Bootlegger’s Paradise: A Tour of the Hiram Walker Distillery—Windsor, Ontario

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Today, it seems like madness. But it is worth noting that there were actually good reasons why alcohol use needed to be curbed in the United States in 1919. With poor oversight allowing for the production of tainted beverages that blinded and killed people, and with an epidemic of alcoholism plaguing the country, the Temperance Movement’s claims that banning beer, wine and spirits would help roll back the downward trend of lawful society seemed, on the surface, to be a good idea: An admittedly extreme reaction to what many saw as an extreme evil. But human nature won out in Prohibition. Even people who didn’t drink didn’t like being told they couldn’t. The result was the booze filled economic explosion we know as the Roaring Twenties, which pushed organized crime into the mainstream, and largely paved the way for many smuggling operations run in the United States since.

Perhaps no alcoholic beverage enjoyed a bigger boom during Prohibition than Canadian Whiskey, which didn’t even really have its own designation until the 1880’s when American whiskey manufacturers insisted that the country of origin be listed on the labels of spirits. An enterprising magnate from Detroit named Hiram Walker decided to use this to his advantage. Walker had been selling whiskey for over two decades out of a distillery that was so successful that Walker would eventually create a company town for its upkeep, which was called Walkerville. His most successful brand was called “Club” whiskey. When the law insisting on the country of origin being on the label went through, Walker decided to make his whiskey a symbol of national identity. The “Club” brand became known as “Canadian Club,” and Walker’s sales jumped over 25 percent.

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At the Hiram Walker Distillery’s tasting room.

Canada experienced its own flirtation with Prohibition, but unlike in the United States, implementation was largely left up to the provinces. And while Prince Edward Island held onto their dry status until after World War II, every other province repealed it before the United States did.

More importantly, the Canadian government left the export market open. As long as the booze was going somewhere else, distilleries and breweries could manufacture as much as they pleased. And since there was a massive, thirsty market just to the south, business began to boom. Especially for the Hiram Walker Distillery, which sits on a riverbank in Windsor, Ontario.

Today, you can take a tour of the distillery, complete with samples of the local product. At one point, the tour will take you down to the water, where the bootleggers plied their trade, hauling freshly minted cargoes of booze across the river. Their destination was the city of Detroit, less than a mile away.

There were a million routes for smugglers to take during Prohibition. Along the seaboards of the United States, one ship after another, loaded with booze, sat at anchor at the three-mile limit that left them in international waters. Small boats would simply make their way out, load up with a hefty cargo of alcohol, and sail it in covertly. The supply ships became known as Rum Row, and spawned a special species of smugglers (or “Rumrunners”)who counted among their numbers Gertrude Lythgoe (“The Queen of the Bahamas”) and Bill “The Real” McCoy.

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Legendary smugglers Bill McCoy (R) and Gertrude Lythgoe (L) relaxing aboard McCoy’s boat (photo: Hiram Walker Distillery).

Canada was the other smuggler’s paradise. High quality booze was being manufactured legally, and the national border was an impossible to patrol 4,000 miles long. One customer in particular saw the advantage of buying his liquor from the large distillery in nearby Windsor, Ontario, rather than hauling it across the country from New Jersey or New Orleans. His name was Al Capone.

The one mile trip across the Detroit River was a fairly simple one for the fast boats that plied the waters. Except in winter, when the river would freeze over. At that point, Model-T Fords, made in Detroit, would be loaded up with alcohol and skate their way, perilously, to the other shore, where they would be picked up and trafficked out of the city by runners for Capone’s crime syndicate. But the city limits were also the limits of the Chicago gangster’s direct control. The booze business within Detroit was controlled by a group known as the Purple Gang, a notoriously vicious outfit who controlled all vice in the city. They would ferry the Canadian Whiskey to the edge of town, hand it over to Capone’s men, and thus retain control of Detroit without any involvement from Chicago.

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View of Detroit from the Hiram Walker Distillery. An easy run for smugglers as long as they didn’t run afoul of the Purple Gang.

The perils of the bootlegging business also changed the design of the bottles. The distinct longneck style of bottle used by Canadian Club today (and before Prohibition, as well) was too delicate, with the long neck likely to break on a bumpy trip over the roads or the waters. This design was replaced by a flat, more compact bottle that could be easily wrapped in paper and stacked, allowing for greater volume to be smuggled. More importantly, the flat bottle had less air in it, which meant it would sink if thrown overboard during a pursuit by law enforcement, rather than float around long enough to be picked up as evidence.

Some of the most efficient vehicles for smuggling booze during the era were fishing boats, which would wrap the cargo in their nets. If they were being pursued by the police, they could simply push the nets overboard, with the booze sinking to the bottom, along with a marker buoy wrapped in sugar or salt. When the sugar (or salt) dissolved, the buoy would float to the surface, and the bootleggers would go back and haul up the nets to retrieve their cargo.

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Designed for smuggling, the new, easier to transport bottle (left) replaced the more classic Canadian Club bottle design during Prohibition.

Trafficking smuggled goods also depends on information. And the smugglers developed a code for tracking shipments. Telegraphs written in jargon and code letters, would name the time and place for shipments to be dropped off. In one of the more ingenious uses of public architecture for private enterprise, Al Capone paid for the restoration of a church in Windsor, including a large cross powered with electric light. The cross was used as a signal for the smuggling boats, notifying them if there was any law enforcement patrolling the waters at night.

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Coded telegraph with details for a drop.

There’s a certain fiendish pride the folks at the Canadian Club Brand Center take in their role during Prohibition. Surely, the folks at the distillery who watched the small, fast boats load themselves down with their product knew exactly where they were going, and knew they were fueling the economics of organized crime across the water. But the utter ridiculousness of Prohibition, our distance from the era, and the ingeniousness of the smugglers lends a certain charm to the distillery’s role. Particularly during the Depression, when their entirely legal sales to entirely illegal enterprises kept the city of Windsor afloat, and plenty of workers from having to fall into bread lines.

But it’s the smuggling of today that takes some of the shine off of the apple. As you’re told on the tour, the Windsor-Detroit corridor remains a major artery for smuggling today. Only now, the cargo seems less charming: Drugs, weapons, human beings. Maybe that’s the charm of looking back on Prohibition today. The crime it spawned seems less venal in the light of the vices they were feeding, vices that seem so tame compared to the mad world we live in today.

Then again, for those who lived through Prohibition, it must have seemed the world had gone just as mad. A nation of law-breaking drunkards, lurching forward in an opulent stupor, just trying to find the next illegal drink.

(Photo: Hiram Walker Distillery)

The Hiram Walker Distillery’s Canadian Club Brand Center is located at 2072 Riverside East in Windsor, Ontario. Tours are available Wednesday through Sunday from April to December, and on Friday through Sunday from January through March. The tour costs 12 Canadian Dollars. The full schedule can be found here.

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