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Is Canadian Club Whiskey Really Just Detroit Whiskey?

It was the brainchild of a Michigan businessman who never renounced his American citizenship and only moved his whiskey-making facilities a mile inside of Canada for the cost savings

One of the geographic anomalies that accentuates the uniqueness of life in Southeast Michigan is the relationship between Michiganians and Canadians. The idea that you can look across the narrow stretches of the Detroit River and simply see Canada is an idea that baffles people from many other states, and particularly those from states that are landlocked. 

The proximity between Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, manifests itself in a host of curious ways, and not just the frequency with which the residents of both places travel back and forth across the bridge as a condition of employment, or to attend Red Wings hockey games. Detroit-area schoolchildren will routinely be asked questions like, “What’s the closest city to Detroit with a population of more than 200,000 people?” or “Where in the United States do you need to travel south to get to Canada?” The answers to these questions are, respectively, “Windsor, Ontario,” and “south from Detroit to Windsor” via either the Ambassador Bridge or the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

The adjacency of Detroit and Windsor also played an integral role in the development of what would officially come to be classified as a distinctly Canadian whiskey. Detroit shop-owner-turned-business-mogul Hiram Walker began selling his own blend of whiskey from his own Downtown Detroit store in the middle of the 19th century.

An ad for Walker’s Downtown Detroit shop and personal whiskey brand in 1853

Capitalizing on the fact that the land and raw materials required for the operation of most of his commercial enterprises were far less expensive when purchased in Canada, Walker acquired huge stretches of land on the Canadian side of the Detroit River across from his homestead in Detroit. On these properties, Walker erected a flour mill, several industrial buildings, his distillery and eventually the residential community that would come to be known as “Walkerville,” which was almost exclusively populated by Walker’s employees. The distillery was completed in 1858, and Walker’s whiskey enterprise soon received an unexpected boost in the form of the American Civil War

The fact that Walker’s operation made him one of only two Canadian whiskey makers to age its whiskey into a condition of multi-year ripeness, coupled with the location of his distillery adjacent to a waterway that granted his whiskies easy import into the U.S., placed Walker in a prime position to capitalize on the disruption to the American whiskey trade caused by the Civil War.

You could totally swim that if you wanted to. But seriously, don’t do it.

Walker’s many business ventures were exceedingly profitable during this period and the period that followed it, and his successes caused him to be regarded with a heightened level of suspicion by several of his competitors. Of notable interest was his ownership stake in multiple Detroit newspapers of the era. In 1874, the Detroit Post disclosed “the vast sum” of $1.3 million in taxes that Walker paid to the Canadian government in the prior year, and expressed concern that he could afford to purchase a further half dozen independent newspapers just like their rival paper the Detroit Tribune with ease if his distillery continued its post-war financial momentum.

Club Whiskey bottle and advertisement from 1885

The story is told that American whiskey makers demanded that Canadian whiskies — and specifically Walker’s whiskey — ought to be labeled as “Canadian” in order for the Americans to discern between national and international brands and to discriminate accordingly. Whether or not this story is true, the reality remains that Walker’s company was best served by making this distinction all on its own. 

First of all, there were several other spirits that were sold as “club whiskey” during that time, including Georgia Club Whiskey, South Carolina Club Whiskey and Jefferson Club Whiskey. Second, in the 1880s, Canada enacted a bottled-in-bond program that provided certification of a whiskey’s age and deferred taxation for the time a whiskey spent sitting around aging in barrels. From there, the Canadian government imposed an official requirement that all Canadian whiskies must be aged for at least two years, which left Walker’s whiskies completely unaffected, but also provided them with an additional advantage in the marketplace.

Specifically, the regulations governing the production of whiskey within Canada mandated that whiskey was required to be bottled under the watchful eyes of government officials, who would then apply a marking directly to the bottle to certify the inspection and quality of the whiskey. What this amounted to was a certificate of purity granted to Walker’s whiskey before it ever crossed the border and appeared on U.S. shelves, which was a distinction that no American whiskey makers could match. 

To his credit, Walker fully leveraged the unintended consequence of the Canadian government’s mandate to his advantage. Ads for Walker’s whiskey were intentionally distinguished by their Canadian birthplace, and some of the brand’s marketing campaigns even borrowed language from their American opposition and used it against them in print. In one such advertisement, a statement from an article that appeared in a U.S. brewing journal was repurposed to the benefit of Walker’s brand: “It is the raw, crude and unadulterated spirits that work the mischief with one’s constitution, and until our legislature has made us as secure from this pernicious stuff as our Canadian friends are, we cannot claim for whiskey an unqualified position among beverages.”

Club Whiskey ad from Honolulu, Hawaii in April 1889

The fallout resulted in one of the few cases where manufacturers of American products would literally beg for increased government oversight of their own operations. U.S. whiskey makers pushed for the passage of a bottling-in-bond bill through the U.S. House of Representatives, which ultimately transpired in May 1896. The Detroit Free Press reported that the bill was specifically tailored to aid Kentucky distillers in the marketplace, as “the only whisky which comes into the American market in bottles with a government guaranty of purity is Walker’s Canadian Club.” 

An advertisement for Canadian Club in Tennessee newspapers, which obviously upset some well-known distillers in the region. 

To put this into perspective, the Detroit-spawned whiskey of Walker was distilled in a building parked by the Detroit River waterfront, and plainly visible from the Detroit side of the river. Throughout his life, Walker retained his American citizenship along with the majority of his holdings in Detroit, and despite a stretch of time in which he transferred his primary residence to Canada, he eventually returned to Detroit, lived there at the time of his death and was buried in a Detroit cemetery. 

The only thing that truly made Walker’s whiskey “Canadian” was that it happened to be distilled on the Canadian side of a barely patrolled international waterway for the sake of capitalizing on cost-cutting measures. Yet for all intents and purposes, it was this whiskey, emanating from the mind and resources of a Detroiter, that originally defined what it meant for a whiskey to be Canadian, and accelerated the advancement of quality within the North American whiskey industry.

Either way, you have to hand it to Walker: The idea of crossing a one-mile stretch of river just to sell whiskey back to the other side as an exotic foreign good isn’t just brilliant, it’s Pure Michigan.

Detroit ad for Canadian Club Whiskey from 1896