Whiskey Kings Meet

Before the First World War a minor genre in American journalism was the leisurely account of a junket. I’ve discussed a few examples in these pages. One was a banker’s outing in the Midwest to sample real burgoo, the stew of mixed meat and vegetables on a starch base.

Some visits targeted breweries or distilleries. The best have an understated, downhome humour, typically American I would say, or it was.



Before the age of instant media, leisure was appreciated for its own sake. People “set” awhile, had harmless fun, with beverage alcohol often a part, but not the greatest part. A drink or three might facilitate a literary or other flight in persons not accustomed, solid citizens like bankers.

The occasions were diverse: a running race, a fishing outing (no fish was ever caught, one editor mused), or just chanting songs. Our era of the sound-bite, relentless jargon, and clamouring personalities sounds completely different, but this older world must still exist, here and there.

A July 1898 story exemplified the style and has particular interest for those who plumb the history of spirits. Newspaper editors from Maysville, Kentucky took a trip into Canada to visit the Hiram Walker distillery in Walkerville, Ontario.

That’s Kentuckians paying homage to a Canadian whisky centre, and not just that, from Maysville. A charming town on the Ohio river, Maysville is not just any town in Kentucky, it might be the place bourbon was named. At any rate, the town lays claim to being the spiritual home of bourbon.

I’ve been to Maysville, twice in fact. It was originally named Limestone, a river port that shipped corn whiskey by flatboat to New Orleans and other remote markets. The sojourn in wood and motion of the craft helped create the oaky sweetish bourbon character.

Maysville was located in famous Bourbon County, KY for only three years. The changing of county lines placed it in another county even before 1800, but those three years may explain how bourbon got its name. For one thing, mention of bourbon as a whiskey-type appears early in Maysville newspapers.

Why would Kentucky notables travel to any whiskey destination outside Kentucky? Coals to Newcastle surely. But Canadian Club had achieved good success in the United States in the 1880s and ’90s. It sold for top dollar and while not a “straight”, people clearly liked it. It was 100% aged, unlike typical American blends that combined white (un-aged) neutral spirits with some aged bourbon or rye.

As well, Canadian Club was imported, and held the cachet imports often glean in any market. Word about “C.C.” had gotten around, even to old Kentucky where no one needed lessons in how to make whiskey. Likely Hiram Walker hosted the group to win some press in the U.S. whiskey heartland.

The 1898 account described the trip in more restrained fashion than others of the genre. A tone of mild levity informs the report, but not the rollicking spirit of the 1887 burgoo party, say.

Maybe the travelling editors wanted to avoid offending the native whiskey industry. And Prohibition too was just 20 years away. Journalism was conscious of the changing tone for the subjects of whiskey and drinking.

In his (1963) Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, historian Henry Crowgey called the new spirit (sorry) “a tidal wave of Victorian righteousness”. Even Walkerville had a reputation as a temperance town, strange as it may sound, but if its famous whisky didn’t thread the punch served, well I’ll be darned.

And Hiram Walker probably slipped flasks to its esteemed visitors as they strode the gangplank for the steamer home. Thus fortified or not, the Kentuckians took great pleasure encountering the Great Lake winds in July. If you have ever been to Kentucky in summer, you’ll know why.

The visitors admired the layout and construction of the Walkerville plant, to the point, said the report, Kentucky distillers might take notice.

The steamer landed the crowd on a pretty lawn in front of a large three story brown stone building.* The building and its surroundings, clean gravel and stone walks, the pretty lawn with patches of lovely flowers, with a crowd of sturdy Canadians, in white flannel suits, off at one side engaged in a ball game,(bowling on the green), and an orchestra discoursing sweet music at the opposite end of the lawn, suggested a summer resort, but such was not the case.

 The building contains the general offices of Hiram Walker & Sons, proprietors of the famous “Canadian Club” distillery. The establishment is an immense one that puts to shame our Kentucky distillers. They can get a good many points from Walker & Sons. The various buildings of the plant are brick surrounded with drives and walks, while within all is scrupulously neat and clean.

Canadian distilleries didn’t feature, not in Walkerville c. 1900, ancient flagstone still houses mottled with creeper and moss as in Kentucky. The Walkerville plant was more a combination of enlightened factory town and Brahmin’s playing ground.

It was the Canadian way, one manifestation.

At day’s end, two honourable whisky traditions met up. Like most parleys at personal level between Canadians and Americans since the 1812 War, people got along as fast friends – which Canadians and Americans are, at bottom.

Note re image: the image above of Maysville, KY was sourced from this town website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Still there.

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