Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2007

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Distilleries in Canada

[to 1948]


Distilleries. Among the earliest records of distilling in Canada, we find, towards the end of the eighteenth century, that the French fur-traders and settlers in what is now Quebec were distilling their own rum from molasses brought from the West Indies in British ships-the duties on West Indian rum being prohibitive, owing to the trade and shipping laws of the time. The seaport towns had little difficulty in obtaining imported wines, brandies, and other liquors which to the upper classes, both French and English alike, were practical necessities. The habitant, if he could not afford or obtain these imports, soon constructed his own still, and concocted his own "whiskey blanc" from potatoes, corn, or wheat grists.

In Upper Canada, on the other hand, conditions were different. There were no seaports, and transportation was difficult and slow; hence there was a very much smaller percentage of imported wines and liquors on the market. The pioneer farmers brewed certain kinds of birch and spruce beer, but there was a need felt for something stronger to enable them to carry on their daily struggle for existence. The difficulties of transportation did much to bring about the "solution" of their needs, for the poorer grades of wheat and middlings and the unexportable surplus from the many flour-mills throughout Ontario found their way into the still. There are records of small distilleries connected with a great many of the early flour-mills in the first half of the nineteenth century. As early as 1812 we read of several in the London district; an advertisement in the Western Mercury for February 17; 1822, tells of the "Ancaster Flour Mills and Distillery" offering two gallons of whiskey in return for sixty lbs. of rye or Indian corn; by 1836 in the Bathurst district, with a population of 30,000, there were six small distilleries. Among some of the earlier ones that may be mentioned are the distillery of John Scott at Brantford, that at Peterborough known as Scott's Mills, several in the town of Lindsay, and others worked at or owned by Francis Squair in the vicinity of Bowmanville.

The story of the York Windmill best illustrates the beginnings of an early Canadian distillery. The flour-mill of Messrs. Gooderham and Worts on the shore of lake Ontario in the town of Muddy York was completed, and the first barrels of flour were sold in 1832. In the old accounts of the firm we read that grist and middlings were sold to one William Arthur for his distillery. Earlier records show that there were other stills in the town, one owned by John Ward, one by John Maitland, who conducted the "City Distilleries", and one in connection with a brewery.

Prior to 1794 there had been no still tax in Upper Canada, but in that year a tax of one shilling and three-pence on each gallon containable in the body of the still was imposed. Various changes and increases were made in this tax, and the duty on British spirits was increased to one shilling a gallon where Canadian whiskey sold for the same amount. Messrs. Gooderham and Worts were not long in seeing what was to be gained by building their own distillery as an addition to their mill. The first spirit was produced in October, 1837, and it is evident that there were facilities for malting. It was not till 1846 that any law was enacted regarding strength requirements, but progress was made in the business, a higher grade whiskey was distilled, and another still, under John Dew at Kirtly Mill, was put into operation in 1840. In May of that year, Gooderham consigned 35 barrels of whiskey to a firm in Montreal from Kirtly Mill and some 60 or 70 barrels from the Windmill distillery. For some time a hydrometer had been used for measuring the proof spirits, and several years later it is evident that a rectifying house had been built, as purer spirits were being produced, thus supplying medicinal and pharmaceutical needs. Probably the first Canadian alcohol, as such, was distilled here; some of this was shipped to Montreal indicating that none was made there. Brandy and gin were also manufactured at the Windmill, which by 1845 bore the imposing name of "Toronto City Steam Mills and Distillery", when the Windmill itself was no more than a landmark. By 1861 a new stone distillery with copper stills and brass works had replaced the old structure with its wooden apparatus, and the better brands of Canadian whiskey "Toddy" and "Old Rye Whiskey" were making a name for Gooderham and Worts not only in Lower Canada but abroad as well.

After England's repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 the great boom in flour-milling in Canada dropped off, and distilling became more of a recognized industry on its own account, in spite of the strong wave of temperance societies and anti-saloon leagues which swept the country after 1830. It was in the 1850's that many of the leading Canadian distilleries of to-day had their beginnings. An early account of Canadian industries published in 1868 mentions the outstanding Canadian whiskies as being Morton's Proof made in Kingston and those made by Gooderham and Worts of Toronto and by Halliday and Co. of Maitland. In southern Ontario, near the United States border, Hiram Walker erected his first distillery in 1858. To-day the distillery at Walkerville is the most extensive plant of its kind in Canada. It was incorporated in 1926 as Hiram Walker's Limited, and the following year the holding company formed a merger with Gooderham and Worts, Ltd., the owners of the former Windmill Distillery, and the company is now known as Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts Ltd. In 1930 a subsidiary, the Dominion Carbon Company, was formed to market a byproduct, carbonic acid gas, and an interest was acquired in a Scottish firm of bottlers and blenders. In 1933 an American subsidiary at Peoria, Illinois, was acquired, the repeal of the Volstead Act having opened up a vast new market for distilling companies.

In 1857, Joseph Seagram of Waterloo, Ontario, erected the distillery which was the forerunner of that taken over by the Montreal firm, Distillers' Corporation, affiliated with the Distillers' Company of Great Britain and backed by all the experience and methods of Burnett and Co. of London, Distillers' Corporation-Seagram's Ltd. was incorporated in 1928 and has an American subsidiary plant, the Rossville Union Distillers Inc.

Other Canadian distillers which may be mentioned are Melcher's Distillery, of Montreal, with its plant at Berthierville, Quebec, which was represented at the Royal Commission's enquiry into the liquor traffic in 1895; the Vancouver Brewers and Distillers Ltd., incorporated in 1926 with plants at New Westminster, British Columbia, and that of the Pioneer Distillers at Amherstburg, Ontario. At the time of the Commission's enquiry there was but one distillery in Nova Scotia; in 1933 there was also one listed, called the Berwick Fruit Bye-Products Ltd., at Berwick, Nova Scotia. The evidence given at the enquiry indicates that there was much illicit distilling, particularly in Quebec and the North West Territories, and also that some firms, licensed as compounders and importers only, did a little distilling on the side.

To complete the story of distilling in Canada, we must trace the beginnings of the Canadian Industrial Alcohol Co. Ltd. from the tiny distillery erected in 1859 by Henry Corby at his mills at Corbyville near Belleville, Ontario. In 1906 Corby sold his distilling interests to the Henry Corby Distilling Co. under Mortimer (later Sir Mortimer) Davis and the old distillery was destroyed by fire in 1907. A new one was built and later incorporated with a commercial alcohol venture of Mortimer Davis under the title of Consolidated Distilleries Ltd. of Montreal with a plant at Corbyville and one at Marpole, British Columbia. The opening of the industrial alcohol plant at Thurlow, Ontario, known as the Canadian Industrial Alcohol Co. Ltd., was followed, in 1924, by the reorganization of the company under the same name, with a controlling interest in the shares of Consolidated Distilleries Ltd.; Wiser's Distillery of Montreal, with its plant at Prescott, Ontario; the St. Hyacinthe Distillery at St. Hyacinthe, Quebec; and in the West, the Consolidated Distilleries of Manitoba Ltd., with its plant at St. Boniface, Manitoba, and the Canadian Industrial Alcohol Co. of Manitoba. Canadian Industrial Alcohols also has a half-interest in the National Canadian Distillers Inc. (Delaware Charter), an American firm, and a large interest in Robert McNish and Co. Ltd., of London, England.

See E. Shuttleworth, The windmill and its times (Toronto, 1924) ; John Squair, The townships of Darlington and Clarke (Toronto, 1915) ; W. Kirkconnell, Victoria County centennial history (Toronto, 1921); H. Beaumont Small, Products and manufactures of the' new Dominion (Ottawa, 1868).


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 214-216.


© 2007 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College