Liquor & Limestone: A sobering look at Kingston’s boozy past

Plenty of watering holes

By Hollie Pratt-Campbell

It may seem hard to imagine today, but Morton’s Brewery was one of seven brewery/distilleries located in Kingston throughout the 19th century, and as many as four operated concurrently at various points.

Though perhaps this isn’t so surprising when one considers that in 1840, Kingston had a total of 132 licensed taverns, and many more that were unlicensed, serving a population of 8,000. Even professional buildings like Kingston City Hall contained taverns to ensure a frothy fix was never far away for politicians and public servants.

Yes, it was basically a culture of alcoholism that extended throughout North America and Western Europe, according to local beer historian Alan McLeod.

“People today would be disgusted and alarmed to be in Kingston in 1850,” he says. “You would just see drunken people everywhere. All the descriptions [from the time] are like that, and it’s all levels of society.”

And in the mid-1800s, one of Kingston’s primary purposes was to keep a thirsty colony supplied with beer and whiskey. Not only were large quantities of booze produced in the Limestone City, but it also received shipments of alcohol and other goods from overseas in order to distribute throughout the region.

“Kingston was a ‘booze depot’, set up as the industrial centre as opposed to Toronto because it was more protected from the Americans,” McLeod explains.

But by the 1850s, the building of the railway in Ontario gave other, larger municipalities the opportunity to catch up. By 1870, Kingston was no longer considered a major player in the industry.

McLeod explains that “railway sales allowed breweries like Labatt and Carling in London, as well as Hamilton breweries, to get their goods to markets and compete with local brewers existing on shorelines still depending on sail.”

And not long after, a major cultural shift happened with the temperance movement; people began drinking in what we today view as moderation.

“We live in a temperance era,” McLeod says. “Temperance won. We drink in a way that non-prohibition people who were temperance advocates in the 1800s thought the future should be.”

Still, evidence of the way things were still exists today, and perhaps more so in Kingston than in most other North American cities.

“Kingston has at least four pre-Confederation taverns, and then three malting towers and ancillary buildings,” McLeod explains. “So we still have, unlike other cities, a lot of the architecture of the mid-Victorian era in how it links to brewing.”

The new malting tower built as part of the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning is thus a very fitting tribute to the past life of the site in a number of different ways.

The tower, McLeod notes, “physically represents one of the highpoints of Kingston’s role in the whole colony.”

To learn more about the history of the Tett, check out one of the Tett Tours.