Thoughts on Gin

In social history terms gin probably offers the greatest interest among the spirits, and maybe too the wines and beers, save Champagne, or maybe porter.

A lot has been written on it, which saves us the trouble of outlining the history. So we will move to palate.

While most spirits at their best require no additive except maybe a little water, I think gin requires mixing in principle. It was never drunk neat before recent years (I exclude cases of clear abuse), and there’s a good reason for it. It blends to perfection with tonic, soda, and good water, meaning not too saline and not chlorinated.

Canadians used to use “bitter lemon” with it as well. To this day I’m not sure if this was an English thing or where it came from. This arch, early 1960s advertisement in the Montreal Gazette claims it was invented in the 20th century and only lately conquered the market as a mix for gin. It notes even “hardened British palates” were swayed, um, by the concoction. Could it have come from some lab in Delaware maybe?

Bitter lemon is a sweet-sour soda pop really. It contains quinine though, the advertised bitter part, to which lemon contributes as well. But there is a shed-load of sugar in it too. I think it may have been a commercial way to produce a quick Gin Twist which is gin, water or seltzer, lemon, and sugar or syrup.

Tonic water needs no explanation, I trust, to anyone who has gotten this far in this post.

I exclude the Martini from this discussion, not because gin is not relevant to it, but Martini is almost a separate subject given its strength, Byzantine history, singular taste, and take-no-prisoners approach (if you have more than one, which seems mandatory).

The aromatic, not to say romantic, Pink Gin – the romance is from its naval history – sort of falls in the Martini class, at least if you drink it straight, which I do. So it’s ultramontane this post.

And so with gin, what to leaven it with/bring out its best qualities? Water. Not the dew on the rose thing with malt whisky, but enough to knock it down to half bottling proof or less. Lately I like 20% abv, it seems to let the gin flavour have full flower while retaining a definite kick.

I have tried many gins at all price points. The English London Dry type is still the best I think, and this discussion is about the English style of gin, not Dutch geneva from which London gin derived.

And the classic brands, apart from offering good price, seem about the best to buy: Gordon’s, Beefeater, Hayman, Bombay Saphire, Plymouth Gin, Boodles among others.

I like a decided orange note in gin, which all these have I think. I don’t like cucumber, celery, anise, or something too flowery. Lemon is good but not too much. Juniper is good but not too much.

The old U.K. or imperial proof (57% abv) Hayman’s, its Royal Dock brand, is about the best I’ve had. It’s got a touch of sweetness too, which I like in gin. 2:1 water to gin in this case delivers the right taste: soft and flowing, lots of flavours, the orange on top, but nothing obtrudes.

Gin used to be called white wine by the genteel, to disguise the reference to something whose slightly disreputable aura had not been shed. That came from the bad days in the 1700s and early 1800s, the societal chaos evoked by Hogarth’s Gin Lane, and all that. This is all in the past, and while no one needs the nod of the bon ton to appraise something’s worth – indeed that factor is often inimical to good value – there is some satisfaction in knowing that good things out finally.




A Toronto Cocktail Bar’s Offerings in 1962

The blogTo website has some excellent articles on Toronto bar and tavern history, this recent one by Derek Flack on the late lamented Silver Rail gives the essential details. See also this piece by Doug Taylor at the Historic Toronto site. It has great information on the design history of the bar.

Ontario alcohol prohibition was in force from 1916-1927, t-total except that local wines were allowed for sale. When alcohol came back, liquor could be bought at the new Ontario liquor commission stores. You could have beer or wine with a meal in a restaurant, but cocktail bars proper were not allowed. Beer parlours existed of course, generally male preserves but sometimes with entrances for women or “mixed”.

From a wide-open frontier alcohol culture to a more measured Victorian tolerance for the saloon, Ontario ended with almost nothing in 1916, ostensibly as a war measure.

The older tradition gingerly returned in 1947 after the war and Silver Rail was the first to be licensed.* While always a restaurant and a noted one in its day, you could walk up to the bar, down a Martini or rye and ginger, and go about your business as in most of the civilized world.

The Silver Rail operated until 1998 and I visited there a couple of times in the 90s. I took good note of the art deco and 1940s aluminium stylings as I knew the place was not long for this world. (The art deco part derived from an older restaurant there, a cafeteria from the prewar era).

Below is the Silver Rail drinks menu from 1962, stolid but well-laid out.

It is an interesting curio as potations of the distant past, more recent past and the future glimmer from its (presumed) laminated pages.

The presence of egg nog and flips, drinks of 19th century origin or older and more American than Canadian, attest that this oldest part of the liquor tradition was still remembered and thought important to offer in soon-to-be zippy postwar Hogtown. The same applies for sherry and port, that was the Victorian part restored for the nuclear age. (Some of the Canadian sherry and port then did have a kind of lurid glow, in fact!).

The cocktails include many classics, I wonder what the first listed, the house specialty, was. If you said, back bacon-infused rye and soda, in ’62 people would have thought you were joking if not making fun of Canucks. Today, bacon in drinks is a happening thing, or was that two years ago?

What was the “Martina”? A sweet Martini probably, maybe a descendant of the Martinez, the original Martini Jerry Thomas and others chronicled before the modern dry Martini emerged.

And long tails, a term I’ve never heard before. It means here a long drink, a mixed drink vs. cocktail in technical terms, but the term is new to me after 40 years reading on cocktails and spirits.

The beers: most brand names still exist, notably Labatt, Molson, Carling. No more Dow though, or Brading. The latter was from Ottawa originally. Did Black Label taste then as now?

“Pilsner” was probably Pilsner Urquell from what is now the Czech Republic, although maybe it meant Labatt Blue Pilsener, as distinct from Labatt 50 Ale, that is. No American beer names are listed, we drank our own styles then, even our lager was regarded as different at the time, “stronger” as the multi-generational wisdom held.

There seems to have been a “Canadian” Scotch then, Old Mull, probably the base of the Scotch sour denominated “Can”. Maybe that was imported bulk Scotch blended with some of our own. Or perhaps it was a surviving malt whisky of our own distillers, as most made a whisky of that type in the 1800s.

All the Scotches were blends, or so it appears. The Irish whiskeys then were straight though, the blends hadn’t come in yet including (I believe) for Bushmills.

The rye whiskies were all Canadian, many of the names still exist. Kentucky Tavern bourbon was not Canadian certainly, and I remember drinking it downtown here circa 1990. It was I believe from Medley in Owensboro, KY and fine it was.

Dutch gin was still on offer here, from Bols in this case, an echo of Empire when “Hollands” or Geneva, predecessor to London Dry, was a standing refreshment in all the Anglo-Saxon countries.

The wines are a mixed bag, it’s interesting to see Australian red even then. Canadian wines were minimal: the LCBO-bottled sherry and Diamond Jubilee (probably), the Canadian champagnes, and Bright Wines’ claret. Our wine industry, a few bulk producers apart, was all in the future.

Good rum selection, most of the names are still available.

Where is the vodka?? All in the future, but a foreshot, so to speak, is the “Tovarich” mentioned in the cocktail section. Maybe it was served chilled with an olive and nothing else, as a Martini then was surely just with gin.

Tovaritch vodka, from Russia, is still a top-seller and gets high ratings by tasters. It is available in some local restaurants but not listed with the LCBO to my knowledge.

Maybe I’ll have a flip tonight. Any recipes?


*According to Mike Filey in Sketches of Toronto, Silver Rail was actually no. 2, the Hotel Barclay was first. Details here.

Note re images: the first image above appears from the Tovaritch vodka website, and the second, from this Toronto history site, Lost Toronto (from p. 138). All intellectual property in these images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable.  Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Guinness Comes Alive in a 2009 Book

Given our longstanding interest in Guinness and some dozen posts in the last two years on various aspects of the stout and its history, we decided to revisit a small volume bought some years ago, The Guinness Story by Edward J. Bourke.

The book, published in 2009 by a now-retired Diageo microbiologist, contains a fine collection of historical photos, over 100. The text deals, as the subtitle indicates, with Guinness family history, the beer itself, and how the business grew.

Initially we only skimmed the text, considering it was at best an adjunct to the photos. On now reading the book in full, we see it is a well-presented, multi-faceted introduction to the story of Guinness.

There are many nuggets including for those interested primarily in the historical palate of Guinness.

Bourke’s family had owned pubs for two generations, and he gives some interesting information on Guinness bottling in the pub or distributor’s cellar, the old way that is before Guinness conditioned the beer at the brewery and assumed the bottling itself.

The beer was poured from the cask into a trough from which it was siphoned into bottles labelled by the publican. It was then at its best from conditioning in the bottle within seven to 10 days. The informed reader, wondering at the oxygen risk from such transfers, is answered by his statement that the yeast activity took up the oxygen in the bottle, at least without evident risk over the short period mentioned. He states this bottled Guinness was considered the best in the country by some.

Bourke indicates that this form was duplicated in factory production – this was the unpasteurized bottled Guinness that was the last available form of naturally-matured Guinness – but that finally it was pasteurized for increased stability.

The other form of pre-metal keg, nitro-dispense Guinness he upholds as a paragon was barrelled beer shipped by barge to Limerick. The “gentle” passage down the canal and Shannon river system to the southwest “whipped” oxygen into the beer and resulted in an ultra-good pint.

I would think this remained draft beer, i.e., wasn’t bottled at destination, as he states a cask was difficult to bottle once conditioning had started (due to the lively character). Bourke mentions that unfermented wort formed part of the mix in the barrels. This “heading” technique dated from the 19th century if not the origins of the brewery.

Regarding the adoption of nitrogen dispense, Bourke states relatively little, except to say, as some students of Guinness know, that the idea in part was to put nitrogen in the beer as this had occurred naturally from compressed air dispense in the old days. He doesn’t elaborate too much in this area, perhaps due to company sensitivities, hard to say.

Thus, we are not explained how the old draft Guinness was dispensed in the pubs, the presumed system of high and low cask, etc. which is important historically especially as the cream character and palate were said to be special.

(Of course cask-conditioned beer, including for some porter in Ireland, has returned via the new generation of craft brewers).

One striking thing: stainless tanks shipped to Guinness’ plant in Nigeria, no doubt to send the concentrate meant to darken a local brew for porter, sometimes came back with live snakes crawling out! A snake catcher was employed in Africa but didn’t quite catch them all. The creatures mostly expired once in the cool Irish climate, but in summer you could get a live one, as they say. The Dublin zoo has a fine collection of these specimens, he notes.

Many other bits are of good interest including on water transport in general for Guinness, other forms of transport (rail was used a lot but it shook up the beer), “roll-on roll-off” for trucks which can handle thousands of pints, and evolution of barley varieties especially Plumage-Archer.

Mr. Bourke’s Linkedin page states he is currently writing books on distillation and brewing history in Ireland, which is great news. His scientific knowledge and family history in the pub business are the ideal combination for this. He writes well too and has authored a series of books on shipwrecks around Ireland.

As I have often expressed, I hope Guinness will re-focus on its core specialty. Guinness West Indies Porter was a step in the right direction although it can be hard to find in export markets. But we need to see naturally-conditioned stout too, in bottle and cask, and with all-malt recipes as in the 19th century. Short of that, and while I find Guinness’ history compelling especially as presented here, Guinness will have limited interest for me and, I suspect, many students of the beer palate. This is due to its mild taste, substantial adjunct content, and perhaps the elimination of natural conditioning.

Still, from the viewpoints mentioned above the book is an excellent resource. I recommend it to any Guinness or beer history enthusiast.

Note re image: the image above appears in the page listing The Guinness Story for purchase, linked in the text. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable.  Image is used solely for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




Canadian Whisky’s American Origin – Part II

Following on Part I, I now draw attention to historian Julia Robert’s 1999 doctoral study, at University of Toronto, of early Upper Canadian taverns: Taverns and Tavern-Goers in Upper Canada, 1790s-1850s.

This is an invaluable resource. In the first chapter, she studies the functioning of a tavern in 1802 in York – later Toronto – run by Ely Playter, son of a Loyalist father from New Jersey. York, although I haven’t mentioned it, was also a Loyalist destination in the 1780s-90s.

From pg. 43 she addresses the drinks served which included whiskey, rum, gin, bitters, and various shrubs and sangarees. Cider too. She states that rum was “dominant” in the 1790s – so whiskey was still available, while by the 1830s, the distribution among whiskey, rum, and brandy is more equal.

She also gives prices at certain periods, e.g., in the 1830s a glass of rum at retail was more expensive than whiskey but not by that much. This suggests to me that changing tastes, not just price sensitivity, played a role in the switch to whisky as the main hard spirit in Ontario.*

The taste in Toronto, vs. other parts of a largely rural colony, may have inclined more to brandy and rum given the presumed greater prosperity here. Even without that assumption, whiskey by the 1830s was clearly an important part of the spirits offerings. That is when Messrs. Gooderham & Worts came here from England to set up milling and later distilling.

In other words, whiskey had been consumed for over a generation in York and had risen, by her account again, at least to a parity with other hard drinks.

Roberts states that most tavern owners in early Upper Canada were of Yankee origin and that the functioning of the taverns often followed American lines. This included some aspects of tavern design and the way food and accommodation were combined in pricing, the “American plan” vs. “English plan”.

Another index of the American complexion of our early taverns is the free mixing of social classes, something British visitors often disapproved of. Nonetheless some features of the taverns followed English practice and she makes certain analogies to period taverns discussed in Peter Clark’s well-known history of the English ale-house.

Playter himself was an interesting figure at 26, well-educated and keeping company with York notables. His tavern clearly was no low-down resort and Roberts makes interesting comparisons to ruder rural taverns, some through Playter’s own eyes.

This more extended study of subject matter her later book in part addressed, amply supports IMO her thesis, which is that the tavern despite some abuses functioned as a sane and well-regulated part of pioneer society.

Some drunkenness and disorder existed but at the same time, the tavern operated to satisfy many normal needs of the community, indeed as it does today.

Her balancing treatment is salutary and reflects probably a corrective to the earlier treatments, the 1931 article by Garland and Talman is an example, which viewed the alcohol culture in a more moralistic way.

Roberts’ analysis of the daily average of spirits consumed by a tavern-goer in the 1830s shows a not unreasonable amount, something approaching 5 oz per person. By this, I don’t mean to suggest it is a proper amount from a health standpoint, but simply that from a public safety standpoint, the colony was not going to collapse from such indulgence (and evidently did not, as I see from gazing at the vibrant expanse around me as I write).

Even without knowing the ethanol content of such measures, this is a reasonable conclusion IMO.

The primary sources she cites, or others yet unplumbed, may provide the kind of smoking gun I mentioned in my previous post, a la “father ensured the trusty copper still bought by his father in Boston 60 years ago came with the family to our new home in York/Kingston/Belleville/Port Hope/Paris/ along with gran-dad’s treasured rye whiskey receipt”.

Failing finding the gat, I am satisfied that the work of our historians to date provides ample evidence from which to infer reasonably that whisky came to Canada from the United States via the earliest American incomers.

Below is an image of a local landmark, the Horseshoe Tavern (courtesy its website). Not as old as a number of surviving Ontario taverns, it still conveys a venerable atmosphere. For many years it has been a country, folk and pop music shrine. I had a pint of Molson Stock Ale there last night, in fact. It’s not inapt to add, John Molson was brewing in Lower Canada when Playter was running his business in York-town…



*This is at retail again in a licensed establishment in Toronto. Compare a grocer’s price for whiskey and rum in 1828-1829 in another part of Upper Canada as illustrated by historian Douglas McCalla, discussed in my previous post. The latter figures show a decided price advantage for whiskey as well as a (presumably correlative) high market share. The narrower price differential in Toronto taverns can be explained perhaps by the urban environment, in a different part of Ontario, and the different levels of trade.

Canadian Whisky’s American Origin – Part I

In recent posts I have argued that various indices suggest the taste for whisky in Canada was abetted by the large number of Americans who settled in Upper Canada via the Loyalist influx, and Americans who came later, in their wake. I stated that into the 1840s there were about 200 distilleries in the United Province of Canada. The distillers themselves appear to have been of varied background even as no study has been done comprehensively to classify these origins. More is known of course the “marquee names” (Hiram walker, etc.) but that hardly tells the full story.

What is more clear is the original market for spirits in Upper Canada in, say, 1790-1825: people of largely American origin. Distilleries were set up in many areas where those Americans settled, especially around Lake Ontario. I’ve mentioned some in Kingston, Port Hope, Paris.

I’ve noted that people of British background also drank and made whisky, not just Scots and Irish although whiskey was typically associated with them. Some Britishers who set up distilleries here were English-born. Also, defined styles of cereal-based spirits such as whisky, Dutch gin, and London gin only emerged really after the 1700s. Whisky was to undergo yet further changes, into blended, straight, bourbon, rye, and other forms.

By this I mean, in the early days, the broad distinctions among spirits were cereal spirits (whisky, gin); fruit spirits (apples, other fruits); and rum (from sugar and molasses). Someone could make “whisky” credibly even if we might regard it today as more like gin especially at a time both were white spirits.

These are general assertions I believe to be valid, but I want to drill down to see if we can identify more specifically the origins of whisky in Ontario.

Let me say also, in investigating this question, it forms part, largely or ultimately, of academic, historical studies that are complex and multi-faceted. Generally, it is professional teachers and researchers who have the time, funding, and training to investigate such complex questions. This enables them to compile and study primary sources and the other extensive literature needed to look, say, at how taverns operated in Canada in 1810, or what people drank, how much, on what occasions, etc.

Many aspects of Canadian alcohol history have been examined by such specialists, from standpoints that include the economic, medical, agricultural, historical (settlement patterns) and technological.

So, we need to consider their work in the main. The kind of literature I considered earlier is still important though because it suggests patterns and tendencies. Thus, if the Canadian Yankees whom Susanna Moodie met in the 1830s liked whiskey, presumably their U.S. ancestors did. If Absalom Shade from Pennsylvania distilled whisky once established in Canada (1820s), he must have been familiar with it at home.

First, how many Americans came here anyway? Inferences drawn from their presence would be affected by the numbers, or rather their percentage in the population.

Historian Julia Roberts’ book In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada (UBC Press, 2009) states that in 1815 “nearly 80%” of the colonists in Upper Canada were Loyalists or later American arrivals.

That became diluted in the following decades. But still, the Americans were almost 80% in 1815, and that’s about 30 years after the first Loyalists arrived.

So, in terms of the spirits market here into the 1820s it is fair to say most of it was “American”, and surely serviced by Americans, i.e., tavern-keepers and store owners. I’d infer that vital taste preferences were formed in this period, and the supply networks to satisfy them.

Well, what did they drink? Consider this essay from 1998 by the historian Douglas McCalla, “Customer Purchases of Alcohol at an Upper Canadian Country Store in 1808-1809 and 1828-1829”. He analyzes sales of different beverage alcohols near Brockville, Ontario, in Yonge Mills. Certainly that was Loyalist country, and his storekeeper was of Loyalist stock.

Rum outsold whisky by a fair margin in the first period. In the second the situation is totally reversed which shows the trend that took over in Upper Canada as a whole.*

This is one store in one area, and also, we don’t know how many distilleries were in striking distance of this store in the first period and then the second.* I’d think there were more in the second period since 1808 is still early days in Upper Canada. We also don’t know the relative quality of the whisky between 1808 and 1828.

But even taking the Yonge Mills store as the norm, we must recall that rum was the main spirit in the United States before the Revolution. Due to a variety of circumstances, whisky became cheaper finally but this took some time. The landmark The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition by W.J. Rorabaugh (1979) explains this transition and, for example, that only by 1820 did the price of rye whiskey fall by half, which helped the switch to grain spirits.

While the fiscal and economic factors to explain pricing in Canada differed in 1808 and 1828 from those in the U.S. – one assumes that rum, or sugar/molasses imports, would not have been taxed as high, in particular – even by 1808 whisky was cheaper here. This would have set the stage for the reversal of tastes, just as occurred in the U.S.

Whisky was famously distilled in Pennsylvania by the whiskey rebels of the 1790s, and in fact some whisky had been distilled in America since the 1600s. The Loyalists knew what whisky was when transitioning from rum to whisky as their preference. Unless the British presence in Upper Canada, when the Loyalists arrived, explains a taste for whisky, the Loyalists must have brought the taste, or at least enough knowledge to found the later production and consumption here of whisky.

A number of historians have stated baldly that the Loyalists brought whisky to Canada. However, when you examine the sources, they don’t really back it up. Most revert to Susanna’s Moodie’s, or other pioneer, accounts of encounters with Yankees who liked whiskey or of backwoods people getting into trouble over it. This is suggestive but not conclusive.

One study of this nature has credibility in a kind of negative sense though, in that the authors make the point the British army did not use whisky for the soldiery or regimental messes before 1800. This work, “Glass of the British Military ca. 1755-1820” (1985) is a scholarly examination of vessels used in British Forces for various purposes including for wines, beers, brandy, etc. At pg. 11 the authors state that at the end of the 18th century “whisky is not an English drink”. They attribute its use in Upper Canada specifically to Loyalists but their sources, which I checked, lead back to pioneer accounts again.

The authors, Olive Jones and Ann Smith, note that whisky was used in the 18th century in Scotland, Ireland and the U.S., but not being an English drink they conclude it must have originated in what is now Ontario with incoming Americans.

It is a theory I find, for all the reasons previously discussed, entirely logical, but smoking gun proof is lacking. The same applies to a seminal 1931 study by historians M.A. Garland and J.J. Talman in the Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 27 (1931), “Pioneer Drinking Habits and the Rise of Temperance Agitation in Upper Canada Prior to 1840″.

The study is important and continues to be cited in scholarly works, but if you read it, it doesn’t offer direct proof. There is a general statement made, not supported in the endnotes, that use of “intoxicating liquor” may have been brought by some immigrants from the “mother land”. This can be read in a number of ways, e.g., to comprehend England and include beer for example, so it’s suggestive but not definitive.

The authors do credit the United States with a lot, but ironically for inspiring the early Temperance agitation In Upper Canada via certain Protestant denominations.

The study is useful in many ways though, and is written in a clear, modern style – no Victorianese or the kind of academic jargon common today. I recommend it to anyone interested in this area.

So, we are left with where I started, which is to make reasonable inferences from available sources. Probably a good many early distillers were Loyalists or later American arrivals. The use of whiskey followed that of rum just as it did south of the border, the “same” people were using both. Whiskey was not foreign to the British mind, and a Briton whether Scots, English or Irish might go into the business if he could make a shilling. But the use of whiskey before 1800 in the United States, and the similarity of grains used there and here for whisky in the 1800s, suggests the Americans brought the taste here.

There is no other theory as persuasive, in my opinion, e.g., that whiskey was an implant of British foodways, or a local phenomenon with no reference to external factors. Our Ontario rye whisky is of American origin, in a word.

[Part II of this article follows, here].


*In this 2015 book-length study of consumer purchasing habits in Upper Canada, Douglas McCalla elaborates on his 1998 essay. He states that whiskey was more costly than rum in 1808-1809 (45 cents @ quart vs. 35 cents),  which suggests that rum’s dominance in sales, at least at this store at this time, was price-driven. In 1828-1829, the price of each had fallen significantly but whiskey was now cheaper than rum by half (12.5 cents @quart vs. 25 cents), which probably explains its capture of the greater part of the market by then. Whether the accounts of this store reflect Upper Canada market conditions in general for these supplies is unknown to us, as is the full economic/tax/importation circumstances to explain these changes. However, the picture does seem broadly similar to what W.J. Rorabaugh describes for the U.S. in The Alcoholic Republic, i.e., whiskey in the first two decades on the 1800s fell considerably in price and became a more cost-effective alternative to rum.

**McCalla’s 1998 essay states distilling in the area is documented by the 1830s and that it likely occurred sooner, but this is unclear.





A Social Revolution in Canada

From Black Bottle to Babbitt

The centre of modern-day Cambridge, ON was formerly called Galt. Indeed the old term is still heard today. It is only 14 miles from Paris, ON and broadly in the same region, the old Dumfries township. Galt was in the north part, Paris the south.

Both towns are watered by the Grand River, a source of power for many early industries. Galt perhaps had a stronger Scottish admixture, in part due to an influential Scot who owned lands on the Grand and solicited countrymen to work the fields.

However, Galt too had its share of American incomers. One was the builder and industrialist Absalom Shade who came in the 1820s from Pennsylvania and established distilling. Galt counted two distilleries by the 1840s.

In 1880, an Ontario politician and newspaper publisher, James Young, wrote a history of Galt. His comments on liquor there set out in miniature a number of themes discussed here recently. In a few neat phrases he charts a quickstep transition from frontier whisky culture to ordered, prosperous burg.

As he notes, it was a change the Province underwent as a whole within a single generation. In fact something similar had occurred in the United States.

Young notes that until “white-eye” whisky made its appearance, the workmen wanted rum. Once again, the same historical shift occurred over the border, just earlier.

But why did “white-eye” take over in Canada as well? Presumably rum could still have been imported albeit at higher cost. Whisky suited the developing farm economies, as surplus grain, not easily transportable or storable, was turned to spirit. The farmers got needed cash, or cash and spirits, from distiller-millers in exchange for rye, wheat, corn, oats, barley.

But also, it may be noted Slade came from Pennsylvania, home of straight rye whiskey. This can’t be unconnected to his distillery in Galt, in my view. It’s the same thing for the presumed taste inclinations of the many Americans in the township who came from the northeast where whiskey was the drink of preference from about 1800 on.

The many whisky distilleries around Lake Ontario’s north shore, settled in large numbers by Loyalists and later American arrivals, support this inference for Upper Canada as a whole, IMO. It is useful here to examine Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s spatial diagrams of the industrial geography, I’ve referred to her book a number of times here.

Now, the Scots know a few things about whisky, that’s the “drouthy” tendency drolly noted by Young.

Against this background, rum’s salad days were over. In contrast, it held on much more so east of Quebec. To this day rum is a strong seller in the Maritime provinces. Certainly, many Loyalists went to Nova Scotia and some other parts of the Maritimes. The question why whisky did not “take” as well there is an interesting one. Many American arrivals came from New England coastal states where rum held some market, albeit declining, through the 1800s. I wrote earlier here about New England rum’s attenuated career.

Cereal agriculture too probably was nowhere near as fecund in the Maritimes as in southern Ontario. And many parts were settled long before any Loyalists came, notably Newfoundland with its direct links to Caribbean trade, and these stayed to their old practices.

It would make an interesting academic study to know why rum prospered in the east but foundered in Ontario and Quebec after the American Revolution. I suspect the factors I outlined above may be decisive.

You will see that Shade did not actually want to supply liquor to his work gangs. This strategy was no doubt linked to the alteration occurring in “the public mind”, a term in another Canadian book from the same era as Young’s. Also, perhaps Shade wanted simply to advance productivity and avoid the kind of industrial accident Young mentioned. This boss mentality was a rising part of the new temperance zeitgeist (apologies in etymology proferred).

Let Young tell it in his own words:

Note re images: the second image above, of Galt, ON in the 1890s, was sourced from this Canadian Virtual Reference Library. The last two images were sourced from James Young’s Galt history linked in the text, via HathiTrustAll intellectual property in and to these images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Ontario’s Bad Old Whisky Days

“If The Boys Wanna Fight You Better Let ‘Em…” (lyric by the late Irish rocker Phil Lynott)

Donald Alexander Smith was a teacher and later the principal of Paris District High School in Paris, Ontario, a small town despite its grand-sounding name.

Born in 1905, he was active in teaching for about 40 years, starting in 1929. He held two honours degrees from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Smith was born in Shelburne, Ontario but relocated to Paris for a teaching post and remained in the locality the rest of his life.

He wrote a two-volume history of his adopted Paris called At The Forks Of The Grand, the first volume was published in 1956. The book is an invaluable record of the town’s history. In the introduction Smith states that by 1941 many aspects of town history were being forgotten.

And so he decided to write a history while it could still be compiled, as some invaluable records had already been lost due to floods and other causes.

Below is an image of Paris in the later 1800s.



In Volume 1 Smith wrote a chapter called simply “Whiskey”. He gives here a fuller account of the American-born Paris distiller Norman Hamilton than has appeared elsewhere, to my knowledge. He explains that Hamilton was an entrepreneur in numerous business fields and succeeded at most.

His interests included a grist mill, gypsum plant, logging to make whiskey kegs, raising hogs, and real estate. After retirement Hamilton joined a Congregational denomination and spent the rest of his days in church work. Parenthetically, Jack Daniel, of American whiskey fame, did something similar late in life.

Smith imparts details of Hamilton’s three marriages and his beautiful home called Hillside, aka Hamilton Place. It still stands in Paris and is a heritage landmark. The home was designed and built by American connections of Hamilton in central New York State, his former bailiwick.

Of whiskey, Smith states that its original price of 13 cents per gallon was not cheap since the liquor was not stronger than wine. This ostensibly odd statement – whisky is at least 40% alcohol today – makes sense though, as in the first half of the 1800s whiskey often was sold diluted.

The bourbon historian Gerald Carson shows this in the American context in his invaluable study (1963) The Social History of Bourbon.

The most impactful part of Smith’s whiskey chapter describes the toll of whisky on social peace and family relations. Smith was not a bluenose, as various parts of the book make clear, but his account of the fighting, riots, and the general disorder whisky caused in Paris, Ontario of the 1800s is, well, sobering.



It is no wonder the temperance sentiment burgeoned after 1850. Of the many disconcerting stories Smith relates, those pertaining to gangs building railways in Brant County must rank at the top. When the labourers came into Paris to roister on weekends even the town constable and night watchman feared for their safety,

Disorders regularly occurred at the Brick, a red light hotel on the road leading to Brantford, Ontario. Some scenes described by Smith brought to mind western films I saw in boyhood.

There were three distilleries in the lower part of Paris (hence near the water) in 1850 according to Smith’s book. After Hamilton’s distillery closed the others continued for a time but finally all shut. Only a few taverns were allowed licenses by the late 1800s, and the wild west atmosphere of pre-1850 slowly subsided.

Today, tranquil Paris evokes nothing of the raucous whisky era evoked by Donald Smith. It is known as one of Canada’s few art colonies, the obverse of how it started. The town is all wood frame Victorian charm, watered by two rivers and edged in verdant green hills (except in winter!).

Distiller Hamilton’s daughter Elizabeth lived in the family manse after Norman’s death with her husband Paul G. Wickson. Wickson was a noted painter and member of the Royal Canadian Academy. This background encouraged the development of the arts community.

Wickson specialized in pastoral scenes especially grazing livestock and disporting horses. He painted in the aerie at the top of their mansion, shown above in more recent years.

Graceful it still is, as the town that harbours it, a 180 degree turn from the old roughhouse days.

N.B.  In the first image above the wooden structures seen below the church formed part of the Hamilton distillery.

Note re images: the images above were sourced from the County Of Brant Public Library Digital Collections and Paris Museum and Historical Society. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Whisky, Americans, and School Days in Early Ontario

In examining the annals of town and country distilling in mid-century Victorian Ontario, I doubt anything will emerge on the scale of the eight distilleries in the charming town of Port Hope. Not only was there a large number of distilleries for a tiny population, the whiskey had special cachet. So much so, one writer called it Canada’s Glenlivet.

We will return to these distilleries, and try to understand what made the whisky special. Port Hope is about 70 miles east of where I write, to the left along the lake I can see as I type these words.

But now, I will draw your attention to another Ontario town, the same distance from here but in the opposite direction. It’s Paris, Ontario, at least as pretty as Port Hope but of different aspect, more hilly and not on a lake, but on the forks of a river (Grand River).

Paris is in Brant County, north and west of the larger Brantford, ON. For those who know Ontario, you would take Highway 401 west from Toronto, on the way to London and ultimately Windsor, and take a number of jogs off that. I’ve also driven there from Cambridge, ON, home of Grand River Brewery, of Russian Gun Imperial Stout fame.

Paris was founded by a mix of Americans and British emigrants, and somewhat later than the Loyalist stronghold of eastern Ontario I’ve discussed before. Nonetheless some of the families were Loyalist or descended from same. One such, John Pettit, founded a distillery in Brant County. Another American did the same, in Paris: Norman Hamilton.

The main founder of Paris was industrialist Hiram “King” Capron, yet another American. His name is long-remembered in Ontario including for his many benefactions.

The pages below are from an 1883 history of Brant County. They outline Norman Hamilton’s career but also the social atmosphere that attended whisky in Ontario’s pioneer days. Calling it liberal would be an understatement, but it was typical of northeastern habits at the time, both sides of the porous border.

An odd thing is, 1883 is only some 30 years after the high-water mark of whisky’s reign (temperance mobilized after that to prompt a change in the “public mind”, to borrow a phrase elsewhere in the Brant history). That’s a big shift in one generation, I can’t think of anything really comparable in our time.

Understandably, given the writer’s mistrust of liquor and temperance stance – other parts of the book make this clear – he gets some of the whisky technics wrong. Canadian whisky almost certainly had more fusel oil in 1850 than in 1883, at least in a small place like Paris. Also, I doubt the pupils in question put their cup directly under the worm of the working still, although who knows. More likely they were given a diluted form of the drink by the proprietor.

The reference to the hard-driving, succeed-at-any cost Yankee perhaps reflects the dominance of a more conservative, Anglo-Canadian strain here by the 1880s. The old Yankee social presence, Loyalist or following in its wake, was diminished by a new, British-flavoured Canadian identity. The latter was fed by both organic development of our communities and increased U.K. immigration.

Ambitious Americans after 1850 clearly associated with their new land. John Wiser in Prescott became a British subject, for example, which had to smooth his path. (Hiram Walker never did that though, as far as I’m aware).

Still, if you read the separate bio entry on Norman Hamilton in the book, it is respectful and even admiring in tone. So maybe the Yankee reference wasn’t meant to be cutting.

Finally, do you know how Paris, ON was named? It wasn’t with reference to the French Paris, or the Paris of Grecian mythology. It was named after a plentiful local resource, gypsum – plaster of Paris. That is a satisfying explanation by my lights, plain and stolid as most of the people who founded this country and the one over yonder that provided much of its early base.


Note re images: the first image above of Paris, ON is from the website of Brant County, ON, here. The second and third images are from the Brant County history linked in the text, courtesy the digital library HathiTrust. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Whiskey-Loving Canadian Yankees

An early Canadian writer, Susannah Moodie, immigrated from England in 1832 to homestead in Upper Canada, now Ontario. She published Roughing it in the Bush in 1852 in Britain to document her experiences 20 years earlier. Her sister, Catherine Parr Traill, also wrote on living in the Canadian bush. These works appealed to the British market for their adventure content and as information for those thinking of emigrating.

Moodie is not always easy to read, today. She is somewhat judgmental, “proper” as viewed by the solid middle class of the time. Not that her early years in Canada were easy. The family had little money and no experience in farming before emigrating. Unfortunately, the area they farmed in, north of Peterborough, Ontario, is hardly fertile. The site today is a piece of scrub, probably much like when she first saw it.

After giving up farming the family moved to the town of Belleville, called the “clearings” in her writings. There, her husband worked as a sheriff and she continued to write and publish. This suited their skills and temperament more than the back country.

Noteworthy in her writing is her comments on her “Yankee” neighbours. This did not mean Americans living in New York State, but literal neighbours in her section of Ontario. These people were, or descended from, the American settlers in Canada called United Empire Loyalists. They had departed – some were chased from – the United States after 1776 due to their sympathies with the British Crown. Some settled in townships around the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario, or along the St. Lawrence River further east. Some settled in other parts of Ontario or in other provinces.

In Roughing It Moodie is rather hard on this element. They are portrayed as canny rustics with few manners or scruples. Their love of whiskey is vividly described. In one story, she recounts how the teen daughter of a Yankee family left her an empty decanter to help set up home, until she unpacked. This puzzled Moodie but she treated it as a local custom. When the teen returned to recoup the vessel, she complained it wasn’t filled with whiskey. Moodie called the teen’s father “Old Satan” – the family name was Seaton – and considered him responsible for this trick. The daughter was dubbed Miss Satan.

The nervy girl, when told no whiskey was available, said she would accept “spirits” or rum. Moodie did have a keg of rum on hand, to pay workmen who would help build the homestead. This was a common practice in the United States at the time as well. Rum or whiskey were used to pay workmen who built a barn, cleared land, and for other “bees” as they were called.

The whiskey was probably white or common whiskey, made from rye or corn; the spirits perhaps a better grade of charcoal-filtered whiskey – early whiskey writer Samuel M’Harry wrote of “neutralized whiskey”. The rum likely was imported from the West Indies, maybe similar to overproof rum from the Islands today.

Miss Satan left with the rum. Moodie was constantly badgered by the Yankees to borrow food, which she said was not returned, or items such as plows and yarn. A non-Yankee neighbour told her how to end it. Miss Satan sold milk and butter to the neighbourhood. One day, Moodie paid in a way that required change, and asked her to return the next day with the money. She never did, but so ended as well the impositions.

We see a few things here. Quite possibly, a stereotype of the American incomers. Cultural differences often can be painted unfairly, then as now. Or, maybe Moodie just ran into the wrong American crowd. We also see how whiskey was, even in the 1830s, established in Ontario as “the” drink. Miss Satan made it clear that whiskey was far preferable to rum – she said Moodie would learn this from her workmen later – but rum bested “spirits”. The American usage of whiskey from the late 1700s was a natural precedent to the uptake of the taste in Ontario.

At bottom, today, Canadians really do like Americans. I think each side knows that when it comes down to brass tacks. And vice versa, no doubt.

As to Moodie, she continued to worry over whiskey, and in her writings outlined ideas to ban its use. To achieve this she supported, not prohibition as such but education.


A Luxury Liquor Store in 1845 Ontario

It comes as a surprise in reviewing trade ads for liquors and wines for mid-century Kingston, Ontario that a rich assortment was offered by at least one spirits and wine dealer and grocer.

Consider this list offered by R. (Robert) McCormack in his Princess Street store in early 1845, advertised in the British Whig.

Kingston, albeit it was then Upper Canada’s largest town (non-incorporated city) and lately capital of the United Province of Canada, was 150 miles distant from Toronto and somewhat more from Montreal. These were Canada’s burgeoning urban centres but many towns and smaller cities had an outsized economic importance in the 1800s.

What explained Kingston’s significance? Numerous historical and geo-political factors, all neatly outlined in this city history from the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Its position at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and eastern end of Lake Ontario, its Imperial garrison, its political importance (home of Sir John A. McDonald, a Father of Confederation and a municipal councillor when McCormack’s ad appeared), all conspired to make it a town of importance and therefore, sophistication.

Kingston received a boost in strategic importance after the 1812 War yet nonetheless had an American flavour from the United Empire Loyalists who arrived in the late 1770s and 1880s.

The town’s trade directories of the period speak to tanners, tailors, dry goods sellers, boot-makers, cabinet-makers and the like. These might not be expected to favour Madeira, Champagne, and French brandy, or to afford them very often if they did. Yet they were touted in McCormack’s tony shop, among other rare potations and fine groceries. The intended market was politicians, military officers, mandarins, ship- and factory-owners, professionals: Ontario’s top echelon, in other words.

Things changed after 1850. Kingston’s fortunes remained at par or declined, all explained in the historical outline linked above.

But at its “international” apogee, let’s consider what it offered by way of drinkables.

There was pale and “coloured” Cognac, Hennessey’s, say. 19th century Cognac drinkers had preferences, not just of age but colour. VSOP means Very Special Old Pale, yes?

There were two types of (presumed) malt whisky, from Islay and Campbelltown, among the best in Scotland then and now.

There was six year old Caribbean rum.

There was de Kuyper Dutch gin, or genever gin, still favoured to this day in parts of Canada although the market is very small now.

There was whisky from local hero James Morton, showing his output was considered good enough to be listed with the foreign specialties.

And Champagne. Claret. Sandeman’s sherry. Port. Two types of British beer, London porter and Scotch ale.

I doubt Toronto offered better in this early period. I’ll bet they threw some good parties. There is today (I’ve been there) a large LCBO in Kingston, the area still has gray block-stone buildings from the era being discussed. You can buy most of what I mentioned there off the retail shelf today.

It’s the continuity of history, but also the fact that the city, while not large (c. 150,000 people), retains its importance as a regional centre, not least via historic and prestigious Queen’s University.