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From Confederation to Molson Canadian’s ‘Joe Canada’ – alcohol’s role in Canada’s history

CANADA 150

Smells like Canadian spirits

Patrons partake in libations at the Kinsmen Carnival beer parlour in Revelstoke, B.C., on June 30, 1944.

Since before Prohibition, alcohol has played a surprisingly important role in defining this nation, as both a key export and as a reflection of our friendly, good-natured character

One standout moment in the eternal debate about Canadian national identity was "The Rant," a Molson Canadian beer commercial from the year 2000.

Remember? An "average dude" dubbed "Joe Canada" let go a spiel that tapped into the current of nationalism and anti-Americanism that often lurks beneath our polite, collective surface. Although constitutional scholars would likely consider it lacking, that "I am Canadian" riff has contributed to our identity as a rather oppositional culture.

Especially our drinking culture. Drinks enthusiasts will always regale one another with wildly exaggerated stories of rum runners and whisky smugglers bringing spirits to thirsty Americans during Prohibition. Ridiculing weak American beer was practically a Canadian national pastime in the 1970s and 1980s, back when the famous "stubby" beer bottle was a source of pride and a symbol of our resistance to the cultural imperialism of the United States – that is, at least until the long-neck bottle finally took over.

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Unlike with food, people rarely say, "You are what you drink." But alcohol has played a surprisingly important role in defining this nation, both before Prohibition, when it was both a daily staple and a key export, and after, when it came to reflect our friendly, good-natured character and unique Canadian identity.

1864 – Champagne

Several of the Fathers of Confederation, photographed at the Charlottetown Conference in September, 1864.

Without the help of alcohol, specifically Champagne, Canada as we know it might not even have been born.

As with any free-trade agreement, Confederation was a tougher sell in some places than others. In what's now the Atlantic provinces, for example, some factions wanted to keep their options open with a view to developing better trade relations with the United States. To convince the delegates from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island that joining forces with Ontario and Quebec was their best option, the Canadians sent their best wine, as well as untold cases of Champagne.

No expense was spared for the elaborate, week-long bender, which turned out to be a winning strategy. As George Brown said, "[George-Étienne] Cartier and I made eloquent speeches, of course, and whether as a result of our eloquence or of the goodness of our champagne, the ice became broken, the tongues of the delegates wagged merrily, and the banns of matrimony between all the Provinces of BNA having been formally proclaimed."

1890 – Aged 'rye' whisky

A bottle of 1906 Seagram's Rye Whisky. Geoff George/ FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Canadian distillers got a big boost during the American Civil War: Production was stalled in the United States and demand was high, given that it was used for military and medical purposes on the battlefield. Distillers such as Toronto's Gooderham and Worts met the demand and reinvested their profits into increasing capacity at their facilities. Some distillers blended rye spirit in with corn, wheat and malted barley alcohol, giving it a spicy flavour profile and a new nickname – "rye."

In 1890, the Canadian government decided to protect the consistency and reputation of one of the country's most valuable exports by requiring that all Canadian whisky be aged for two years, making it the first country in the world to mandate an aging process.

1904 – Canada Dry Ginger Ale

Canada Dry / Cadbury

Towards the end of the 19th century, reformers became alarmed by the glut of cheap whisky and began championing tonics and soda fountains as an alternative to alcohol and the saloon. As Coca-Cola and other sodas became popular in the United States, pharmacist John J. McLaughlin imported the trend to Toronto, founding a carbonated water plant that offered sarsaparilla, cream soda and a dark ginger beer.

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After a few years of tinkering with the formula, he came up with Canada Dry Ginger Ale, a lighter, less-sweet alternative to the ginger drinks that were on the market. It was a hit, especially after it was named the official drink of the Household of the Governor General of Canada.

1919 – Medicinal liquor

During provincial prohibitions in Canada, a number of people got grey-area alcohol from pharmacists, who were legally allowed to dispense “medicinal liquor” to people who had a note from the doctor. Canada Dry / Cadbury

Even though Canada never had a country-wide prohibition on alcohol like the United States did, nearly every province took the pledge and voted to make their jurisdiction dry. Each province was different: Quebec was only dry for two years, for instance, while in PEI, prohibition stretched nearly half a century, from 1901 to 1948.

But, of course, there was moonshine, homemade beer and bootleg liquor. Plus, a number of people got grey-area alcohol from pharmacists, who were legally allowed to dispense "medicinal liquor" to people who had a note from the doctor. There were epidemics of illnesses leading up to every major holiday and the medicine, reportedly, tasted suspiciously similar to French brandy or Scotch whisky.

1924 – Beer parlours, micro beers and 'ladies and escorts'

A group of men drinking beer in Vancouver, B.C., circa 1912.


Quebec went back to business as usual in 1921, establishing Montreal as the cabaret capital of North America. Most provinces, though, didn't want to rush back into public drinking right away, having finally rid themselves of the troublesome saloon.

Alberta opened its beer parlours in 1924, leading the way in inventing restrictions designed to take as much fun as possible out of public drinking. Beer parlours were often divided into two segregated areas – men's beverage rooms and those reserved for "ladies and escorts." Across the country, other rules included not being able to stand with a drink in hand or listen to music.

Often, there was nothing available other than beer served in a regulation-sized eight-ounce glass. One file in the LCBO archives contains a 1945 letter of complaint from famed broadcaster Gordon Sinclair, rebuking the nanny state with a succinct and "trifling suggestion" for improvement: "A stein."

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1947 – Rye highballs

General manager Robin Kemp pours a rye and ginger from a tap at Maple Leaf Tavern in Toronto on June 23, 2016.

After the Second World War, many provinces sought to "modernize" liquor laws and one of the most common reforms was "liquor by the glass." Ontario was an early adopter in 1947, allowing spirits into the public sphere for the first time since 1916.

Time Magazine even came to Toronto to witness this giant leap for mankind, noting that many citizens, perhaps overwhelmed by all the exotic options of Zombies or Pink Lady cocktails, played it safe and ordered a rye highball. A fallback drink was born and, millions of orders for rye and gingers have been placed since.

1962 – Stubbies

From left: Beer bottles from 1725, 1815, 1855, 1875 and 1962.

Whether you chose to define yourself as an "Ex Man" or preferred Labatt Blue or Carling O'Keefe, the beer we drank in the 1960s and 1970s came out of a bottle called a "stubby."

Designed to stand up to more trips through the bottle-washing plant, it was adopted for practical reasons as opposed to aesthetic, but came to represent a Canadian identity, distinct from the United States and its long-neck bottles.

Alas, cultural imperialism won out and the long-neck bottle took over, but we can still catch a glimpse of the stubby making some of its final appearances on SCTV's Great White North skits, with Bob and Doug McKenzie.

1971 – Keg-sized vodka cocktails

A Keg-size Caesar.

When the Keg and Cleaver opened in Vancouver in 1971, the timing was perfect for a casual steakhouse concept. The focal point for fun times was the youthful bar area that came to be permanently associated with everyone's favourite branded upsell: "Would you like to make that Keg size?"

Now one of the country's best-loved restaurant chains, the Keg didn't invent doubles, of course. But as laws relaxed in most provinces, the chain took full advantage of a more liberal approach to selling booze and, whether celebrated with double Harvey Wallbangers or Bloody Caesars, birthdays haven't been the same since.

1991 – Inniskillin ice wine

An Inniskillin Winery grape picker harvesting vidal grapes during a 2002 cold snap. The harvest is usually at the end of December or the start of January.

Prior to 1991, most people treated Ontario wine as something you might have to drink if you didn't make it to the LCBO in time to buy something better. Donald Ziraldo helped to change all of that with his 1989 Inniskillin ice wine, which scooped the Vinexpo's Grand Prix d'Honneur. Although ice wine has a limited role to play at the dinner table, it helped open the door for Canadian winemakers in the global marketplace.

1994 – La Fin du Monde

Quebec brewer Unibroue's La Fin du Monde.

At a time when craft beer was still finding its legs in most of Canada, Unibroue in Chambly, Que. was perfecting the recipe for La Fin du Monde.

The Tripel-style golden ale would go on to win more awards than any other Canadian beer.

Just outside of Montreal, Unibroue helped establish that city as the country's leading craft beer capital.

Twenty-something years later, fine craft breweries can be found in Tofino, B.C., and Quidi Vidi, Nfld., and just about everywhere in between.

2001 – Julian's rum and Coke

A still from season 5 of Trailer Park Boys. Showcase

Julian's rum and Coke, a running gag in the Trailer Park Boys, probably didn't cause a spike in rum sales or threaten the supremacy of the Cosmopolitan and other faux martinis that reigned over bars at the turn of the millennium.

It was a nod, however, to a long-standing preference for rum in the Atlantic provinces (TPB is filmed in Nova Scotia), owing to colonial trade routes that saw cod and other goods traded for rum and molasses produced by slave labour in the Caribbean.

That's why Newfoundland has its own brand of rum, Screech, a spirit that's actually distilled in Jamaica and merely bottled in Canada.

2017 – Cool Canadian wines

Picked gewérztraminer grapes at the Hidden Terrace vineyard in Okanagan Falls, B.C.

To celebrate 150 years since Confederation, Canada was the "theme country" at this year's Vancouver International Wine Festival, a development many attendees remarked upon, since it just wouldn't have been possible to pour that many quality wines from Canada as recently as even a decade ago.

What's changed? Everything. For one, as bad as it is for the planet, global warming has pushed regions in Atlantic Canada over into the "right side of marginal." In addition, producers have finally figured out which grapes work best in which microclimate and how to get the most from them, a development that coincides with a movement towards establishing official small appellations for unique pockets within larger regions, which is good news for the industry.

Now that global tastes are appreciating the complexity of cool-climate wines again (as opposed to the flashy flavours of warmer climes), the future looks bright for Canadian wines.

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