Yesterday, I mentioned E.A. Owen’s important early study, the 1898 Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement. His chapter on whiskey is worth reproducing (see below, via HathiTrust). It gives the flavour of whiskey’s importance in early pioneer life and for the rye and corn in its composition.
Owen mentions the migrating North Carolinian Davis clan in numerous respects, but does not mention their distilling history or John Davis’ implantation of the practice in Norfolk County in Canada. This was probably to avoid casting an important pioneering settler in a negative light, in the mind that is of late-Victorian Ontario.
The importance of rye and corn in distilling is highlighted. Readers may also consult pg. 370 of his book for another reference to these grains in whiskey-production. What this shows is that second-grade wheat middlings or other miscellaneous leavings of the mill weren’t always used for whiskey.* Often, purpose-grown rye and corn were mashed, grains familiar to Americans for spirit ever since the Scots-Irish and various Germanic communities had settled Pennsylvania and down into Appalachia from the early 1700s.
One third of Pennsylvania was German stock by the time of the Revolution, and Germans used rye in their own distilling and for breadstuff. Many famed Pennsylvania rye or other whiskeys had German-American origins including Michter/Bomberger and Old Overholt.
The origin of rye in American distilling may lie with them, especially as the korn distillates of Germany and some adjoining lands use rye as a base (e.g., in the Netherlands for genever, or formerly). The Ulster Irish came first to America though, some as early as 1717, and may have resorted to rye since, i) it grew well in Pennsylvania, and ii) was not in competition for baking, as Anglo-Saxons always favoured wheat for bread.
Be that as it may, rye and corn were well-established in the North American distilling of whiskey by 1800, one need only consult the Pennsylvanian Samuel M’Harry’s distilling manual of the period, to which I have often referred.
Today, the County of Dover is one of Ontario municipalities, the main towns are Delhi, Port Dover, and Simcoe. Simcoe is the largest at some 13,000. It is named for John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, newly created in 1791 to accommodate specifically the needs of a settler community whose cultural specificity differed from the French element which dominated in Quebec. Hence the partition of the lower and upper St. Lawrence basin into Lower Canada and Upper Canada.
Simcoe allocated much of the land settled by Loyalists, to whose needs he was unusually attuned: this Eton- and Oxford-educated Briton had led loyal Americans in the famed Queen’s Rangers in the Revolutionary War.
And so the ironies of history: the British army and navy in the period drank brandy, rum, wine, and beer, depending on rank and availability. Whisky was then not an English drink (see my earlier posts and citations), meaning not typically one and not a military one certainly.
Yet the British army-supervised settlement of English Canada permitted the implantation here of a whiskey tradition. It was formerly associated with remote Scotland and Ireland and rural America especially on its frontier; the latter directly, and the former proximately with a possible role for German distilling practice, are the taproot of Canada’s whisky heritage.
*There is no question substantial quantities of wheat were also distilled in early Upper Canada. The economist Douglas McCalla has documented some of this activity in his articles, and other evidence attests to it including popular histories and antiquarian studies. For McCalla’s work, see e.g., the table for wheat production in his 1983 article, “The ‘Loyalist’ Economy of Upper Canada, 1784-1806”. At the same time, as I’ve mentioned earlier, American distillers were no less familiar with wheat for spirit as shown by Samuel M’Harry’s and other early distilling manuals, e.g., Harrison Hall’s (wheat has a good yield but “too high a price“). The choice of rye and corn finally as “the” distilling material in the U.S. and Canada was driven by the optimum cost/yield ratio and perhaps too a catering to the public sentiment that wheat should be reserved for bread. Still, some wheat was always distilled for liquor, “white wheat whiskey” was a commodity on both sides of the border in the late 1800s, for example.