The Cachet of Port Hope Whisky, Part II

Canada’s Glenlivet

This post is the second part of the Port Hope whisky posts inaugurated by Part I, here.

A letter discussing pioneer days in Port Hope, ON was printed in 1877 in The Guide, we believe a newspaper in Port Hope. The letter is reproduced here on the Port Hope History website. It forms a kind of capsule of whisky’s fortunes in Port Hope in the 1800s (the emphasis is ours):

There is another subject we would fain forebear mentioning but deem it would be more reprehensible by maintaining a reticence than by giving it publicity, for it formed so strong a feature in the state of society that sociability seemed incomplete without it. We will, however, whisper it to the private ear of the reader. We have reference to the general use of whisky as a token of friendship. To make a visit to a friend’s residence, the whisky bottle, like the friendly pipe of the Indian, was invariably handed round; to refuse partaking of its contents would be considered an act of unfriendliness.

Our first settlers must have bequeathed this custom to their posterity as they seemed to be imbued with the impression that distilleries were necessary companions to the saw and grist mill, as their erection invariably followed in rapid succession; and the emigrants who succeeded those well-meaning pioneers followed their plan with extending views; for there were no less, at this period of the existence of our little town, than 8 distilleries and Port Hope was celebrated for producing the best whisky in the Province.

The traveller’s attention would be arrested by placards with ‘Port Hope Whiskies for sale here’ printed in a large type and posted in the windows of wholesale grocery and liquour stores and on the walls in the barrooms of hotels and saloons in all the principal towns of the Province. A highly rectified article was manufactured by special order and sent to Montreal, thence to be transformed into brandy, rum and gin, and, thus metamorphosed, was sent back here and to other parts of the Upper Province, to be sold by our merchants as the prime foreign article.

The unenviable celebrity Port Hope had attained from the quality of its whisky was not limited to Canada. How far it had travelled, it is impossible to say, but the following incident shows it had reached England. A lady resident of this town, when in London, visited the Tower and when attaching to her name the place of residence in the registry book kept for that purpose, in the presence of the guide, an old soldier who had been stationed in Canada, he exclaimed – “Port Hope! I know that place, I have drunk its famous whisky.” He was very attentive in giving her information.

There is, however, a pleasing change in this town now with regard to these institutions that presented so prominent a feature; they are superseded by eight churches which present a very great contrast. This change, no doubt, has been brought about by that imperceptible agent, moral suasion, this accomplishing that which legislative coercion would have been incapable of performing. It is a pity we cannot present the pleasing feature of the demolition of the whisky traffic of the present day.



One year later, in the Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Northumberland and Durham, Port Hope’s whiskey was referred to in these terms:

There were formerly five or six large distilleries in operation here and the whiskey of Port Hope had a high reputation from one end of the country to the other.

Ever since these statements books, articles, and websites dealing with 1800s Port Hope history mention its famous whisky.

Yet even in 1850 there was published acknowledgement of the fame and economic importance of whisky to Port Hope. Three years earlier, a similar observation is recorded in the Western Literary Messenger calling Port Hope’s whiskey Canada’s Glenlivet.

This book by Mark Staniforth mentions whisky types sold in Lower Canada in the 1840s and includes “Port Hope whisky”. Also mentioned is (James) Morton’s whisky, of Kingston, ON, of whose own reputation we have written earlier.

Port Hope was one of many Ontario localities, but its whisky had cachet and was regularly exported to near and more distant markets – including Kingston.

The reference in the 1877 letter to a rectified “article” refers to a high-proof distillate of neutral character made to blend with brandy, rum or gin, perhaps with flavourings, to produce a blended version of these spirits. This was a typical 19th century technique and indeed still applies for the bulk of Canadian whisky made today.

The first settlers in Port Hope were mostly “late” American Loyalists, brought by Elias Smith, also of American origin who came with two partners from Montreal to assign lands surveyed by the Crown.

Some settlers were English or other British and as the century progressed more and more came from Britain, but the town was founded largely by American families decamping some years after the initial Loyalist influx to Canada, a pattern familiar in other parts of Ontario.

On the same historical website, an extract from the 1901 Historical Sketches of Port Hope by W. Arnot Craick states:

Viewed from the industrial standpoint Port Hope’s life divides itself into three periods; the first when the Town was rendered famous by the output of its numerous distilleries; the second when it became equally important as a railway terminus and port and the third and present period when it is striving to maintain itself at its former level, though suffering from severe losses over which it has had no control. It was in 1802 that Elias Smith built the first distillery near the site of the skating rink and began the manufacture of the famous Port Hope brand of whiskey. Within a few years other distilleries started operations and by 1826 no fewer than eight were in existence in the Town, while during the thirties even a larger number were kept busy supplying the world with its favourite beverage. A large proportion of this production was shipped to Montreal, where it was transformed into brandy, rum and gin and returned to its native town under the guise of a genuine foreign article.

In a communication kindly sent to us by Rachel Arnaud, Archivist, Port Hope Archives in Port Hope she provided a 1973 newspaper article listing various owners or occupiers of distilleries in Port Hope between 1802 and the mid-1850s. These included Elias Smith, Thomas Molson, Edward Dodd, John David Smith, David Smart, Erasmus Fowkes, W. Benson, Lynn & White, E. Clarke, and W. Waller.

The article states Elias Smith’s distillery was located at what is now Queen and Roberston Streets in Port Hope. Numerous of the distilleries were on Cavan Street. Molson’s distillery in 1857-1858 was mashing 30 bushels a day, according to an ad Ms. Arnaud also sent.

As mentioned, some of the whisky was sold in Kingston to the east along the lake. One may recall Kingston in the first half of the 1800s was a significant governmental, military and commercial city.

Joseph Hall in Kingston in 1842 advertised in the Chronicle and Gazette being in receipt of a stock of 250 barrels of Port Hope whisky for sale. At a conservative estimate of 30 gallons per barrel that is 7,500 gallons of whisky, not a small amount for the period – even in 1861, 19 years later, Kingston had a population of 14,000. In 1842 Port Hope was tiny, around 1,200 but as for some industries in small places exports motored part of the economy.

In his advertisement he called Port Hope whisky a “well-known article”. Other ads in the same period in Kingston regularly advertised Port Hope whisky even though Kingston produced considerable whisky of its own, notably by Morton but there were numerous other distilleries. For example, William Garratt regularly advertised in the 1820s for “rye and Indian corn” for his distillery, see my earlier discussion here.

It is thus evident that the Port Hope stills supplied more than a local market and had a special reputation including in an important centre at the time, Kingston.

After 1850, in tune with the general pattern in Ontario, drinking was progressively viewed in a different light. The abstinence movement gained ground and the number of distilleries fell, with the “Big 5” finally dominating the industry by 1900: Seagram (Waterloo), Hiram Walker (Windsor), Gooderham & Worts (Toronto), Corby (Corbyville/Belleville), Wiser (Prescott).

Despite this a number of other distilleries continued in operation including in Perth and Hamilton, some of which we discussed earlier. But they were outliers in what had become a new era.

In a word, Port Hope’s whisky industry disappeared by the 1870s. Why is this, apart the growing temperance movement? It wasn’t due to the quality of the product, I suggest given the special reputation it had when, say, Gooderham & Worts was just finding its feet in distilling in Toronto and Hiram Walker was years away from starting his operation.

The Loyalist founders of Port Hope, indeed the Americans who formed the great majority of Ontario’s first European settlers, bequeathed the taste for grain whisky as I’ve showed earlier and the extract above states clearly. The taste came long before Hiram Walker or the other Big 5 made Canadian whisky.

Port Hope’s distillers made an especially favoured version, and I doubt that any of the Big 5 ever made better than the crème of Port Hope.

The reason Port Hope’s whisky faded, in our view, was Port Hope faded. After the Grand Trunk railway connected Port Hope to Toronto, water commerce declined, until then Port Hope’s special advantage.

The advent of different forms of power for industry – notably steam and then electricity – made water-power less important. The mills of the Ganarska river basin of which distilling was initially a by-product closed or were concentrated in Toronto as for so many similar towns in Ontario.  See this illuminating discussion on these points by Port Hope historian Ian Montagnes.

There are also the imponderables of personalities and business: the Big 5 may simply have emerged – or it was an additional factor – due to the special skills of their founders, men like Joseph Seagram and Hiram Walker, not because their product was better or so different from that of distilleries which never benefitted from similar management ability.

Can one say that Jack McAuliffe’s landmark Albion Ale (1977) was radically different from the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (1981) that became the standard-bearer of American craft brewing? No, it’s just that for a variety of reasons, McAuliffe didn’t make it and Ken Grossman did.

In regard to grain bill for Port Hope distilling: my reading of early Port Hope and Ontario history suggests that a broad range of crops was raised in Hope Township: barley, wheat, rye, oats, corn, buckwheat, peas. I have not as yet been able to determine the mashes used for Port Hope whisky.

I believe typically a mash of barley malt, rye, and corn or oats was used, similar to how whisky was made in the U.S. northeast and numerous parts of the north shore of Lake Ontario (see my earlier posts for many details, especially here).

Yet, Port Hope whisky had a special cachet…

I would think in regard to quality that Port Hope whisky had a cleaner taste than the usual whisky of commerce.

The reference to rectified whisky being sent to Montreal for blending, a pattern that also existed in early 1800s American distilling (see Samuel M’Harry’s Practical Distiller), may provide a clue here.

Stills were increasingly in use from the early 1800s to produce a more refined spirit, as shown e.g., here in 1835 where Hunt & Morton in Kingston advertised using, uniquely in the province, a “patent copper rectifying still”. The ad suggested that from whiskey to “alcohol” different proofs could be supplied on short notice.

This still may have been an early Coffey still, patented 1831, or another of the many patent stills developed during the 19th century that improved the quality of a basic two-pot still highwines. The term “patent” suggests the still was more than a double or even treble pot still, in other words.

As well, each producer had his way to rectify the product, to reduce the oily, congeneric taste of new whisky. He might double distill it or perhaps triple distill it, as the Irish did and still do for their single pot still whisky. He might use a particular method of charcoal or other filtration, as existed as well at Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker before they adopted steam distillation technology.

The 1835 ad of Hunt & Morton also requested supply of hardwood charcoal, suggesting that some of their spirit was filtered in a charcoal tub similar to what Jack Daniel’s still does today.

And liquor was often blended, once again. Perhaps Port Hope whisky was an early blended Canadian whisky, a mix of highly refined whisky with heavy pot still or similar (low distillation proof) whisky.

While it would be interesting to know the grain bill used on Cavan Street, in truth the mash bill is probably less important than the rectification. Whisky was not aged much before the 1860s. When drank new there probably was not much difference between a corn mash, rye mash, or oats mash spirit, or mixture.*

What distinguished the whisky of Port Hope was probably some factor of rectification, perhaps even a flavouring of some kind. We continue our investigations, see Part III.

N.B. This Google View of Cavan Street, Port Hope today shows the river alongside and plots of land that look like footprints of 19th century distilleries…

Note re image: The image above was sourced here, from the invaluable Ontario Historical Plaques site, a website of Alan L. Brown that chronicles in image Ontario’s historical plaques. Copyright in the image belongs we believe to Mr. Wayne Adam and is used here for educational and historical purposes only. All feedback welcomed.


*For what it’s worth in 1851 William H. Smith, in his historical study of Canada West, albeit speaking generally referred to “rye” as the grain from which whisky was made. We would deduce from this and other evidence to date that Cavan Street whisky also employed rye as its base. See his comment here.









2 thoughts on “The Cachet of Port Hope Whisky, Part II

  1. Great series! May I add, that as a new spirit there is actually a hugely noticeable difference between grain types. Rye and Corn are very green grass/spice while wheat is usually earthy with a bit of pastry frosting, oats are the one I find interesting as I use them a lot at Spirits Of French Lick and did at home as well. They add a lot of mouthfeel and distill and smell exactly as they taste, sweet, sometimes buttery, or even a little like Honey Nut Cheerios to be honest. If they were using oats in the mashbill it definitely would have been noticeable and may have contributed to the reputation.

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