A Distiller Retires

Never was the change in public attitudes to alcohol in the 19th century shown as starkly as in this 1869 article from Yates County Chronicle in Penn Yann, NY. It recounts a story of grain production and distilling in an earlier period in the Finger Lakes region, as follows:

Grain, whiskey, and live stock, form the chief surplus of the population – mostly farmers – and quite as large a proportion of them sober and industrious men as could be expected in a population with nine whiskey mills, or “grain distilleries”, as was the case in 1823. William Babcock, as soon as the cause of temperance was energetically and squarely presented to his mind, although he owned and carried on a distillery, not only disposed of it, but took high ground in favor of total abstinence. He offered his distillery machinery for sale as fol­lows:


I have discontinued the distillery busi­ness, and have on hand for sale very low, for ready pay or approved credit, a full set of distillery apparatus, consisting of two worms, a copper boiler, and iron cyl­inder. The cylinder is large and uncom­monly powerful. I have no doubt but with skillful management, the whole es­tablishment at a moderate calculation would produce daily a sufficient quantity of whiskey to kill 50 men.

Sept. 23d, 1828.                                                   W. Babcock .”

And this was before whiskey was blue-vitrioled and aqua-fortised, and other­wise poisoned, as it is at the present time, so that a still like Mr. Babcock’s will kill now double his estimate in a day.

The temperance cause aroused violent passions at its height, and one wonders if Babcock’s notice was an invention of a Victorian editor with time on his hands. In any case it would have elicited a wry laugh (!) on the part of a presumably now-chastened, right-thinking population.

Yet, in sections – I’ve now adopted this quaint 1800s geographical term – where distilling was large-scale and important to the local economy, criticism of distillers was often muted or non-existent.

A good example is the importance of two rye distilleries in western Maryland, enterprises indeed only founded mid-century and that thrived until Prohibition.

It was one of those unusual cases, somewhat analogous to the successful two-distillery presence in Perth, Ontario in the same period. In fact, as we shall see, while the American distilleries mashed rye, there was a shared connection in terms of Scots and Irish distilling influence.

The Finger Lakes is a bucolic, thinly peopled region in western New York. In the 1800s it did not have good transport links to markets where whiskey could be transhipped or to modern sources of energy. No distillery was able to grow and survive the buffets of temperance there.

Distilleries in other sections sometimes fared better, and we shall look at the Maryland case soon.

(I am mindful that the Finger Lakes did much better with large-scale wine production, that’s another story).

Interestingly, distilling has returned to the Finger Lakes where an energetic small group make whiskey, including rye, and a wide range of spirits. Sometimes history matters, even distant history, something in the folk memory is tenacious and provides the spark for revival.

Distilling point: what was the “iron cylinder” in the 1869 story? It’s tempting to think this was more black humour, a reference to the iron lung used to treat paralysis, but I don’t think that existed in 1869.

It was probably a doubler, the batch-type still used to remove additional congeners from the first distillation and raise the final proof.

Note re image: the image above was sourced here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Rye and Bourbon: Shared Bloodline With Dutch Gin?


It has been speculated that early distilleries in Manhattan made genever. This is the Dutch gin still consumed in its homeland albeit in a typically more neutral form than originally.

The Dutch or “Knickerbockers” as called by the English and Yankees settled what became known as Manhattan. England took over the island in 1664. Holland wrested control a dozen years later, but the English soon took it back. It stayed with the Crown until the American Revolution and Independence.

Still, Dutch cultural influence long-endured, in fact well into the 19th century. It may surprise some that a variant of the American Dutch vernaculars, Jersey Dutch, was spoken even into the 20th century.

The first distillery in Manhattan was opened by the notorious Willem Kieft in 1640. He was a merchant and governor of New Netherlands, the name of the new Dutch possession. He may have made genever, known in Holland since the late 1500s.

Various histories of early New York, and books on spirits, describe his product as genever, whiskey, or fruit brandy.

In Holland today a variety of genever types is made. Tristan Stephenson gives a succinct summary in his 2016 book The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace. The more flavourful ones rely on a good dose of “maltwine” (moutwijn) as the heart. This is a cereal beer distillate brought off the still in the low range typical for genuine whisky. Indeed Stephenson’s outline of double distillation is very similar to the procedure used to make bourbon or rye whiskey today.

Wheat, rye, corn, and/or barley malt can be used for genever but rye figures in most mashes, often prominently. In some 19th century recipes rye alone is used with barley malt to make genever.

Juniper, the piney, purple berry of the forest, has always been a flavouring for Dutch gin. It was originally employed to mask the pungent flavours of new distillation and probably as a would-be medicament. Coriander and many other spices and flavourings were and are also used, but each producer had his style.

Originally the berries were ground with the grains and mashed fo their slight saccharine value. Later, the spirit was re-distilled with these flavourings to infuse their essence. Today, the latter method is used or alternatively, the flavourings are simply macerated in the finished spirit.

English gin derives from Dutch gin with two main differences. 19th century London distillers hit on a formula to use neutral spirit as the base, not a congeneric white spirit. This resulted in a cleaner style than for traditional genever. 

Also, the flavourings in English gin have greater prominence than for traditional genever. The reason is simply that without the strong flavour of maltwine to inform the taste, the “botanicals” must provide that function. Hence, to blend and infuse assumes primary importance, and becomes the art for the English gin distiller.

Almost all genever today is blended but the better grades have a decent percentage of maltwine, it runs from a few percentage points to 51% ormore.

Anchor Distillery in Brooklyn, NY was a noted gin distillery between 1808 and 1819. It was owned by a scion of a famous family, Hezekiah Pierrepont – the surname was sometimes spelled Pierpont. The image below is via www.nypl.org:

Pierrepont bought the property in Brooklyn, apparently in 1808, from Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Livingston had operated the site according to various accounts as either a brewery or distillery. Older sources suggest, a brewery. It may have been both, or at different times.

The distillery was near a grain mill on the East River. Henry R. Stiles described the venture and special reputation the gin enjoyed in his 1869 A History of the City of Brooklyn:

Pierrepont’s Anchor gin distillery was on the site of the old Livingston brewery, at the foot of Joralemon’s lane. Mr. Pierrepont had rebuilt the old brewery building, a large wharf, a windmill, which was exclusively used for the purposes of the distillery, and several large wooden storehouses, in which he kept the gin stored for a full year after it was made, by which it acquired the mellowness for which it was peculiarly esteemed. The distillery was discontinued about 1819; was sold to Mr. Samuel Mitchell who used it as a candle factory for a time, and subsequently was occupied as a distillery by Messrs. Schenck & Rutherford; and having since been raised and enlarged is now (1869), occupied as a sugar house.

The first image above is from an 1818 issue of the Northern Budget, via NYS digitized newspapers. This newspaper was published in what is now Troy, NY, a city near Albany, up the Hudson from Manhattan.

Pierrepont gin is offered as part of E. Warren’s stock of goods. The merchant with ad juxtaposed to the immediate left sold both “American gin” and “Holland gin”, the original.

Troy was settled by Dutch colonists, with English-speakers arriving later. One ad still touts “Dutch goods” 154 years after the English first took Manhattan!

While four generations had lived in former Dutch New York from the English takeover until the heyday of Anchor Distillery, there is no reason to think Anchor Gin was anything other than a domestic take on Dutch gin. Via local distilleries such as (probably) Kieft’s and imports to New York from the mother land, genever would have been familiar to the citizens of New Netherlands.

True, New York’s population was heterogenous by 1800 and this was so even under Dutch rule, but it makes sense that tastes imparted by the first arrivals remained rooted.

Not that other residents in Manhattan wouldn’t have enjoyed genever. “Hollands”, as the English called it, was one of the first truly international spirits. The English and their possessions drank lot of it until late in the 1800s. Also, the English form of gin c. 1800 was still in gestation: all gin was Dutch in style and the only question for foreign types was one of fidelity.

Moreover the English had no whiskey tradition to joust with Hollands gin until Scotch whisky was well on the march. That only occurred much later in the 1800s.

There was of course rum on the eastern U.S. seaboard and no doubt many in Manhattan drank it, or brandy, but there was lots of room for the gin introduced likely by the first settlers.

Pierrepont’s product had cachet for being aged and similarly some modern genever receives a period of barrel aging – the Dutch connection all ties it together.

Period distilling manuals, e.g., by the Americans Harrison Hall and Samuel M’Harry, state rye whiskey was the base for American gin. What made it gin was addition of juniper berries, juniper oil, turpentine (felt to be similar to the piney smell and taste of juniper), and/or other flavourings, all as discussed by these authors.

Did Pierrepont make a rye whiskey to serve as the base of his gin, as advised by these contemporary writers? Yes he did. Here is the proof, from the 1962 enlarged and updated biography of the Pierrepont family, The Pierreponts, 1802-1962; the American forebears and the descendants of Hezekiah Beers Pierpont and Anna Maria Constable by Abbot Low Moffat.

A rye-and-corn spirit base makes sense given that Dutch maltwine, the heart of true genever, is precisely a cereal whiskey of which rye is an important element. Maize is frequently used as well today.

Did Pierrepont sell any of his whisky not ginned up, sell that is the rye schnapps of the German farmer-distillers in Pennsylvania? Perhaps, but I haven’t seen any evidence. Maybe the gin was so good no one wanted the rye spirit on its own, at any price.

Pierrepont’s gin was long-remembered in New York. Even in the 1880s, the Evening Post called it the “most celebrated American brand of gin” ever made.

And so one way to look at Pennsylvania rye is the frontier distillers were simply making a stripped-down gin. Maybe the juniper and other flavourings were hard to find in many areas, or viewed as dispensable in the rude conditions of frontier.

You might ask: how would German speakers deep in the new frontier, or unlettered Scots-Irish farmers, know about Dutch or even Manhattan gin?

Perhaps one answer is not to look at these traditions hermetically. Europe had a unified culture, and still does, from the Holy Roman Empire (at least) on. From art to literature to food to music and more vast areas of knowledge are common to countries or regions separated by long distances, borders, and languages.

Maybe grain and wine distillation across Europe was a common patrimony by 1700. Seeking precise national and ethnic demarcations to determine stylistic origins, in this light, may be unhelpful.

And another point. While scholarly studies have been written on the history of distillation and stills, how often has this history been linked to the spirits that became standardized in different places? Distillers’ business records might be quite revealing in this regard.

Does it not make sense that someone proposing to make a costly investment in a copper still and related equipment would ask the maker, what grains do you recommend for your apparatus? We can only get buckwheat and rye in our section of the state, can I use them in your tubs and stills? Should I malt everything? Have you heard of anyone adding burnt sugar to finished spirit?

Maybe those who supplied stills to frontier distillers also supplied them to Manhattan distilleries, and relayed some important information. It makes sense, eh?

To sum up: American moonshine whiskey and by extension bourbon, straight rye, and Canadian whisky may be first cousins with, or even the New World children of, Dutch gin, rather errant relations given the monastic and learned associations with gin’s origin. Difford’s Guide outlines some essential early history.

As with all whose lineage is tangled or dubious, surpassing success confers all necessary breeding. Today, bourbon and rye are gentry in the spirits world.

Note re images: the images above were sourced from the links mentioned in the text. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Arc of Rye in America

When considering the misty roots of rye whiskey in America, it is easy to thinking that rye, the grain, had no history in America until Palatinate or other German settlers arrived.

That is not so. Rye was grown in the American Colonies, including in deepest New England, from earliest days. Rye was long known in England although little raised for foodstuffs. In America, different varieties of rye were grown for food, e.g., on the Southern coast and mountain interior.

The main reason American settlers adopted rye for food was the soil often would not support wheat culture. Rye flourished better in acidic soil, for example. Colonists’ bread was frequently a mixture of rye and corn, or rye and wheat.

For an overview of rye’s use in America this 1878 industrial historoffers a clear picture, see pp 127-128. It makes useful references to whiskey as well. Note that Samuel Goodrich recorded that rye was first raised in Massachusetts in 1633. Other sources are in accord with this.

Rye over time declined for foodstuff once wheat, from suitable granaries, could be brought to every U.S. market by rail and water shipment. Hence, the vocation of rye after 1800 was increasingly for whiskey.

In turn, rye for whiskey declined as corn spirits became more popular, that is, in bourbon and in largely neutral alcohol for blended whiskey.

“Boston Brown Bread” is how New England’s generic brown loaf was known outside its birthplace. Here are a few recipes from the 1850s, each of which uses rye. Modern Boston Brown Bread may use rye flour with corn. Whole grain wheat sometimes replaces the rye.

New England brown bread is the “rye-and-Indian” bread of the earliest colonists.

Therefore, when the Germans sowed rye for bread in western Pennsylvania, parts of West Virginia, and Maryland, rye’s use was not unique to them.

It remains true that whiskey made from rye appears in early German communities in these areas. I cannot find a comparable tradition in New England, New York, or New Jersey.

There was some gin-making in New York which probably used rye in the mash. 19th century geneva gin recipes report often rye and barley malt as the mash, and rye still figures largely in the component of genever gin which is the low-proof, often pot still distillate (the “flavouring” element in Canadian terms).

But gin was usually treated with juniper and other flavourings and can’t be considered a whiskey properly speaking.

Whether Dutch-American distilling influenced Pennsylvania rye distilling is an interesting question. The possibility must be left open.

New Jersey hooch used apples and other fruits as the base. In the South, peach and other fruit brandies (white alcohols) similarly were distilled from surplus tree crops. New England was prototypical rum land.

Since whiskey was not an English inheritance – even their gin is rather distant from the grainy oude genever of Holland – it makes sense no tradition of rye or corn-distilled spirit emerged in early Anglo-American communities.

It’s true that George Washington famously distilled at Mount Vernon, but this was toward the end of the 1700s.  By then, whiskey was becoming a generalized drink as many observers of the day noted. Its use outside the core areas of development was stimulated by brandy and rum shortages caused by the war.

So we come back to the one and certain point: rye whiskey, ancestor to bourbon, becomes a thing in non-English pioneer Pennsylvania, where the Scots-Irish and Germans lived. These ethnicities had a tradition of distilling spirits from grain in Europe, including rye in Germany.

Their traditions in America must have mingled. Once generalized the use spread finally into Canada.

And so, care must be taken not to conflate the German role in an American rye spirits tradition with introducing rye as a grain in general. Germans did not do that.



The Original Bourbon Barrel

It Didn’t Look Like You Think

Wood contributes a high percentage of flavour to any kind of whisky except white whisky of course. It is surprising that the history of coopering and the wood industry aren’t given more attention in this regard. Grain types receive much greater attention, as do mashing, fermentation, and distillation, by comparison.

A review of “wood package” trade literature before WW I shows the immense importance at the time of the logging, saw-milling, coopering, hoop-making, and allied industries and trades. Barrels were used for many kinds of commodities. The type to hold liquids held whiskey, wine, cider, beer, ale, crude petroleum, vinegar, brines, tar, oils and much else.

It may seem odd that the pages of quotidian journals are a repository of bourbon lore, yet not infrequently information of this kind appears. Years before journalists or academics thought to record the history of bourbon, information was printed in a variety of sources, some ostensibly unlikely.

There were a couple of reasons why a journal devoted to the box and barrel trades could talk about whiskey facts and history on the eve of WW I. First, such journals would not be the first place a prying temperance advocate would go looking for undue public interest in beverage alcohol. Second, the distillers were the barrel brokers’ and lumber mills’ customers, so they of course would not be averse to reading some lore of their own business.

The historical commentary might pertain for example to the reason for charring a barrel, the way distilling equipment changed over time, the history of a distilling family, or the evolving methods of mashing grain (small tubs, sour and sweet mashing, yeasting-back, etc.).

This article in the journal The Barrel and Box, “Bourbon or Corn Whiskey and the Barrel”, Vol. 11 (1906-1907), was unusually lengthy and contained a good summary of bourbon’s history. Perhaps with the knowledge of the unceasing march of prohibition across the country, the writer was taking stock in a way. Or perhaps the editor just thought it was time to consider: where did bourbon came from, anyway – with an eye of course to its “package”.

This kind of historical review was uncommon for the time. The odd newspaper article might query where bourbon originated, and distilling texts and journals might offer lapidary comments, but a feature on the “history of bourbon” was unusual for the day, particularly with national prohibition looming.

The article contains a number of nuggets I’ve never seen elsewhere. One is that the original bourbon barrel was unlike the modern one.

The whiskey-barrel of ca. 1900 was generally the same as today except smaller, 48 U.S. gallons vs. 53, but according to this publication, the original Kentucky barrel only had one head, narrowing almost to a point at the other end which was closed with a plug.

The article states that such a barrel was exhibited some years earlier at an exhibition in Bourbon County, KY to illustrate whiskey-making 100 years earlier. To have been a fly on the wall…

Barrels of this type may have been used in Europe for sherry and other wines, although I could not locate an image or narrative suggesting this. A one-head barrel would resemble somewhat the earthenware amphorae, which had a tapered end and a larger opening, and perhaps barrels were developed later with a similar shape.

It is tempting to think a Spanish trader left an empty barrel of port wine in a Kentucky town in the late 1700s and it was re-purposed to hold an incipient version of America’s national spirit. Who knows.

A type of narrow barrel known in the 19th century was called the blood cask, and one reference states it was ideal for carriage by horse. As packhorses were the means of transport over land in pioneer days before the Conestoga wagon (which needs a certain amount of space and type of terrain to navigate anyway), the first bourbon barrels would have been carried by horse or mule to market.

The narrow whiskey barrel of Kentucky pioneers may have developed with this in mind. The barrels would in any case have been smaller than 48 gallons, and perhaps the relatively small size accelerated maturation.

The use by modern craft distillers of small barrels turns out to have an historical antecedent, which may come as a surprise to those who argue that “real” bourbon can’t be made in a small barrel.

Certainly, the modern rack warehouse would not have been suitable for such an artisan production. Indeed that warehouse is a later-19th century phenomenon, interesting in its own right.

The Barrel and Box article explains that the narrow Kentucky barrel itself followed the stoneware jug, which was used for whiskey earlier in Pennsylvania and then Kentucky. This makes sense since the jug was meant initially as a pure conveyance, and not also to age the product.

(The narrow barrel too was probably meant initially simply to convey but experience would have showed it improved the palate especially when charred).

Another nugget in the article: whiskey in earliest days was piped in open wood troughs from the still-house to the shed where empty barrels were filled.

Some thought that the length of the lashed conduits, and exposure of the whiskey to air, lent a unique quality to the bourbon. This kind of lore attended the thousands of small country stills that existed in those days.

Who is to say those open pipes didn’t work some kind of magic? Whiskey has its unknowns, imponderables, despite all the knowledge of modern science. The mysterious corners can lead to ineffable experiences; it’s one factor that explains the evergreen appeal of whisky, wine, and craft beer.

You can’t reduce what goes into the bottle to a set of quantifiable data and therefore to a fixed taste.

Caution: the article referenced has some unpleasant racist references. This was a fact of life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and not just in the U.S. It isn’t invariable, but historical literature can be replete. The records can still hold importance for other reasons, as discussed here. One must hold one’s nose.

Note re image: image above was sourced, via the digital library HathiTrust, here. All intellectual property belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




Plumping for Pumpkin (Beer)

It’s that time of the year again, and the first pumpkin beer I’ve seen locally is Great Lakes’ – fortunately, as it’s one of the best anywhere.

First, may I decry the now-ritual blasé deprecation (by too many) of the annual pumpkin beer phenom?

Pumpkin beer is a genuine innovation of the craft brewing renaissance albeit it can claim roots in 17th century colonial brewing. In those days they made beer of pumpkin, persimmon, something borrowed and something blue.

You can be sure in the periwig days precious barley malt was eked out with the fleshy gourd sometimes. I’d guess some of that Virginia pumpkin beere and the New England ones tasted like some of today.

Whether yes or no, the advent of modern pumpkin beer via the specific method of California craft pioneer Buffalo” Bill Owens launched a permanent revolution. Rightly so, as when well-made it’s a great taste.

One of the verities of the beer world is, if something is successful, before long some droll-meister will put it down as old hat and soon the chorus swells. Whether it’s old school craft, imports once exotic but now familiar, or great beers made by megabrewers, the cynicism sets in fast.

I pay no mind to it. If it’s good, it should be praised and supported. If not-so-good, then say so and move on.

Great Lakes’ pumpkin beer hits all the right bases: the spices are evident but not a sledgehammer; the natural pumpkin flavour is there; and the hops are prominent, which you want as without evident hop support most beers will fail, pumpkin no less.

I do like other ways with pumpkin beer too, especially a well-made pumpkin porter. And some strong pumpkin ale with a malty quality can be just the thing as the hoar-frost starts to gather.

Pump it up we say, until you can feel it, and don’t mind the naysayers.



Craig Heron’s “Booze: A Distilled History”

In 2003, the York University (now Emeritus) Professor of History, Craig Heron, wrote the superb Booze: A Distilled History.

Heron is profiled well on the website of York University, and supremely qualified he is: not only does he have the usual hat trick of university degrees (B.A, M.A., Ph.D) he’s got two Masters of Arts – now that’s a haul.

I read the book many years ago. At the time, I was more interested in his beer and brewing researches and the related commentary than on whisky. I revisited parts of the book today after completing my summer-long look at the early years of whisky in Ontario.

I was very pleased to note that this academic, on page 20, writes baldly that by dint of using rye and corn the backwoods stills in Upper Canada made “American whiskey”.

That was exactly my conclusion and while I haven’t had the chance to check his references, his statement is amply supported both by what I found and the logical conclusions to be drawn from it.

Heron is a distinguished labour historian. I recall that a theme in the book was how various issues pertaining to liquor, including finally the temperance cause, were affected by social class. Heron as I recall believed that temperance was promoted with zeal by the boss class to buttress its own interests, not simply as a moral crusade to protect the health of workers.

This is the advantage of academic studies, they argue a point of view, which not all may agree with of course, but they take a reasoned approach to confer on historical data a specific meaning, an arc.

Indeed I’d guess I’m rather opposite to Heron in politics, yet I remember liking the book for its well-argued positions. Maybe that’s my lawyer side, I like when people argue something well even if at day’s end I don’t agree with them.

My own view on temperance is more that it was a key issue by which to seize the social and political agenda, business efficiency was a factor but relatively minor. People promote agendas to control the discourse, which in turn promotes their influence. Certain churches of the day probably had that goal.

And controlling the conversation, to use our idiom today, for anything of import leads inevitably to the ballot box and halls of legislature.

Alcohol control was the zeitgeist from 1850-1920, just as social Darwinism (another failed ideology) was. They captured the public imagination as did to a greater or lesser degree eugenics, Freudianism, abstract expressionism, free verse, jazz, communism, etc.

Some were benign, some huge errors of judgment and lapses in ethics, some a mix of positive and negative.

We have our own orthodoxies today of course, only they are different. One is the drive to legalize marijuana, another is climate control, another the infatuation with exercise, or “clean” or “local” food, or anti-Americanism, and on it goes.

I’m not saying I don’t support some of these, or in part, but they can take on elements of a faith finally, just as t-totalism did in the 1800s. And faith and reason were ne’er a twain…

Oh: one thing I’m clearly not is anti-American, in any way, shape or form.

Anyway, as I’ve been mentioning lately some of the older references on Canadian booze history and the licensed trades, I mention Heron’s book too to anyone interested in the subject.

Malt and the Million Acres

Another early Canadian distilling region, not previously mentioned, is charming Prince Edward Island.

Canada’s smallest province, with its green vales and loamy red earth, is famously home of equally-red-topped Anne, of Green Gables that is.

We once spent some time cycling the coast and touring in Charlottetown. It’s reminiscent of the other Maritime provinces albeit with especially temperate weather. It reminded me too of north Atlantic coastal areas in southern England and France: it’s all connected, ethnically too.

Digression: Canadian cities, especially smaller ones, have a certain resemblance despite the wide expanse and varying geography. It’s the same set of influences – commercial, political, cultural, that’s been operating for over 150 years, since Canada became a nation. St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, is similar even though Newfoundland joined the project in 1949.

So Vancouver, Kingston, Charlottetown, Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa, etc. all have a certain physical and infrastructural unity, no bad thing.

But what did they drink in old Maritime P.E.I.? Fortunately, the University of Prince Edward Island history professor, Dr. Edward MacDonald, has investigated this. He and co-author Carolyn (Roberts) McQuaid authored some years ago a 20-page paper, “‘Spirituous Liquors’: Brewing and Distilling in 19th Century Charlottetown”.

You can read it here, archived on the website of P.E.I. researcher and resident Ian Scott. Scott’s useful website collects a number of authorities on early brewing and distilling in P.E.I.

McDonald’s and McQuaid’s article was also published in Island Magazine in more user-friendly format, and can be read here.

The piece is well-referenced, using both primary and secondary sources. It shows clearly that the liquor of choice from late-1700s settlement days until the second half of the 1800s was whisky.

The focus is the capital city of Charlottetown, but that was always the hub for commerce and manufacturing in P.E.I. By 1860 some 20 brewing and distilling operations existed or had existed there. Some combined both brewing and distilling.

The early beers were all ales of various strengths. These were the mild and old ales which preceded pale ale of the India type. These beers were similar to strong ales in various quarters of regional Britain. They also resembled to all appearances the ales of the northeastern U.S., or, say, the ales made by the Molson and Hart families in Quebec circa-1800.

The most famous P.E.I. whiskey-mill, or infamous from a later-19th century optic, was George Coles’, a well-known figure in Canadian history. He was a Premier of Prince Edward Island and a Father of Confederation, helping to form Canada in 1867 with co-equals from other North American British Colonies.

Ah, you will say, whisky’s implantation in P.E.I. is another instance of Loyalist influence. No, not in this case.

P.E.I. was settled in the British era mostly by Scottish Highlanders. Only a tiny percentage of Loyalists arrived in P.E.I., see the breakdown of arrivals in the analysis of Loyalist settlement, “The Arrival of the Loyalists in Canada” (part of a University of Ottawa website).

As Marlene Campbell wrote in her paper “Early Immigration – Prince Edward Island“:

The primary emigration to the British colony of Prince Edward Island was from Scotland. People from that country, mainly from the Highlands, outnumbered all other ethnic groups combined. The Scottish came because of the changes that were happening in their homeland.

Whisky in this case, and it was malt whisky, arrived via birthright of Scots incomers. This is the only reasonable conclusion, given too that rum was and still is a general Maritime inclination by dint of geography and history.

A better analogy with Ontario than the Loyalist distillers of the Lake Ontario region is the two malt distilleries in Perth, ON. Perth was settled by a large number of Scots and other British half-pay officers. The Perth stills made a Highland-style malt whisky which can be distinguished from the rye and corn spirit favoured by the American arrivals.

By the second half of the 1800s, rum started to rise against whisky in P.E.I. Perhaps as the province became more “Canadian” old ethnic ties weakened and regional associations became stronger. Still, whisky formed a good part of sales into the 1870s, see the table in the MacDonald-McQuaid article. And it was dominant before 1860.

There is an interesting spike in the early 1860s. This probably reflects increased production sent to the U.S. during the Civil War when high excise duties made whisky a luxury item.

Earlier, I discussed Victorian-era distiller Clarence Blake McDougall of Halifax, N.S. He made both rye and malt whisky. Nova Scotia was settled by large numbers of Scots and Loyalists. Even though not the sole incomers, they exercised significant cultural and commercial influence. And so McDougall covered the bases.

But in old P.E.I. ads I found, the whisky vaunted was mother’s milk of the old sod, no other.

The northeast U.S./Loyalist drinking pattern went from rum to whisky. Prince Edward Island, sometimes called the Garden Province, the Million-Acre Farm, and Minegoo, did it the other way.

And so, did Scots bring whisky to Canada? Yes, sometimes. But they didn’t bring the type that became the national style, rye whisky. The Loyalists did that.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from Pixabay, here. The second image was sourced from Google Books, here. It appeared in C. Birch Bagster’s The Progress and Prospects of Prince Edward Island (1861). The third image was sourced from an 1832 issue of The British American, from this website of digitized early P.E.I. newspapers. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.






The Road To Kingston’s Bier

Look to the centre of the far right-hand portion of this August 19, 1834 issue of the British Whig in Kingston, ON: distiller William Garratt writes a notice to “Agriculturalists and Farmers” telling them if the city continues its opposition to his piggery he will shut the distillery with consequent loss to them of a market for their grain.

The not-so-subtle message: use your influence with city fathers to get them off my case, in your own interest.

The grains, mentioned in the title of the notice, are once again Indian corn and rye. This shows pretty clearly that both were grown in Kingston in this period. The notice to farmers and agriculturalists is to bring “their” corn and rye to Kingston Market. No reference is made to grain agents or brokers or the like. I’m not sure how “agriculturalist” differs from farmer but I doubt it meant grain merchant, in any case farmers are addressed as well.

Garratt argues the odours are transitory for passers-by and no worse than what people experience in their daily activities.

There is correspondence in other issues in the same month from at least one person, anonymous, supporting both Garratt and another distiller, Drummond, in their desire to keep the piggeries operating. The Kingston distiller Molson, of the famed Montreal brewing Molsons, is mentioned too, but not in way to suggest an issue for him or for the Morton distillery, the largest in Kingston.

Probably Molson and Morton’s piggeries (and I’m assuming Morton had one, perhaps he didn’t) were sufficiently removed from human activity to avoid any issue. I don’t think it’s a question of the city preferring the other operations to Garrett’s, as he makes no mention of Molson and Morton in the letter.

In the result, Garrett continued the business so the city must have left him alone. A couple of fires are reported at the distillery in subsequent years, but not serious ones, which is one indication the business continued. Finally, a John Rose leases the distillery from Garrett, and in 1845 announces he has hired a distiller who can make first-rate whiskey, so the business effectively changed hands.

One of the issues in the correspondence was whether cholera in the city, a persistent problem in the early 1830s, was caused by the presence of the animals. Garratt denied any connection.

Early death from epidemic, or inadequate medical care, was an omnipresent risk in the city. One man lost his job due to an improperly set dislocated shoulder and froze in winter after failing to find an “asylum”. One had just closed for lack of sufficient money…

This was the world of early Upper Canada, and Canada West as it was later called, before Confederation in 1867, roiling, insalubrious, dangerous. And Kingston too had the distinction of housing Canada’s capital briefly and being a garrison town and depôt. One can imagine that towns not so benefitted, which was most, probably had it worse. This was so in pioneer life generally whether in Canada or the United States.

Only later in the century did public health measures start to have a real impact. Building effective sewers, water conduits, regulating the worst of industrial nuisances, all this came later.

To live past 65 would have been unusual and into your eighties rather rare before 1850.

In this atmosphere, the presence of breweries and distilleries provided temporary solace to a sorely tried population. Their role was understandable. After 1850 the temperance and abstinence societies started to turn the ship, and did succeed largely in removing liquor from the public face of society. In a word they delegitimized it, which lead finally to provincial-wide prohibition (except for licensed wineries) from 1916-1927.

However, their campaign would never have succeeded had society not progressed, technically and hygienically as it were, beyond the third world conditions that were a fact of life in pre-1850 North America. Indeed some cities continued to experience regular epidemics in late Victorian times as we saw from H. L. Mencken’s recollections of his Baltimore boyhood. Influenza was a scourge in the west up to the First World War.

Note re images: the image above was sourced from the website of the intercity bus service, Megabus, here.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Corn Used in Kingston, ON Distilling in 1826

William Garratt was a merchant and distiller in Kingston, ON. His distillery was sometimes called Distillery Yard in public advertisements, and sometimes just Garratt’s Distillery, as seen in an 1831 issue of the Kingston Chronicle where mentioned as adjoining a potash factory.

Below is an ad, dated 1825 but appearing on August 11, 1826 in the Kingston Chronicle, soliciting in this case (only) rye and corn to make whiskey. The hogs mentioned are in reference to Garratt’s use of the spent mash of the still to feed livestock for market. Livestock management was a frequent accompaniment to distillery operations in early years.

The “piggery”, as termed in some reports concerning Garratt, got him in trouble later as some citizens did not like the noisome results of an animal pen in their city.

Sometimes, Garratt’s ads request delivery at “Market Square” in the city centre, and a market still operates there in summer at least. Sometimes Distillery Yard is specified, or both. He may have moved his locations over the years.

I believe this Garratt is the same as that of the grocery firm Cullin & Garratt. The distillery likely emerged from rectifying whisky onsite, just as Hiram Walker rectified wheat whisky in Detroit at his grocery before moving into distilling.

(F.X. Chauvin of Windsor, ON wrote an excellent study of Walker’s career in 1927 as an academic thesis. It is now available I understand in published form, but in any case can be read in its original form online. The work is most instructive on this early part of Walker’s career, indeed on Hiram Walker in general including the origin and characteristics of Canadian Club).

Ads by Garret for corn, rye, and other grains appear regularly in the Kingston press for at least 10 years from 1825, I did not check after.

To the best of my knowledge, Garratt descended from a  Loyalist family who arrived in Kingston in the 1780s.

These ads don’t prove corn was grown around Kingston, a port which could have received shipments of this grain from the U.S. Given, though, other ads in the same period elsewhere in Ontario requesting rye and corn for distilling, it is highly likely it was grown locally. In any case, it obviously was used to make whisky in Garratt’s distillery.

A number of American distilling texts recommend varying combinations of rye and corn to distill whiskey in the first quarter of the 19th century, Samuel M’Harry’s is one. 2:1 rye to corn is one of the recipes he discusses.

Grain composition for liquor (anywhere) would have varied with price and availability, but clearly both corn and rye were used in Ontario whiskey for many years before 1840.


Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Kingston Digital site linked in the text.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




How Canadian Whisky Got the Edge – How It Can Again

Canadian blended whisky was perfected towards the end of the 1800s, as I discussed earlier. It was, and is, our version of blended Scotch and blended American whisky although presenting some unique features.

The idea was to combine a large amount of near-neutral spirit, virtually emptied of non-ethanol compounds created in fermentation, with a small amount of highly-flavoured straight or heavy whisky, and then age the two together. This was said to create a pleasing taste and balance, as much of the market would not accustom to the strong taste of “uncut” straight whiskey.

This estimation was correct as even blended American whisky outsold straight whisky by a considerable margin before WW I. In part it was cheaper, but the taste factor mentioned cannot be discounted.

In recalling this history, one can assume a lot of 19th century straight whiskey, even when reasonably aged, had an oily, congeneric taste. The average bourbon or straight rye today probably tastes much better.

In the battle before Prohibition between the “rectifiers” and the Kentucky and Pennsylvania straight whiskey-makers, the former argued for many years that their product had almost no fusel oil. They used this as a marketing tool, as seen in the ad annexed from Gooderham & Worts from 1907. Hiram Walker placed similar ads in the Canadian and U.S. press between the onset of Canadian Club (1888) and WW I.

Part of this argument and pitch was that contrary to the consensus of Victorian science, fusel oil did not disappear in aged straight whiskey. This is true, as a series of well-known studies between 1900 and 1910 showed that levels remained constant in aged American straight whiskey.

Of course, the odour and taste of the whiskey changes as the barrel imparts many pleasing qualities (the wood gums). Also, various chemical reactions occur due to oxidation and other factors, leading to new flavours. But fusels remain in the spirit, as for brandy, tequila, heavy rum, and similar.

In high concentrations fusel oils can be dangerous, but the amounts in matured whisky are not unusually harmful. Even the old lore that fusel oils cause bad hangovers is disputed by modern science.

Fusels are a group of higher alcohols, especially butyl and amyl alcohols, within the feints or tails of the distillation stream. Feints are the final fractions, the least volatile, after the ethanol has been collected.

In a typical two-stage bourbon or rye distillation, they can be controlled especially in the doubling stage, where a doubler or pot still is used to “polish” the spirit and raise the ABV by about 10 proof points.

Nonetheless, some fusel oil content remains and this is desired in fact, otherwise the spirit would be too bland as a foundation for the traditional bourbon or rye palate.

Hiram Walker evolved a complex, multi-column distillation method to reduce fusel content to practically nothing. He blended the resultant spirit with a high-flavoured rye distillate, made that is in the American way. Both were aged together in the barrel for at least five years. Canadian Club is still made this way today.

The Hiram Walker plant now makes CC for the current label-owner, Beam Sapporo of Japan. I’d guess a 94-95% abv spirit is used as the base whisky – so not as neutral as a 96% spirit meant for vodka. It is blended for aging with a rye spirit double-distilled in a way similar to a typical bourbon or straight rye, i.e., well under 160 proof or 80% abv.

I tasted the product again the other day. It has features of “alcohol” and aged whisky, with spicy and leafy notes as well as some barrel sweetness. When the label had a six-year statement it seemed (to me) richer in taste and smell. When used in mixed drinks, as most CC must be, this factor is neither here not there.

Indeed around the year 1900 CC was marketed at various times between five and seven years old, reflecting the demands of current inventory. So the age has never been exactly fixed, the brand operates more within a certain range and no doubt must meet a fixed organoleptic profile.

The real difference between Canadian and American whiskey is, in my view, that bourbon and straight rye did not implant here. For the rest of it, there is no material difference in the two traditions of whiskey-making, nor should there be. The raw materials used are the same – corn and rye, mostly – and the taste for whiskey came here with the Loyalists and other Americans.

As to why bourbon and straight rye did not develop (or survive) in Canada, there could be many answers. We have a much smaller population than the U.S. The market for straight whiskey – always relatively small even in the U.S. – vodka today outsells all whiskey categories – may not have been large enough to support production here.

Second, to stand out in the international market and especially for U.S.-exports, Canadian distillers probably wanted to focus on what made them different. The CC style of whisky did, as the base whisky part was aged as long as the straight part, contrary to U.S. blended whiskey where unaged neutral spirits typically form the largest part in the blend.

The aging of the neutral element lent an additional note of quality to the Canadian product, or perceived quality. This was probably the key to success for Canadian whisky, taking a leaf from blended Scotch. It is the wood note that may be the “rare old whiskey flavour” mentioned in the ad above.

Finally though, one may reflect whether the old lore about the unique nature of Kentucky bourbon iOS in fact true. When re-tasting Old Forester recently, an old name in Kentucky bourbon, I was reminded how rich and distinctive Kentucky straight whiskey is. I have never had a modern bourbon, even from Indiana let alone another state, that has a similar quality.

Some straight rye, notably from Pennsylvania and Maryland, equalled the best Kentucky whiskey in my view. Perhaps the same applied to bourbon made there as well. The success of A.H. Hirsch bourbon, made in the 1970s at the original, now-defunct Michter’s distillery, seems to bear this out. Old Hickory was another well-reputed Pennsylvania bourbon in the old days.

The extremes of climate in Kentucky at least may explain this result better than any other factor. Having visited the state some 20 times between 2002 and 2012 at different parts of the year, this factor always made an impression. It had to explain a good part of the quality of the Kentucky product. The extreme heat in summer would force the whiskey into the wood, and then back again with the cold, in a way and to a rhythm probably unequalled elsewhere, with consequent effects on the palate.

Water can be imitated, distilling methods too, physical warehouse features, etc. But the climate in Kentucky may well be unique and explain why a bourbon tradition did not arise in New York, say, or Louisiana – or Ontario. Ohio became for a time a great distilling state – for rectified whiskey, not bourbon.

The relatively recent Canadian or Canadian-origin “straight” whiskies such as CC Chairman’s Select 100% rye, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, WhistlePig, Lot 40, while good and distinctive do not really have a richness I associate with Kentucky.

It may be our distillers decided long ago to focus on what they do best and leave the Kentucky product style to its home base. The success of Canadian whisky, always and still a large seller in America, attests to their good judgement.

In terms of the future though, and see these recent figures from the Distilled Spirits Council, Canadian whisky will encounter more competition from bourbon and straight rye. It used to outsell them, but not at present.

As about 70% of Canadian whisky production is shipped to the U.S., this is something to ponder. In 1994 when Lorraine Brown’s book was written that I reviewed yesterday, it was 86%…

The answer is to increase continually the supply of a straight-style product. In the end, the fact that it is not “like” the Kentucky product may be a strong point – the distinctiveness.

Finally, none of the above is meant to suggest we don’t make some superlative blends. We do, of which Wiser’s 15 years old is by far the best, IMO, silky soft and very drinkable neat. But in general, blended just cannot equal straight – simple as that (for us but we suspect many committed whisky fans).

Note re image: the first image above is an ad in Duluth Evening Herald, July 2, 1907, sourced from the digitized newspaper resource of www.fultonhistory.com, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.