Rum in Canada’s Maritimes

A Standing Institution*

Nova Scotia is still very much rum country, as all the Maritime provinces to this day, disproportionately to the rest of Canada.  According to latest figures from Statistics Canada:

At the national level, whisky (30.2%), vodka (24.9%) and rum (16.3%) were the most popular spirits sold in Canada in 2017/2018, accounting for 71.4% of total spirit sales. At the provincial/territorial level, whisky had the largest market share of spirit sales in Manitoba (37.2%) and the lowest in the Northwest Territories (15.1%). Vodka had the largest proportion of spirit sales in Nunavut (58.0%) and the lowest in Newfoundland and Labrador (16.0%). Rum was the top choice for spirits in Newfoundland and Labrador (44.4% of spirit sales), while the lowest proportion sold was in the Northwest Territories (12.0%).

While Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest market share among Provinces for rum, the other Maritime Provinces, sharing a regional taste, are not far behind.

Rum played a vital role in early settlement days, even in a locality called Temperance, as Rev. John R. Campbell explained in his 1875 A History of the County of Yarmouth.

The story is parallel to that of early New England (and pioneer Upper Canada), where the rum jug was indispensable to socializing. “Bees” to clear land, scythe crops, and build homes or barns, and just simple socializing, required rum.

The links between New England and our East Coast provinces are ethnic/cultural via the Loyalist influx, and seagoing/commercial. A friend of Newfoundland ancestry told me that at one time, Newfoundlanders felt more at home in New England than in “Canada”, which Newfoundland only joined politically in 1949.

Nova Scotians worked in 19th century Boston brickyards, among other jobs in Yankee states. Naturally they required rum to finish the job, in tune with the old work gang tradition. See Dee Morris’ Medford: A Short History for the details. Rum was a cultural predilection of both regions, in other words.

Another likely factor for Nova Scotia’s rum appreciation is the early importance of the drink in Scotland, as I discussed here. Given the extent of the Scots influx in Nova Scotia, this ancestral taste surely allied with the Loyalist one to solidify the tradition in New Scotland.

I discussed earlier how rum declined as a local industry in New England from the mid-1800s until WW I. Distilling in Nova Scotia was thin on the ground too, by the early 1890s.

Testimony in the House of Commons in an 1890s Royal Inquiry on the Liquor Traffic showed only one distillery still operating in Nova Scotia then (see pp 80-82). Indeed the majority of its counties was dry on account of local option under the Scott Act. But the Act was not always enforced and contraband liquor continued to flow. As well, there has always been significant importation of Caribbean rum to Canada.

This section of the testimony of the sole distiller, C.B. McDougall (see pg. 89) explains that he distilled only rye whisky and a Scotch-type whisky, but he goes on to say he imported rum for sale. He also notes a great deal of the contraband mentioned, or “common rum”, was brought in from the West Indies.

Hence, by the early 1890s there was no functioning rum production in Nova Scotia, but plenty of rum was still available, enough contraband certainly to worry the sole legal distiller (of the illicit rum, McDougall said “too much” was circulating).

Rising Prohibition sentiment, among other factors, had the effect of de-legitimizing the industry in the U.S. and Canada by the First World War, but liquor of course never lost its appeal, and certainly not rum on Canada’s East Coast.

Today rum both imported and Canadian rum share a total market approaching $900 M. Rum’s importance in the Maritimes of 2019 can be gauged by the fact that the original, green-tinged formulation of Captain Morgan white rum is still sold there, and nowhere else.  explains the background.

With the rise of modern craft distilling, rum is being made again locally. Ironworks and other craft distillers are giving new life to an old tradition. It’s a similar story down New England way, Boston itself counts a number of distilleries making rum, Bully Boy is one.

In Stephen Beaumont and Christine Sismondo’s excellent new Canadian Spirits, the authors describe Ironwork distillery’s Bluenose Rum in enticing terms. In part:

Deep and dark, with coffee and sassafras on the nose and a very rich body that combines hints of espresso with a robust but not overly sweet molasses flavour.

The old New England rum was known to have a heavy body, as Harold Grossman explained in his introduction to a luxury 1941 rum tasting event of the Wine and Food Society of New York. Ironwork’s crafted rum revives an old, trans-frontier heritage, “Maritime” in the broadest sense.

Note re image: Second image above was sourced from the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, N.S., see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*This post expands and replaces a post from 2017, Oh Rum of Canada.


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