Whisky, Americans, and School Days in Early Ontario

In examining the annals of town and country distilling in mid-century Victorian Ontario, I doubt anything will emerge on the scale of the eight distilleries in the charming town of Port Hope. Not only was there a large number of distilleries for a tiny population, the whiskey had special cachet. So much so, one writer called it Canada’s Glenlivet.

We will return to these distilleries, and try to understand what made the whisky special. Port Hope is about 70 miles east of where I write, to the left along the lake I can see as I type these words.

But now, I will draw your attention to another Ontario town, the same distance from here but in the opposite direction. It’s Paris, Ontario, at least as pretty as Port Hope but of different aspect, more hilly and not on a lake, but on the forks of a river (Grand River).

Paris is in Brant County, north and west of the larger Brantford, ON. For those who know Ontario, you would take Highway 401 west from Toronto, on the way to London and ultimately Windsor, and take a number of jogs off that. I’ve also driven there from Cambridge, ON, home of Grand River Brewery, of Russian Gun Imperial Stout fame.

Paris was founded by a mix of Americans and British emigrants, and somewhat later than the Loyalist stronghold of eastern Ontario I’ve discussed before. Nonetheless some of the families were Loyalist or descended from same. One such, John Pettit, founded a distillery in Brant County. Another American did the same, in Paris: Norman Hamilton.

The main founder of Paris was industrialist Hiram “King” Capron, yet another American. His name is long-remembered in Ontario including for his many benefactions.

The pages below are from an 1883 history of Brant County. They outline Norman Hamilton’s career but also the social atmosphere that attended whisky in Ontario’s pioneer days. Calling it liberal would be an understatement, but it was typical of northeastern habits at the time, both sides of the porous border.

An odd thing is, 1883 is only some 30 years after the high-water mark of whisky’s reign (temperance mobilized after that to prompt a change in the “public mind”, to borrow a phrase elsewhere in the Brant history). That’s a big shift in one generation, I can’t think of anything really comparable in our time.

Understandably, given the writer’s mistrust of liquor and temperance stance – other parts of the book make this clear – he gets some of the whisky technics wrong. Canadian whisky almost certainly had more fusel oil in 1850 than in 1883, at least in a small place like Paris. Also, I doubt the pupils in question put their cup directly under the worm of the working still, although who knows. More likely they were given a diluted form of the drink by the proprietor.

The reference to the hard-driving, succeed-at-any cost Yankee perhaps reflects the dominance of a more conservative, Anglo-Canadian strain here by the 1880s. The old Yankee social presence, Loyalist or following in its wake, was diminished by a new, British-flavoured Canadian identity. The latter was fed by both organic development of our communities and increased U.K. immigration.

Ambitious Americans after 1850 clearly associated with their new land. John Wiser in Prescott became a British subject, for example, which had to smooth his path. (Hiram Walker never did that though, as far as I’m aware).

Still, if you read the separate bio entry on Norman Hamilton in the book, it is respectful and even admiring in tone. So maybe the Yankee reference wasn’t meant to be cutting.

Finally, do you know how Paris, ON was named? It wasn’t with reference to the French Paris, or the Paris of Grecian mythology. It was named after a plentiful local resource, gypsum – plaster of Paris. That is a satisfying explanation by my lights, plain and stolid as most of the people who founded this country and the one over yonder that provided much of its early base.


Note re images: the first image above of Paris, ON is from the website of Brant County, ON, here. The second and third images are from the Brant County history linked in the text, courtesy the digital library HathiTrust. All intellectual property in or to the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.