Revisiting “The Story of Canadian Whisky” by Lorraine Brown

Many years after first reading it, I’m re-reading the late Lorraine Brown’s 200 Years of Tradition: The Story of Canadian Whisky, published in 1994It’s good to read it now, since I know much more than when I first encountered it.

A company of which she was a principal had designed a special exhibit for the former Seagram Museum in Waterloo, ON, and the book grew out of that. That was a superb museum, housed in an ex-stone barrelhouse. I visited there numerous times and it was inexplicable to close it. It should be set up again, bigger and better.

Lorraine Brown was also an experienced journalist who focused on science and environmental topics. Together with her research work for the exhibition, this meant she was the right person for the job.

The book is well-designed and attractively illustrated with many period photos, drawings, and diagrams. The technics of distillation and other steps in whiskey-making are well-explained. There are a few nuggets, as when she explains that 85% of Canadian whisky on average is base whisky – this means flavouring whisky content would average 15%.

Another nugget is her speculation that in the 1860s Gooderham & Worts made neutral spirit for whisky – she may be right about that based on my own research. See the engineering publication discussed in this post.

The book is Seagram-focused, which is understandable given its genesis and that Seagram sponsored publication. (There is an excellent short introduction by Charles Bronfman).

But it reviews the background to the other major distilleries as well, especially Molson, Gooderham & Worts, and Hiram Walker. Wiser gets good coverage, Corby’s past is outlined too. There is a briefer discussion of other distilleries in Canada at the time including some out west.

A long chapter deals well with temperance and prohibition in Canada. Of course, the onset of the Bronfmans post-Seagram family is well-handled. Their particular genius for making Seagram a global force in distilling is expertly explained.

The historical introduction is somewhat cursory and a number of things are said I don’t agree with, for example that corn was first grown in Canada in 1840. I’ve discussed here ads in Ontario newspapers by distillers requesting supply of corn years before 1840. There is also other evidence corn was grown here and used by some early distilleries.

See, for example, the 1898 Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement by E.A. Owens, I discussed it here a few weeks ago.

It is certainly true that most corn as the century wore on was imported from the U.S., but local corn was used in distilling in the early 1800s according to sources I’ve discussed here earlier.

She recognizes albeit in a general way the “Yankee” (Loyalist and other American) role in the creation of a whisky tradition in Ontario, but also asserts an influence by “Scottish and Irish settlers”.

She suggests our whisky style is a blending of these influences. I don’t agree with that, except perhaps in the sense that malt whisky was a small item of sale for many distilleries here in the 1800s. In my view, our whisky heritage is in a direct line from what was started in the U.S. in the last quarter of the 1700s.

Scotch-style malt whisky – it was sort of Scotch-style – was made in Perth, ON but this died out with WW I.

Canadian distillers blend in a way similar perhaps to the Scots, using aged base and heavy (or straight) distillates, but that doesn’t really reflect influence of Scots immigrants to Canada.

Also, she seems to consider whisky purely “Gaelic” in origin whereas it is clear grain distillate has been made for centuries in a northern belt across Europe. Perhaps it’s a question of how you define whisky, but the blurring is important in regard to potential German influence on American and Canadian distilling practices.

The possibility of German contribution is not addressed from what I could see.

There was of course Scots-Irish influence on whiskey’s rise in the U.S., especially Pennsylvania, and therefore indirectly here. Perhaps she meant Scots-Irish (Ulster Scots) when speaking of Ireland and Scotland although she mentions the latter in connection with Ontario as I read her.

The book does of course reflect its time. At least twice she refers to a “decline” in the distilling industry in Canada, which has now been reversed I believe. And of course there was no craft distilling movement to consider, or U.S. bourbon or Scottish malt renaissance. It was all just beginning.

In some respects her topical commentary is still relevant, as when she explains the heavy toll government taxation takes on the industry and indirectly consumers, or the importance of exportations of Canadian whisky to the U.S.

My main cavil is that the book did not examine distilling in Ontario more closely before the Big 5 gained traction from the 1850s. In my view, those early years established the taste for Canadian whisky, and its palate. This was an increasingly rectified and aged cereal distillate in which corn and rye figured largely as time went on.

She does state that 200 distilleries were licensed in the United Province of Canada by the 1840s but appears to consider that most did not make a mark on our whisky culture as compared to the Big 5 again.

To my mind this does not take enough account of the reputation, say, the Morton distillery in Kingston had, or the highly regarded distilleries in Port Credit. Distilleries such as those helped establish the palate of Canadian whisky.

She speculates which of the Big 5 started the keynote practice to blend base and flavouring whiskies, but that technique was well-known in the U.S. at the times in question (and Scotland).

Also, blending was not something only a large distillery could do although the large plants perhaps achieved a greater consistency than smaller shops.

Net-net, the book was an excellent effort and enjoyable to revisit. It got much right and covered a lot of ground.

The book was particularly impressive from someone who must have known little about the subject before starting her work for the Seagram Museum.

Ms. Brown, who died a few years ago, made an important contribution to understanding the long and fascinating history of Canadian whisky.