The woman behind the bottle

Celebrating Canadian Club’s 160th Anniversary
By Blair Phillips
The whisky gal, Tish Harcus
The whisky gal, Tish Harcus
Canada is on the brink of war. In the Arctic North is Hans Island where Canada and Denmark have been locked in an ownership feud since the 1930s. In 1984, a Danish politician visited the island, raised the national flag and left brandy with a note, ‘Welcome to the Danish island’. Canada politely responded with their military leaving a ‘Welcome to Canada’ sign and a bottle of Canadian Club. The Danish returned, took the whisky, replaced the sign, and planted a bottle of schnapps. Diplomats have been struggling to defuse the situation since.

This year celebrates the 160th anniversary of Hiram Walker’s distillery in Windsor, Ontario. In the beginning, Walker would never dream his Canadian Club whisky would become a weapon of non-destruction. Walker ran a successful vinegar venture and dispensed liquor from his Detroit grocery store. As the city’s Temperance movement grew, Walker’s acuity for business opportunities looked to Upper Canada. The year was 1858, land and building materials were cheap to construct a modern mill and liquor laws were merciful compared to Detroit.

Walker entered the whisky game when brand names were a new concept. He had many whiskies but knew one core brand could build a whisky empire. That brand was Three Star. In 1881, the name changed to Three Star Club and a year later it was trademarked Club Whisky. This high-end dram was the first Canadian whisky sold in bottles, promoted with a seven-year age statement when most brands barely touched a barrel.

Very early in the distillery’s history, Walker developed a process where pot stilled flavouring spirit was combined with continuous still corn spirit, then barreled in new and used casks. This technique was coined 'barrel blending'. Walker had a secret recipe for Club Whisky where he created batches by blending a precise mix of whiskies after they had aged.

Walker developed a process where pot stilled flavouring spirit was combined with continuous still corn spirit, then barreled in new and used casks

Stories swirl the internet that American distillers felt threatened by Walker’s Club Whisky and lobbied the US government to force the word “Canadian” on the label. No documentation exists to support this story. In fact, Club Whisky records show that sales were too low to scare American distillers.

By 1890, Walker had fully integrated the word 'Canada' into the label and by 1893, the whisky’s name was officially Canadian Club. Hiram Walker died in 1899, but his whisky took on life into Prohibition. Harrington Walker was in charge when the First World War then American Prohibition blocked legal exports. In 1926, with American Prohibition’s persistence, Harrington sold the distillery to Harry Hatch. CC was an illegal commodity in the United States and even though it sold well through illicit channels, Hatch’s profits were low. Demand for Canadian Club skyrocketed after repeal.

By the 1950s, the distillery expanded to meet demand and CC became one of the most recognised products in the world. Everyone in the Mad Men era was drinking it, even James Bond in Ian Fleming’s Doctor No. Through the 70s, CC was on a roll and sales surged. Then white spirits reared their ugly heads and Scotland’s whisky invaded. In 1987, the distillery had all but raised the white flag. Allied Domecq acquired the brand, then in walked our hero with a storybook destiny to save the day.

Brand Ambassador, Tish Harcus, moved to Windsor at the age of nine but experienced Canadian Club years before. “Being a family in Cape Breton, everyone had a bottle of Canadian Club in the cupboard,” remembers Tish. “Today, there are numbing teething gels you can put on a baby’s gums but back then my mom would take a cotton swab dabbed with CC. It did the trick.” Canadian Club became part of her DNA and this year marks her 30th anniversary with the whisky.

Most Canadian whisky matures in used cooperage, so rather than wood taking over, slow interactions within those barrels created robust and ethereal liquids.

She drove by the Canadian Club building every day on her way to another job; then something drew her in with a resume in hand. It was early 1988, with new year’s resolutions still intact, Tish landed a role in office services. “We looked after all 1,300 people at the site,” recalls Tish.

She made connections and moved into Fleet Operations. Here, she learned what the sales reps were up against: the vodka monster that had pulled CC from top shelf to bar rail.

In her 30-year career, she has developed an extraordinary friendship with three mentors. “Mike Booth, the master blender at the time, is a huge influence, I truly learned about the brand’s heart and soul from him,” says Tish. Barrels laid down in the 70s weren’t needed and as they sat in the warehouses, they turned into something phenomenal. Most Canadian whisky matures in used cooperage, so rather than wood taking over, slow interactions within those barrels created robust and ethereal liquids.

This gave Booth a playground of rare whiskies to create Canadian Club’s classic blends. With Booth’s licence to kill palate, he blended timeless whiskies. “He created Canadian Club 10, Classic 12 and then Sherry Cask, Reserve and more,” smiles Tish. “He was growing the portfolio as we found ourselves struggling. This was the first time we had that experience.”

By the mid-1990s the Fleet Operations department collapsed and Tish eventually wound up at Canadian Club Brand Heritage with her second mentor, master ambassador Dan Tullio. “This department consisted of Dan and I. We worked alongside for 16 years. He has a passion like no other for presenting CC.”

The distillery’s president felt that Hiram Walker’s headquarters wasn’t appropriately utilised as an office space. Everyone moved out and Tish and Dan were given the task to turn it into a brand centre. “Dan and I had six months. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and wondered what to do first. I wrote the tour program scripts, went into the vaults looking for historical treasures and with my building access, discovered something cool.”

Along with Tish’s third mentor, Art Jahns, they revealed more about Canadian Club’s history. “Art was an engineer for 40 years before he retired. This man is a wealth of knowledge about Canadian Club’s history and shares it openly,” says Tish.

We opened up the little-exposed door in the corner of the room and found a case of Canadian Club from 1920. That case of whisky set my heart to palpitations.

In 1967, Canadian Club kicked off their 'Hide a Case' advertising campaign. Cases of CC were hidden in adventurous locations. Advertisements gave clues to whisky treasure hunters to the sites. Several cases of whisky are still missing.
Tish recalls a career highlight that rivals these hidden cases. “We needed a room for the archives and went down to what was the pool area. When we peeled back the old 1936 tile, the contractors called me over. We opened up the little-exposed door in the corner of the room and found a case of Canadian Club from 1920. That case of whisky set my heart to palpitations.”

With the whisky’s comeback cemented, this 160th birthday sees a commemorative limited edition. This anniversary whisky blends an aged malted barley with Canadian Club Premium 1858 to deliver a flavourful Canadian Club stamped whisky. The commemorative bottling is called Canadian Club Barley Batch. But this isn’t the first time in recent years that Canadian Club shocked and awed. 2014 welcomed Canadian Club 100% Rye. And Canadian Club 40 Years Old caused whisky hysteria in late 2017 when people shoved into liquor stores like Danish soldiers onto a northern island.

“Consumers know good whisky, people are stepping up to give CC a try. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, the sky is the limit,” enthused Tish. This May, Canada and Denmark announced a Joint Task Force to settle the Hans Island dispute, a high-end dram in the bottle ending high drama in the Arctic. With new whisky fans discovering what the Danish military already know: Canadian Club, in its 160th year, is precisely where Hiram Walker wanted it to be: on your whisky shelf and not chilling under the northern night skies.

Tasting Notes

Barley Batch 42% ABV

Celebrated dark plum notes and rum-like molasses balance with roasted grain. The barley and oak support the whisky by blowing out 160 birthday cake candles.

Premium 1858 40% ABV

Fruity rye and corn grain attack the nose with rich rye spice, vanilla, caramel and sweet toffee flavours. Citrus pith aggressively charges
the finish.

Classic 20 Years Old 40% ABV

Aromatic sweet toffee with a beautiful fruity prune structure. Rye spices gleam mid-palate where peppery ginger lures a wallop of vintage and fresh oak.

40 Years Old 45% ABV

This is an elegant and complex whisky featuring CC’s traits of dark fruits and baking spices. For 40-years-old, the oak shows restraint but delivers on refinement front.

Reserve 9 Years Old 40% ABV

This hard rye is creamy on the palate accented by baking spices. Very fruity with Canadian Club’s hallmark ripe black fruits. A lemon zest balances this gem.
Packing boxes from the archives
Packing boxes from the archives
A liquid history
A liquid history
Canadian Club's grand offices
Canadian Club's grand offices
The news kids on the block
The news kids on the block