Whisky in Down Home Ontario


(Pictured is an historical image of Barrie, a town on Lake Simcoe, ON*).

A useful website has collected many materials on early Ontario and Canadian history. The main page, located here, is entitled Electric Canadian.

It is a good place to chart many references to whisky in pioneer days. They run the gamut, from realistic, non-judgmental observations to more dogmatic – always moralistic – positions. In part, the date of publication seems to make a difference.

Materials published after about 1860 into the 1930s – when temperance sentiment was cresting – tend to reflect moralism: whiskey was malign, pioneers’ use was well-meant but naive; drunkenness was rife, etc.

This is inevitable as the public tone affects how people view things consciously or otherwise. It’s the same thing today of course; try writing a nation’s industrial history without addressing climate change, say.

Still, when you put it all together you get a good picture. I’ve referred to some of the sources before, including Susannah Moodie’s interactions with resident “Yankees” and their whiskey ways.

Here, I want to focus on three areas: first, use of whiskey with tansy, as I showed yesterday occurred in Pennsylvania (Jack Daniel used it too in Tennessee); second, taste notes comparing frontier whisky to that of c. 1899; third, a vivid description of an early country tavern.

Whisky With Tansy

Edward M. Morphy (1820-1905) was an Ulster Irish immigrant who came to Canada in 1835 as a jeweller’s apprentice. In later years he published a number of works on Canadian and Irish social customs and history, sometimes with a humorous bent (his “bibulous” and “crank” characters illustrate the latter).

In 1884 he published a memoir of Toronto, known in earliest days as York, Little York or Muddy York. His pages below (via HathiTrust in this case) illustrate the early use of whiskey here, where the herb tansy was often macerated in it. Tansy in whisky, sometimes with sugar, was a variant of the first American cocktails or bittered slings.

Tansy always had vague medicinal associations. Perhaps its use with whiskey was seen to justify more use of alcohol than Hippocrates would have approved. Or maybe people just liked the taste.

Tansy has eluded me: I’ve asked for it in small stores and markets from Healdsburg to Halifax and invariably received an uncomprehending look. One day I’ll find it and mix it with Jack Daviels, or Lot 40 Barrel Strength. (Stay tuned, but it may take a while).

Other herbs used with whisky included mint, and pennyroyal. Canada has had the cocktail as long as the Americans as initially the same stock of people drank it both sides of the border.


I’ve read at least one other account of the barn-raising and similar “bees” which states the men foisted bottles when completing their work but never had an accident; the implication was the practice was on balance beneficial, or at least benign.

Perhaps the many critiques of the liquor-fueled bees were informed more by ideology than evidence of great harm. It is hard to know at this distance, really.

My sense is Morphy, for his part, was an abstemious man for whom the temperance era proved a boon, something at any rate that must have encouraged his enviably long life for the time.

What was the frontier whisky like, often taken “fresh from the still” as we’ve seen before?

Contrasting the Canadian Whisky of two Eras

Consider this statement from William Johnston’s 1899 The Pioneers of Blanshard:

The hotels in the township were quite numerous at this period of its history. A constant supply of liquor, however, was easily obtained from a distillery that was operated by Mr. Shoebottom, at Silver Creek, on the Mitchell Road, in the old log building which still stands near a spring that flows from the bank adjoining. The whiskey made in this, the great central emporium, we have heard spoken of in most eulogistic terms. Considering the quality, it was exceedingly cheap, being easily obtainable at thirty-five cents per gallon. There was no doubt as to the purity of its constituents, or as to its potency. It had this wonderful peculiarity, however, which placed it far in advance of all modern distillations, and which was told us the other day by a gentleman who has had an intimate acquaintance with the products of both periods, “that it had not the harsh, burning taste of the decoctions of the present time, but was nice and sweet, and ‘ sorter ’ soothing to the taste, and a whole barrel of it did not contain a single headache.”

This statement echoes, but with more point and detail, contemporary American statements that the pioneers’ whiskey was superior to the modern form, we saw an instance yesterday from an 1880s history of Westmoreland County, PA.

To suggest that the old stuff was better was partly no doubt meant to excuse a social practice once widely in vogue and now strongly disapproved.

And just as today, there was also surely the tendency to eulogize the tastes and products of one’s youth. Nothing is as good as it ever was, right?

And yet, I don’t discount such accounts necessarily on this ground. Taste memory can mean something, I know it from my own experience (of course!).

How can we parse what the old-timer with the “intimate” knowledge of whisky – an inebriate in other words in Johnston’s estimation – meant?

One way to look at it is, he was disenchanted with the Canadian whisky of the 1890s, by then an aged product but largely based on something close to neutral spirit.

The oily, congeneric taste of pot still whisky would have been opposite in texture at least. I think the old man was remembering that kind of whisky, whisky perhaps similar to many craft whiskies today.

Yet, he said it never made him hungover, while congeneric whisky is known to cause hangovers and clean alcohol, less so. But maybe as a young man the old man had a greater capacity to absorb the punishments of white dog whisky.

In sum his comments should not be easily dismissed. Through a long evolution Canadian whisky ended by being a fairly neutral, clean product, deprived as it was of most of its fusel oil (regarded by science then as a rank poison).

Maybe he was really saying, I prefer the old oily whisky, distilled at a low proof off the still, to the modern silent spirit blended with a little of the real thing.

An Upper Canada Tavern

I reproduce below the vivid account of an English immigrant, Samuel Thompson who stayed overnight in a rude Ontario country tavern. The period is the early 1830s. One may note, first, how Thompson noticed that taverner Root was a Yankee and his manners. Root was almost surely a “late” Loyalist.

Thompson with his brothers was travelling to land they had bought north of Lake Simcoe, itself some distance north of Toronto. The way they acquired property was to purchase a “ticket” of a U.E. Loyalist. Loyalists’ entitlements to land could be traded on the market.

The visit to the “tavern” is well and drolly described. Note the language of the American and his wife. It is startlingly modern. Until recently it was very common to hear men refer to “the wife” in the U.S. or Canada, and I’m sure many still talk that way, but the usage struck Thompson as bizarre.

The way the “Irish” wife spoke amused the visitor. I think it was her “vivacity” that did it, the confident voice (remarked by numerous Britons of their visits to America in the 1800s) but also the language.

It is exactly how North Americans speak today except she addressed her husband by his surname.

Even “spider” to describe a three-legged iron pan is not strange, I knew what it meant before Thompson explained it.

The Colonial era in the northeast U.S. clearly set the tone for many linguistic and other features of North American society for centuries to come.

I’ll add too how impressive was the self-reliance and, as the writer put it again, “vivacity” of the people under observation. Living in the rudest conditions they carved out a life for themselves that must have struck the visitor, counter-intuitively, as enviable in its way.

This is the meaning I think of his statement that he slept soundly despite the unpropitious circumstances.

What do you think?

We had walked a distance of eight miles, and it was quite dark, when we came within sight of the clearing where we were advised to stop for the night. Completely blockading the road, and full in our way, was a confused mass of felled timber, which we were afterwards told was a wind-row or brush-fence. It consisted of an irregular heap of prostrate trees, branches and all, thrown together in line, to serve as a fence against stray cattle. After several fruitless attempts to effect an entrance, there was nothing for it but to shout at the top of our voices for assistance.

Presently we heard a shrill cry, rather like the call of some strange bird than a human voice; immediately afterwards, the reflection of a strong light became visible, and a man emerged from the brush-wood, bearing a large blazing fragment of resinous wood, which lighted up every object around in a picturesque and singular manner. High over head, eighty feet at least, was a vivid green canopy of leaves, extending on all sides as far as the eye could penetrate, varied here and there by the twinkling of some lustrous star that peeped through from the dark sky without, and supported by the straight trunks and arching branches of innumerable trees–the rustic pillars of this superb natural temple. The effect was strikingly beautiful and surprising.

Nor was the figure of our guide less strange. He was the first genuine specimen of a Yankee we had encountered–a Vermonter–tall, bony and awkward, but with a good-natured simplicity in his shrewd features; he wore uncouth leather leggings, tied with deer sinews–loose mocassins, a Guernsey shirt, a scarlet sash confining his patched trowsers at the waist, and a palmetto hat, dragged out of all describable shape, the colour of each article so obscured by stains and rough usage, as to be matter rather of conjecture than certainty. He proved to be our landlord for the night, David Root by name.

Following his guidance, and climbing successively over a number of huge trunks, stumbling through a net-work of branches, and plunging into a shallow stream up to the ankles in soft mud, we reached at length what he called his tavern, at the further side of the clearing. It was a log building of a single apartment, where presided “the wife,” a smart, plump, good-looking little Irishwoman, in a stuff gown, and without shoes or stockings. They had been recently married, as he promptly informed us, had selected this wild spot on a half-opened road, impassable for waggons, without a neighbour for miles, and under the inevitable necessity of shouldering all their provisions from the embryo village we had just quitted: all this with the resolute determination of “keeping tavern.”

The floor was of loose split logs, hewn into some approach to evenness with an adze; the walls of logs entire, filled in the interstices with chips of pine, which, however, did not prevent an occasional glimpse of the objects visible outside, and had the advantage, moreover, of rendering a window unnecessary; the hearth was the bare soil, the ceiling slabs of pine wood, the chimney a square hole in the roof; the fire literally an entire tree, branches and all, cut into four-feet lengths, and heaped up to the height of as many feet. It was a chill evening, and the dancing flames were inspiriting, as they threw a cheerful radiance all around, and revealed to our curious eyes extraordinary pieces of furniture–a log bedstead in the darkest corner, a pair of snow-shoes, sundry spiral augers and rough tools, a bundle of dried deer-sinews, together with some articles of feminine gear, a small red framed looking-glass, a clumsy comb suspended from a nail by a string, and other similar treasures.

We were accommodated with stools of various sizes and heights, on three legs or on four, or mere pieces of log sawn short off, which latter our host justly recommended as being more steady on the uneven floor. We exchanged our wet boots for slippers, mocassins, or whatever the good-natured fellow could supply us with. The hostess was intently busy making large flat cakes; roasting them, first on one side, then on the other; and alternately boiling and frying broad slices of salt pork, when, suddenly suspending operations, she exclaimed, with a vivacity that startled us, “Oh, Root, I’ve cracked my spider!”

Inquiring with alarm what was the matter, we learned that the cast-iron pan on three feet, which she used for her cookery, was called a “spider,” and that its fracture had occasioned the exclamation. The injured spider performed “its spiriting gently” notwithstanding, and, sooth to say, all parties did full justice to its savoury contents.

Bed-time drew near. A heap of odd-looking rugs and clean blankets was laid for our accommodation and pronounced to be ready. But how to get into it? We had heard of some rather primitive practices among the steerage passengers on board ship, it is true, but had not accustomed ourselves to “uncase” before company, and hesitated to lie down in our clothes. After waiting some little time in blank dismay, Mr. Root kindly set us an example by quietly slipping out of his nether integuments and turning into bed. There was no help for it; by one means or other we contrived to sneak under the blankets; and, after hanging up a large coloured quilt between our lair and the couch occupied by her now snoring spouse, the good wife also disappeared.

In spite of the novelty of the situation, and some occasional disturbance from gusts of wind stealing through the “chinks,” and fanning into brightness the dying embers on the hearth, we slept deliciously and awoke refreshed.


A tavern here means foremost a place of shelter and for food. No alcohol was available, clearly, so it is not mentioned. Elsewhere in the book Thompson does mention whisky though. See in this full text p. 83 where he reports, with his own concurrence, the “supreme contempt” of neighboring Irishmen and Highlanders for the weakness of Canadian whisky.

I think this resulted from two causes: some of it probably was one run from the still, coming off at 20% abv if that. Second, a lot of whiskey sold at retail then was diluted with water – which makes sense for people taking bottles to building sites and into harvest fields.

Some people are never satisfied eh?

Still, even swigging 20% booze on a worksite isn’t namby-pamby is it. We may not always have offered impeccable British proof (57.1% abv) at retail. But we knew how to take a drink, then.

*Note re image: the image of Barrie from 1900 was sourced from this historical website with the excellent name “Progress is Fine but it’s Gone on for too Long”. All intellectual property in or to image belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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