For whiskey lovers, Sir John A. Macdonald may or may not be Canada’s most famous tippler. And Davin de Kergommeaux, a certified ‘malt maniac’ who has been analyzing, writing, and talking about whisky as an independent commentator for more than a dozen years, recently paid tribute to Macdonald in a feature story on his Canadian Whisky website. There is even a tribute cocktail custom-formulated by de Kergommeaux and named for Sir John A.
Members of the SALON Acting Company performing “Whisky Man” in a production of Sir John, Eh? The Musical
Imagine a Prime Minister hoping for re-election. He’s at the podium about to speak when he begins to vomit uncontrollably. As the crowd groans, his opponent on the stage thunders, “Is this the man you want running your country? A drunk!” After wiping his mouth, Sir John A Macdonald begins quietly: “I get sick sometimes, not because of drink . . . I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent.”
True or not, it’s a great story.
Canada financed its nationhood on the strength of its whisky industry and for many decades before Confederation, whisky makers put more money into the public treasury than anyone else. In fact, at one point a single distillery, Gooderham and Worts paid more taxes than any other entity in either the city of Toronto or the whole of pre-Confederation Canada.
But what of Sir John A.’s tipple? What was his drink of choice? I ask the man who makes my morning coffee. “Whisky?” he replies, wary lest he spring some hidden trap, then he stamps my card, turning to the next in line. It’s early, others in the coffee shop are blasé.
My local publican, mildly amused, responds with no hesitation. “Rye, I guess,” as he pulls a noon-time draft for a thirsty writer. And so it goes.
What libation fueled MacDonald’s wit that storied evening in an unknown town with a forgotten opponent will never be known. But yes, good whisky was certainly plentiful in Sir John’s time. Drinking too was so very commonplace that on average every living soul in the fast-growing nation consumed four gallons of alcohol each year.
Whisky made in Montreal by Molson – they were distillers then – had strong international repute as did that of their fellow distillers, Gooderham & Worts and JP Wiser. Hiram Walker, the bantam whisky immigrant, thought of Sir John as a personal friend and supported him most generously as he also did his local MP, MacDonald’s Minister of Railways. He would never vote for MacDonald, though. An American, Walker voted south of the border, even as his whisky flowed freely for Conservative causes in Canada.
So was John A. a whisky man? Today’s purveyors of beverage, perhaps by default, think so. But though he was known to consume ale in the Cabinet room and for the sake of appearances had sipped gin from a water glass, Sir John was partial to the fruit of the vine. Claret if necessary and sherry in a pinch. And when on a not-infrequent jag, brandy as often and as copiously as possible.
Politics is a rough life. MacDonald, on an official visit to England, once drank British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli under the table. Being Canada’s first prime minister was a much more difficult challenge. Really. His apologists say that is what finally drove him to drink.
Sir John A. may not have been a whisky drinker, but the good folks in the little Lake Huron resort town of Collingwood Ontario have come up with a cocktail to honour Canada’s first prime minister. Called “The Sir John A,” the cocktail also celebrates the first-year anniversary of Collingwood Whisky. Accentuating the distinctive maplewood character of the whisky, this cocktail brings together fresh Ontario peaches and Canadian maple-sweetened iced Earl Grey tea.
The Sir John A. cocktail from Collingwood WhiskyIngredients
- 1½ oz Ontario peach-infused Collingwood Whisky
- ½ oz Canadian maple syrup
- 2½ oz Earl Grey tea, steeped and chilled
- 2 dashes Fee Brothers peach bitters
- Slice fresh peaches and place inside a mason jar, then fill the jar with Collingwood whisky (1 peach, to 8 oz of whisky);
- Allow the peaches to infuse for up to 48 hours, then strain and discard peaches;
- Prepare a serving of Earl Grey tea according to package instructions, allow to steep, and then chill until cooled;
- In a cocktail shaker, combine 1½ oz. of the peach-infused Collingwood whisky and 2½ oz of the iced tea. Sweeten with ½ oz of Canadian maple syrup, and season with 2 dashes of peach bitters;
- Fill the shaker with ice and shake well;
- Strain the cocktail into a rocks glass, or cocktail coupe and garnish with slices of fresh peaches.