The Taproot of Canada’s Whisky Heritage

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.

7 thoughts on “The Taproot of Canada’s Whisky Heritage

  1. Malted corn is an entirely different factor all together, the taste is quite different from barley malt, very grassy, very green, and sweet in an almost buttery/sachrine way in my distilling experience. Granted this was clear spirit and not barrel aged. Good none the less, just very different. I wonder if in a lot of places as well wheat took a backseat to rye because wheat has a tendency to mold easier and is also more often lauded for animal feed due to it’s higher starch content. When broken down to one lb of dissolved grain for gallon wheat is substantially more productive at it gives a 1.035 SG to Rye at 1.027

    Here in Southern Indiana there were a lot of German immigrants as I think I’ve mentioned before and many of the early settlers references to spirits were to a rye preference and otherwise peach brandy was very popular. The local mill, Becks Mill, near Salem Indiana, and now restored traded whiskey/corn on shares. Bring the grain for gristing, a fraction went to the mill for resale or distilling (both sold locally and via flatboat going south) and you would take the other fraction in whisky or grist.

    • Thanks Alan, I wonder if aged though the malted qualities might resemble more, but all very interesting. Raw grains do seem when aged to show similarities.


  2. I tried Platte Valley Straight Corn Whiskey (out of Missouri) recently, the mashbill was either 80% or 90% corn and the remainder malted barley. It tasted a lot like regular standard issue Jameson or Powers Irish Blend ( to me anyway).

    You mention malted corn, a lot of the old moonshiners used to “sprout” their corn, I wonder if there is not a lot of room for innovation regarding this, particularly if it properly aged.

  3. Absolutely fascinating. Did any of the loyalist settlers maintain contact with kinfolk and friends back home or was it a complete break. No doubt corn and rye are the foundation grains of North American Whiskey/Whisky. A lot of scotch drinkers prefer rye to bourbon, I wonder if that is because rye is much more closely related to barely? I any event I absolutely love the blog. Keep up the good work, Gary.

    • Thanks very much Tony.

      It was not a complete break by any means for the Loyalists. There was continual social and economic interchange with the United States, especially New York and New England. This facilitated the “post-Loyalist” American arrivals, and it was common for people to go back and forth. J.P. Wiser, of the famed Canadian whisky brand which originated in Prescott, ON, was American-born and although his distilling career was in Canada, on his passing he was buried in the U.S. There are many similar examples.

      The Davis’ if I recall correctly finally left Upper Canada for greener pastures (see the link in my post yesterday for more information, the link where James Stengel’s article can be found). This was between roughly 1800 and 1860.

      This process was, or IMO, a reinforcing of the American traditions in distilling here, as shown for example by the adoption of the column still (mostly) in both places and the use of corn and rye as the main distilling grains with corn the great majority due to the highest yield and lowest cost. It is true that the Kentucky and Pennsylvania straight whiskey traditions did not take root in Canada but on the other hand, they were always regional U.S. phenomena. Cincinnati was famous for distilling grain neutral spirits. Blended American whiskey, functionally similar to Canadian whisky, had a huge sale in America before Prohibition and did after as well until vodka and growing Canadian whisky imports unseated it.

      So I would argue both countries basically retained the same whiskey tradition with variations, the major one being the survival of Kentucky straight bourbon. Another was the Canadians aged their near-neutral base spirit, as the Scots did.

      On the matter of scotch, rye and bourbon, for the Scotch blends, they have a close connection to both bourbon and rye in that all these use a high percentage of un-malted grains. If there is a greater preference for rye, it may be that they seem on average less sweet than bourbon. I think young American rye is closest to Scotch blends and also Irish single pot still because the Irish also uses a large amount of unmalted grains (barley in this case).

      The divide I think is really with single malts – because it is 100% barley malt, the effect is quite different to all these other forms of whiskey. It’s not (IMO) the grain source, or barrel type, so much as the malted vs. non- factor that is important.

      Putting it a different way, if you made a bourbon with 80% malted corn, 10% malted rye, and 10% malted barley, and aged it 10 years, it would resemble I think a 10 year old malt, or close enough. The new American barrel makes a difference here too. If you used a re-used barrel instead of new, that whiskey would be quite close to a Scotch malt I think.

Comments are closed.