High Wines and High Society (Part I)

Of Patricians and Polloi Too

In this October, 1845 ad in the Canadian newspaper British Whig distiller James Morton of Kingston appealed for grain. Kingston was then in the United Province of Canada, now Ontario.

Morton asked for rye, barley, buckwheat, and oats. He also accepted Indian corn, but only starting from January following. There was surely a reason for this scheduling but at this juncture it is difficult to discern.

He addresses price, but for rye only. He explains he has “redeemed” an earlier promise to buy it at a named cost for 1844’s crop. He renews the promise for 1845 and 1846.

It is evident rye was vital in his distillery, as why mention its price and no other? It was, as discussed in my last post, used by him (the inferred distiller) in a mashbill of blended grains in 1851. The 1851 mashbill was rye, corn, and sometimes peas – and surely some malt for saccharification. Canadian distillers today usually mash from a single grain to make different distillates that are blended after or before aging. For much of the 1800s, the industry operated in a different fashion. It was similar to contemporary still house practice in Kentucky and Pennsylvania – and Scotland and Ireland too for the part of their production called malt whisky (see below).

There are many ads in Ontario newspapers from the 1820s on (at least) calling for rye and corn by distillers. This is not just in Kingston, but in southwest Ontario too as you see in this 1842 ad in the Western Herald by distiller George Elliott in Windsor. Sometimes other grains were added, wheat or oats usually.

Barley was used to make a Canadian version of malt whisky. Into the early 1920s one sees ads for such whisky next to those for Canadian, or rye, whisky. I discussed earlier that the McDougall Distillery in Halifax made both types but many Canadian distillers did.

Before the 1860s when Gooderham’s in Toronto and Walker in Windsor adopted the column still which permitted rectification of pure alcohol, these Ontario distillers were producing essentially a white dog spirit, something quite similar to what Kentucky and Scots distilleries made.

Often, they rectified it by using charcoal vat filtration, a version of what Jack Daniel still uses today. The product might then receive some aging, or often none. Two years was considered very old. In fact, ponder this ad from 1872 in Newmarket, ON. The merchant Henderson advertised the splendidly-named Gum Swamp Whisky at two years old but cautioned to order soon before the whisky “loses its flavour”.

Loses its flavour? Today we start at two years for almost any kind of whisky. This showed that many people still expected the traditional or “common” whisky taste, full of zest and oily grain notes. If you aged it too long, the wood taste and oxidation would rub out the taste. Today, it’s the opposite effect we want.

Nor can we think the 1872 ad was talking of neutral spirits becoming too woody and brown. Gum Swamp Whisky evidently was a local, down-home product, not the result of those newfangled stills in Windsor and the Big Smoke Toronto.

A modern craft distiller couldn’t come up with a more folksy, “country” name if he tried. You can’t beat the old days at being … the old days. Later, probably the inevitable gentility of better living resulted in Gum Swamp, an area near Barrie, ON, being renamed. The new name: Elmgrove. Somehow Elmgrove Whisky doesn’t have the same oomph.

Such spirit when new had the chemical-like notes, of pine, oils, flowers, characteristic of what was called high wines or highwines, a term still used in Canadian distilleries.

Indeed up to the 1940s some ads listed such highwines next to the usual lines of branded Canadian whisky. What was the highwines? This sumptuous 1917 ad from the Montreal dealer Moquin states clearly what it was, 50 OP spirits which is 85.6% abv. This is not significantly higher than the maximum distilling-out strength to call spirit when aged bourbon under U.S. law. 85% is 170 U.S. proof, 20 points under the maximum proof allowable to call the aged spirit whisky.

The difference between 85% abv and 94% is quite significant in terms of relative congeneric character. It may not sound like a lot, but it is. Also, the 50 OP level was probably lower 50-60 years earlier, more in the typical range for bourbon and straight rye.

By 1917, Canadian whisky had to be aged at least two years. The highwines mentioned, which are not termed whisky in the ad, were essentially unaged white dog. I don’t think this white whisky was meant to be drunk new, at least in Ontario, but rather aged by the buyer.

Some gentry bought highwines for this purpose following a practice of the lairds in Scotland whence many of them came. In a folksy 1958 reminiscence published in the Canadian Statesman, Melville Rae recalled all too briefly the hotel and tavern life of his grandfather’s era. This must have been in the latter half of the 1800s. Among the liquors sent out by “rig” to local aristocracy, “highwines” was included. Rae charmingly opined that this meant champagne but that is not so. They were buying kegged white dog to lay down in their cellars.

Ads for such highwines appear in the Ontario and Quebec press from the later 1800s until around WW I. See e.g., this 1866 ad in the British Whig.

Rae’s article originated in a Port Hope, ON newspaper, the Evening Guide (it still exists today via a couple of amalgamations under another name). In another article, Rae, something of a local historian and humorist, discussed the many Scottish families in the area. Port Hope was settled by United Empire Loyalists but acquired a British admixture after 1812. It reinforced and refreshed the Anglo-Saxon character, no doubt a Crown strategy to ensure Canada did not go the way Americans did, 1776 and all that.

As a further index of this self-aging practice, I recall reading another account some years ago where a Canadian squire kept his spirits in wood in the cellar for decades until they turned black.  I cannot find it again quickly but it will pop up sooner or later and I’ll cite it here.

In the 1917 Moquin ad, the many branded whiskies of G&H, Corby, Seagram, and Wiser are sometimes described as so much “UP”, say 25 which allowing for tolerance is 43% abv. This now disused standard was based on 100 proof being 57 % abv, not 50% as in the more logical American system.

The UP numbers are simply the bottling or kegging proof of whisky which, as I’ve discussed many times, was blended from a base of aged high-proof spirits and perhaps a little whisky of the older, straight type. The underproof number is not the distilling-out number, that is. But in the case of the highwines I believe it was, as the term is commonly understood to mean spirits meant to be aged for bourbon, straight rye, single malt, and Canadian flavouring whisky. It was not, I think, despite the word pure, neutral spirits let down to 85% abv. (Even if it was though, highwines 50 years earlier had to be what it generally means in distilling: the secondary distillation of a whiskey mash ready for aging).*

In 1917 and for some considerable time before, this vestigial, apprehended highwines tradition represented the tail end of the earlier, straight whisky tradition based as it was on low-proof distillation, crude rectification, and a little aging. All countries making whisky evolved and commercialized – Scotland big time – a more refined, blended whisky. But from the latter quarter of the 1800s, Canada finally sold just the blended type which became its national style for 100 years. However, in the last 20 years or so a few products, Lot 40 from Corby and Canadian Club single rye grain, say, have been released. These are a long-aged highwines, or at least have a significant component of that in the blend, and hearken back to the older tradition.

The only other inference from selling high wines – unaged spirit – is that it was meant for a downscale market. See for example its price in the Moquin ad, generally below that of the kegged and bottled whiskies. But Rae’s story belies the downmarket image as he was talking of highwines shipped to the carriage trade. No stinting needed there of course.

Still, some highwines may have been used by a mass market. Quebec has a tradition of drinking spiced and sweetened red wine with white alcohol added for winter celebrations, for example. A commercial brand well-liked is Caribou, pictured. Alcool is still sold today for this purpose which to my taste is an unrefined vodka, but the 1917 highwines would have had a more pungent taste yet, not to mention the 1860s’, probably.

An alcool I reviewed a few months ago, Global Alcool, appears to be prepared from 94% abv spirits but probably receives no treatment to make “vodka”. Hence the slightly “gamey” taste, a bit like overproof white rum perhaps. 85% abv spirits would have far more taste impact on the palate.

So with highwines I conclude there was an upstairs-downstairs effect. As far as I know, after the 1940s highwines was not commercially sold. Up to then, the “governors” of our town and country –  colloquial and apposite British connotation intended – made their own bourbon, straight rye, and malt whisky. What did it taste like after seven years or so? Like a lot of what you can buy by that description off the retail shelf today.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the 1917 article linked in the text. The second, from the April 16, 1859 issue of the Atlas in Port Hope, ON as found here, the website of www.PortHopeHistory.com, a site devoted to history of the Port Hope area. The third image is from the website of the Société des Alcools du Quebec, www.saq.com.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*[See Part II of this article, here, in which, among additional points, I modify my conclusions in regard to the distilling-out proof of the highwines. In fact I believe that proof was 94.1% abv and the spirit was diluted to 85.6% abv for sale].