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"What's Yer Poison?" - The Hooch in the Valley.


Wright's Tavern/Store at the Little Chaudière by James D. Duncan 1851

SINCE THE RECENT PANDEMIC drove people indoors, many have seen what would have normally been their Happy Hour expanded quietly into Happy Hours - not to mention the quiet expansion of their waistlines (fattening the curve, as my wife says).

One might even say that the fear of COVID-19 has caused the Capital Area to return to its lubricated beginnings when Bytown was said to be completely awash in the hooch.

Historians have written plenty about that time, when the Capital area was said to be nothing but a lawless, backwater, lumber town. A wild-wild West with shebeens (unlicensed or illegal taverns) galore that served poteen and shrub in the aptly named neighbourhood of Corktown (named after Cork, Ireland); tales of legendary roadhouses like Mother McGinty's and further upriver, Mrs. Firth's Tavern.

Served poutine and shrubs you say? Who knew that the Irishmen of Corktown had a taste for poutine ... but shrubs?

Actually, Poteen [1] is the Irish name for raw whiskey, straight from the still - aka moonshine - that would become the ruin of many a man in early Bytown. Shrub was a concoction enjoyed in the American colonies - and apparently, Bytown - that was a mix of fruit juice, sugar, vinegar, and lots of rum. Ummm, yummy ... NOT!

Victorian Gin Palace

There can be little doubt that a lot of drinking occurred during the construction of the Rideau Canal and when Bytown became a lumber town (in sober moments - plenty of men put pen to paper to tell us about it!) [2] But could there really have been that much drinking going on in the time of the earliest settlement of the Ottawa Valley? Surely the struggles of pioneer life - clearing land, building shelters & mills, growing crops - must have made it darn near impossible to be drinking all the time, wouldn't it? And where in tarnation would they get their booze from?


Essential services

MANY BELIEVE that people in the 1800s were teetotalers [3] but nothing can be farther from the truth. Just as we have learned in our own historic moment of isolation, the supply of alcoholic refreshment is almost universally seen as an essential service - and it was no different back then. So, it should be no surprise that for settlers too, setting up an early version of the LCBO in the colony was a priority. With no regular delivery service from the Old Country, importing aqua vitae [4] was impractical and much too expensive. Back in Europe, most people had grown up never drinking anything but beer, because the water could kill you.

An 18th century alembic still.

The first settlers in the New World were the French, English, and Spanish. The French and Spanish brought wine, the English brought beer, rum, and whisky. No sooner than when they were all settled in, did they begin to produce alcoholic beverages from fruits and berries (apples, pears, elderberries, blackberries, etc.), sometimes from vegetables and even from flowers, oak leaves, and dandelions. [5] Most colonial farmers had small pot stills for personal brewing and local trade. [6] In their determination and ingenuity to make alcoholic beverages, the settlers would not be deterred, as this 18th century poem suggests:

If barley be wanting to make into malt,

We must be content and think it no fault,

For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,

Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips. [7]


To quote American historian Dr. R.J. Rorabaugh:

Alcohol was pervasive in American society ... They drank while working in the fields and while traveling across half a continent ... in lumber camps and on satin settees, in log taverns and at fashionable New York Hotels, the American greeting was, “Come, Sir, take a dram first.” Seldom was it refused. [8]

For example, religious events were occasions for drinking. Consumed at the ordination of a minister in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1780, were six and one-half gallons of hard cider, 25 gallons of wine, two gallons of brandy, and four gallons of rum. [9]

The Old Brewery at Five Points, New York, built in 1792

The first real brewery in the New World was founded in 1633 in New Amsterdam (New York) and by 1657, rum distilleries were operating in both New Jersey and in Boston. Kentucky whiskey was only invented around 1789, so raw whiskey was often mixed with rum to make it drinkable. At this time, people were also drinking some pretty interesting cocktails with names like Flip, Stone-Fence, Rattle-Skull, Sangaree and Syllabub. (Click here for the recipes)

There are few records from the earliest settlements in the Ottawa Valley that shed much light on the drinking habits of our first settlers. However, I think we can assume that settlers like Philemon Wright, founder of Wright's Town in 1800 (Gatineau, today), Joseph Papineau, founder of the Seigneurie de La Petite-Nation in 1803, Bradish Billings, the first settler in Gloucester Township in 1813 (Billings Bridge, today), Jehiel Collins, founder of Collin's Landing in 1809, (Richmond Landing, today), Hamnett Pinhey, founder of Horaceville in 1820, and Archibald McNab, founder of McNab/Braeside in 1825, brought their drinking habits with them.

Firth's Tavern at South End of the Union Bridge 1827

The Canadian Encyclopedia does tell us that the first recorded distillery in Canada was established at Québec City in 1769 to produce rum from imported molasses. Curated Food & Drink Magazine tells us that John Molson, the founder of Molson Brewery, began the first commercial-scale production of whisky in Canada after purchasing a copper pot still in 1801. Both sources, however, report little else about that early period except that by 1840, over 200 distilleries were operating in Upper and Lower Canada. But the stories about the Ottawa valley are certainly worth recounting.

The Curious History of drinking in the Capital

THE FIRST RECORDED DISTILLERY in the Ottawa Valley, was established between 1811 and 1813 when the Old Squire, Philemon Wright installed his first distilleries on his Gattenoe and Columbia farms.[10]

An early record from 1796 tells us that Philemon sold some hops from his farm in Woburn Mass. to John Molson in Montreal, so Philemon obviously participated, at least as a supplier, in the process of brewing beer. But did Philemon do any brewing or distilling of his own before building the large distilleries of his settlement? That, we don't know for certain. His first grist mill, built at the falls was operating by 1802, so he certainly had the ground grain required to produce spirits and beer by then and as a farmer, he certainly knew how.

Once the timber industry was launched in 1806, there is mention of provisioning the shanties and rafts with spirits (rum, whiskey, wine or hard cider) in the Wright archives, and much of it appears to be imported from Montreal.

A View of the Mill and Tavern of Philemon Wright at the Chaudière Falls, Hull by Henry DuVernet 1823 LAC

But then, after 1811, Wright opened his distilleries. The Wrights had three taverns operating by 1818; one at Turnpike End (Aylmer, today), one in Wright's Town, and one at the steamboat landing (where the Canadian Museum of History is today). By this time, there was also starting to be a proliferation of shebeens everywhere.

Settlers with small pot stills could open up a business selling whatever they concocted to whoever wanted a belt of whatever. It became a real problem in the settlements so, in 1823, the government passed a law governing the licensing of persons selling alcohol in the province. In accordance with the law, the principal officers of the militia, the senior magistrate, and the churchwarden met to decide the number of licenses to be granted and the worthiness of the applicants.

In 1825, Philemon Wright (Justice of the Peace), Gideon Olmstead (Captain of the Militia - and father-in-law of Philemon Jr.), and Thomas Brigham (Churchwarden - and Philemon's son-in-law) determined that "... three Publick Houses of Entertainment and retailing of spiritous liquors were necessary and sufficient for the Township of Hull". [11] Needless to say, the system was fixed in their favour. By 1825, the family firm would have two distilleries, one brewery, three hotels, and three taverns in operation.

Brewery Bay in Bytown by John Burrows 1831

Meanwhile, on the south side of the river, between where Parliament Hill and the Supreme Court sit today, a brewery began operating sometime between 1819 and 1830. It was probably built by a young Irishman by the name of Ralph Smith, who was born in Shinrone, County Offaly, Ireland in 1785. Smith arrived here in 1819 and built his house next to Jehiel Collins, at what is Richmond Landing, today. Later, he would become the Master-Distiller for P. Wright & Sons.

In 1819, Mrs. Firth's Tavern also opened. It was probably one of the most popular - and famous - taverns in Bytown history: "Mother Firth's tavern catered to the trade of the river ... a cabin-inn where she served raw whiskey and hot scones to husky river men. They made love to her and broke log jams in sheer bravado under her windows, brought her gifts of forest and stream, and fought for her smile." [12] Make of that what you will!

Of the Corktown shebeens, however, only one gained enough fame to be known by name: Mother McGinty's. There is a bar in Ottawa's Byward Market that still carries her name. William Pittman Lett wrote a terrific poem about Mother McGinty's and it is well worth reading. I have included it at the bottom of the footnotes. [Endnote]

In all of this, mention must be made, also, of the small distillery that was producing true highland malt whisky in 1820. It was opened in Perth by John ‘Craigdarroch’ Ferguson, from Laggan, Perthshire, Scotland. He was the first distiller to produce highland malt (Scotch) whisky, which he branded Craigdarroch of Perth. (For more info, click here) It was the one Canadian whisky that gained ready approval of scotch aficionado, John Mactaggart, Clerk of the Works of the Rideau Canal.[13]


The booze in the bush

IN THE FARMS throughout the settlements, goods and products were traded and bartered, so naturally, whiskey and beer became a currency. Then, when the timber industry began in earnest, more and more men arrived to occupy the rafts and the shanties on both sides of the river. Suddenly, there were hundreds of manly men doing many manly things, with manly drink ... with axes and peavies in their hands. Yikes!

It wasn't long before the Wrights and others involved realized that they needed to control the liquor consumption in the industry, as well as the taverns themselves, so they imposed strict rules. Any lumbermen in the shanties who didn't obey were summarily dismissed ... but once they left the shanty or the raft, all bets were off. The men would seek whatever tavern they found, to drink as much as their pay or credit would let them.

A Shebeen at Donnybrook by Erskine Nicol 1851

When construction of the Union Bridge and the Rideau Canal began, the proliferation of shebeens once again plagued the communities on both sides of the river. There was not a lot of drunkenness reported on the job, though, despite alcohol being rationed to each worker on the Canal. As John Mactaggart reported: "Plenty of spirits, and provisions of all sorts, with beds, blankets,mits, caps, shoes, etc. shall be always at hand, in the Government store, to answer whatever demands may come for such articles by the people on the work, so that every one may be kept strong, healthy, and cheerful. There is a melancholy peculiar to Canada, which must be combated. People who labour under it must be encouraged with soothing language, good treatment, and now and then, as circumstances require, a little assistance, gratis, as a stimulant." [13]


The last (drunken) word

THE MANY DISTILLERIES, microbreweries and taverns of the Capital Area today, serve much better libations than the many potions drunk by our Valley ancestors. Moderation seems to be more prevalent in today's Byward, but there is no sign, either in the history of the Capital or in its present-day occupants, that temperance will ever rule the day. And why should it? In the sage words of Raphaël Holinshed, who wrote, in 1577, that whisky had the following advantages:


Being moderately taken, it slows the age, cuts phlegm, helps digestion, cures the dropsy, it heals the strangulation, keeps and preserves the head from whirling, the tongue from lisping, the stomach from womblying, the guts from rumbling, the hands from shivering, the bones from aching … and truly it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderly taken.[14]


Slàinte Mhath! [15]

[1] Poitín (an Irish word pronounced puh-cheen and puh-teen), which dates back to at least the 6th century, is an ancient farm-based spirit that’s made in a single pot still, and takes its name for the Irish word for ‘little pot’, pota. It’s traditionally made with starchy crops grown on the farm, which have since been limited by statuatory definition to potatoes, cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet and molasses. It’s been necessary to have a license to produce the stuff since way back in 1556, when Parliament decided regulation of such a toxic offering was necessary. (For a fun video about poteen-tasting, click here)

From John Mactaggart, in 1829: "I am happy to find, by a late act, passed in the Provincial Government of Upper Canada, that potatoe (sic) whisky distillation will be almost put an end to; for this is the absolute poison of Upper Canada,-the laudanum that sends thousands of settlers to their eternal rest every season ... and it is a distillation little better-made of frosty potatoes, hemlock, pumpkins, and black mouldy rye. No hell broth that the witches concocted of yore, can equal it. They never put such ingredients in their cauldrons,- " Bubble, bubble-toil and trouble, Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."


[2] Excerpt from History of the Rideau Canal: When death by accident occurred an inquest was held to determine the reason. A number of the accidents were self-inflicted, a result of alcoholic overindulgence. An inquest held into the death of John Rusenstrom, killed in a fall from the Hogs Back dam, found that his death was the "consequence of intoxication by Ardent Spirits". Patrick Sweeney, a construction labourer at Old Sly's, drowned while trying to swim across the Rideau River to obtain another bottle of whiskey. He was inebriated when he made the attempt. In the August 1831 inquest into his death, the coroner stated: "When last seen alive, he was going down with a bottle or flask in his mouth." William Ferguson, a fellow labourer, "after returning from the [Sweeney's] funeral, expired in the open streets at Smiths' Falls, in the arms of his fellow workmen". The jury in the inquest into his death concluded that it "was caused by intemperance." (For more info, click here)


[3] In 1833, a certain Richard Turner of Preston, England, used the word to advocate for "Tee-Total" abstinence from all alcohol, not just abstinence from hard liquor. Preston was ground zero for England's temperance movement, and "Dicky Turner's word" quickly became famous on both sides of the Atlantic, to the point where Dicky had "Author of the Word TEETOTAL" carved on his gravestone. Since it first sprang into linguistic life in England, teetotalers did tend to drink tea in lieu of tipples, but the word arose from a kind of emphatic stutter.

Some say that using "tee-total" for emphasis had been a longstanding local word in Lancashire, Preston's county, but the OED contends that "tee-totally" was a lot more common - either way, it was Dicky Turner who attached the tongue-tickling term to total abstinence. (For more info, click here)


[4] The Latin Aqua vitae translates to the water of life as does uisce beatha (wish-ka ba-ha) in Irish and uisge beatha (ish-ka-ba) is Scottish Gaelic. Fuisce (fwish-ka) is the Irish word for whiskey - but spell that whisky, if it's scotch!


[5] Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America by Jack H. Mendelson and Nancy K. Mello; Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown & Co., 1985.

[6] Ibid. Colonial farmers traded goods and manufactured much of what they needed and either owned their own grist mill or had ready access to one. Spirits and beer, easily made in small pot stills, provided a simpler way for trading and transporting to market the excess of their crops of grain. It was much easier - and more profitable - to transport and sell a barrel of beer or whiskey than it was to cart sheaves of grain.


[7] Drinking in America by Mark E. Lender and James K. Martin, New York; Free Press, 1982.


[8] The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition by William J. Rorabaugh, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 20-21.


[9] Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by John Kobler; NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973, p. 28.


[10] Philemon identifies two of his farms as Gateno (1800) owned & managed by his son Philemon Jr., on the south bank, and Gattenoe (1811) owned & managed by his son Tiberius, on the north bank - presumably named simply for their location by that river. It is just as he identifies two of his other farms as Columbia Falls (1801), owned and managed by Philemon Sr., and Columbia (1811), owned and managed by Thomas Brigham after 1834 - again, presumably named for their location by the falls.

(SOURCE: Appendix to the XXXIIIIRD Volume of the Journals of the House of Assembly of the Province of Lower-Canada. Fourth Session of the Eleventh Provincial Parliament; Sketch of the First Settlement on the Ottawa or Grand River. The Committee having requested from P. WRIGHT, 1824)


[11] The James Finlayson Taylor papers; Taylor Fonds, Aylmer Heritage Association. J.F. Taylor was the long-time clerk of P. Wright & Sons, and a son-in-law of Philemon Wright.


[12] Ottawa Valley Days - Memories of Early Bytown Cluster around the Old Sparks Mansion. The Ottawa Journal, Jan. 7, 1939, pg. 17.

[13] Three Years in Canada, an Account of the Actual State of the Country in 1826-7-8. John Mactaggart, Vol. I, London: Henry Colburn, New Burlington Street, pgs. 160-1.


[14] Raphaël Holinshed was a historian and chronicler who wrote extensively on the British Isles and its constituent countries, recorded in his 1577 book, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.


[15] The term Slàinte Mhath (Pronounced Slawn-che-va) is actually both Irish and Scots Gaelic. The way the phrase is pronounced is the same for both dialects, however the way it is spelled differs subtly. The Irish spell it Slàinte Mhaith. The phrase translates to "Good health" in both dialects.


[Endnote] From Recollections of Bytown and its Old Inhabitants, by William Pittman Lett, 1874:

Mother McGinty's

In days of yore, within a call Of where stands now the City Hall, A village built of mud and wood, In all its glory, Corkstown stood, Two rows of cabins in the swamp— Begirt by ponds and vapors damp And aromatic cedar trees Who’s branches caught the passing breeze— Stretched upward on the western side Of the “Deep Cut,” where then were plied The spade and pickaxe side by side; For, by the shade of Colonel By, Who shaped this city’s destiny! There delved full many a hard case in, That channel to the Canal Basin. There, then dwelt many a sturdy blade, Adepts at handling the spade, And bruisers at the wheeling trade, As witness the vast mounds of clay Remaining on the banks to-day. Lovers of poteen strong and clear, In preference to rum or beer, Sons of the sod who’d knock you down For half a word ‘gainst Cork’s own town, And kick you then for falling too, To prove that the old mountain dew Had frolic in it raw and strong, As well as music, love and song. And there in whitewashed shanty grand, With kegs and bottles on each hand, Her face decked with a winning smile, Her head with cap of ancient style, Crowned arbiter of frolic’s fate, Mother McGinty sat in state, And measured out the mountain dew To those whom strong attraction drew Within the circle of her power, To while away a leisure hour. She was the hostess and the host, She kept the reckoning, ruled the roast, And swung an arm of potent might That few would dare to brave in fight; Yet was she a good-natured soul, As ever filled the flowing bowl; In sooth she dealt in goodly cheer, Half-pints of whiskey, quarts of beer, Strong doses of sweet peppermint, Fine old Jamaica without stint, And shrub—a cordial then well known— Her thirsty customers poured down, Nor dreamed of headaches, or of ills, For nought killed then, but doctors’ pills! The song, the dance, and glass went round, The precincts of that classic ground; And when bent on a tearing spree, Filled full of grog and jollity, The bacchanalian rant they made Would please even old Anacreon’s shade, While o’er them the athletic charms Of the stern hostess’s bare arms, Struck terror and kept order in The revel’s hottest, wildest din! For cash or credit bartered she, The prime ingredients of a spree; And he stood always above par Who never stone threw at the bar; And when a man had spent his all, She chalked the balance on the wall. Figures or letters she knew not, But what a customer had got By hieroglyphics well she knew, For there exposed to public view Each debtor’s tally great and small Appeared upon the bar-room wall. A short stroke for a half-pint stood, A longer for a quart was good, While something like an Eagle’s talon Upon her blackboard was a gallon. And woe to him, who soon or late His tally did not liquidate; For when her goodly company Were all assembled for a spree, She read off each delinquent’s score, And at his meanness loudly swore, And threatened when he next appeared, Unless the entry all was cleaed, To lay on future drinks a stricture, And photograph, perhaps, his picture In pewter, for the unpaid tally, As given, I think, in C. O’Malley. Old Corkstown was a merry place On pay-day, when the soaking race Assembled full of fun and glee At Mother McGinty’s for a spree, No total abstinence was known In those days in that little town, Nor many nasal organs tainted For lack of time to get them painted; No moderate drinker showed his face Within that much resorted place, For temperance had not then began To trench upon the rights of man, Sure had he trod on danger’s edge Who dared there to propose the pledge. Such monstrous doctrine there had been Followed by “wigs upon the green.” None there refused the offered glass, Or dared to let the bottle pass For, casus belli this was strong, Unless with a good roaring song The recreant could in his defence Atone for such most strange offence. Sometimes, nay oft, upon the street Antagonistic friends would meet By chance, or by some other charm, To try each other’s strength of arm, And without legal process settle Disputes, like men of taste and mettle; And while strict “Fair Play” ruled the fight, It was a sort of rough delight For youthful souls while hanging round That ancient famous battle ground, To note who first the claret drew— who first down his opponent threw— Who first produced the limner’s dyes Beneath his neighbor’s damaged eyes, Or sowed the trodden ground beneath With smashed incisors, like the teeth, The dragon’s tusks of ancient ken From which sprung hosts of armed men. Such pastime was a frequent thing, The entertainment of the ring, Without equestrian or clown Was often seen in Cork’s own town, And best, for impecunious boys Who boasted few of modern joys, Who daily went to see the play Had no admission fee to pay. But gone is Corkstown, vanished too The whitewashed shanty from our view, Where once the minstrel’s youthful eyes Beheld strange orgies with surprise. In dust its stalwart hostess now, Reposes, placid is the brow That once frowned terror o’er the throng While revelling in the dance and song, Gone with them are the fading dyes Which tinged fair childhood’s happy skies, The brilliant firmament of youth Has vanished, and but leaves the truth Written wherever mortals range That things below are doomed to change.

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