Craig Heron’s “Booze: A Distilled History”

In 2003, the York University (now Emeritus) Professor of History, Craig Heron, wrote the superb Booze: A Distilled History.

Heron is profiled well on the website of York University, and supremely qualified he is: not only does he have the usual hat trick of university degrees (B.A, M.A., Ph.D) he’s got two Masters of Arts – now that’s a haul.

I read the book many years ago. At the time, I was more interested in his beer and brewing researches and the related commentary than on whisky. I revisited parts of the book today after completing my summer-long look at the early years of whisky in Ontario.

I was very pleased to note that this academic, on page 20, writes baldly that by dint of using rye and corn the backwoods stills in Upper Canada made “American whiskey”.

That was exactly my conclusion and while I haven’t had the chance to check his references, his statement is amply supported both by what I found and the logical conclusions to be drawn from it.

Heron is a distinguished labour historian. I recall that a theme in the book was how various issues pertaining to liquor, including finally the temperance cause, were affected by social class. Heron as I recall believed that temperance was promoted with zeal by the boss class to buttress its own interests, not simply as a moral crusade to protect the health of workers.

This is the advantage of academic studies, they argue a point of view, which not all may agree with of course, but they take a reasoned approach to confer on historical data a specific meaning, an arc.

Indeed I’d guess I’m rather opposite to Heron in politics, yet I remember liking the book for its well-argued positions. Maybe that’s my lawyer side, I like when people argue something well even if at day’s end I don’t agree with them.

My own view on temperance is more that it was a key issue by which to seize the social and political agenda, business efficiency was a factor but relatively minor. People promote agendas to control the discourse, which in turn promotes their influence. Certain churches of the day probably had that goal.

And controlling the conversation, to use our idiom today, for anything of import leads inevitably to the ballot box and halls of legislature.

Alcohol control was the zeitgeist from 1850-1920, just as social Darwinism (another failed ideology) was. They captured the public imagination as did to a greater or lesser degree eugenics, Freudianism, abstract expressionism, free verse, jazz, communism, etc.

Some were benign, some huge errors of judgment and lapses in ethics, some a mix of positive and negative.

We have our own orthodoxies today of course, only they are different. One is the drive to legalize marijuana, another is climate control, another the infatuation with exercise, or “clean” or “local” food, or anti-Americanism, and on it goes.

I’m not saying I don’t support some of these, or in part, but they can take on elements of a faith finally, just as t-totalism did in the 1800s. And faith and reason were ne’er a twain…

Oh: one thing I’m clearly not is anti-American, in any way, shape or form.

Anyway, as I’ve been mentioning lately some of the older references on Canadian booze history and the licensed trades, I mention Heron’s book too to anyone interested in the subject.