Exactly who made the first Canadian whisky, and where or when they made it, will never be known. Canada’s original inhabitants did not distill alcohol, but when European immigrants began arriving en masse, whisky and whisky stills arrived with them. By 1767 James Grant was operating a rum distillery with a capacity of 70,000 gallons in Quebec City. Within twenty years this output had grown nearly six times to 400,000 gallons distilled in four copper pot stills.
Almost certainly dozens, if not hundreds, of small home distillers had preceded Grant.
Throughout the eighteenth century, stills arrived in Lower Canada (Quebec), from England via the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then eventually in Upper Canada (Ontario) with the earliest European settlers and later with United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution (1775-1783).
In 1794, when Métis fur trader Nicolas Montour bought the derelict Montreal Distillery Company from Isaac Todd, Canada was still seventy-odd years away from being a country in its own right, but already some distilling businesses had flourished and failed along the way. At the same time, 480 kilometres west in York (Toronto), John Graves Simcoe, who was Upper Canada’s lieutenant governor, reported that residents were distilling their excess grain into spirits. And he encouraged this effort. By 1801, fifty-one licensed stills served a population of fewer than 15,000 residents in Upper Canada. The tiny size of these “distilleries” well into the 1850s is illustrated in Port Hope, where eight distilleries served a population of 2,500. That’s one distillery for every 300 residents, regardless of age. Sadly, none of these distilleries left behind even a trace. Although we assume that many other Upper Canadian stills operated unofficially, several hundred people did the Canadian thing and bought distilling licenses. Many of these stills were operated as adjuncts to gristmills, but others were simply household appliances.
Some certainly did try their hand at commercial distilling, but for most success was short-lived. John McLaren and Spalding & Stewart, for example, each had some success with Scottish-style malt distilleries in Perth, Ontario, but they eventually could not compete with rye whisky or column stills. These column stills, incidentally, were developed in Canada using European and American designs. Hundreds of other small distillers followed McLaren and Spalding & Stewart into bankruptcy, especially after the 1890 ageing law came into force.
Contrary to popular supposition, it was largely English and continental European immigrants who successfully introduced commercial whisky making to Canada and who later developed Canadian whisky into the distinctive sweet and spicy spirit it is today. Scottish and Irish settlers were, in effect, sidebars to the larger story. It was Molson, Gooderham, Worts, Corby, and Seagram—all of them English—who set the foundations for Canadian whisky. Wiser and Hespeler were of German descent, while Randall and Walker were from New England. The Scots and Irish who first settled the Atlantic provinces took advantage of ready access to Caribbean molasses and consequently distilled rum, as did settlers along the St. Lawrence River as far inland as Montreal. Indeed, Canada’s first known whisky still was built for making rum in a small distillery just outside of Montreal. No doubt, early Canadian distillers learned sour mash techniques from their American counterparts. American distillers were themselves influenced in their selection of grains by those Dutch and German settlers who, since the fifteenth century, had been distilling rye to make alcohol in their homelands.
Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century convulsed the territory that was to become the United States. People loyal to the British crown trekked north. These United Empire Loyalists have been credited with introducing whisky making to Canada. However, beyond this mythology, no record has been found to confirm anything close to production at a commercial level. By 1890, the Loyalists’ tiny mill- and farm-based operations had disappeared entirely. Other immigrants brought the skills of whisky making on a commercial scale with them. Indeed, if the United Empire Loyalists had any influence at all, it was probably the Dutch and Germans among them who influenced Canadian distillers to add a few shovelfuls of rye to their mashes, marking the turning point for Canadian whisky.
Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky Second Edition: The New Portable Expert is now available.
Excerpted from Canadian Whisky Second Edition: The New Portable Expert. Copyright © 2017 Davin de Kergommeaux. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.