As I continue my journey to uncover the history of some of the most fascinating brands, I of course had to bring you the story of Canadian Club.
With a history so steeped in legend — from secret tunnels running whisky into America during the prohibition era, to tales of the infamous Al Capone’s patronage to the distillery (still functioning today), we should really start right from Canadian Cllub’s storied beginning.
In 1858, a successful Detroit grain farmer named Hiram Walker started producing whisky, unaware at the time where it would take him — through prohibition, into small town Canada, and ultimately as founder of a modern-day Canadian staple.
As Prohibition-induced production risks increased, Walker moved his operation to Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit. Its early branding as “Club Whisky” was a nod to its popularity with gentlemen’s club-style establishments, which were popping up across Canada and the US. Its popularity was such that it would even grow to become a major competitor to America’s choice liquor of the era, bourbon, leading the government to require a country of origin imprinted on incoming bottles.
Thus, Club Whisky became Canadian Club.
When Prohibition inevitably did hit the US and most Canadian provinces on January 16, 1920, North American production came to a screeching halt (for the purposes of public optics, anyway). While the (then) lenient province of Ontario forbade public drinking, manufacture and export of liquor was still peachy keen.
Distillers who were lucky enough to be situated along the border were clamoring to devise clandestine ways to run their whisky into America. It would become a massive underground operation of supply and demand — and when I say underground, it’s a literal statement. Canadian Club would smuggle countless cases under the river between Windsor and Detroit through a secret tunnel during the dry years, not to mention the bootleggers smuggling product across the bridge, some of which were extremely resourceful women.
During that period, many-a-gangster found their fortunes and infamy by mastering the business of receiving and distributing Canadian liquor with authority-infuriating stealth. Bootleggers, like the legendary Al Capone, eventually claimed a 75% monopoly on the American supply of Prohibition-era whisky, with Canadian Club claiming the dubious honor of #1 smuggled whisky into the U.S.
In the years following Prohibition, Canadian Club’s market share would continue to grow, as Canadian and American tastes alike had become happily accustomed to this top shelf offering and didn’t want to go back to anything that didn’t live up to that same standard.
As we skip ahead to the present, Canadian Club (now owned by Beam Suntory) is still turning heads and making tongues wag, though not in the same way as during prohibition: their most recent offering, CC 100% Rye, won much public acclaim.
With over 150 years of enduring brand loyalty from whisky aficionados across North America, I hope to look back over the next 50 years of their journey and have yet another amazing story to uncover and share.