“Your memorialists most earnestly hope that your counsels may be wisely directed, and that you will take such action in the premises as may strengthen the hands and encourage the hearts of those who have the direction of the Prohibitory Liquor Law movement.”
These words, addressed in 1876 to the to the 19th session of the Huron Diocese’s Anglican Synod by the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of Liquor Traffic may be some of the most terrifying I’ve ever heard. (Okay, “Mr Stewart, this is the Canada Revenue Agency calling” is, admittedly, right up there.) They led the way, in 1864, to the passing of the Canada Temperance Act, and eventually to prohibition in Canada. For several dark decades, booze was banned.
Now, the tentacles of this particular Kraken didn’t ensnare all provinces at the same time (or even all provinces; the people of Quebec warded off the beast with an emphatic “Non!” vote). The rest, however, were all caught by it to a greater or lesser extent. The province that had to put up with this nonsen … um, sorry, “noble experiment” the longest was Prince Edward Island, which was “tempered” from 1900 until 1948.
Of course you can take from people that which they truly want by various means (legal or otherwise), but the upshot is inevitably the same: they’ll find some way to get it back again using various means (legal or otherwise).
And so it was in Canada in the early to mid-1900s when illegal distilling, bootlegging and procuring alcohol for “medicinal” purposes became common workarounds to prohibitionist dictates. As it was under prohibition’s yoke the longest, the population of PEI became quite adept at conjuring up its own spirit in the form of moonshine (referred to simply as “shine” by the Islanders) from a plethora of sugar- or molasses-charged illicit stills. Much of it was consumed on the island, but a significant portion was bootlegged to our southern neighbours who were also being wrung dry by prohibition laws.
While prohibition eventually dried up in PEI, the production of shine did not. And though the stills remained illegal, they continued to multiply. Shine had become ingrained in PEI culture and by the 1960s, an Islander didn’t have to travel very far to get a snoot full — typically no further then theirs or a neighbour’s barn.
Islander Ken Mill, along with several friends, wanted to respect the tradition (and taste) of shine, but envisioned a product that was safe, consistent and legal. In the fall of 2006 they constructed the island’s first legal distillery, The Myriad View Artisan Distillery Inc., to bring shine to the masses.
“Bringing the tradition of moonshine out of the sheds and barns for the public to enjoy was one of the driving forces behind our business,” Mill reveals. “Being the first to distill legally still puts a smile on our faces.”
Since Mill and company were pioneers in commercial PEI distilling, the lawyers and politicians were kept as busy as the tradespeople. “The PEI Distillery Act had to be written as we went along,” Mill informs. “It was a very steep learning curve as plans changed almost by the day.”
Needless to say, everyone involved did learn, and the spring of 2001 saw the first batch of The Myriad View’s shine pumped out of the distillery’s rather unique still.
“We are producing our spirits in a 450 litre hand-crafted German pot still,” Mill explains. “The system allows us to reconfigure it in many ways to get just the process we need to make our products have the traditional, historic flavours that are no longer available through the industrial distilleries.”
When it comes to master distillers, The Myriad View is rather unique. “We have no master distiller on staff. Distilling alcohol is like making bread. You don’t need to have a piece of paper on the wall that states you have enrolled in a course and passed a test,” he contends. “Just as a parent shows a child how to knead a loaf of bread: the smell, the feel, and texture of the raw dough are what lead to that great loaf of bread. This is the province were every family has distillers in it that have passed down the family secrets. Angie (Berrow) started out as one of our four distillers, and soon showed the best nose for performing the all important ‘cuts’ during the distillation.”
As Mill’s earlier comment suggests, the distillery is creating more than just shine, though he admits that he and his gang are best known as “the guys who make the shine.” The shine in fact comes in two varieties, Strait Shine, bottled at 50 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) and the double-distilled Strait Lightning that clocks in at a smouldering 75 per cent ABV. There’s also a specialty shine flavoured with local dandelions and one with cranberries. But the distillery’s roster includes other traditional spirits, too.
“Shine was a natural fit,” says Mill when asked about the development of his product line. “It is what we as ‘Islanders’ still drink at weddings, family reunions, and wakes. The other products are what we like to drink. Three of the partners are gin drinkers, so we researched the origin of gin and are producing it in the manner it was made 250 years ago. To make a great gin you need to start with clean and pure vodka. Our triple distilled vodka is the base for the gin. PEI was known for rum running, as prohibition went on here long after everywhere else had the right to drink. So we produce a rum at historic alcohol strength. The locals knew it as ‘boat rum.’ Ours is stored in barrels at the historic strength of 100 proof (57.1 % ABV).”
Though the distillery has a capacity for a 40,000-bottle annual run, it is not yet up to full capacity and Mill is in no hurry to rush things. Nor is he set to engage in flashy marketing schemes or enter his product in spirit competitions, as this would be in direct conflict with the shine tradition.
“Keep it small, keep it quiet and keep it great-tasting are our principles,” he concludes. “Let word of mouth be the best award. Happy customers will tell two friends, and that’s the only award we seek.”
here’s spud in your eye
Heading from The Myriad View’s home of Rollo Bay northeast to Hermanville, on the eastern tip on the other side of the island, you’ll find a distillery that has, in fact, nailed a few prestigious awards. Prince Edward Distillery, founded in 2007 by Julie Shore (master distiller) and Arla Johnson (everything else), has garnered international acclaim for its flagship products: Prince Edward Potato Vodka and Prince Edward Wild Blueberry Vodka. Given the island’s reputation for outstanding spuds, one wonders why it took so long for someone to give potato vodka a go.
“Potatoes are what PEI is known for,” Johnson confirms. “PEI produces the best potatoes in the world! This in turn created the best potato vodka in the world.”
“Best in the world” is a pretty steep claim, but Johnson’s claims are based in reality. In competitions, Prince Edward Potato Vodka triumphed over such industry heavyweights as SKYY, Stolichnaya, Effen, Crystal Head and Chopin. Trouncing Chopin brings Johnson and Shoe particular glee, since it is considered perhaps the finest potato vodka around. Or at least, it was …
The Prince Edward Wild Blueberry Vodka has also done well in competition. Johnson explains that this product, distilled from Canadian rye, is flavoured strictly with native wild blueberries. “There are no extracts and we don’t add sugar,” she states, confirming that sugar is not added to any of the distillery’s spirits.
Like The Myriad View, Prince Edward has expanded its product line to include a rye (“made the traditional way … with rye!” Johnson says, and in doing so wins immediate respect from this writer) and an award-winning gin. “It’s Arla’s favourite spirit,” Shore reveals, “so I made it as a special gift for her. It has the traditional herbs used for gin, but also citrus elements including lemon grass and a touch of ginger to give it a bit of spice.”
Add to this a rum, which, despite local pressure to produce, almost didn’t get made. “We tried to explain to people that sugarcane isn’t native to PEI and we only wanted to focus on distilling PEI agriculture,” Johnson recalls. “But after spending too much time one evening at the bar of the Merchantman Pub, Julie agreed to make a rum.”
Finally there is I.C. Shore, an American-style whiskey that pays homage to Shore’s family roots in North Carolina. They had a pre-Prohibition distillery called ICShore that made bourbon whisky. I.C. Shore. Hmmm, “I See/Sea Shore.” It might be a tribute to the southern US, but it sure has a Maritime ring to me.
Though their flagship products differ, The Myriad View and Prince Edward share more similarities than differences. Both have opted for German-designed stills. Prince Edward’s is a unique model that combines a pot still and a continuous still and is currently kicking out about 10,000 litres per year. Both distilleries strive for artisanal, additive-free products that seek to truly represent PEI either in heritage or ingredients (or both). And in Berrow and Shore, both rely on talented women who, literally, make the cut. “Julie went to college to be a dental hygienist,” Johnson admits. “When we were getting started she would joke that if it just didn’t turn out right we could make a mouthwash.”
Both Shore and Johnson attended many workshops, seminars and conventions and visited distilleries around the world to hone their craft. “Julie has formulated all of her own recipes,” says Johnson. “She believes that she has ancestral blessings helping her. As for women distillers — it is believed that women actually have a better palate and nose.”
Whether it’s keeping the island’s shine tradition alive and well (and legal) or crafting spirits using PEI’s signature produce, The Myriad View and Prince Edward are proudly and passionately exorcising the Ghost of Prohibition Past with an eye on expanding into the future.
“Arla’s dad had a saying,” Shore recounts: “In life you need three things: something to do, something to hope for and someone to love. We believe we have been blessed … though Julie’s Methodist sister and Baptist grandmother have a hard time believing God blessed us with a distillery. But we believe.”
the proof is in the powder
Until I talked to Ken Mill I was under the impression that a spirit’s “proof” was double its alcoholic strength by volume. Turns out, this is likely inaccurate. Mill is obviously a bit of a history buff, so I’ll let him explain things.
“The origin of the word proof, when related to alcohol, is a reference to the strength of the product. During the days of sailing vessels and pirates, liquor was used as a method of keeping crews under control. The alcohol had to be strong enough that if it somehow got spilled on the gunpowder, the powder would still light and could be used to defend your vessel.
“So I, the ship owner, would ask you, the distiller/merchant, if your liquor was proof. You would prove it to me by wetting some of my gunpowder with your liquor. I would then light the charge of power with a flint. If it still ignited I had seen the ‘proof’ it was of high quality.
“Liquor less than 57.1% would not allow the gunpowder to ignite. Historic 100 proof is therefore 57.1%.”
Not a big fan of industrial distilling, Mill concludes thusly. “The modern conversion of proof to be twice the ABV% is a simplification by big industry that increases profit by reducing the amount of alcohol, and flavour, in each bottle.”