The Cachet of Port Hope Whisky, Part III

This post is the third part of our examination of Port Hope whisky, see our earlier Part I and Part II.

Tanya MacKinnon’s important study of the historical geography of Ontario distilling between 1850 and 1900 contains some interesting charts at pp. 85-86, of which a small extract is shown above.

In 1857, Durham County, the regional seat of Port Hope, produced 92,025 gallons of whisky. This was the output of three distilleries (per 1851 census). York-Peel Centre, which took in Gooderham & Worts, produced in 1857 about 450,000 gallons, presumedly mostly or all the output of G & H.

Compared as well to Waterloo County where Hespeler, later Seagram, and other distilleries operated, Durham was behind by about half. However, if you add Northumberland County’s 81,047 gallons, produced mostly in Cobourg which is a just a few miles from Port Hope, the combined production was 173,000 gallons per year.

Durham and Northumberland were close enough in geography and interests then to warrant being one political unit, the United County of Durham and Northumberland, albeit the chart above showed the units separately.

Port Hope had 4,100 people in 1861 and Toronto, 45,000. In 1857 even Durham alone produced per capita double the whisky Toronto did.

Of course as the chart extract shows, Durham and Northumberland declined after whereas Essex County, containing newly-established Hiram Walker in Windsor, enjoyed rapid growth. Toronto, primarily Gooderham & Worts again, grew or held its own.

What this shows is that little Port Hope and the ditto Cobourg were producing considerable amounts of whisky and contributing pro rata to the provincial treasury, as late as 1857.

They weren’t fringe/artisan producers albeit none of their plants entered the top 10 of production by distiller.

Had, say, the distilleries of Cobourg and Port Hope merged, perhaps with those in Peterborough, and/or adopted a different business plan, they might have challenged what became the Big 5 and their hegemony.

Of  course, who knew in 1861 the future course of Hiram Walker or Hespeler/Seagram in Waterloo, or how Wiser and Corby would grow in influence despite their regional bases, Prescott and Belleville, being relatively small then and now?

Only in retrospect can things seem inevitable, especially as the Big 5 were dominant for so long in Ontario.

But in 1861 there were still 73 distilleries in Ontario. Even later in the century newly established Royal Distillery in Hamilton, as I discussed earlier, challenged the Big 5, only to fade away by WW I.

The pre-Big 5 distilling heritage of Ontario is a vital part of Canadian distilling history, not least for the type of whisky made. There is no evidence the Big 5 made different or better whisky than all other distilleries in 1861 especially Port Hope’s which had won high plaudits for quality.

By dint of good business skills and fortune the Big 5 took the palm, and set the stage for the Canadian whisky industry of the 20th and early 21st centuries. But they didn’t create Canadian whisky.

Its main features existed before their creation: whisky, progressively rectified and longer aged, with rye and corn as the keynotes, a bequest of American Loyalist and late-Loyalist incomers.*


*These important early settlers are known, in historiography generally, as United Empire Loyalists, often abbreviated to U.E. Loyalists. In 1820 as I documented earlier they were about 80 per cent of the population of Upper Canada.