From small-town grain to international acclaim

There was a time, not long ago, when the mere mention of Canadian Whisky would draw a confused look and dismissive response. It’s easy to understand whisky belonging to the Scottish. Even King James IV was known to enjoy a dram in the early 16th Century. Or perhaps the Irish? The word whisky was derived from a Gaelic saying meaning “Water of Life,” and the spirited country is home to the world’s oldest official whiskey distillery – dating back to 1608. Even the United States of America has quite a storied history with the golden liquid – George Washington himself had a distillery at Mount Vernon, and whisky was used as currency during the American Revolution. But what about Canada?  What about our whisky and its history? With ever-increasing popularity (and consumption) on a global scale, heads are turning our way, and once incredulous naysayers are interested in our story.

Distilled spirits have been made in Canada since the first Europeans introduced distilling technology to the new world. One of the first official records of distillation in Canada dates to 1769 in Quebec City. And, of course, in our port city of Halifax, illicit distillation figured prominently throughout the middle of the 18th century. By the 1840’s there were over 200 distilleries in production in our young country.  John Molson, the founder of Molson Brewery, purchased a copper pot still once used to make rum, and in 1801, he began the first commercial-scale production of whisky in Canada. The 19th century saw a massive expansion in distillation methods; with most spirits being made with the abundance of grain from our fertile lands. And, with whisky’s popularity, came the barons and businessmen to stake their claim.

James Worts and William Gooderham, a pair of brothers-in-law from England, relocated to Toronto in 1831 and established a milling company that processed grain from Ontario farms and shipped it out via the port of Toronto. Having access to world-class grain, the means to process it, and the security of an already prosperous business, Gooderham expanded the company in 1837 and began brewing and distilling. In a few short years making whisky would be the most lucrative part of their business and the sole focus of the new enterprise. By the 1850’s Gooderham and Worts Company began building a large-scale production site in Toronto, now a National Historic Site known as the Distillery District. In its first year of production in 1862, the distillery was responsible for one-quarter of all spirits sold in Canada – an industry so powerful it commanded the establishment of railways and city infrastructure. With further expansion, the company became one of Toronto’s largest employers and, at the time, the largest producer of whisky in the world.

Hiram Walker, an entrepreneur born in New England, moved to Detroit in 1838. He quickly purchased a plot of land across from the Detroit River just outside of Windsor, Ont., and in 1858 he established a distillery. With Whisky being in such high demand, both in Canada and the United States, Walker set out to make a whisky vastly different than other distillers, and by doing so, defined Canadian Whisky. Walker began selling his product, Hiram Walker’s Club Whisky and made a name for himself. Ageing his whisky in barrels, gave it its signature colour and mellow flavour – a distinctive approach at the time. Many American distillers were angered at his success across the river and forced a law to be passed that required all foreign whisky to state their country of origin on their bottle. With that Canadian Club Whisky was born and became Canada’s top export – especially during the Civil War. Walker, among many distillers, profited greatly. And much like Gooderham and Worts, the business expanded far beyond the grain. Walker became one of the largest landowners in Ontario, founding Walkerville – still a heritage precinct in Windsor today. He quite literally built a town to expand his business interests and offer amenities most urban centers were lacking. The Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor remains the largest distillery in North America.

In 1890 the Canadian Government became the first country in the world to mandate whisky production. By law, our whisky had to be made from Canadian Grain and barrel- aged for no less than two years. This legislation protected the quality of Canadian Whisky, offered tax cuts, and would become a model for other countries to follow. Scotland didn’t enact its own ageing law until 1916, and when they did, one of the oldest and most distinguished whisky-producing countries in the world looked to us for direction. In the last few years, Canada’s whisky industry has received international attention, with renowned expert Jim Murray rating some of our whiskies the best in the world. Even with centuries of whisky production behind us, our current moment shines brightest for Canadian Whisky.