Tag Archives: liquor

1859 Everyone drank Arthur Bunster beer

Arthur Bunster started one of the first breweries during the Fraser River gold rush. At a time when grog shops were sprouting up on trails north, Bunster was advertising in the British Colonist newspaper. His notices were catchy and unforgettable always ending with BUNSTER in all caps.

Island Ale Island Barley and Island Hops

In 1859, Arthur Bunster,an Irishman from County Tipperary, established the Colonial Brewery in Victoria.

In 1865, Bunster leased the 700 acre Saanich Hall Farm to supply hops and barley for his own brewery. Growing food on Vancouver Island was considered a major breakthrough.

Some of those ‘Island Casks’ must have been made by the Victoria cooper F.G. Odin who claimed to be the fastest anywhere. In 1860 Odin issued a $500 challenge that he could make more barrels per month than any other cooper in British Columbia.

Principal Manufacturer of Ale on Vancouver Island

Under an editorial titled “Imports for 1865”, the British Colonist declared “…our dependence on foreign countries for the necessaries of life is gradually getting smaller…our market is surely, however slowly, being supplied by Island farmers…”

Arthur Bunster, brewer, farmer and buy local champion

As the Cariboo gold rush winded down, there was an economic slump. On top of that the government considered an import tax on barley. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to grow his own as Arthur Bunster revealed in his March 18, 1867 letter to Governor Seymour:

“Being the principal manufacturer on Vancouver Island of Ale and having been the means of proving that British Columbia is second to none for Brewing. I beg to call your attention to how ruinous it will be to have a Tax levied on Barley to the Brewing Industry of thirty cents per 100 lbs in as much as there is not land enough on the whole of Vancouver’s Island to supply me for Six Months under cultivation and as a Further Proof of what I say the People have to import from the United States there Chicken Feed.

Navy at Esquimalt large consumers of Ale

Her Majesty’s Navy laying at Esquimalt are large consumers of Ale brewed by me and if the present only are insisted on it will compel an Inferior Article to be produced which will Injure the reputation of the colony at large particularly when we think of how proud England is of her Brewers and there is no reason that we should not make ourselves equally felt in time in proportion to our Population provided you will give a fair open field for to work agains(t) the California & Oregon Brewers as well as the English so that we can Export to Ports on the Pacific the Population here not being sufficient to support a Brewery of any capacity and I have lately added a large Malt House a Boiler & Engine and double the size of my brewery with a view of doing an Export Trade.

I would further state that no brewery can live successfully on the local trade as a proof of what I state I can shot that there has been ($120,000) one hundred & twenty thousand dollars lost in the Business in this Colony. I am not asking to have the duty on Barley to be take(n) off without well knowing how ruinous it will be to the Brewing Interest from the fact that I was carrying on the largest Farm on the Island for the last two years give me a chance to know positively that there never will be Quarter enough Barley raised on the Island to supply a Brewery…

Saloons and Grog Shops of the Gold Rush

Before saloons had a chance to establish themselves in Cariboo gold rush towns like Van Winkle, Stanley, and Richfield, there were plenty of “grog” shops. Grog was a simple mix of rum and water. As the Hudson’s Bay Company provided a ready supply of their own brand of rum, this was an easy and accessible drink for the weary miner. However, not all the liquor sold at these grog shops came straight from a bottle. Very strong liquor was referred to as “chain lightning” and “mountain howitzer” implied liquor that “kills at over 1000 yards.”

As the mining camps became more established, stone jugs of ale and porter were carried up the trails as well as puncheons of Scotch whiskey and kegs of champagne.

The BC gold rush also brought a mix of British and American influences. Gin punch drinks known in Britain as  ‘John Collins’ were served using cold water and gin while toddys (hot whisky punches) were made with boiling water.

IcePickIn the United States, the profession of saloon keeper had been transformed by the availability of ice year round, due to new storing techniques. Blocks of ice were shipped to saloons and the bartender handled them with tongs and picks. Then they began the task of breaking the blocks apart with axes and mallets. Using a variety of tools, ice was cracked, broken into ‘lumps’ or shaved directly into a glass for individual drinks made to order.

The American Saloon on Yates Street in Victoria advertised “ICE constantly on hand” while the Phoenix Saloon in Victoria advertised “plenty of ice on hand” for sherry cobblers, mint juleps, brandy smashes, Heenan cocktails, and Sayers gin-slings, done up in the latest style by their bartender Frank Pfaff, who came from Portland, Oregon.

Mr. Pfaff most likely used a shaker or tumbler made of tin to mix the sherry cobblers and mint juleps. Sherry cobblers were served with a straw to avoid swallowing pits. For stirring gin slings, he would have used a long-handled spoon with a twisted stem.  Making a drink pleasing to the eye as well as to the palate was a new challenge and bartenders, known as mixologists, were well-regarded.

It is interesting to note that while gold seekers had very little vitamin C in their diet, many of the ice drinks contained slices of lemon or other citrus fruits. Sherry cobblers, for example, were made with a few slices of orange. Perhaps those miners who were fortunate enough to find a saloon were able to stave off scurvy. Gin slings (so named because one would ‘sling’ them back) were once considered a health drink. Similar to toddy, a sling was made with gin, white sugar, water, and a small lump of ice.

The Steward and Barkeeper’s Manual printed in 1869 included a recipe for “Canadian Punch” with the following ingredients:

  • 1 quart of rye whisky;
  • ½ pint of Jamaica rum;
  • ½ pineapple, sliced;
  • 4 lemons, sliced;
  • 2 quarts of water;
  • ice and sugar

Oyster Saloons in the gold rush

Olympia oysters, once abundant on the Pacific Coast from California to Vancouver Island, now teeter on the brink of extinction. These small but delicious oysters, measuring only 1 and a half inches, were a delicacy during the California gold rush and oyster saloons popped up all over to satisfy the demand. Soon the Californian coast was stripped of its oyster beds and the miners’ insatiable demand prompted the commercial harvest of Olympia oysters in Puget Sound.

In the mid 1800s, the village of Oysterville began to prosper after Chief Nahcati introduced the town’s founders, R.H. Espy and I.A. Clark, to oysters. The rich oyster beds of Willapa Bay were soon responsible for Oysterville’s growth, as the town became a major competitor with other oyster companies.

Willard Espy wrote in his memoir of Shoalwater Bay “Oysterville” that “the Puget Sound oyster, known as the Olympia, had a copper taste offensive to refined San Francisco palates. But the same gourmets who rejected the Olympia oysters sang hosannas” to the oysters of Shoalwater Bay.

BritCol18590610_OysterSaloonBy the mid-1850s, oyster saloons had become fashionable once more and gold miners couldn’t get enough of the fishy, saltwater flavour of these small bivalves that could be swallowed whole in a glass of whisky mixed with ketchup, horseradish, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce in a concoction that came to be known as the Oyster Cocktail.

Rudolph’s Oyster Saloon didn’t so much advertise the quality of the oysters as he did the liquor:

“Having lived in Victoria long enough to find that good Malt Liquor is a scarce article, I would respectfully call the attention of the public to the fact that the genuine stuff can be had at my saloon, where can also be found the News from all parts of the civilized world. Call and see me at Duffy’s old place, on Waddington Street, Victoria.”

Steamers came daily to Muddy Bay, Oyster Bay, and Little Skookum to pick up sacks of Olympias. They brought down canoe loads of Olympia oysters down from Comox to the oyster saloons in Victoria. To fill the sacks, oystermen and their families worked at night when the tide was out and the oysters could be raked from the mud flats.

The oysters were forked up into a float which was then poled to the culling house anchored some distance from shore. There the oysters were forked into a sink float, an upside-down float holding two feet of water to keep the oysters fresh.

From the sinkfloat they were forked into a wheelbarrow, rolled into the culling house, up a plank and dumped onto the culling table. All day long, the cullers sorted out the larger oysters, knocking of barnacles, smaller oysters and debris with a culling iron and dropping the marketable oysters into a can, then raking the cullings down the hopper at the edge of the table.


This advertisement from  Thomas Golden in 1859 promises “Fresh Oysters! Served up in every Style at the Phoenix Saloon. Families supplied at the shortest notice, by the quart or gallon. All orders promptly attended to.”

Free Grog for the Public Service

Grog was a common drink for gold rush miners. ‘Grog’ referred to second-rate rum or watered down rum. ‘Grog shops’ were nothing more than tents or shacks where grog was offered for sale.

wooden_barrelHow was grog made and how did it become so popular?

In the 1600s, there was a rush by the British to the ‘sugar islands’ in the Caribbean. The growth of the sugar industry encouraged local farmers to plant more sugar cane.  Cane juice was boiled down to a syrup, cooled and cured. The curing process involved storing the crystallizing sugar in clay pots with holes in their bases. What emerged was molasses. In the mid 17th century, there was no use for molasses and it was considered a nuisance. As time wore on, the growers found uses for molasses including a new alcoholic drink that became known as rum.

Demand for rum grew. By the early 18th century, the most popular West Indian destinations for merchant ships were Antigua or Barbados, since rum was most easily obtained in trade there. Watered down rum, known as grog, was given to sailors in the navy.

At Fort Victoria, the Hudson’s Bay Company gave 1 pint of molasses and 1/2 pint of rum to workers on December 25, 1848 in addition to their rations of beef, pork and flour.

The Lands & Works Department was run by the Royal Engineers until 1863. While they were stationed in British Columbia, sappers received liquor with their food rations.

The British Columbian published an article on June 29, 1864, titled ‘Free Grog for the Public Service’:

We understand that a keg of brandy was admitted duty free last week on the ground that it was for the “public service,” being for the Surveyor-General’s department! Now, it appears to us that if those employed in the Surveyor-General’s department are entitled to free grog, why not to free “grub”? We look upon the principle as wrong, and the practice paltry. It is unusual for Government to furnish grog to those employed in the various departments. If those in this branch of the public service are so badly paid that they cannot afford the luxury of brandy let their pay be increased; or if Government must supply them let it be purchased here in the regular way, but do not let such a miserable, picayunish practise be carried on as bringing in brandy duty free for the civil service. Who ever heard of such a thing? There was too much of this under the old regime; but then there was rather more excuse for it in the Lands & Works Department, as it was filled by military vice, [who] were entitled to receive their grog as well as their rations. Now, however, the whole thing is changed, and one department is no more entitled to it than another. We hope to see all this sort of thing put a stop to.

Rock Creek War (part 2)

Peter O'Reilly, Gold Commissioner (BC Archives)

The dead man’s name was Frank Porter, an American from Oregon.  Gold commissioner, Peter O’Reilly was responsible for arresting those who broke the British Law.  How was he going to find the murderer amongst all these people?  They could hardly be described as cooperative.

He had just dragged the unfortunate miner off the trail and covered him with a cloth weighted down with some rocks, when he heard someone call his name.

“Are you Peter O’Reilly, the new gold commissioner?” the man called out.

“Yes? And who are you?” O’Reilly asked as he advanced a few steps.

“Jackson from the Portland Advertiser,” he said, shaking his hand. Could I ask you your opinion on the gold diggings?”

“Yes, it appears that things are going quite well for most of the miners. I hear some of them are making upwards of five dollars a day. What have miners been telling you?”

“Only five?” Jackson laughed. “Most of them must be making at least twenty. You should’ve met with George Dunbar, he packed off six thousand dollars in gold dust to Fort Hope just yesterday.”

“Six thousand dollars?!” O’Reilly shook his head.  “One would think that the miners would have more than enough to pay their mining licence.”

“Are you planning on setting up a customs office here?”

“Not yet. In the future perhaps, but for now I must approach the miners individually.”

“That sounds like a daunting task. Have you considered putting up a notice?”

After the reporter went on his way, and O’Reilly had recorded the death of Frank Porter.  If Jackson had been from the Victoria Gazette or the British Columbian, he would’ve considered telling him about the death of Frank Porter. But he was sensitive to the fact how senseless crimes could escalate into international incidents.

He mulled over the idea of a notice over breakfast, then inquired with a couple of the merchants if they had anything on which he could write a message. Removing a piece of paper from his government issued blotter was unthinkable.

In the end, he found a piece of smooth bark and wrote out a notice requesting payment from miners.  After tacking it to a tree, O’Reilly mounted his horse and rode to Black Rock Bar where he had collected the fee from Porter.  He slowed down when he encountered a train of twenty mules loaded with supplies.

One of the riders tipped his hat as an expression of thanks.

“From Fort Colville?” O’Reilly asked as he glanced over the lumbering mules, their necks straining forward under the weight of the crates and bags.

“The Dalles. Twenty days out on the trail, we’ve been.”

“Bringing supplies?”

“Flour, whisky, sugar and beans mostly. I hear the miners are willing to pay good prices at any rate.  Just passed a group of miners heading south with bags of gold dust.  Word about the diggings is getting around.”

O’Reilly thought about that as he headed further along the river. There wasn’t much point in telling him at this point, he’d have to pay a fee for bringing in the liquor.

At one of the gulches, he saw a few miners, some with pans and some with rockers.

“Hullo! Could you show me your mining licences?”

One of them reached into his coat and pulled out a piece of paper.  “I paid on the Fraser,” he said as he handed it over.

“It has expired. You have to pay another five dollars.”

O’Reilly asked the other two but they refused to answer him.  Feeling agitated, he carried on, asking miners for their licences and getting nowhere.

Finally reaching Black Rock Bar, he got off his horse and began approaching each miner as they continued to work.  There were about twenty of them spread out along the bar.  He asked each one about Frank Porter while at the same time demanding to see mining licences.

There were one or two people who remembered Porter and while he was speaking to each of them, he made abbreviated notes in his own shorthand.

As it turned out Porter had been having an argument over a claim he had held jointly with a man named David Barr. Barr had threatened to shoot Porter.

“He was yelling around, saying Porter took his gold dust.”

“Do you know where Mr. Barr can be found?”

The man scratched his arm as if giving it some thought. “Probably went to Fort Hope with Dunbar’s express.”

O’Reilly knew it took about four or five days for George Dunbar’s Pony Express to make the trip. If he had left yesterday there wouldn’t be much point in trying to catch up to it. Besides, he had to lay down the law.

Just to be certain, he spoke with many more gold seekers and each of them confirmed what he had suspected. Barr was long gone on the trail to Fort Hope.

As he went further down the creek to some of the other bars, O’Reilly got the uncomfortable feeling that comes with unfriendly territory.

He was becoming used to the insults and the sullen stares that went with the miners but there was one incident that tipped him over the edge.

At Texas Bar several men blocked the trail down to the river’s edge. O’Reilly kept back a few paces and kept the reins firmly in one hand.

“Only miners are allowed past this point,” yelled one of the men.  “You’re not coming around here and demanding our money.”

Several jeers went up in the gathering crowd.

O’Reilly paused for a moment.  He could have turned around but didn’t. He stood straight in his saddle.

“I’m not going to leave this bar until each of you pays his due,” O’Reilly shouted.  “As gold commissioner for Rock Creek, I have the authority to halt your recovery.”

“You’re going to turn around and get off our bar!” shouted the man.  “And here’s your payment!”

With that remark he hurled a rock at O’Reilly just missing his hat.  Shielding his face, he felt an onslaught of rocks as he turned the horse around. It didn’t need any encouragement to break into a gallop towards the open field.  It was all he could do to hold on with both hands around its neck.

At this rate, he would catch up to David Barr in about three days.


Peter O’Reilly came to British Columbia in 1858 from Ireland where he served with the Royal Irish Constabulary. He later went on to serve as a magistrate, judge and Indian Reserve Commissioner. O’Reilly and his family lived at Point Ellice House, now a heritage site in Victoria.

Bootleggers in Upper Bend Canyon

Spring 1939 – Upper Bend Canyon

Reginald drove his truck along the narrow confines of the Upper Bend Canyon. About two feet from the edge of the gravel road was a precipitous drop to the river below. There wasn’t much traffic in these northern parts and it was just as well. The rock face on the left hand side was unstable at this time of year when the snow was just starting to melt; rock falls were a common occurrence and it was up to the locals to get out and clear the road. It was no surprise when he turned the corner and saw a large boulder blocking the path of a car in front of him.

Reginald hit the brakes firmly and parked the truck behind a newer model car and two men who were standing next to the boulder.  The first thing that registered in his mind was that they weren’t from around here; only a handful of people were inclined to take this switchback road, even if it was a shorter route to the highway. It wasn’t on a tourist map and Reginald wasn’t sure one even existed. The second thing that registered in his mind was the knowledge that this incident was going to make him late delivering his truckload of moonshine.

Reginald got out of his truck and walked towards the two men who were looking at the boulder as if they’d never seen one before. He took a sidelong glance at the car, admiring the fancy wheels. One of the men was smoking and the other had taken his jacket off and was grunting loudly, trying to push the boulder in the direction of the cliff. They didn’t acknowledge his presence like you’d expect a couple of strangers in need of help.

The man with the suit turned to him, “looks like we’re stuck. Would you mind lending us a hand?”
Normally Reginald was the first to dig someone out of a ditch; he was a strong young man who had done a lot of manual labour, but he was damned if he was going to help someone  in an expensive suit with a sneer on his face.
“I could.”
The other man stopped grunting and leaned against the rock just as the other stubbed out his cigarette and laughed.

“If you want to be heading anywhere, I suggest you help. What do you have in the truck?”

The question caught Reginald off guard. He scratched his arm and looked towards the canyon, “I was just taking some supplies to town.” He could see a small puff of dust on the other side and he wondered if that was the book service.

“What kind of supplies?”

Reginald looked at the man. “Farm supplies. And you? What’s your business?”

“We’re investors and we have a train to catch.”

“Alright, let me see if I’ve got something in my truck to help move that.” Reginald walked back to his truck and noticed that the man was following him, trying to make small talk.
He didn’t sound nervous to Reginald, just nosey. He had a bunch of supplies behind his  seat for moving rocks; leather gloves and a crow bar and a piece of tough old fencing. Luckily the moonshine was stored in wooden crates from the fruit packing company, although he wished he’d put a tarp over the whole thing.

“Are those peaches or apples?”

“A bit of both.” Reginald replied as he backed out of the truck with his supplies and took another look at the canyon. The vehicle on the other side had passed the midway point; he was sure it was the book service with Tanner at the wheel, kicking up a few puffs of dust. In another fifteen minutes it should come into sight again.

“Not much traffic around these parts,” the man said.
Reginald nodded his head in agreement. He didn’t like how the man continued to shadow him. The other large guy was still leaning against the rock as they approached and wordlessly got up.

As he position the crowbar on top of the plank, Reginald noticed the rock had hardly been budged.  He didn’t know much about rocks but he did know something about how to get them moving. The one thing he knew was that rocks moved in their own direction; it was hard to move rocks the way you wanted them to, much less boulders of this size. This one wanted to roll to the left.

“You’ll have to back it up.”

The man in the suit man got into the car and backed it up towards the truck until Reginald gave him the nod. The man in the suit stayed in the car with the engine running, with one hand on the steering wheel.

“I think it’s easier to roll it back towards the side.” Reginald said as he walked around the rock until he got the levers pointing the rock towards the slight decline and then it started to roll. Reginald kept pushing, completely focused on moving the rock.

Just as he was bent down to move the levers, and the rock rolled off to the side of the road and the car roared past and then he caught sight of the large man climbing into his own truck.

“Hey!” he yelled. Reginald started running in the truck’s path but the driver wasn’t about to stop and at the last second, Reginald scrambled out of the way, aiming the crowbar at the back wheel as it drove past. The truck came barrelling along and he could feel the heat of the metal as he flattened himself against the rock face. He couldn’t see where the crowbar went and he was too screaming mad to think about anything else except his truck and the load of moonshine.

A short time later he thought he heard a boom echo in the canyon. He stopped and wondered if it was his imagination. Then he heard the familiar horn of the book service vehicle. Reginald waved and Tanner slowed down to give him a lift.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened,” Tanner said, his eyes wide. “There was a massive explosion down at the bridge. I had just crossed over the metal bridge when this car and truck come skidding along towards me, hell bent. I saw sparks flying from under the truck, the next thing I knew there was a huge explosion. I pulled over to get my nerves back but there was nothing I could do…”