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.




4 thoughts on “A Luxury Liquor Store in 1845 Ontario”

  1. I am trying to acquire a bottle of De Kuyper Genever and was hoping you might be able to aid in some way?

    • Well, not sure where you are based. In the United States, some, probably larger, liquor stores surely carry it, particularly I’d think in NYC, and perhaps can ship.

      It’s a question of searching online and by area.

      In Quebec province, it is sold currently by the provincial liquor commission, called Societe des Alcools. The “SAQ”as it’s known has a website that is easy to search. This particular version is, I understand, distilled in Quebec under a license arrangement with the Dutch brand owner.

      The version sold in the U.S. is almost certainly the Dutch import. Hope this helps.

  2. Great post, Gary.
    Kingston is my hometown, so both your piece and the link to the city’s history were of real interest.
    Thank you!

    • Thanks Sean, I did not know you were from there originally.

      I did mend the typos and formatting by the way.


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