Hiram Walker Glitters at the Bar

In 1908-1909, Hiram Walker was involved in a contest with American food authorities as to how its star product Canadian Club would be labelled. Its primary goal, that the product was entitled no less than straight bourbon or rye to be called whisky, was completely vindicated.

This resulted from President Taft’s decision in 1909 that whisky was any distillate from grain brought to proof for beverage purposes. This would include neutral spirits from a column still but exclude, say, a “whisky” derived from molasses or apple juice.

Some had argued that Kentucky and Pennsylvania straight whiskeys, 100% distilled at a low proof (generally from 140-160) and aged in new charred oak for some years, were entitled to the appellation whisky but not the product of the column or patent still which rendered a virtually flavourless alcohol at 95% abv.

It is very interesting to read the arguments of Canadian Club, which were very ably put by its lawyers including Joseph Choate, a New York grandee who had been the U.S. ambassador to England.

First, what was Canadian Club? Choate described it much as the company does today on its website: a whiskey composed of “two streams” mingled when new and then barrelled for five years. One stream was neutral in character, the other a straight whisky intended to confer the flavour. Choate doesn’t state if the barrels were used or new, presumably they were used as the case today for most Canadian whisky. He also didn’t state the proportions of straight and neutral whisky mixed, but I’d guess the straight element was under 10%. Today, the amount varies (for Canadian Club) depending on the line extension.

One purpose of this explanation was to show that the Canadians aged their neutral spirit, in distinction to the Americans who mixed it fresh from the still with straight whiskey to form their version of blended whisky. This showed, at least, that blended whisky did not take one form and there were different ways to “flavour” ethyl alcohol made from grain.

Choate gave a masterly exposition to President Taft – the oral argument was in person – which moreover turned the tables on the straight whisky exponents: not only was neutral spirit fully entitled to be called whisky, but really straight whiskey was the newcomer not patent still whisky! Hiram Walker’s counsel stated that before the Civil War, most whiskey was sold new and was rectified in some fashion, typically by leaching in charcoal vats and sometimes by re-distillation. This was “high wines”, made in a pot still or perhaps the three-chambered, steam-driven still that was an improvement of same.

Choate said some of this older-type rectified whisky was coloured with burnt sugar and flavoured with something, depending on the area and consumer preference. Choate said when the patent still came in use c. 1872, it performed in one operation what had taken two or three steps the older way, to rectify that is new whiskey of its rank fusel oil taste.

While an adroit argument, it tended to minimize, as any good lawyer will, the weaker parts of the case. American whiskey aged for years in wood was advertised in the market well before 1860. Many examples can be given from newspaper ads, see e.g., here, four year old Monongahela rye in 1847. See also Henry Crowgey’s classic Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking. He gives many examples of aged whiskey in the market in the first quarter of the 1800s. This was long before the continuous still was in general use.

As Crowgey also explains though, that whiskey was not necessarily aged in new charred oak, hallmark of the straight whiskey style. So Choate was right in the sense that whiskey aged in new charred oak didn’t become commonplace until after the Civil War. And it is new charred oak that really makes straight whiskey what it is, not uncharred oak or reused charred oak. Still, a barrel of any kind will mature whiskey after a spell of a few years, as we know from Scots single malt. Cognac had long been aged and was sold as such certainly by the 1700s. And the benefits of the new charred barrel in Kentucky were recognized as early as 1826.

Choate might have been asked, why was whisky coloured to begin with…?

Also, the patent still marked a new era as compared with spirit distilled, even multiple times, in a pot still and rectified in one of the old ways. I have tasted new Jack Daniel’s both off the still and run through the maple charcoal tub. The maple version is cleaner but not by all that much. This is presumably why from the late 1800s Jack Daniel gets a full period of aging in the warehouse.

All in all though, Choate made a good argument: the Kentucky people should not have a lock on what constitutes whisky and indeed their best form of it was developed concurrently (more or less) with his client’s form. It gives pause certainly to anyone who argues that patent still spirit isn’t “real” whisky.

Below (via HathiTrust) is a good summary of the arguments.


Note re images: the first image, of Joseph Choate c. 1898, was sourced via Wikipedia at his biographical entry, here, and the second from HathiTrust as stated above. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their lawful owner or user. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.