The McDougall Distillery of Halifax, NS

In two posts last year, I discussed the characteristics of Canadian whisky in the last quarter of the 1800s. In a word, most distilleries were blending aged neutral spirits and a rye (or flavouring) whisky distilled at a low proof, the original kind that is. This product must have been, as its commercial norm today, quite light on the element that was traditional whisky. Tests conducted by the Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic in the closing years of the century showed little apparent fusel oil content in almost all samples of Canadian rye whisky assayed.

I’ve spoken more recently of distilling in Nova Scotia and mentioned that in the same period, there was only one producing distillery in Halifax (and apparently NS as a whole).

Who was behind that distillery, what did it produce? There is suprisingly little information available. Academic and other published studies on the history of rum and liquor control in Nova Scotia do not discuss the distillery to my knowledge (some of the material is not viewable online however, so I may have missed a reference). But other information available does allow one to piece together a reasonable account.

The distillery was called variously McDougall’s Distillery and Halifax Distillery. Sometimes McDougall was spelled MacDougall, the former seems more correct.

And we know what was distilled: rye whisky and a whisky intended to resemble Scotch whisky. Clarence Blake McDougall, presumed son of the founder, A. McDougall, was also a Hollis Street grocer and importer of whiskeys, brandies, rums, and wines. We know where the distillery was located: on Pleasant Street in Halifax.

After a long period as a partnership and sole proprietorship, it was incorporated in 1891 with five or six investors. One was an Oland, of the famed brewing family. This probably was to finance expansion, in any case C.B. McDougall retained his close involvement.

Those who know Halifax-Dartmouth may protest that Pleasant Street is in Dartmouth, other side of the harbour. That is a different Pleasant Street. There was one in Halifax, too. Barrington Street originally ended at the downtown’s edge, and Pleasant Street continued south of Spring Garden Road. Sometime after 1900 Barrington’s name was applied to the stretch that had been Pleasant Street.

By WW I the distillery had closed and its brick building became part of a new ocean terminal complex. Whether it is still standing I can’t say.

In successive testimony given to the Royal Commission, C.B. McDougall and his foreman, William Gordon, gave interesting detail on their products, market served, and the general liquor scene in the region. McDougall said he produced rye whisky and whisky intended to emulate the taste of Scotch. Half his grain complement was corn, mostly from the U.S. The rest was rye, barley, oats, and malt (probably barley malt). Some rye and malt was sourced from Ontario, the rest from the U.S. again. Their market was Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and a bit beyond.

C.B. McDougall was not a Gooderham & Worts or Hiram Walker, but was a substantial presence in his market and the only distiller in Halifax in the 1890s at any rate.

The mash for his Scotch-type whiskey was barley and malt, so probably it was similar to an Irish single pot still mash. Some Lowlands whiskey then was column-distilled using malt and raw grains, so perhaps that was a more proximate model, per his claim of a Scots character. He laid stress on his use of the latest British rectification equipment. This must have meant a column still capable of distilling his liquor to near-neutrality. The proof numbers given, e.g., 65 Over Proof (Sykes scale) show they were getting alcohol at 94-95% abv, virtual purity. It was aged two years, as Canada’s aging law was in force by then and required initially a two year storage period.

McDougall and his employee were careful not to answer expansively and it is evident the commissioners didn’t know enough about distillation to ask more pertinent questions. McDougall didn’t state that he didn’t sell any spirits containing fusel oil, for example. It seems hard to think his rye and “Scotch” were 100% aged neutral spirits. In line with general Canadian practice established by then, he probably blended in some whisky distilled at a low proof so the product would have a reasonable character.

McDougall stated that much rum “high wines” was also smuggled in. This was the traditional pot still type that, say, Frederic Felton was making in New England in the same period. It came from the transit point, St. Pierre where New England distillers or intermediaries had sent it from their ports.

Similar rum was, he said, distilled illicitly in the West Indies and smuggled in from there. Using the ambiguous term “alcohol”, he indicated this second class of liquor was also smuggled in. I think this meant 100% neutral spirits, probably white or little-aged, vs. his presumed blend of aged GNS and full-flavour whisky. If, though, McDougall’s rye whisky was 100% neutral spirits but aged two years, perhaps “alcohol” meant the same thing, unaged.

McDougall also stated the taste for rum was “going out”, perhaps a premature assesment although his comments can be read as applying only to imported (West Indies) rum.

His testimony on the effects of the Scott Act, which permitted local option, and any attempt to legislate total prohibition are very interesting. He makes arguments similar to what one hears today in response to the lobbies seeking to limit sugar consumption. He suggests that eating too much meat is bad, too, but using it in moderation, as for alcohol, hurts no one. He also stated that the bulk of the people did not support heavy liquor control and attributed its promotion to a small, influential group of politicians.

McDougall’s testimony is consistent with the general story of Canadian whisky as it emerged from the Royal Commission hearings in toto. I would guess his rye was much like typical modern Canadian whisky, Canadian Mist, say.

McDougall and his products should be better remembered. I suspect the arrival of Prohibition in Nova Scotia in the 1920s, and the fairly conservative alcohol environment which dominated until recently, resulted in a kind of amnesia for a not unimportant part of the social and economic past.