A Meeting of Whiskey Titans

Before the first war, there was a minor genre in American, and surely Canadian, journalism: a wending description of a junket. I’ve mentioned a few of them in these pages. One was a banker’s outing in the midwest to sample the real burgoo. A couple were tours of breweries and distilleries. The best of them have an understated humour, something not hard to achieve in the day before the sound-bite, relentless jargon, and “personalities” shouting over their guests came to define the media.

This was a time when leisure was appreciated for what it was, people “set” awhile, had harmless fun, and beverage alcohol usually was part of it but not the greatest part. At most it facilitated literary flights by men who manage peoples’ money, or an impromptu running race or fishing outing (no fish was ever caught, one editor ruminated), or just chanting a few hearty songs.

This July, 1898 story fits the bill mentioned, but has deeper interest for those who plumb the history of spirits. A group of newspaper editors from Maysville, KY went on a trip up north to visit Hiram Walker Distillery in Walkerville, Ontario.

That’s a group of Kentuckians making homage to a Canadian whisky shrine, and not just that, but Kentucky boys from Maysville. Maysville, at the north end of the state on the Ohio River, is not just any town in the land of colonels, green hollows, and red-eye gravy. No sir, that’s where bourbon may well have been invented! You can look it up. I’ve been to Maysville, formerly called Limestone and a point from which corn whiskey was shipped on flatboats down the Ohio to French New Orleans and other markets which helped define the whiskey-type (the long trip in wood and motion of the boats helped create the character). While Maysville was only in Bourbon County, KY for three years – the county lines kept changing – it is very likely the burg had a lot to do with making bourbon a chieftan of the whiskey-race.

So why would Maysville grandees sally forth to another whisky locality? Coals to Newcastle? Well first, Canadian Club had achieved great success in the United States in the 1880s and 90s. It sold for the same price as good straight whiskey and while not a straight whiskey, people obviously liked it. Perhaps the fact that it was 100% aged, versus the American blends which used unaged neutral spirits to supplement the straight element, was part of it. Or the fact it was imported. Or both. Word about CC obviously had gotten down to those green hollers down there in the cream of the whiskey belt (ahem).

And perhaps Hiram Walker & Sons invited and hosted them, to make friends and glean some good press even in the heartland of American whiskey renown.

The trip is described in a somewhat more decorous tone than some of the others I mentioned. This was probably due to the fact that the Kentucky editors didn’t want to offend the native industry too much. Also, Prohibition was just 20 years away and its chilling effect was already making itself known across the country, what the bourbon historian Henry Crowgey called “a wave of Victorian rectitude”. It was the summer and there was room in the papers for a story of mild levity and potential excess, but things had to be kept in bounds.

Still, the party clearly had a good time and the Hiram Walker people entertained them royally. There are no taste notes on Canadian Club, no pointillist comparisons with the nectar of sour mash. That would have been potentially embarrassing either to Kentucky or Ontario. It was a matter best left for private counsels on the steamer wending toward home. That is, we don’t know if the scribblers thought CC was better than the finest home product, worse, or on par. They hardly mention drinking alcohol, except obliquely when “punch”, and “Champaign”, are mentioned.

I’d have to assume a skosh of CC went into each bowl despite the reputation Walkerville had at the time as a temperance town, odd as it may sound. And Hiram Walker’s men surely slipped a few flasks to the visitors before they ascended the gangplank to leave Walkerville.

The trip was made by rail, boat, and carriage and one of the best parts is the delight the Kentucky people took on encountering the bracing cool winds of the Great Lakes in July. (Have you ever been to Kentucky in July…?).

At day’s end, it was two great whisky traditions having a parlay, and like all parlays between Americans and Canucks since the 1812 War ended at any rate, it ends in good humour and handclasps. The Americans are the best friends we ever had, and vice versa. Even something as important as national traditions in whiskey can’t get in the way.

The newsmen didn’t hold back though in one respect: the layout and construction of the Walkerville plant obviously impressed them. As they put it:

The steamer landed the crowd on a pretty lawn in front of a large three story brown stone building. The building and its surroundings, clean gravel and stone walks, the pretty lawn with patches of lovely flowers, with a crowd of sturdy Canadians, in white flannel suits, off at one side engaged in a ball game,(bowling on the green), and an orchestra discoursing sweet music at the opposite end of the lawn, suggested a summer resort, but such was not the case. The
building contains the general offices of Hiram Walker & Sons, proprietors of the famous “Canadian Club” distillery. The establishment is an immense one that puts to shame our Kentucky distillers. They can get a good many points from Walker & Sons. The various buildings of the plant are brick surrounded with drives and walks, while within all is scrupulously neat and clean.

See, in Canada we don’t do low flagstone still houses stained with creepers and moss, good as the small tub whiskey was from those Kentucky grottoes. No, we make a beverage alcohol plant look like a Brahmin playing ground or a modern university campus. That’s Canadian savvy too you know.

Note re images: the first image above, of Maysville, KY, was sourced from this municipal website. The second, the Canadian Club Brand Centre, was sourced from this Windsor-Essex tourism site. Intellectual property in both belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user. Use believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.