As Perth celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, distilling has returned to the town after an almost 100 year absence.
During the 1800s, Perth was famous for its alcohol production. The town boasted four distilleries and the two most famous, McLaren and Spalding & Stewart, were located in limestone buildings alongside the Tay River.
Perth liquor was shipped all over Upper and Lower Canada, as well as south to the United States, and the two main producers claimed to be the only distillers in Canada making Scotch malt whiskey.
All that came to a halt in 1916. Under Prohibition, sales in the province were banned and the last shipment of liquor left Perth a few years later.
Hanna Murphy anticipated a long drawn-out approval process when, in late 2013, she approached the town about establishing a craft distillery. But Murphy, the CEO of Top Shelf Distillers and herself a Perthite, says the town very much wanted a distillery to be in place for its 200th anniversary.
(Perth’s Blast from the Past Homecoming Weekend, which includes Blue Rodeo, a block party and fireworks, happens July 22 to 24. For more details, visit here.)
“They were excited,” says Murphy, a former member of Team Canada’s silver medal winning roller derby team.
Indeed, part of the town’s 200th celebration includes sales of T-shirts emblazoned with the 1800s logo of McLaren’s malt whiskey — a logo that features the oh-so-Canadian symbol of a beaver.
Things moved quickly for Murphy and co-owner John Criswick, an entrepreneur who also owns the Mercury Lounge in Ottawa. The town granted them permission to set up operations in Perth in March 2014. Top Shelf’s bid to mirror history and locate in the centre of town was rejected because of zoning bylaws, and so when they bought land that June, it was on the outskirts of town.
In May this year, the craft distillery — the second such enterprise east of Belleville according to Criswick — got the okay to place product in five LCBO stores, and they started with the LCBO on Rideau Street in Ottawa and the outlet Perth.
Earlier, just before Christmas in 2015, Top Shelf was licensed to sell their product from their facility. Murphy says the bottles — vodka, gin, and white whiskey (aka moonshine), which they sell plain and maple syrup or apple pie flavoured —flew off the shelves. “This is a great community, everybody has been so supportive.”
Murphy, 33, spent a year travelling around North America to learn the distilling trade, but keeping it local is important to Murphy. The maple syrup for the moonshine comes from Paul’s Maple Syrup north of Lanark (run by her best friend growing up), the apples are from Hall’s Apple Market near Brockville, and the corn (the mash for making vodka and gin) is locally grown and milled in Delta. That mash, in turn, is given to a local farmer as feed for their steers.
The rye whiskey now being aged in barrels at Top Shelf is made from rye, corn and malted barley. Given their location in Perth, Murphy says in the future she’d like, as a nod to Perth’s distilling past, to experiment with making malt whiskey, using barley alone, though it is more expensive and harder to malt.
Murphy’s family has a foundation contracting business based in nearby Fallbrook, and while doing work on an old Perth home her father uncovered a sign for the operations of distiller Robert Gemmill, who in 1857 took over the McLaren operation. The sign, which had survived because it was face down underneath a floor in the house, now hangs in the Top Shelf facility.
For Criswick, the distillery makes business sense. He says he got tired of buying vodka from other producers, and that Top Shelf provides him with some vertical integration for the Mercury Lounge.
But craft distilleries in Ontario say their profit margins are low, largely due to what they see as inflated taxes levied on their liquor compared to those levied on craft breweries and wineries in the province. Also, there is a prohibition (of sorts) so they can’t sell directly to bars and restaurants — the latter have to buy from LCBO warehouses.
The 15-member Ontario Craft Distillers Association is in talks with the province and Tim Hudak, MPP and former Ontario Conservative leader, has introduced Bill 103, Free My Rye Act (#freemyrye) to amend the Liquor Control Act and the Liquor License Act. The Bill aims ease requirements for low volume micro distillers.
Back when Perth first became famous for its liquor, whiskey and gin were four times stronger than now. In her play, The Great Perth Temperance Soiree, local writer Janet Coward documented the problems that strong drink caused in Perth — violence, domestic abuse, accidental drownings — and how these gave rise to a local Temperance movement.
Temperance led to Prohibition, which lasted only 10 years but caused the demise of what had been a booming business in Perth. With Top Shelf, distilling is back — but so far there aren’t any signs of a renewed Temperance movement.