the tradition of high times continues in the north

A micro distillery in the Yukon? If you listened to the CBC interview with Dawsonite Bridget Amos recently, you heard that due to recent changes in…

A micro distillery in the Yukon?

If you listened to the CBC interview with Dawsonite Bridget Amos recently, you heard that due to recent changes in legislation, she and her husband plan to establish their own micro-distillery over in West Dawson.

This may be a solid business proposal, the fodder for another book, or just a pipe dream. But there is nothing new in the idea of homemade booze.

Liquor first entered the Yukon sometime in the1880s, and its local manufacture soon followed.

The earliest European immigrants to the Yukon at that time were the platoon of veteran prospectors who came in to the interior of the Yukon for the summer to find placer deposits. They had little room in their supplies for large quantities of alcohol.

When they started to winter over, they lived an existence of hardship and deprivation. The earliest prospectors eked out their existence in crude unheated log cabins facing months of cold and darkness. Securing food and keeping warm occupied their energy.

Alcohol was not yet a big part of their Yukon experience.

The first record regarding liquor is an article in a Sitka newspaper in 1886 stating that a man named Hawthorne brought 50 gallons of alcohol and liquor into the Yukon “presumably to traffic with the Indians.”

The following summer, in 1887, a group of Yukon miners who celebrated the Fourth of July on their bar claim at the lower end of the Fortymile River by brewing a concoction made of sourdough, hops, oatmeal, and a little sugar.

This proved quite drinkable.

From their supplies, to go along with the home brew, they improvised a meal of baked pork and beans (frontier style) and a boiled plum duff, embellished with a sauce made from pain killer.

In those days, patent medicines were liberally spiked with opiates, and this, combined with the special home-brew, I imagine they enjoyed very much.

Typical of the isolation in the North, they had lost track of the actual date. Some late arrivals at their party informed them that the great holiday had passed two days before!

The establishment of the town of Fortymile was the beginning of many changes for the prospectors who came into the country.

The supply of food and other merchandise became both more abundant and diverse.

Small comforts, such as decent stoves, became, for the first time, commonplace.

Liquor began to flow into the Yukon valley, and the mouths of the men who dotted the countryside.

For the first time, there developed a small corps of men who spent their time, not looking for gold, but serving the miners; saloons became the main focus of social life, and the saloonkeepers were the social leaders.

The miners who came into the Yukon earlier in the decade, and who later formed the Yukon Order of Pioneers, considered 1888 as a dividing point, after which, in their eyes, the integrity of the newcomers declined.

Alcohol played a role in that change.

The saloon was a potent factor in the social changes, which were occurring at this time.  William Ogilvie described what happened: “There was a big profit in whiskey, and some who were going in, (to the Yukon) anyway … took it along and sold it at an enormous advance …. The liquor was sold to the saloon-keepers, who retailed it along with some water at 50 cents a glass.

“Like the saloons everywhere else, they had their clientele of loafers, and, like all the tribe, they interfered with other people’s business more than they attended to their own.

“After the establishment of saloons, miners’ meetings were often held in them, and as all present were generally counted miners … only some were so when they had to be, seeing it was the only means of employment in the country, so all had a vote.”

There was also a burgeoning local industry, which produced “hootch,” the infamous homemade liquor.

Hootch or hooch is a popular American slang word describing cheap liquor. The word originated in the late 19th century in Alaska and was named after the Hoochinoo people of Admiralty Island, south of Juneau, who were distilling their own alcoholic liquor from molasses in the late 19th century.

They probably learned the distilling process from American trappers.

The Fortymile version was made from molasses, dried fruit or berries and fermented with sourdough or hops.

It was flavoured with anything that was handy, including old boots and unwashed foot rags.

The product was distilled and called “Forty Rod Whiskey,” that being the distance at which it could reputedly kill. The brew was sold at cut-rate prices.

At its peak, Fortymile could boast a theatre, operated by George Snow, one or two dance halls, six saloons and numerous distilleries where hootch was prepared.

William McPhee and Frank Densmore were soon to open a billiard parlour and saloon to entertain the miners.

By 1894, Inspector Constantine of the North West Mounted Police reported several saloons in operation, selling drinks at 50 cents each during the summer of 1894.

The previous year, 13,620 litres of liquor came into the Yukon

Hootch production was rife in Fortymile, and there was a “whiskey gang,” comprised of a number of men, including Jack McQuesten, and T. W. O’Brien, who later established the O’Brien Brewery in Dawson City.

Sergeant Brown, of the Mounties, who stayed in Fortymile for the winter, was able to locate nearly all of the 35 illicit stills operating in the region the winter of 1894.

In June 1895, just prior to his departure, he reported,” a lot of drunkenness … amongst whites and Indians (in the) spring, but no serious roughs.”

With the lure of profits from the Birch Creek diggings, downriver in Alaska, and the pending arrival of the Mounted Police, many of the hooch-makers departed for greener pastures in the spring of 1895.

With the arrival of liquor, imported, or local, came one of the more infamous practices of the early miners of the Yukon: the spree.

With little else to do during the long winters, many miners came to town to practise the frontier-style of drinking that often left them badly hung over and penniless.

After their spree, the traders would carry these hapless drinkers on credit for another year of prospecting.

Many prospectors were thus virtual prisoners in the North because of the obligations they had to the provisioners.

Liquor, or lack of it, also led to exciting times.

Josiah Spurr, a government geologist conducting a survey of the gold fields in the Yukon basin, experienced this when he stayed with two American customs officers, while passing through Circle in 1896.

The officers, who had just confiscated two kegs of contraband whiskey were besieged by “whiskey-dry” miners, whom they kept from their quarters only by force of arms. Spurr described a tense night of sentinel duty during which shadowy figures lurked outside the cabin.

The booze was stored under his bed.

By the 1940s, the tradition home brewing was still alive. More than one oldtimer told me that the employees of the Yukon Consolidated, the big dredging company near Dawson City, used to make up a concoction known as  “Pruno” in their spare time.

It seems times hadn’t changed much, and miners would go to great lengths, just to get a buzz.

So to learn that a change in the liquor laws has led to the first proposal to manufacture liquor in a small domestic-scale distillery comes as no surprise.

It’s only carrying on a tradition that goes back at least 120 years!

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.