Rum in Canada’s Maritimes

“A Standing Institution”*

Nova Scotia is still very much rum country, as are all the Maritime provinces to this day, disproportionately viz. the rest of Canada. These are the latest figures from Statistics Canada:

At the national level, whisky (30.2%), vodka (24.9%) and rum (16.3%) were the most popular spirits sold in Canada in 2017/2018, accounting for 71.4% of total spirit sales. At the provincial/territorial level, whisky had the largest market share of spirit sales in Manitoba (37.2%) and the lowest in the Northwest Territories (15.1%). Vodka had the largest proportion of spirit sales in Nunavut (58.0%) and the lowest in Newfoundland and Labrador (16.0%). Rum was the top choice for spirits in Newfoundland and Labrador (44.4% of spirit sales), while the lowest proportion sold was in the Northwest Territories (12.0%).

While Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest market share among the Provinces for rum, the other Maritime Provinces, sharing the regional taste, are not far behind.

Rum played a vital role in early settlement days, even in a locality called Temperance. Rev. John R. Campbell explained the background in his 1875 A History of the County of Yarmouth:



The story parallels that of early New England, and pioneer days Upper Canada, when the rum jug was indispensable to socializing and manual occupations. “Bees” to clear land, scythe crops, and build homes or barns, all required rum, as did many social occasions.



The old-established ties between our East Coast provinces and New England are ethnic and cultural, via the Loyalist influx, and also seagoing/commercial. A friend of Newfoundland background told me that at one time Newfoundlanders felt more at home in New England than Canada, which Newfoundland only joined in 1949.

Nova Scotians worked in 19th-century Boston brickyards, for example, among other occupations in New England. Naturally, they required rum to finish the job, in tune with the old work gang tradition. Dee Morris’ Medford: A Short History gives the details. Rum was a cultural predilection on a trans-frontier basis, in other words.

Another likely factor for rum in Nova Scotia was the early, general appreciation of rum in Scotland – indeed before whisky – as I discussed here. Given the Scottish influx to Nova Scotia, the taste naturally allied with the Loyalist one to solidify a tradition of rum-drinking.

I discussed earlier how rum manufacture declined in New England from the mid-1800s until WW I. The manufacture in Nova Scotia withered in parallel, by the early 1890s.

Testimony in the House of Commons in the 1890s Royal Inquiry on the Liquor Traffic shows that only one distillery was still operating in Nova Scotia (see pp 80-82). Indeed, the majority of counties in the Province was dry under “local option” and the Scott Act. But the law was not always enforced, and contraband rum continued to flow.

The testimony of distiller C.B. McDougall (see pg. 89) is that he distilled only rye whisky and a Scotch-type whisky, and imported rum for sale. He confirms a great deal of contraband, or “common rum”, was brought in from the West Indies.

So, by the early 1890s there is no functioning rum production in Nova Scotia yet rum is still available, enough to worry the sole legal distiller McDougall. He said, “too much” was circulating.

It was rising Prohibition sentiment that caused the de-legitimizing of rum distilling in both the U.S. and Canada. But liquor, rum included, never lost its appeal to the populace. If necessary, they drank it sub rosa.

Today, rum both imported and Canadian-made has a Canadian market approaching $900 M. Rum’s importance in the Maritimes of 2019 can be gauged by the fact that the original-formulation, green-tinged Captain Morgan white rum is still sold there, and nowhere else.  gives the background to this unique situation.

With the rise of modern craft distilling, rum is again being made locally. Ironworks, and other craft distillers, are giving new life to an old tradition. It’s a similar story in New England. Boston itself has a number of rum distilleries, Bully Boy is one.

Stephen Beaumont and Christine Sismondo’s excellent new Canadian Spirits describes Ironwork distillery’s Bluenose Rum in enticing terms. In part they state:

Deep and dark, with coffee and sassafras on the nose and a very rich body that combines hints of espresso with a robust but not overly sweet molasses flavour.

New England rum in its heyday was known to have a heavy body, as Harold Grossman explained in his learned introduction to a gala 1941 rum tasting by the New York Wine and Food Society. Ironwork’s crafted rum revives an old heritage, “Maritime” in the broadest sense.

Note re image: Second image above was sourced from the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, N.S., see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*This post expands and replaces a post from 2017, Oh Rum of Canada.