Revisiting “The Story of Canadian Whisky” by Lorraine Brown

Many years after first reading it, I’m re-reading the late Lorraine Brown’s 200 Years of Tradition: The Story of Canadian Whisky, published in 1994It’s good to read it now, since I know much more than when I first encountered it.

A company of which she was a principal had designed a special exhibit for the former Seagram Museum in Waterloo, ON, and the book grew out of that. That was a superb museum, housed in an ex-stone barrelhouse. I visited there numerous times and it was inexplicable to close it. It should be set up again, bigger and better.

Lorraine Brown was also an experienced journalist who focused on science and environmental topics. Together with her research work for the exhibition, this meant she was the right person for the job.

The book is well-designed and attractively illustrated with many period photos, drawings, and diagrams. The technics of distillation and other steps in whiskey-making are well-explained. There are a few nuggets, as when she explains that 85% of Canadian whisky on average is base whisky – this means flavouring whisky content would average 15%.

Another nugget is her speculation that in the 1860s Gooderham & Worts made neutral spirit for whisky – she may be right about that based on my own research. See the engineering publication discussed in this post.

The book is Seagram-focused, which is understandable given its genesis and that Seagram sponsored publication. (There is an excellent short introduction by Charles Bronfman).

But it reviews the background to the other major distilleries as well, especially Molson, Gooderham & Worts, and Hiram Walker. Wiser gets good coverage, Corby’s past is outlined too. There is a briefer discussion of other distilleries in Canada at the time including some out west.

A long chapter deals well with temperance and prohibition in Canada. Of course, the onset of the Bronfmans post-Seagram family is well-handled. Their particular genius for making Seagram a global force in distilling is expertly explained.

The historical introduction is somewhat cursory and a number of things are said I don’t agree with, for example that corn was first grown in Canada in 1840. I’ve discussed here ads in Ontario newspapers by distillers requesting supply of corn years before 1840. There is also other evidence corn was grown here and used by some early distilleries.

See, for example, the 1898 Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement by E.A. Owens, I discussed it here a few weeks ago.

It is certainly true that most corn as the century wore on was imported from the U.S., but local corn was used in distilling in the early 1800s according to sources I’ve discussed here earlier.

She recognizes albeit in a general way the “Yankee” (Loyalist and other American) role in the creation of a whisky tradition in Ontario, but also asserts an influence by “Scottish and Irish settlers”.

She suggests our whisky style is a blending of these influences. I don’t agree with that, except perhaps in the sense that malt whisky was a small item of sale for many distilleries here in the 1800s. In my view, our whisky heritage is in a direct line from what was started in the U.S. in the last quarter of the 1700s.

Scotch-style malt whisky – it was sort of Scotch-style – was made in Perth, ON but this died out with WW I.

Canadian distillers blend in a way similar perhaps to the Scots, using aged base and heavy (or straight) distillates, but that doesn’t really reflect influence of Scots immigrants to Canada.

Also, she seems to consider whisky purely “Gaelic” in origin whereas it is clear grain distillate has been made for centuries in a northern belt across Europe. Perhaps it’s a question of how you define whisky, but the blurring is important in regard to potential German influence on American and Canadian distilling practices.

The possibility of German contribution is not addressed from what I could see.

There was of course Scots-Irish influence on whiskey’s rise in the U.S., especially Pennsylvania, and therefore indirectly here. Perhaps she meant Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots) when speaking of Ireland and Scotland although she mentions the latter in connection with Ontario as I read her.

The book does of course reflect its time. At least twice she refers to a “decline” in the distilling industry in Canada, which has now been reversed I believe. And of course there was no craft distilling movement to consider, or U.S. bourbon or Scottish malt renaissance. It was all just beginning.

In some respects her topical commentary is still relevant, as when she explains the heavy toll government taxation takes on the industry and indirectly consumers, or the importance of exportations of Canadian whisky to the U.S.

My main cavil is that the book did not examine distilling in Ontario more closely before the Big 5 gained traction from the 1850s. In my view, those early years established the taste for Canadian whisky, and its palate. This was an increasingly rectified and aged cereal distillate in which corn and rye figured largely as time went on.

She does state that 200 distilleries were licensed in the United Province of Canada by the 1840s but appears to consider that most did not make a mark on our whisky culture as compared to the Big 5 again.

To my mind this does not take enough account of the reputation, say, the Morton distillery in Kingston had, or the highly regarded distilleries in Port Credit. Distilleries such as those helped establish the palate of Canadian whisky.

She speculates which of the Big 5 started the keynote practice to blend base and flavouring whiskies, but that technique was well-known in the U.S. at the times in question (and Scotland).

Also, blending was not something only a large distillery could do although the large plants perhaps achieved a greater consistency than smaller shops.

Net-net, the book was an excellent effort and enjoyable to revisit. It got much right and covered a lot of ground.

The book was particularly impressive from someone who must have known little about the subject before starting her work for the Seagram Museum.

Ms. Brown, who died a few years ago, made an important contribution to understanding the long and fascinating history of Canadian whisky.








Royal Distillery’s Heyday and Whiskies

Some details follow on the Royal Distillery in Hamilton, ON. It appears the distillery closed some time after WW I started. It was in business about 25 years.

I don’t know the causes of expiry and as I stated earlier, relatively little has been written on the distillery. Corby today markets a Royal Reserve made at Hiram Walker in Windsor, so perhaps the Royal Distillery or its brands were bought by Corby before WW I, or by another predecessor of Corby or Hiram Walker.

The images below are from Hamilton, Canada: Its History, Commerce, Industries, ResourcesIt was published in 1913 by the City of Hamilton.

Two whiskies are shown, one is eight years old, and the other five. Royal Reserve, as the name suggests, was the marquee brand. Both would have been rye whisky. This was the staple by then of Ontario distilling with some exceptions. For example, in Perth in eastern Ontario there was a history of distilling Scots-style malt (to which we shall return).

The distillery buildings are almost totally gone, however, a small brick block, described in city records as the distillery office, still stands at 16 Jarvis Street. You can view it here.

I am not sure where that building was located on the original site. It looks different from the three-story structure shown in the foreground. Perhaps it was nearer the water toward the rear.

You can see in the Google view where Royal’s aging warehouses once stood, the sites are now apartment buildings.

You can see too in the Google view that the 16 Jarvis Street building is of late-1800s vintage but built on an older stone foundation.

Tanya Lynn MacKinnon, in her study in 2000 of the historical geography of Ontario distilling from 1850-1900, speculates that the distillery was built on the site of a former brewery or distillery. See in particular the discussion from pg. 175.

Her reasoning is that the distillery was apparently built and equipped in 1888 and had fully aged whisky to sell after 1890. She considers that to start operations on the scale needed so quickly, the site probably was adapted from an earlier use.

The stone foundation at 16 Jarvis Street suggests indeed there was something there before.

She explains too how the venture for Royal Distillery ran counter to a then seemingly fixed five-member industry oligopoly. Royal was prepared to and did stand up to the established names. In fact, it quickly passed the two smallest members in sales, see again her discussion.


The letter below, sourced from Ebay here, shows that the main brands were the five- and a seven-year-old whisky. Probably, the seven-year-old one, like the eight-year-old one shown above, was marketed under the Royal Reserve name; a difference of one year would depend more on current inventory than anything else.

The distillery’s manager, William Marshall, wrote the letter. His discussion on proof shows that the whisky was typically sold at (rounding) 43% abv, not too dissimilar to today’s 40% abv norm in Canada. One or two Canadian whiskies are sold at 43% abv, as well.

Note re images: the images shown are sourced from the books or other publications linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



1902 Canadian Whisky Snapshot With a “Royal” Note


The above is from the 1902 Montreal Liquor Industry Gazette. It’s an interesting document, mostly in French, which combines trade ads with articles of interest to the wine, spirits, and tobacco trade especially on taxation and regulatory matters.

The full source document can be viewed here. The distillers represented were by 1900 the main distillers in the country.

Hudon Hébert were surely a broker or wholesaler, representing Corby distillery of Belleville, ON.

L.A. Wilson was Lawrence Wilson, a driving force behind the Montreal Victuallers Association which published the Gazette mentioned. I would guess Empire Rye was sourced by him from one of the extant distillers in Canada, although perhaps he had a small distillery.

A William Wilson distilled earlier in the century in Montreal, perhaps Lawrence was a descendant. In one of Jack Sullivan’s articles in his historical whiskey blog he shows a blurry image of a bottle of Empire Rye carried by a New York dealer around the same time, M. Salzman & Co.

I’d think that was Lawrence Wilson’s rye, or his sourced rye, finding a market outside Canada. An additional reason is one of the advertising pieces for Morris Salzman reproduced in the article shows him as an importer of liquors.

But what was Hamilton Distillery? Extrapolating from the ad, it sold Canadian whisky aged from 2-7 years. Two years was the minimum aging requirement enacted in 1890. The pricing seems to follow the progression of maturity, but proof differences may be a factor also, e.g. the 25 vs. 40 UP.

Hamilton Distillery was more typically called Royal Distillery. It is an outlier in Canadian whisky history as relatively little exists (that I could find) on it. It was a sizeable operation, of which a small portion, a low-rise brick building, still stands at 16 Jarvis Street in Hamilton.

Royal Distillery was founded by a teacher, industrialist, and sometime mayor of Hamilton, Benjamin Ernest Charlton, in 1888. From a standing start it grew to rival the Big 5 distillers in Ontario, all of whom are represented above except Wiser, unless Wiser was supplying Wilson or Chaput.

1888 was late to start a distillery in Canada especially of the scale of Royal Distillery. I’ll have more to say soon on this little-known aspect of our whisky heritage.

Looking at Seagram quickly, three types are represented, a malt, a rye, and a white wheat whiskey, the latter probably was near to modern vodka.

The rye was represented in different ages based on the prices shown, and perhaps different blending formulations. Its heritage is extremely interesting as one of the owners before Joseph Seagram, long-lived, multi-talented William Hespeler, had a German background. See this illuminating Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on him.

The Canadian Encyclopedia profile on Seagram states Seagram rye was originally called Alte Kornschnapps. That term might have been simply a translation of old rye for the local market in Waterloo, ON and environs, an area dominated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, who arrived after the American Revolution, and other German-speakers, who arrived in their wake from Europe.

Or, perhaps Hespeler’s korn originated, as Pennsylvania rye whiskey may have, strictly with a German Rhineland and Palatinate distilling tradition brought to America.

I discussed in a recent post that rye whiskey in early Pennsylvania settlements was sometimes called schnapps…

Corby’s top of the line was I.X.L – I excel – probably aged circa 7 years. Hiram Walker’s famed Canadian Club was 5 years old in this period. The age moved around somewhat, between 5 and 7 from my reading. To this day I prefer that particular brand at the top end of its range, 6 years old is ideal and the current bottlings seem somewhat younger.

I should try it again. Batches vary, bottlings vary – indeed of all whiskeys and in brewing too – it makes learning about it all the more interesting. When you get a particularly good one, you know.

That happened recently with a bottle of Woodford Reserve straight bourbon. It was richer and much less congeneric than in the years after first release.

I recently bought a Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye that is particularly rich and brandy-like.



A Solace From Albion to the Deep South of America

We need our medicine… (Comment of Keith Moon to Ringo Starr in the 1978 biographical film of The Who, “The Kids Are Alright”)

It is impossible to understand the extensive use of beverage alcohol of all types in early North American society without appreciating the rudimentary state of medicine and pharmacy then.

Sickness was a constant threat, often termed “ague” or “fever”, in the south this was often simply malaria. This problem lasted long in America, as even in 1948 an aged H.L. Mencken could recall the frequency of malaria and other epidemic in the Baltimore of his youth. Listen to his recorded reminiscences here (from 5:15, for two minutes). He explains conditions c. 1885 which seem unimaginable today, and this is 250 years after Virginia was permanently settled…

Mencken speaks too, I should interpose, of his famous penchant for alcohol, but oddly deprecates his undeniable reputation as a beerman. This excerpt from the interview contains his comments on alcohol. The interviewer referred to specific works from the 1920s in which Mencken praised the beer styles of old Europe, but Mencken said this was “exaggerated”.

On the other hand, he speaks with great fondness for the best whiskey juleps made in pre-Prohibition New York, which is rather more pertinent to our present subject matter.

And so back to old Virginia: There were no sulpha drugs to treat infection, no medical anaesthetic of any kind, no operating theatre, no emergency department. There were doctors, sometimes, and their services were extensively used, but their arsenal was limited and often counter-productive.

In this atmosphere, alcohol was viewed as a panacea, a welcome counter to the slings and arrows (often quite literal) of a frequently hostile and forbidding new world. From 1650-1850, this was the general picture both in the U.S. and Canada where the primeval forest was still being conquered and new settlements established.

In 1898, Economic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century was published by the historian Philip Alexander Bruce. He gives full recognition to a quasi-medical role for alcohol in early society, as follows. (The term spirits as used here encompasses all alcoholic drinks. Footnotes are omitted but you find them in the link mentioned below).

The liberal use which was made of spirits by all classes was not simply due to the indulgence of an appetite for liquor inherited with that English blood which has always gratified itself so freely in this respect under English skies. It was supposed to have a favorable influence upon the body from a medical point of view. The “morning draught” was a popular expression in the Colony long before the close of the seventeenth century. This was the draught with which the day was begun, and it was the popular belief, a belief doubtless formed with the most delightful facility, that such a draught was the surest means of obtaining protection against the miasmatic exhalations of the marshes. The taint of sickness in summer lingered about the oldest settlements, and at all seasons followed in the track of settlers on the frontier engaged in cutting down the forest, who thus set free the germs that invariably lurk in a mould created by rotting leaves and decaying wood. This assured a large practice to all who made any pretensions to the art of the physician.

While this context for early drinking is undeniable, at the same time, Bruce’s Victorian rectitude disguises that liquor was also resorted to, as it always has been, for pleasure. This is shown by the great variety of drinks available to early planters and indentured labour. Slaves were permitted use of alcohol as well on some occasions, as Bruce details.

So many wines and spirits were imported that it is impossible alcohol was simply viewed as a medical therapy: the lush cellars of the gentry were a testament to connoisseurship in drink, plain and simple.

In fact, I believe Bruce was something of a connoisseur himself, as he devotes over 20 pages to detailing the alcoholic culture of early Virginians. You can read it all here, from pp 211-234.

For the drinks used in general, he had this to say:

In addition to beer and ale, the liquors most generally used by the wealthier planters in the early history of the Colony were sack and aquavitæ. With the passage of time, madeira became the most popular form of spirits with the members of this class in use at meals, and punch, manufactured either from West Indian rum or apple or peach brandy, at other times. The people at large drank rum or brandy if a strong drink was desired. Mathegelin, a mixture of honey and water, was also consumed. Among the lighter wines in use were claret, fayal, and Rhenish. It is a fact of curious interest, from our present point of view, that the rarest French, Portuguese, and Spanish wines and brandies were found in the ordinaries of Virginia in the seventeenth century, and the rates at which they were disposed of were carefully fixed by law. Where now only the meanest brands of whiskey can be bought, madeira, sherry, canary, malaga, muscadine, fayal, and other foreign wines were offered for sale. Had there been no popular demand for them, they would not have been imported.

The term acquavitae here IMO meant spirits distilled from wine, i.e., brandy, or from sugar, that is rum, or from non-grape fruits, such as applejack or pear brandy. As some beer was made from malt, or imported, we can’t dismiss that some alcohol was distilled from it. However, another historian of the period has dismissed out of hand the possibility that whiskey of any kind or origin was consumed in the Old Dominion as discussed in my previous post.

Indeed it seems Bruce agreed judging by the way he refers to whisky in his last lines above.

Having earlier reviewed the role of whisky and some other drinks in early Ontario society, the picture is virtually the same: alcohol used as a therapeutic but also often for social diversion, and permeating all levels of society, even the church.

The lower strata had beer, or beer substitutes, and more often cider or other fruit wines. The gentry and prosperous middle classes had a wide range of French and Iberian wines and spirits available to them, similar to what was sent to the Tidewater in the preceding 200 years. Increasingly after the Yankees came to Ontario, whisky’s footprint widened steadily.

North American colonial societies were largely consistent in their early bibulous habits. Correlatively, they reacted similarly, that is mostly with enthusiasm, to the temperance and abstinence waves when they came.

This was true from well south of the Mason-Dixon to its border region and on to Pennsylvania, New York and Upper Canada.

So the pattern ran, from Albion down to planter country, and indeed beyond to the Caribbean, with the exception that the temperance fighters never conquered the mother country. That was a schism that developed with time in Anglo-Saxon culture, although the roots of temperance can be found in Britain, too.