Malt and the Million Acres

Another early Canadian distilling region, not previously mentioned, is charming Prince Edward Island.

Canada’s smallest province, with its green vales and loamy red earth, is famously home of equally-red-topped Anne, of Green Gables that is.

We once spent some time cycling the coast and touring in Charlottetown. It’s reminiscent of the other Maritime provinces albeit with especially temperate weather. It reminded me too of north Atlantic coastal areas in southern England and France: it’s all connected, ethnically too.

Digression: Canadian cities, especially smaller ones, have a certain resemblance despite the wide expanse and varying geography. It’s the same set of influences – commercial, political, cultural, that’s been operating for over 150 years, since Canada became a nation. St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, is similar even though Newfoundland joined the project in 1949.

So Vancouver, Kingston, Charlottetown, Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa, etc. all have a certain physical and infrastructural unity, no bad thing.

But what did they drink in old Maritime P.E.I.? Fortunately, the University of Prince Edward Island history professor, Dr. Edward MacDonald, has investigated this. He and co-author Carolyn (Roberts) McQuaid authored some years ago a 20-page paper, “‘Spirituous Liquors’: Brewing and Distilling in 19th Century Charlottetown”.

You can read it here, archived on the website of P.E.I. researcher and resident Ian Scott. Scott’s useful website collects a number of authorities on early brewing and distilling in P.E.I.

McDonald’s and McQuaid’s article was also published in Island Magazine in more user-friendly format, and can be read here.

The piece is well-referenced, using both primary and secondary sources. It shows clearly that the liquor of choice from late-1700s settlement days until the second half of the 1800s was whisky.

The focus is the capital city of Charlottetown, but that was always the hub for commerce and manufacturing in P.E.I. By 1860 some 20 brewing and distilling operations existed or had existed there. Some combined both brewing and distilling.

The early beers were all ales of various strengths. These were the mild and old ales which preceded pale ale of the India type. These beers were similar to strong ales in various quarters of regional Britain. They also resembled to all appearances the ales of the northeastern U.S., or, say, the ales made by the Molson and Hart families in Quebec circa-1800.

The most famous P.E.I. whiskey-mill, or infamous from a later-19th century optic, was George Coles’, a well-known figure in Canadian history. He was a Premier of Prince Edward Island and a Father of Confederation, helping to form Canada in 1867 with co-equals from other North American British Colonies.

Ah, you will say, whisky’s implantation in P.E.I. is another instance of Loyalist influence. No, not in this case.

P.E.I. was settled in the British era mostly by Scottish Highlanders. Only a tiny percentage of Loyalists arrived in P.E.I., see the breakdown of arrivals in the analysis of Loyalist settlement, “The Arrival of the Loyalists in Canada” (part of a University of Ottawa website).

As Marlene Campbell wrote in her paper “Early Immigration – Prince Edward Island“:

The primary emigration to the British colony of Prince Edward Island was from Scotland. People from that country, mainly from the Highlands, outnumbered all other ethnic groups combined. The Scottish came because of the changes that were happening in their homeland.

Whisky in this case, and it was malt whisky, arrived via birthright of Scots incomers. This is the only reasonable conclusion, given too that rum was and still is a general Maritime inclination by dint of geography and history.

A better analogy with Ontario than the Loyalist distillers of the Lake Ontario region is the two malt distilleries in Perth, ON. Perth was settled by a large number of Scots and other British half-pay officers. The Perth stills made a Highland-style malt whisky which can be distinguished from the rye and corn spirit favoured by the American arrivals.

By the second half of the 1800s, rum started to rise against whisky in P.E.I. Perhaps as the province became more “Canadian” old ethnic ties weakened and regional associations became stronger. Still, whisky formed a good part of sales into the 1870s, see the table in the MacDonald-McQuaid article. And it was dominant before 1860.

There is an interesting spike in the early 1860s. This probably reflects increased production sent to the U.S. during the Civil War when high excise duties made whisky a luxury item.

Earlier, I discussed Victorian-era distiller Clarence Blake McDougall of Halifax, N.S. He made both rye and malt whisky. Nova Scotia was settled by large numbers of Scots and Loyalists. Even though not the sole incomers, they exercised significant cultural and commercial influence. And so McDougall covered the bases.

But in old P.E.I. ads I found, the whisky vaunted was mother’s milk of the old sod, no other.

The northeast U.S./Loyalist drinking pattern went from rum to whisky. Prince Edward Island, sometimes called the Garden Province, the Million-Acre Farm, and Minegoo, did it the other way.

And so, did Scots bring whisky to Canada? Yes, sometimes. But they didn’t bring the type that became the national style, rye whisky. The Loyalists did that.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from Pixabay, here. The second image was sourced from Google Books, here. It appeared in C. Birch Bagster’s The Progress and Prospects of Prince Edward Island (1861). The third image was sourced from an 1832 issue of The British American, from this website of digitized early P.E.I. newspapers. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.