Whiskey Kings Meet

Before the first world war there was a minor genre in American, and surely Canadian, journalism: the leisurely description of a junket. I’ve discussed a few examples in these pages. One was a banker’s outing in the Midwest to sample a real burgoo, the Southern stew of mixed meat and vegetables on a starch base. Some were tours of breweries and distilleries. The best have an understated, downhome humour, not hard to achieve in a time before our era of sound-bite, relentless jargon, and clamouring “personalities”.

 

 

In the past leisure was appreciated for what it was: 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 artistic 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 simply chanting some songs.

A July, 1898 story fits the bill, but with deeper interest for those who plumb the history of spirits. A group of newspaper editors from Maysville, Kentucky took a trip up north to visit Hiram Walker Distillery in Walkerville, Ontario.

That’s Kentuckians, mind, making homage to a Canadian whisky town, and not just that, but from Maysville. A charming locality on the Ohio river, Maysville is not just any town in Kentucky, but may be where bourbon was named. At any rate Maysville is considered by many the spiritual home of bourbon whiskey.

I’ve been to Maysville, twice in fact. It was originally called Limestone, a river port that shipped corn whiskey by flatboat to New Orleans and other distant markets. The long rest in wood and motion of the boats helped create the character. Maysville was only in famed Bourbon County for three years – changing county lines put it in another county even before 1800 – but it might be where bourbon was named, as the name for whiskey emerges early in its newspapers. (Other theories exist, too).

Now, why would Kentucky town notables sally north to any whiskey destination? It’s coals to Newcastle, isn’t it? Well, Canadian Club whisky had achieved good success in the United States in the 1880s and ’90s. It sold for top dollar and while not a “straight” itself, people clearly liked it. It was 100% aged, contrary to American blends that typically used un-aged neutral spirits as the base. So that was part of it.  As well, it was imported, with the cachet most imports have.

Word about “C.C.” obviously had gotten ’round, even to proud Kentucky, where no one needed lessons how to make whiskey (then or now really). Maybe Hiram Walker hosted the group to get some good press in the heartland of American whiskey.

The news account describes the trip in a more restrained fashion than some others of its type. Maybe the editors didn’t want to offend the native industry, or too much. Also, Prohibition was just 20 years away. The chilling effect was already being felt across the country. Bourbon historian Henry Crowgey described this as “a wave of Victorian rectitude”. The junket occurred in summer, and there was room in the account for some mild levity, but things were kept in bounds.

Still, the party had fun and Hiram Walker clearly entertained them royally. No taste notes are offered on Canadian Club (or that made it in print), no invidious comparisons with good old sour mash. It might have been embarrassing for either Kentucky or Canada. No doubt thoughts as to quality – either way – were shared in private counsels on steamer and rails home, but that’s all. In fact drink is little described except obliquely by mention of “punch”, and “Champaign”.

Walkerville had a reputation then as a temperance town, strange as it may sound, but some whisky must have gone into the punch. And Hiram Walker’s people probably slipped a few flasks to the esteemed visitors as they took the gangplank for the Lake steamer back.

Rail, boat, and even carriage were employed on the trip. The Kentuckians took great pleasure encountering our bracing Lake winds in July. If you have ever been to Kentucky in summer, you’ll know why!

At day’s end, two honourable whisky traditions met up. Like most parleys between Canadians and Americans since the 1812 War, at personal level anyway, it seems to have ended in good humour and handclasps.

As reported, the visitors didn’t hold back in one respect. They were obviously impressed with the layout and construction of the Walkerville plant, to the point Kentucky distillers might take lessons.

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.

Canada didn’t do, not in Walkerville c. 1900, the low flagstone still house covered with creepers and moss, fine as the whiskey was that coursed from Kentucky’s hollows. The Walkerville plant resembled more a Brahmin’s playing ground, or modern university campus. It was the Canadian way, one manifestation.

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.

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*Still there.