I first learned of the term “blind pig” from poking around a shop in Orangeville. They were selling ‘county tees’ designed by Jeanette McFarlane with a Blind Line slogan on the front of the t-shirt. When I asked what all the blind pig talk was about, the store owner set off on an animated tutorial of “Blind Line” and the seven blind pigs that existed between Highway 89 in Mono to Orangeville.
Blind pigs were low class illegal drinking and gambling joints with secret handshakes. In 1905, the sale of alcohol was prohibited. Local and provincial bans arose across Canada in the late 19th century while the national prohibition (a temporary wartime measure) was enforced from 1918 to 1920.
Grand Valley was the last township in Ontario to go dry during the Temperance Movement and Prohibition. Locals would simply ask about the whereabouts of a blind pig and be in the know. Smart saloons would stage an attraction like an animal act and serve a ‘complimentary’ beverage to skate around the law of selling booze. For a quarter, you could have a sight of a pig and a fix of ‘free’ gin.
Speakeasies and Mule Kicks
On the flip side, speakeasies were established by the higher class. Fancier attire was donned versus the no-rules blind pigs serving suds. Speakeasies were generally illegal drinking dens as well and so named ‘speak easy’ in hopes of patrons keeping mum in public and quiet inside so as to not attract the thirsty coppers.
The speak then was not only easy, but creative. Moonshine, coined due to the nocturnal hours associated with this occupation (ie. Working by the light of the moon), had many aliases: white lightning, bush whiskey, panther’s breath, skull cracker, happy Sally, old horsey, hillbilly pop, mule kick, ruckus juice and see seven stars.
Bootleggers earned their name by allegedly tucking bottles of liquor in the top of their boots which would be covered by their pant legs. The demand for a mule kick was at an all time high as farmers who emigrated from Europe were suspicious of the local water supply. They took matters (and health and safety) into their own hands and began basement brews of beer, hard cider and spirits.
The Angel’s Share
Any newbie distiller was quickly introduced to the “angel’s share.” Whiskies are aged in wooden barrels to help absorb sulfur in the distillate and in turn, add flavour to the whiskey. Because wooden barrels are porous, 2% of the total volume per year disappears and evaporates into the heavens. This is the angel’s share.
Aging in barrels with the generous help of the angels can take gasoline-like skull cracker and refine it into a mature blend. If you consider a 12-year-old Scotch, the angelic math still applies. The angels can assume up to 24% of the liquid in that time frame. Barrels in warmer, drier climes like Kentucky or Scotland can see an increase in angels’ shares of up to 4-5% a year!
Your Hillbilly Pop Homework
1. Pour your own share and watch The Angel’s Share (2012). The brevity of the plot says it all: “Four friends, one mission, lots of spirit.” When a new dad is inspired by a distillery visit, hope is found at the bottom of a barrel.
2. For tipsy adventures in distilling, get your paws on Victoria Redhed Miller’s boozy bible, Craft Distilling: Making Liquor Legally at Home (New Society Publishers). The self reliance expert offers guidance for building a small column still and introduces “unholy spirits” like a tequila-esque drink distilled from Jerusalem artichokes.
3. Attend the Saints & Sinners event at the Moreston Heritage Village at Grey Roots Museum & Archives in Owen Sound held annually in June. Get schooled in temperance, prohibition and bootlegging history. The one-day afternoon celebration re-enacts the era with lively protests, partiers and a paddy wagon!
The Bar Exam
Now here’s the fun part of your homework—your guide to the most intriguing spirits on the shelves from coast to coast. Let us know how you perform on your taste test.
Left Coast Hemp Vodka and Empress 1908 Gin, Victoria Distillers
Made with Canadian grown organic hemp seed, smooth oiled hemp hearts lend to a grassy, hazelnut flavour. Mix it in a Caesar, martini or serve it neat with some squares of dark chocolate.
If you can still gin and bear it, the surreal colour of the Empress 1908 is courtesy of the butterfly pea flower. Add tonic and citrus and watch the palette (and palate) change from a deep indigo to soft pink. The crazy but brilliant concoction of rose, ginger, coriander, grapefruit peel, cinnamon and the iconic Fairmont Empress Blend Tea (in collaboration with the Fairmont Empress Hotel) certainly makes for a high tea!
East Van Vodka
This small batch vodka is made in the heart of east Vancouver. It’s a spirit dedicated to the “odd ones”—the dreamers, inventors, makers and doers. And, if you’re not any of those things, I’m sure it’s still okay for you to drink. Made from 100% malted barley from Prince George (malted in Armstrong, BC) and filtered and blended with Vancouver water in a copper pot still, East Van Vodka will be still your beating heart.
VODKOW, The Dairy Distillery
At Dairy Distillery, their latest and greatest Vodkow is helping Ontario farmers and the environment by finding repurpose for fermented milk sugar (or lactose) just as the Mongols did over a thousand years ago. And, it’s gluten free! When cream is removed to make butter and proteins are concentrated to produce ultra-filtered milk (by cheese and yogurt makers), a sugar-rich liquid called milk permeate is created.
In collaboration with the brains at the University of Ottawa, the waste milk permeate found a new life as a smooth, superior spirit. It’s a marvelous transformation of unused milk sugar that gives you permission to drink until the cows come home.
Muskoka Pink Peppercorn Gin, Muskoka Brewery
Here are the staples: juniper berries, orris root and heather tips. What gets the standing ovation is the Sorachi Ace hops that imbue the citrus aroma (and notes of the Canadian shield). Don’t forget the hibiscus and Brazilian peppercorns in this beautiful gin alchemy. Muskoka also sells their Legendary Oddity gin, a traditional dry recipe with a hit of orange peel and a wink to the tall tales of the Muskoka settlers (and sippers) of yore.
Saddleback Maple Bacon Canadian Whisky, Proof Brands
The 2017 release made for an instant fan club. The “smoky fusion of sweet and salty deliciousness” delivered as promised. Michael Riley, the blender at Proof Brands suggests, “you can almost hear the bacon sizzling in the glass.” The 50th anniversary of the Saddleback, the best hog for bacon, was celebrated in 2017. Their website assures, “no pigs were harmed in the making of this product”—which is a good thing, because it’s the Chinese Year of the Pig. The classic stubby 500ml bottle is a punchy combo of Canadian prairie rye and wheat. So, cheers to the Saddleback, the Year of the Pig and keeping it local!
Island Tide, Deep Roots Distillery
Warren Grove, PE
The War Measures Act of 1917 was enforced as a measure to save grain and fruit during the first world war. Luckily, Prince Edward Island had a solid alliance with Caribbean Island traders and a steady supply of sugar. PEI “shiners” sweetened the deal and began using cane sugar for their illegal magic. Island Tide’s smoother, velvety approach to more traditional moonshines is dedicated to the speakeasy crowds who resisted authority and raised glasses towards change.
If you have an opportunity to visit the distillery, try their absinthe. The potent “green lady” or “green fairy” has an unmatched colour and taste due to the wormwood and herbs it’s created from. Authentic pours are served with a cube of sugar in lovely ceremony fit for a green lady.
You’ll find Island Tide at PEI liquor stores, the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market and seasonally, at the distillery.
Jules Torti’s work has been published in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. With experiences as a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer, she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.