Take a Tour Through Windsor’s Whiskytown History

 Neat, straight up, on the rocks or mixed into a classic cocktail, March is a good month to enjoy a dram of whisky. On March 17 revelers will raise a toast for the Irish tradition of St. Patrick’s Day, while March 27 is globally appointed International Whisk(e)y Day.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the storied history of distilling in the birthplace of Canadian whisky, Windsor, aka Whiskytown. And discover how to experience part of this rich past firsthand.

In 1858, nine years before Canadian Confederation, Detroit businessman Hiram Walker established the Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd. Distillery across the border in a neighbourhood of Windsor that would be become Walkerville.

Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd building in WindsorHiram Walker & Sons Ltd building in Windsor

He employed an innovative distilling process using oak barrels to age and flavour the spirits (vs the traditional technique of running the liquor through charcoal) and demand was immediate. The smooth new whisky was distributed exclusively to various ‘gentlemen’s clubs’, hence the label Canadian Club. The hugely successful label stayed in the Walker family until 1926, when the brand merged with Gooderham & Worts, Ltd.

Besides the enhanced flavour and quality, Canadian Club’s tremendous success was in part due to the Prohibition era in the US. During the roaring twenties, rum-running and bootlegging across the Detroit-Windsor border was a highly lucrative and totally illicit activity during America’s dry spell.

The bridge over the Detroit River, connecting Windsor and DetroitThe bridge over the Detroit River, connecting Windsor and Detroit

The streets and shores of Windsor and neighbouring towns along the Detroit River hold tales of intrigue as barrel after barrel of Canadian whisky was smuggled by boat or by ‘whisky sixes’, smaller six-cylinder-engine cars less likely to crack the ice in winter.

Rumor has it that mobster Al Capone himself was a ‘customer’ and he and his notorious Purple Gang was hosted by local rum-runner boss, Harry Low at his home. The recently restored Low Mansion is an architectural gem, just imagine how opulent it must have been back in the day to receive legendary Capone.

Whiskytown Tours

You needn’t be so clandestine to get your hands on premium Canadian craft whisky today. Whisky aficionados, history buffs and anyone who was obsessed with Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire, take note!

WindsorEats_image1Image credit: Drinks of Walkerville Walking Tour

Visit the Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery on the Drinks of Walkerville Walking Tour offered by Windsor Eats on Fridays and Saturdays. The facility is now home to J.P. Wiser’s Canadian Whisky, among other renowned labels.

Wolfhead_Barrels_imagesImage credit: Wolfhead Distillery in Amhurstburg

The four-and-a-half-hour experience involves guided tastings of select Canadian Whiskies, including one directly from a whisky barrel, a unique view of the Whisky Palace, the original CC headquarters, and a stroll through Walkersville with commentary on local history, architecture and folklore of Whiskytown. The tour ends up at Walkerville Brewery for a flight of craft beers and a tour of the brewing facility.

The distillery also offers a 90 minute J.P. Wiser’s Experience public tour that walks you through the story of Canadian whisky, from its history to the craftsmanship and process behind making it, followed by a sampling session.

Wolfhead_image1Image credit: Wolfhead Distillery

Or check out the various guided and self-guided tours along the Barrels, Bottles & Brews Trail to ten craft breweries and two distilleries in the area; Hiram Walker and newcomer Wolfhead Distillery, a small batch, ultra-premium producer of award-winning whiskies, as well as vodka and rye just outside Windsor in Amherstburg. The Rum Runners Tour is an engaging bus tour that takes the form of a travelling play with costumed performers.

Cheers to St. Patrick’s Day, International Whisky Day and Windsor’s wonderful whisky history!

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