“Is it just me, or does the Temperance lady have an ass like two duck eggs in a napkin,” whispers Micky Burns with a nudge and a wink as Eleanor Krumpacker inspects our bus for whisky. And so it goes as we sidle up for a most unique interactive tour to experience the scandalous history of bootlegging in York Durham Headwaters.
Over the hills and along the rural routes that unfurl across the hinterlands of Toronto, we learn about the spirits of the past by engaging with characters plucked out of another time, while drinking today’s locally distilled spirits to our future. A “grunt,” Burns tells me, is how much whisky someone can swallow in one breath.
In the late 19th Century a glass of whisky in Toronto would sell for one cent. One cent! A grunt would sell for five cents. Take one breath and think about that.
At that time in Newmarket, whisky was more popular than water. However, the local Temperance movement sought to make its consumption illegal. This, inadvertently, gave rise to the municipalities across York Region that now see a proliferation of distilleries, and which offer these Temperance Tours to experience them in a really fun, out-of-the-box manner. I feel like a kid on the Magic School bus.
Why was Whisky Central to the Pioneer Life?
The risk of death by accident or disease from impure water was a fairly strong motivator for women and children to turn to cider and for men to stick with whisky. It was safer that way. Without a pail of whisky going around, few men would stay at work. Beer was less common because of the difficulty in transporting it. One can imagine that with all the whisky consumption—at work—productivity was an issue, as was public drunkenness. The local Temperance Movement of Newmarket picked up steam.
Modern-day bootleggers at Last Straw Distillery taught themselves the art of making blackstrap rum in a still. Here we sip gin made from neutral grain Ontario spirit within a boutique 780sq feet production facility. No one in this company had ever distilled before they got their license—but they sure learned.
Using a southern moonshine recipe to distil corn and sugar, the Dark Side moonshine is aged in a charred cask to elicit a complex depth of flavour that goes down like a bourbon. The Blackstrap Rum is double distilled and aged in a toasted European oak cask for one year. This bottle packs serious heat that warms me up and chills me out. Not-to-be-missed is the Stout Spirit with the distilled essence of Irish Stout.
While enjoying the sweet sounds of the Bootlegger Band at the old York Durham Heritage Railway, we’re told that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union forced the adoption of the Temperance Act to limit personal consumption of whisky to five gallons per person. To Krumpacker’s exasperation, this had the opposite effect. Rather than become a deterrent, men would gather and share with their friends—or they would fight.
Krumpacker and her friends proved a powerful lot, and as Temperance sentiment grew, they successfully lobbied local council meetings to advocate for better policing of railway stations, barbershops, hotels, or any places where one could find men.
Anyone making unlicensed—and therefore untaxed—whisky would be fined and imprisoned. However, with the development of land, the problems of alcohol spread. Pennsylvania Quakers were offered land grants around Newmarket, and the road to Holland Marsh was a lonely place. “Plank Roads” such as Corduroy Road, which was built by felling trees to make a roadway, became both sociable and dangerous hubs. These conveyors of alcohol required even more policing and more creative punishments.
What’s the Connection Between Public Drunkenness and the Construction of Yonge Street?
In what was once a fur trading post, the Ground Burger Bar serves up a hearty Ontario lamb burger with goat cheese, arugula, a kick of red pepper jelly and rosemary mint aïoli. For some extra protein, bbq crickets are offered as an additional topping, but I think I’m okay.
Washed down with a mug of Flee To Pennsylvania Wit, a refreshing beer with aromas of orange and spice from Newmarket’s local Market Brewing Co., we delve deeper into the past.
Yonge Street was a military trail that served to replace a four-century-old native trail and connect Lake Ontario to Lake Huron. It was covered in tree stumps. Burns, my new favourite drinking buddy, tells me there were as many stumps along Yonge Street to Holland Marsh as there are carrots today.
The Stump Act of 1800 required that each convicted drunk remove a stump. Well, anyone who has driven north to cottage country recognizes that that is a lot of stumps. Next time you’re driving north on Yonge Street, or heading north for the long weekend, just imagine how many convicted drunkards there must have been, and then, thank them all—from the men charged with public drunkenness to the temperance-crusading Christian women—for clearing the road.
Fruit of the Holland Marsh
The Holland Marsh sits in a sandy clay bowl that locks in the heat and the cool. There is greater thermal amplitude here than in Niagara, which means more heat units.
The Holland Marsh Wineries is a favourite location for weddings and special events for it’s romantic, picturesque setting.
It operates with a less-is-more method in the vineyard and in the production to reveal the finesse of three generations of the Nersisyan family to show what they and their vines can do. A surprising full-bodied Pinot Grigio with notes of butter and toasted brioche immediately disarms any snobbery that I carry into this emerging wine region. Equally refreshing is the Sauvignon Blanc with its clean, crisp, bright acidity and aromas of grapefruit.
If the cheese and charcuterie platter is not enough to hook me, the Cabernet Baco with its full bouquet of cranberries and cherries, and a hint of licorice has me dreaming of pairings with prime rib and primavera pasta.
A finale of Merlot Reserve is delicious! Its plum-y depth of strawberries with inky chewy tannins makes me double check, “Where are we again?” I would enjoy this versatile wine with grilled veal, turkey, duck or pulled pork, but am happy to take a seat and linger with it on its own.
Who knew all this existed in York Region? Conveniently, the Temperance and Temptation tours guide us to it all. The Canadian Temperance Act was fully repealed in 1984. In the meantime, a fascinating history unfolded with temptations to drink around every corner.
For more info go to: Temperance and Temptation
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.