Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Canada, Our Back-Up Distillery to the North.

Americans, especially those of us who live near the border with Canada, discovered Canadian whiskey during Prohibition. This was no accident. While most of Canada’s population lives relatively near the border, that country’s major distilleries were deliberately sited as close to us as possible. Even in 1858, when Detroit grocer Hiram Walker decided to establish a distillery, he chose a site in Canada, less than one mile across the river, in part because he expected the growing U.S. Temperance Movement to eventually succeed.

Walker always sold his products in the USA, to the point where U.S. distillers, smarting from the competition, demanded country of origin labeling. They believed no good American would buy Walker's Club Whisky if they knew it came from a foreign land. Walker wasn't worried and cheerfully changed his product's name to Canadian Club.

It's hard to remember this now, but gentle, doe-eyed Canada was once our bitter enemy.

Sometimes, if you're too prescient, you won't live long enough to benefit from your foresight. Walker didn't. He died 20 years before Prohibition shut down all the legal distilleries on this side of the border and overnight increased the demand for Canadian whiskey by orders of magnitude.

Canadian law officially did not permit the export of spirits into the dry U.S. market, but row boats would show up daily at the Walkerville docks, declare their destination as “Jamaica,” and be sent on their way loaded down with all the whiskey they could carry. For more about Canadian whiskey smuggling during Prohibition, go here.

The Walker family owned the distillery unti 1926, when it was acquired by Harry Hatch, a Canadian entrepreneur who started out with a small liquor store in Whitby, Ontario. By the time Prohibition ended, Hatch and Sam Bronfman of Seagram's pretty much owned the whole Canadian whiskey industry. When once again distilling became legal in the USA, Hatch built the biggest whiskey distillery ever in Peoria, Illinois.

All of this is me working up to a review of the limited edition, 30-year-old Canadian Club expression, just released to celebrate the distillery’s 150-year anniversary. I'll have that up soon.

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