine.

Apart from all this, the hops used then were all-flower (no pellets) – and a great amount was used, much more than for the bitter offered in England today.

What would Aroma’s AK taste like? I think it would be great, probably like Martin’s Special Pale Ale was (in Belgium) 20 years ago (maybe still, I don’t know). Clean sweet malt taste, lovely flowery scent from the hops, good bitterness but the hop aroma predominating. I am referring to a special, stronger pale ale Martin’s had: there were two in the range, at least then.

For AK, 2-4 months probably wasn’t long enough for Brettanomyces to develop. This is why there was practical recognition IMO of a distinction between pale ale and IPA. They are the same in origin but the very long storage of the latter gave it additional qualities, the “Bass stink”, often, as it was called by Americans circa-1900.

It’s an acquired taste as so many tastes are in the area of beers, wines, and other drinks. However, the general market did not I think favour it, hence the replacement of those beers ultimately by the AK or “running” type.

The bitter today of the English pub, where it has not been replaced by the American-tasting form of IPA, is really the descendant of that AK.






The Meaning of AK in English Beer Terminology (Part II)

This is simply a follow-up to my Part I on this topic, in that I notice HathiTrust has the volume in question, here. Therefore, I can scan in the page and a double-click shows excellent resolution. See the second part of paragraph 4991, by “Aroma”:

Note re images: the image above and in Part I of this post were sourced from the links given in the texts. All intellectual property in or to the sources belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Meaning of AK in English Beer Terminology (Part I)

From time to time the question of the origins and meaning of “AK” or A.K. in English beer usage has arisen, for example by Boak and Bailey (@boakandbailey) in a chat with David Turner (@thebeerbiz) on Twitter today, see the exchange here.

A certain amount of ink has been spilled by writers on beer history trying to get to the bottom, with Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson weighing in, as I have. Some interesting thoughts are expressed in this article by Cornell from July, 2014, and in reader comments.

Some years ago, I located a reference from November 25, 1870 which stated AK means “keeping ale”, and I mentioned it in those comments. I mention it here now, as I haven’t before in these pages, and include an image from the article.

It was published in the “English Mechanic and World of Science”, a practical journal intended for various technical trades including brewing. The full page may be viewed here.

One may bear in mind that brewing had not yet entered its sophisticated science stage. It was a practical business and brewers sought help in journals such as this one for daily problems, often writing in for advice.

In this case, the anonymous “Aroma”, almost surely a brewer, stated that A.K. means “keeping ale”.

It is the only suggested definition in the heyday of AK, and is therefore important as period evidence especially given Aroma’s obvious detailed knowledge of beer and brewing.

Anyone is entitled of course not to treat it as definitive, but Aroma’s statement should be factored in any inquiry.

Personally, I believe AK did mean keeping ale, as even though storage times for pale ales were increasingly abbreviated in the 19th century, AK was clearly a form of bitter beer.

One of the originating characteristics of bitter beer was seasonal brewing and storage and later shipping for the India part or other export.

It’s true that for practical purposes AK was not a stock beer or stock ale for that matter. On the other hand, IPA and pale ale themselves altered to a point where storage was much abbreviated, or eliminated for all practical purposes as today.

What remained as leitmotifs were the heavy hopping, relatively pale colour, and relatively lower final gravity in relation to mild ales (drier).

IPA and pale ale were still bitter beer, as AK was. The stock or keeping quality was a characteristic of their ancestor which lingered in the name of one of the types.

Why it stayed in the name of the lower gravity version vs. the others (e.g. why wasn’t IPA called AK-IPA?) is a valid point to raise, however, IPA was a stored beer for much of its history and everyone connected with the beer business knew that.

Whereas, to describe a lower gravity beer but of similar type, what will you call it?

Today we say Session IPA. They said, I conclude, AK which reflected sufficiently the bitter beer idea to readers. Boak and Bailey stated in the Twitter discussion that the first reference to AK is 1846. This makes sense as beer gravities were getting lighter and storage times less and less for all beer types as the 19th century wore on.

Once a lighter pale ale became an item of commerce, a convenient term was needed, and AK makes sense as a convenient type-description.

N.B. See Part II of this post immediately following for a clear scan of the full page mentioned.




I’ll Sing a Song About Some People

In his dirge-like, theatrical song Where Are They Now? (1973), The Kinks’ Ray Davies memorialized various social and literary phenomena of the last 20 years.

In the song he writes (my ellipsis):

I’ll sing a song about some people you might know
They made front pages in the news not long ago ….

Where are all the Teddy Boys now?
The Brill Cream boys with D.A.s,
Drainpipes and blue suedes,
Beatniks with long pullovers on ….

I hope that Arthur Seaton is alright.
I hope that Charlie Bubbles had a very pleasant flight,
And Jimmy Porter’s learned to laugh and smile,
And Joe Lampton’s learned to live a life of style.

Where are all the angry young men now?
Where are all the angry young men now?
Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe…

The song’s final line is that rock and roll still lives on, which is to say rock and roll is not just reflective of social changes, or a trend itself, but has a validity of its own.

In 1973 the first generation of The Kinks’ English fans (generally also Beatles, Stones, Who, Bluesbreakers, Clapton, etc. fans) were in their mid-20s, getting married, getting on at work, or getting out of school finally.

How many knew who the named figures were? Even fewer would have known in America, save the reference to the beatniks. If they knew at all, it was through the successful films of Alan Sillitoe’s first two books.

John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe were charter members of the Kitchen Sink writing school, an unkind term that probably hurt as much as helped, which is why the emblematic writers generally shied away from the title.

Another sobriquet, more romantic, was the Angry Young Men.

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham with a plastic spoon in his mouth, and had a difficult childhood. After a spate of factory work and a goodish stint in the RAFVR he made an impressive career as a writer, this despite leaving school at 14.

He was autodidact, and his books are well- but closely-written, you need to pay them good attention with commensurate rewards.

His novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and the story cycle The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer were acclaimed on release and made into well-loved films. See the opening scene of the former, here.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was directed by Karel Reisz, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia whose lawyer-father and other family were killed by Nazis. The British had given him refuge in 1938.

After RAF service and a Cambridge education Reisz became a pioneer social realism filmmaker. He is remembered in particular as well for his work on The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Via his heroes Sillitoe channelled the working man’s dissatisfactions with his lot in the postwar era, the aggressions and odd paths that lead to. The sentiments evoked were at bottom in the popular music that hit from Liverpool to Los Angeles, finally.

Early Sillitoe finds its counterpart in many ways in, say, The Beatles’ song Help, or The Who’s My Generation. It is no surprise Ray Davies returned the favour in the song mentioned.

Arthur Seaton was the protagonist in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a Raleigh bicycle machinist in Nottingham. He was a potent symbol of the kitchen sink, the antithesis, as his creator, of the genteel analogues of mainstream postwar British literature.

The actor Albert Finney’s smash success portraying Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning launched his career and helped bring Sillitoe to international notice. Broadly, the Kitchen Sink, the Beatles, the new wave of artists and filmmakers, were part of the opening of the arts to parts of British society previously foreclosed.

Probably few of the Kinks’ declining fan base in the 1970s – their Tommy-style rock operas didn’t sell well – knew who Seaton and Sillitoe (the sibilance no accident, surely) were. Ray Davies, the London-born tunesmith of The Kinks and thinking man’s rocker par excellence, did his part to make sure they wouldn’t be forgotten.

Sillitoe later wrote the well-received novel The Death of William Posters (1965), the opener of a trilogy. It continued the themes introduced by his first two books.

I mention it here because it offers an interesting two-page reflection on beer from the angle of early 1960s English estates and their pubs.

In the book the antihero Frank Dawley, 27, gives up his factory job and leaves his family for the uncertain future of a wanderer. Among his plaints for the sterile life as a wage-earner and young father was that he had to cope with the “same brands of ales”.

This is an interesting statement, as of the many things an everyman might be preoccupied with, exercising taste and discrimination in beer would not seem top 5 in the list.

Yet Sillitoe was surely aware how the aura of wine and wine-merchant attached to genteel life. Wine and Bacchus too are symbols of poetry, the highest literary calling.

In his way, Sillitoe was making the case for beer, for the right of the man of the estates and dingy pubs, or a writer who drinks beer, to exercise discrimination and not have one of life’s pleasures pre-determined for him.

This becomes more clear in a later two-page episode in the book. In his final stages of departing Nottingham for the open road Dawley parks his car in a strange part of the city – the car is later sold to fund the travels and help the family while he is absent.

He searches for a pub for a valedictory drink to his native town, but has trouble finding one. He is in an area of crumbling structures being torn down for redevelopment. Some of what is still standing are outdoor privies, another symbol.

Dawley finally finds a pub not shuttered and orders a pint of mild. The older regulars in the place stare at him, not for the order but for being a stranger in the pub. The theme of outsider is omnipresent in Sillitoe.

In preface to the dramatic conflict to come Sillitoe explains that Dawley had very definite ideas about beer. He knew when something “wasn’t right” in a pint and wouldn’t finish it but would leave it on the counter and walk out. This was the problem of inconsistency of cask-conditioned beer, still with us.

In the strange pub the pint comes “warm”, which of all the beer faults was the most serious for Dawley. Despite hoary jokes about warm English beer, cask ale of course should never be warm but rather cellar temperature, pleasantly cool.

Dawley knows this, in his connoisseur way. He asks the landlord to change it and the latter’s hackles rise. Dawley is not on his own turf where the change, says Sillitoe, is always accommodated silently.

The landlord announces that the beer is always fine in his pub and he won’t change it. Voices rise, finally the landlord slams the money on the counter and tells Dawley to “clear out”.

Dawley knows he should take the money and run but can’t hold the genie of rebel in him. He lifts the pint and theatrically upturns it on the tiled floor.

The landlord demands that he clean it up and the oldsters in the corner intone, “that’s just, that’s just” (one of the many phrases and turns in the book always understood but probably obsolete even in Britain now, only 50 years later. They call Dawley a “bleeder” for example, or loser, whiner we would say).

The stand-off leads to an epic fight in which Dawley gets away just by the skin of his teeth, leaving his tormentors in the literal dust.

Alan Sillitoe was no leftist identikit man. While at one time feted in the Soviet Union for his working class solidarity, he was an individualist above all and declared on one occasion that he believed in meritocracy. He was a classic humanist and British democrat.

In the short but excellent Wikipedia entry on him, he is quoted that even a modestly successful writer could sort of liken himself to having achieved a gentleman’s life.

He meant that writing made you free, not in the same way a gentleman is, but in the sense both could live without conforming to preset expectations. And in that sense too, both were in an elite class.

Sillitoe died seven years ago. I’ll always wonder what he thought of Britain’s revived beer scene, as he lived long enough to witness it. Although he was not Pollyanna about modern British society – the last financial crisis soured him a bit – he must have regarded the modern beer revival as a good thing.

Finally, to Davies’ question “where are all the angry young men now?” I’ll answer: the best of their generation, like Davies, Lennon, Osborne and Sillitoe made it and refashioned themselves. As John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten once said, you can’t be angry forever.

Speaking of English beer and especially pubs, the English beer writing duo of “Boak and Bailey”, Ray Newman and Jessica Boak, have just released their 20th Century Pub. We haven’t read it yet but knowing much of their published input to date are confident of its great merits. Not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand how the English pub evolved and changed in all its guises in the last century.

Note re image: the image above, a still from the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was sourced from this online film guide. All intellectual property in or to image belongs to British Lion or other lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.