Join the Club: the Story of Hiram Walker's Famous Whisky

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I've been a Scotch Whisky aficionado for a few years now, and if someone offers me a nice bourbon, well, don't mind if I do. But until recently, I didn't know much of anything about Canadian whisky -- until I was able to get my hands on a fancypants limited edition bottle of Canadian Club 30-year-old. Turns out 2008 was the company's 150th anniversary, so in commemoration they made 3,000 bottles of this smooth-drinkin' stuff (I got hand-numbered bottle number 93). I can't speak for the lower-shelf versions except to say that it seems to be the drink of choice for most of the characters in Mad Men, James Bond when he wasn't sipping martinis (it's featured in Dr. No and The Spy Who Loved Me), and Nick Nolte and James Coburn in Affliction (check out this hard-to-watch clip, in which Nolte uses a mouthful of the Club as a folk anesthetic before performing a little oral surgery on himself, then sits down to share a glass with his father -- very touching).

180px-Hwalkerpic.jpgWhat's more, CC has a fascinating history. Hiram Walker was a grocer and distiller who founded the distillery in 1858 under his own name, selling it as Hiram Walker's Club Whiskey. He owned land on either side of the Detroit River, but decided to build his distillery on the Canadian side, in what would come to be called Walkerville, the town that grew up around -- and was dependent upon -- his business. Walker planned out his town and exercised profound control over it, to the extent that when the local minister began preaching against "the evils of alcohol," Walker had him replaced. (Walkerville would later be incorporated into the city of Windsor, but for a time, Hiram Walker was essentially the king of his own town.)

Walker's competitors tried to use the fact that his company was located in Canada against him; when Walker's Club became popular, they forced the passage of a law requiring foreign whiskeys to state their country of origin on the label -- which is how Walker's Club became Canadian Club. But this change didn't hurt Walker's sales at all -- in fact, it boosted them -- and when another law was passed a few years later mandating that whisky labels include maturation time, it helped his sales even more.

(Most bourbons and American rye whiskeys at that time were matured for a year or less, whereas Walker's was aged in oak barrels for at least five.)

AlCaponemugshotCPD.jpgCanadian Club's popularity attracted some famous fans -- among them Queen Victoria -- and some infamous ones as well, like Al Capone. When Prohibition became the law of the land in the U.S. in 1920, Capone reputedly became one of the distilleries most important clients, bootlegging massive amounts of the stuff across the American border. It was rumored to have been among his favorite tipples.

March 6, 2009 - 2:55am
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