Canadian Whisky’s American Origin – Part II

Following on Part I, I now draw attention to historian Julia Robert’s 1999 doctoral study, at University of Toronto, of early Upper Canadian taverns: Taverns and Tavern-Goers in Upper Canada, 1790s-1850s.

This is an invaluable resource. In the first chapter, she studies the functioning of a tavern in 1802 in York – later Toronto – run by Ely Playter, son of a Loyalist father from New Jersey. York, although I haven’t mentioned it, was also a Loyalist destination in the 1780s-90s.

From pg. 43 she addresses the drinks served which included whiskey, rum, gin, bitters, and various shrubs and sangarees. Cider too. She states that rum was “dominant” in the 1790s – so whiskey was still available, while by the 1830s, the distribution among whiskey, rum, and brandy is more equal.

She also gives prices at certain periods, e.g., in the 1830s a glass of rum at retail was more expensive than whiskey but not by that much. This suggests to me that changing tastes, not just price sensitivity, played a role in the switch to whisky as the main hard spirit in Ontario.*

The taste in Toronto, vs. other parts of a largely rural colony, may have inclined more to brandy and rum given the presumed greater prosperity here. Even without that assumption, whiskey by the 1830s was clearly an important part of the spirits offerings. That is when Messrs. Gooderham & Worts came here from England to set up milling and later distilling.

In other words, whiskey had been consumed for over a generation in York and had risen, by her account again, at least to a parity with other hard drinks.

Roberts states that most tavern owners in early Upper Canada were of Yankee origin and that the functioning of the taverns often followed American lines. This included some aspects of tavern design and the way food and accommodation were combined in pricing, the “American plan” vs. “English plan”.

Another index of the American complexion of our early taverns is the free mixing of social classes, something British visitors often disapproved of. Nonetheless some features of the taverns followed English practice and she makes certain analogies to period taverns discussed in Peter Clark’s well-known history of the English ale-house.

Playter himself was an interesting figure at 26, well-educated and keeping company with York notables. His tavern clearly was no low-down resort and Roberts makes interesting comparisons to ruder rural taverns, some through Playter’s own eyes.

This more extended study of subject matter her later book in part addressed, amply supports IMO her thesis, which is that the tavern despite some abuses functioned as a sane and well-regulated part of pioneer society.

Some drunkenness and disorder existed but at the same time, the tavern operated to satisfy many normal needs of the community, indeed as it does today.

Her balancing treatment is salutary and reflects probably a corrective to the earlier treatments, the 1931 article by Garland and Talman is an example, which viewed the alcohol culture in a more moralistic way.

Roberts’ analysis of the daily average of spirits consumed by a tavern-goer in the 1830s shows a not unreasonable amount, something approaching 5 oz per person. By this, I don’t mean to suggest it is a proper amount from a health standpoint, but simply that from a public safety standpoint, the colony was not going to collapse from such indulgence (and evidently did not, as I see from gazing at the vibrant expanse around me as I write).

Even without knowing the ethanol content of such measures, this is a reasonable conclusion IMO.

The primary sources she cites, or others yet unplumbed, may provide the kind of smoking gun I mentioned in my previous post, a la “father ensured the trusty copper still bought by his father in Boston 60 years ago came with the family to our new home in York/Kingston/Belleville/Port Hope/Paris/ along with gran-dad’s treasured rye whiskey receipt”.

Failing finding the gat, I am satisfied that the work of our historians to date provides ample evidence from which to infer reasonably that whisky came to Canada from the United States via the earliest American incomers.

Below is an image of a local landmark, the Horseshoe Tavern (courtesy its website). Not as old as a number of surviving Ontario taverns, it still conveys a venerable atmosphere. For many years it has been a country, folk and pop music shrine. I had a pint of Molson Stock Ale there last night, in fact. It’s not inapt to add, John Molson was brewing in Lower Canada when Playter was running his business in York-town…



*This is at retail again in a licensed establishment in Toronto. Compare a grocer’s price for whiskey and rum in 1828-1829 in another part of Upper Canada as illustrated by historian Douglas McCalla, discussed in my previous post. The latter figures show a decided price advantage for whiskey as well as a (presumably correlative) high market share. The narrower price differential in Toronto taverns can be explained perhaps by the urban environment, in a different part of Ontario, and the different levels of trade.

1 thought on “Canadian Whisky’s American Origin – Part II”

  1. This link, a compact article by Bruce Ricketts, gives some good background on the Loyalists. The German number seems high to me, although still well-outnumbered by the Scots, English, Scots-Irish and Irish numbers together (almost all Protestants of Anglo-Saxon blood).

    However, part of it may be definitional as some people don’t count German and Swiss mercenaries who fought with the Crown alongside its regular army and when demobbed chose to stay in North America. The same would apply to those demobbed soldiers of British background too.

    The U.E.L. came, too, mainly from New York, New Jersey, and a couple of southern states, the original UEL group that is (not necessarily Americans who followed).

    But all this as it may, the incoming Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish and yes those Germans probably had a cereals-based distilling tradition, at least more than the English component did unless it had adopted distilling during the Colonial era. In this sense, those ethnic groups did contribute to Canadian distilling but via being American (or demobbed mercenary again) first.


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