The Cachet of Port Hope Whisky, Part II

Canada’s Glenlivet

This is the second part of our Port Hope whisky posts, see Part I, here.

In terms of modern references Mark Staniforth’s Material Culture and Consumer Society (2003) noted among whisky types sold in Lower Canada in the 1840s, “Port Hope whisky”. Ian Montagne (also mentioned below) addressed aspects of brewing and distilling history in Port Hope in his (2007) Port Hope: a History.  But the fame of Port Hope whisky in the 19th century, especially the secret of its appeal, has not been plumbed to our knowledge, hence our investigation.

Early Fame Notable

Looking at period sources, a letter on pioneer days in Port Hope, published in 1877, offers good insight. It appeared in The Guide, seemingly a newspaper of the day in Port Hope. See further details here, in the website Port Hope History. The letter provided a capsule of whisky’s fortunes in Port Hope up to that time (the emphasis is ours):

There is another subject we would fain forebear mentioning but deem it would be more reprehensible by maintaining a reticence than by giving it publicity, for it formed so strong a feature in the state of society that sociability seemed incomplete without it. We will, however, whisper it to the private ear of the reader. We have reference to the general use of whisky as a token of friendship. To make a visit to a friend’s residence, the whisky bottle, like the friendly pipe of the Indian, was invariably handed round; to refuse partaking of its contents would be considered an act of unfriendliness.

Our first settlers must have bequeathed this custom to their posterity as they seemed to be imbued with the impression that distilleries were necessary companions to the saw and grist mill, as their erection invariably followed in rapid succession; and the emigrants who succeeded those well-meaning pioneers followed their plan with extending views; for there were no less, at this period of the existence of our little town, than 8 distilleries and Port Hope was celebrated for producing the best whisky in the Province.

The traveller’s attention would be arrested by placards with ‘Port Hope Whiskies for sale here’ printed in a large type and posted in the windows of wholesale grocery and liquour stores and on the walls in the barrooms of hotels and saloons in all the principal towns of the Province. A highly rectified article was manufactured by special order and sent to Montreal, thence to be transformed into brandy, rum and gin, and, thus metamorphosed, was sent back here and to other parts of the Upper Province, to be sold by our merchants as the prime foreign article.

The unenviable celebrity Port Hope had attained from the quality of its whisky was not limited to Canada. How far it had travelled, it is impossible to say, but the following incident shows it had reached England. A lady resident of this town, when in London, visited the Tower and when attaching to her name the place of residence in the registry book kept for that purpose, in the presence of the guide, an old soldier who had been stationed in Canada, he [sic] exclaimed – “Port Hope! I know that place, I have drunk its famous whisky.” He was very attentive in giving her information.

There is, however, a pleasing change in this town now with regard to these institutions that presented so prominent a feature; they are superseded by eight churches which present a very great contrast. This change, no doubt, has been brought about by that imperceptible agent, moral suasion, this accomplishing that which legislative coercion would have been incapable of performing. It is a pity we cannot present the pleasing feature of the demolition of the whisky traffic of the present day.



“Attentive”, here, is probably a polite Victorian way of saying overfamiliar. But it does make a point. One year later, in 1878, the Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Counties of Northumberland and Durham referred in these terms to Port Hope whisky:

There were formerly five or six large distilleries in operation here and the whiskey of Port Hope had a high reputation from one end of the country to the other.

By then its era had passed but in 1850 there is still frank acknowledgement of the fame and economic importance of whisky in Port Hope, as testified in the American Agriculturalist. In 1847, a similar testimonial is recorded in the Western Literary Messenger. It even called Port Hope whisky the Glenlivet of Canada (see p. 338, bottom right).

Port Hope was one of many Ontario localities that distilled spirits but as contemporary sources show, its whisky had cachet. It was regularly exported to near and more distant markets – including Kingston.

The 1877 letter’s reference to a rectified “article” referred to a high-proof distillate of neutral character made to blend with brandy, rum or gin, perhaps with flavourings, to produce a blended version of these spirits. This was a typical 19th century technique and indeed still applies in its essence for most Canadian whisky made today.

Why Whisky in Early Canada?

Whence this whisky tradition of Port Hope, one of significance in the first half of the 1800s?

The first settlers of Port Hope were mostly “late” American Loyalists. They followed Elias Smith, also of American origin, who came to Port Hope with two partners from Montreal to assign lands surveyed by the Crown.

Some settlers were English or other British. As the century progressed more Britons arrived, but the town was founded largely by American families, a second wave of Loyalist influx as seen in other parts of early Ontario.

In the same historical website, an extract from (1901) Historical Sketches of Port Hope, by W. Arnot Craick, states:

Viewed from the industrial standpoint Port Hope’s life divides itself into three periods; the first when the Town was rendered famous by the output of its numerous distilleries; the second when it became equally important as a railway terminus and port and the third and present period when it is striving to maintain itself at its former level, though suffering from severe losses over which it has had no control. It was in 1802 that Elias Smith built the first distillery near the site of the skating rink and began the manufacture of the famous Port Hope brand of whiskey. Within a few years other distilleries started operations and by 1826 no fewer than eight were in existence in the Town, while during the thirties even a larger number were kept busy supplying the world with its favourite beverage. A large proportion of this production was shipped to Montreal, where it was transformed into brandy, rum and gin and returned to its native town under the guise of a genuine foreign article.

As whisky was made by the earliest arrivals clearly it came in with the Loyalists – Americans by heritage, in other words.

Movers and Shakers

Rachel Arnaud, Archivist at the Port Hope Archives in Port Hope, kindly sent me a 1973 newspaper article listing various owners or occupiers of distilleries in Port Hope between 1802 and the mid-1850s. Names include Elias Smith, Thomas Molson, Edward Dodd, John David Smith, David Smart, Erasmus Fowkes, W. Benson, Lynn & White, E. Clarke, and W. Waller.

David Smart owned the Durham Distillery, and the Port Hope History site, by reference to surviving copies of the Port Hope Gazette in the 1840s, shows that much advertising in town newspapers was for liquors and wines including Smart’s whisky.

The 1973 article states Elias Smith’s distillery was located at the corner of what are now Queen and Roberston Streets in Port Hope. Numerous distilleries were on Cavan Street.

Molson’s distillery in 1857-1858 was mashing 30 bushels a day, according to an advertisement Ms. Arnaud also sent. This Molson was related to the famous brewing clan in Montreal, whose patriarch came from Lincolnshire, U.K.

Joseph Hall, a merchant in Kingston, advertised on May 4, 1842 in the Chronicle and Gazette 250 barrels of the “well-known” Port Hope whisky for sale. At a conservative estimate of 30 gallons per barrel, that is 7,500 gallons of whisky, not a small amount even factoring that Kingston then had the largest population in Ontario. Yet, in 1850 that was only some 25,000 people. Certainly in 1842 Port Hope was much smaller, around 1,200, but its whisky output reflected demand well beyond Port Hope.

Other ads in Kingston regularly touted Port Hope whisky even though Kingston produced considerable whisky of its own. There was notably Morton’s, also famed for quality as I have written earlier, but also other distilleries. Distiller William Garratt in Kingston regularly placed ads in the 1820s-1830s seeking “rye and Indian corn”, as this 1826 ad shows. See also my earlier discussion, here.*

This regional taste for rye- and corn-based whisky arose well before Hiram Walker (an American), and the other Big 5 distillery founders (of varying origins), made Canadian whisky.

Port Hope distillers made an especially favoured version, and I doubt the Big 5 distillers (see below) made anything better in the period.

The Decline

After 1850, in line with the general pattern in Ontario, drinking was progressively viewed in an altered light. The Temperance movement, as elsewhere in the world, gained ground and Port Hope’s distilling industry faded. Ian Montagne’s book is particularly good on the origins, growth, and success of Temperance in Port Hope and environs. He cites figures that show a dramatic per capita reduction of spirits consumption by the end of the 1800s.

By 1900 the “Big 5” distilleries ended dominating the business in Ontario. They were Seagram (Waterloo), Hiram Walker (Windsor), Gooderham & Worts (Toronto), Corby (Corbyville/Belleville), and Wiser (Prescott).

Despite this, a few smaller distilleries continued including in Perth and Hamilton, some of which I discussed earlier. But they were outliers in what had become a new era.

Apart from the growing Temperance movement, were there other factors to explain Port Hope’s loss of its whisky industry? Yes, as after the Grand Trunk railway connected Port Hope to Toronto, water commerce on Lake Ontario declined, until then Port Hope’s special advantage. Also, new forms of power for industry, notably steam and then electricity, made water-power less important. The grain mills of the Ganarska river basin, of which distilling was initially a by-product or extension, declined with construction of larger, more efficient plants in Toronto.

See the illuminating discussion on these points by Port Hope historian Ian Montagnes on the website CobourgHistory. ca.

There are also imponderables of personalities and business. The Big 5 may have emerged in good part due to the special skills of their founders, men like Joseph Seagram and Hiram Walker, not because their product was better or so different from distilleries that did not benefit from similar factors.

Secret of Canada’s “Glenlivet”

In regard to the grain composition of Port Hope distilling, information is sparse, similarly for distilling methods and aging. A reading of early Port Hope and Ontario history suggests a broad range of crops was raised in Hope Township: barley, wheat, rye, oats, corn, buckwheat, peas. I have not to date been able to determine specific mashes used for Port Hope whisky.

I would think a mash of barley malt, rye, and corn was typically used, as typical of whiskey in the U.S. Northeast and on the north shore of Lake Ontario. See my earlier posts for details, including here. It appears other grains supplemented these, or for some distillers. Wheat and oats, for example are sometimes mentioned in early distillers’ advertisements for grain.

In 1851 William H. Smith, in his historical study of Canada West (now Ontario), stated “rye” was the grain used to make whisky. See Smith’s comments, here. I infer from this and evidence canvassed in earlier blogposts that Cavan Street whisky probably used rye as the base. While it would be useful to know the grain bill(s) used in Port Hope, the rectification methods are equally important.*

Yet, the fact remains: Port Hope whisky had a special cachet. It possibly had a cleaner taste than the usual whisky of commerce, in today’s terms, more like vodka, less like moonshine.

Stills were increasingly in use from the early 1800s that produced a more refined spirit than the traditional pot still. This is shown in the Ontario context by a news advertisement of 1835, see here, where the Kingston distillers Hunt & Morton advertised use of a “patent copper rectifying still”. The ad suggests that, from whiskey to “alcohol”, different proofs of spirit could be supplied on short notice. This implies a range of taste intensity, ending in neutrality, and perhaps too a product little aged.

The still may have been an early Aeneas Coffey still, patented in the U.K. in 1831, or another type developed during the 19th century (of which there were many) that improved the quality of the traditional pot still (alembic) of the Highlands, Irish glades, or early American distilling.

As well, each producer had his way to “rectify” his product, to minimize that is the oily, congeneric taste of new whisky. He might – at least – double-distill, or even triple distill it as the Irish did. He might apply charcoal filtration for the new spirit, as did Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker before they adopted more efficient steam distillation techniques (circa 1860s).

The 1835 ad of Hunt & Morton already mentioned requested supplies of hardwood charcoal. This likely indicates that their spirit was filtered in tubs of ground charcoal, similar to the process still used by Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee.

Bearing in mind the reference to rectified spirit in the 1877 letter, Port Hope whisky was perhaps an early blended Canadian whisky, a mix, in other words, of a fairly neutral, highly refined whisky with a whisky of assertive pot still character.

We continue our investigations in Part III.

N.B. This Google View of Cavan Street, Port Hope today shows the river alongside and plots of land that look like footprints of 19th century distilleries…

Note re image: The image above was sourced here, from the excellent Ontario Historical Plaques site, a website of Alan L. Brown that chronicles in image Ontario’s historical plaques. Copyright in the image belongs we believe to Mr. Wayne Adam and is used here for educational and historical purposes only. All feedback welcomed.


*Sometimes Garratt requested supply of other grains as well, e.g., in this ad wheat and oats in 1834. As wheat was a bread grain, its use in distilling was always relatively restricted, even banned at times by the Upper Canada legislature when wheat was short due to poor harvests. Oats were probably used in varying yet generally small quantities, consistent with contemporary practice in Ireland for its “pure pot still whiskey” (now termed single pot still). Ian Montagne’s book refers to early Port Hope distillers buying second grade grain, which suggests to me rye, corn, and maybe oats but not wheat. His sources listed might provide further grist for the mill, as it were. I will update these posts, if more information is available.











2 thoughts on “The Cachet of Port Hope Whisky, Part II”

  1. Great series! May I add, that as a new spirit there is actually a hugely noticeable difference between grain types. Rye and Corn are very green grass/spice while wheat is usually earthy with a bit of pastry frosting, oats are the one I find interesting as I use them a lot at Spirits Of French Lick and did at home as well. They add a lot of mouthfeel and distill and smell exactly as they taste, sweet, sometimes buttery, or even a little like Honey Nut Cheerios to be honest. If they were using oats in the mashbill it definitely would have been noticeable and may have contributed to the reputation.

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