Michigan State University

January 12, 1899 : Hiram Walker, Distiller and Philanthropist, Dies

Jon Harrison
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Picture of Hiram Walker from the archives of Hiram Walker and Sons, courtesy of the Wikipedia Commons

Many Michiganders have had the pleasure of visiting a Jim Beam or Jack Daniels distillery while on vacation in Kentucky and Tennessee. Those with passports might consider crossing the river from Detroit to visit the Canadian Club Distllery in Windsor, Canada, just across the river from Detroit.

Hiram Walker founded the distillery to avoid problems with doing business in Michigan.

An interesting article in Night Train points out how Walker actually tried several business pursuits in Detroit before setting up shop across the river in Ontario in 1858. There he created a town from the ground up, founding schools, laying pipes for municipal water, building homes for his employees, establishing a private bank, and starting a church. (Hiram Walker fired one preacher, legend has it, after finding out about his sermons against the evils of alcohol.)

Hiram was the “benevolent despot” of Walkerville, writes Ronald G. Hoskins in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. But he only lived there for about five years; in 1864, Walker returned to Detroit, where he lived the rest of his days, commuting to work every day on a direct ferry from his riverfront property to the wharf at his distillery.

Canadian Club got its name in 1890 when, says the legend, the U.S. government — in response to demands from American distillers — forced Hiram Walker to declare that his whiskey was an imported product. But its international label only increased its allure, and his whiskey sold even better. (It may have been simply smart branding on Hiram Walker’s part, and not a federal edict.) Coupled with an 1894 bond law that standardized how spirits were aged, Canadian Club gained popularity among American drinkers, and when he died in 1899, the distillery was a multi-million dollar operation.

And that is how Canadian Club, while certainly Canadian, was made possible, in part, by Detroit.

Hiram Walker was born on July 4, 1816 in Douglas, Massachusetts and died in Detroit on January 12, 1899. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit.

Canadian Club : A Detroit Original (Almost), Night Train, December 5, 2011.

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