Mixing it up in old Ontario

An “old Durham boy” set down reminiscences of his boyhood in Enniskillen, Ontario in the 1860s including memories of taverns and the sale of whisky to locals. The time of recording was around 1920 as he refers to the prevailing “prohibition”.

The account may be viewed here in the opening paragraphs. There are two small Enniskillen localities in Ontario. The Durham Old Boy meant the one that is today a hamlet in Clarington Municipality east of Toronto, in the general vicinity of Oshawa and Bowmanville.

This google view shows the hilltop mentioned in the account, still a charming locality, dominated by the General Store (scroll left) which is famous for ice cream in the area.

A search of “whiskey” and “whisky” on the general site, www.ontariogeneology.com, uncovers many additional interesting accounts. Quite a few resemble stories I’ve reported earlier involving “raising” and other bees, cheapness of whisky, excessive consumption, etc. but there is always the new insight or angle.

In this case, it is clear the Durham Old Boy is describing a kind of blending, as one gallon of “genuine” whisky is used to make two barrels suitable to sell to tavern customers.

This cannot be a mere reduction of proof by water as even the strongest highwines would not produce more than three or four gallons for retail sale when diluted.

I think what occurred is that one gallon of old rye or corn whisky distilled at a low proof was blended with high-proof neutral spirits, possibly aged by then, to form a blended whisky. If the single gallon was full of “heavy” distillation flavours, even one gallon might lend a certain flavour.

Perhaps as well sugar or other flavourings were added as part of the “secret”.

We don’t know how big the barrels were here of course, but in any case a blending seems to have been going on. Even in the 1890s the Canadian Royal Commission to which I referred in earlier posts, examining the liquor traffic, took evidence suggesting blending by some retailers.

See also in the same hearings this delphic reference to a cheap “tavern whisky”.

Such blending might occur with whisky of different qualities, itself a feature of late Victorian distilling. Better stills enabled the production of higher-purity alcohol (at least in chemical terms) than with the old single and double pot stills.

Canadian distilling after 1850 was capable of producing spirit at 86% abv via the multi-chambered still, and finally 94% abv by steam distillation in analyzing and rectifying towers. This was not completely new. For example, in Kingston, ON in 1835 a distiller advertised that his “patent copper rectifying apparatus” could deliver different proofs including “alcohol”.

But clearly the large distillers after about 1860 based their trade on large production of high proof spirits.

Blending of this sort was taking place contemporaneously in the cellars of Scottish grocers: many famous blends started this way including Johnnie Walker.

What may well have happened was that distilleries in the U.K. and North America finally adopted the blending practices originated by taverners and grocers.

The drink as delivered to the consumer in 1860s Enniskillen probably was not 40% abv. To serve even inexpensive whisky that strong in a beer glass – at least 8 ounces and probably often more – seems unlikely.

I’d think the spirit was probably around 20% abv. The mixing barrel was likely a combination of the single gallon of “real” whisky, a strong highwines, water, and perhaps flavourings or colour.