Birthday Bourbon

The Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria, B.C. is a western jewel in the crown of the old Canadian Pacific hotels. It was built in the Edwardian era to service the city’s steamship terminal. CP’s website explains compactly its history:

Incorporated in 1881, Canadian Pacific Railway was formed to physically unite Canada and Canadians from coast to coast and the building of the railway is considered to be one of Canada’s greatest feats of engineering.

The CPR played a major role in the promotion of tourism and immigration, as well as Canada’s war efforts and through the years, the railway grew and diversified to include steamships, hotels, airlines, mining, oil and gas exploration, delivery and telecommunications companies.

Today the hotel is part of the Fairmont chain and remains a premium marque in Canadian hotels.

CP had an important shipping arm, whose history you can read here.

It offered a passenger service between Vancouver and Victoria but this stopped during WW II. The business role of the hotel declined in consequence but Victoria steadily increased its tourist trade. The hotel became predominantly a destination for well-off visitors vs. the business and political establishments it had mainly served earlier.

At the same time the hotel continued to serve a business clientele, many now arriving in town by air.

I’ve been to the Empress, once, we flew in from Vancouver (helicopter) and had tea in the afternoon. I was with some British business connections from Leeds. Later, of course, we had a beer at the pioneering brewpub on the outer harbour, Spinnakers.

(I regret to say I found the beer quite iffy. We all preferred the light lager also sold in Ontario now, Kokanee. But this is a long time ago and I’m sure it’s all top notch now given the sophistication of West Coast craft brewing).

Victoria has always had the image of a provincial, rather sleepy place, conservative and a relic of colonial times, a favoured resort of retirees.

This is unfair, today certainly, and probably always was. The climate there is most appealing by Canadian standards, never ferociously hot or cold, breezy. The city has all the services any urbanite expects today. The views and attractions of the harbour and surrounding coastal areas are of definite interest, especially the flora and fauna which have many unique features there.

I’m more familiar with Vancouver across the Georgia Strait but enjoyed the time I spent in Victoria. It’s a great base too to start a tour up Vancouver Island.

Somehow the vast wilderness there seems to impinge on urban life in a way different from, or not as evident, here.

Anyway visitors abound, many from cruise ships on Asia routes or on the scenic trip up the coast to Alaska. Many who stop in Victoria stay at the Fairmount Empress and enjoy its many services. It will all be first-class, the bar no less.

But what was it like in 1950? 1950 you ask? Well yes, that’s my birth year (July 4 to be precise), so let’s take that as an example. What did the bar offer at the hotel then?

Had you asked me before yesterday, I’d have thought, a small spirits section, a few beers, a small but decent wine list, maybe a couple of pages or so in total.

In fact the wine and spirits list runs 15 pages, you can read it here. It is identified in the UBC notation as from 1950 and bears the inscription, Coronet Room. Now, research suggests the Coronet Lounge did not open until 1954, see this 2016 Times Colonist story.

This image of the newly-opened room, certainly handsome, from the Royal B.C. Museum also suggests (see caption) a 1954 opening. It also conveys something of the former use of the space, a reading room. The Coroner Room (or Lounge) was renamed Bengal Lounge during a 1960s renovation. The space has been dark for some years now and other facilities in the hotel supply the want.

Either some type of Coronet bar preceded the 1954 version, or perhaps the menu really is from 1954. Still, I incline that it is from 1950 and as it serves the conceit of this post to think so, let’s proceed on that assumption.

Five years after the war, still isolated and no longer serviced by CP’s shipping line, the hotel contrived to offer an enviable selection of drinks in every category. I’d think perhaps it was emulating, in the old Victoria way, English models like the Savoy. But in any case, from Cocktails to Coca-Cola, it’s all there and then some.

The extracts of the menu in this post give some idea of it. They were sourced from the Chang Collection at the University of British Columbia’s Open Library, see again the link above. The University and benefactors mentioned are to be commended for making such valuable social history available.

Remark on the large number of Canadian rye whiskies available, no less than 30 and it doesn’t even include “bar ryes”.

The beer selection is most impressive, offering an early regional choice rather than two or three domestic beers and a few imports. The beer selection is locavore before the word existed.

Someone at the hotel must have taken an interest in beer as 20 domestic brands alone were offered, most regional B.C. selections.

The imports were classics: Guinness, McEwan’s (two brands), Whitbread, Bass. Nothing German, or Dutch, the war had just ended…

Just to take one B.C. example, Old Dublin Ale, perhaps it was an early “Irish Red” emulation. This ale was brewed by Princeton Brewery in the town of the same name in the extreme southern part of the province. It operated from 1902-1961.

The brewery also made an all-malt beer, Royal Export, also available at the Empress. It was likely a Dortmund-style. The word Royal would have covered any disagreeable lingering Teutonic associations from the recent wars.

For images of Princeton Brewery beer labels and brewery trucks, see here from a website, Hank’s Trucks.

Finally, there was Canadian bourbon. Canada always made a spirit much like bourbon to use as a component in its blends. Some was sold at times unblended, particularly the Pedigree brands of rye and bourbon from Seagram. The bourbon isn’t identified by source but perhaps was Pedigree.

Canadian bourbon was sold during the U.S. Prohibition era, in Canada to appeal to U.S. visitors and of course smuggled into the U.S. one way or another. It was exported after Prohibition to the U.S. as well, and ads can be found for it in national U.S. media c.1936.

Clearly though it was sold in Canada in the early 1950s, many years after Prohibition ended. A hotel of the standing of the Empress could easily have obtained American bourbon, certainly available in quantity again by 1950, but it chose to offer a Canadian version, so the quality must have been pretty good.

With a heavy duty being imposed shortly on American whiskey imports, offering a bourbon-type whisky again will fill a gap. It’s good business anyway to diversify out of the blended category that served Canada well for a long time but whose long-term future in my opinion is questionable.

This is due to the growing “premiumisation” of many standard consumer products from burgers to lager beer.

Seagram already markets in Ontario its new Bourbon Mash product, which isn’t bad but I’m sure Canadian distillers can come up with even better versions of straight corn- or rye-based whisky. Pedigree came in both rye and bourbon versions, incidentally.

Lot 40, in the market some 20 years now, and Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye whisky, both straight rye types, can point the way. Perhaps in time our craft producers will do similar.

Certainly I’ll buy more of these whiskies rather than bourbon and Tennessee whiskey at a 25% mark-up if it comes to that.

The image above of Pedigree Bourbon, sourced from the excellent Dutch Whisky Base website, is accompanied there by a super review of a vintage bottle by “Malt Marvin”, see here. The whisky certainly sounds very interesting! The “menthol” finish is one I recall as well from tastings of vintage U.S. whiskies at bi-annual gatherings in Bardstown, KY.


Note re images: the source of the images above is linked in the text except for the Revelstoke 3X Pale Beer bottle, sourced from this B.C. museum site, and the Princeton Brewery sign, which was found herea website devoted to the history of Princeton, B.C. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



6 thoughts on “Birthday Bourbon”

  1. Cheers, Gary.

    Look forward to further notes on the beer judging.

    I will be drinking Belgian from my ‘cellar’ (under the stairs) for my 53rd- a vintage Cantillon or 3 Fontenein, I think.

    Another great post, btw, I find your drinks history research compelling – Gary’s Rule #1 of Beer = “nothing new under the sun”.

  2. Happy Birthday for tomorrow, Gary.

    Getting on a bit, now, eh? Joking! Eh?

    Any special drinks lined up for the occasion???

    Mine is the 21st of July, you can guess which year (!). Happens to be Belgian Independence Day which surely must be evidence of Divine Providence, seeing how much I adore their (best) beers.

    Great soccer/football win last night for Belgium – I am supporting the Red Devils in lieu of New Zealand.

    All the Best


    • Thanks Ben! I wasn’t angling for a nice note like this (it was a good rhetorical device for the essay, so I used it) but appreciated all the same.

      All the best to you for yours forthcoming. I think these intersections of dates do mean something, I’ve always been especially interested in the U.S., I think, because of mine.

      Canada too of course (I don’t separate them much anyway, it’s one big project when you look at the larger picture, spats like border duties notwithstanding).


    • By the way quick note on that beer judging work. I enjoyed it greatly and found it most useful. When comparing notes with the others after the scores were marked, we usually were in agreement, and where we weren’t, it was a question of taste preferences, so that confirmed the value of it for me and utility of being there. It was very well organized, both the U.K. people that run it and the local people involved. All very worthwhile and sorry I won’t be able to judge in the next legs in the U.K. later this month and next – I was asked but the dates don’t work out.


  3. One reason – maybe the main one – for such a broad regional beer selection is, Victoria is the capital of the province. So, provincial MPs meeting in the bar would want to see their hometown breweries represented. Still, it’s an exhibition of regional pride, a forerunner of what Father’s Office was doing in L.A. from 1985 as I discussed in my post yesterday. Sans the taste notes, sadly.


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