Old French Brandy, 1692. Illustration from Good Spirits booklet.
From the beginning there has been a relationship between HBC and the selling of alcoholic spirits. Originally, the Company was extremely reluctant to sell alcohol to the native population. Instructions sent by London to Fort Albany Governor Anthony Beale in 1713 were explicit: “Trade as little brandy as possible to the Indians, we being informed it has destroyed several of them.” But despite the very best of intentions, it proved impossible to compete with the Nor’westers without resorting to the sale of liquor. Not only had a market developed among the aboriginal peoples, but the drinking of alcohol itself formed a key piece of the ceremonial which evolved around the exchange of goods for furs.
A price list of trade goods from Fort Albany dated 1733 shows that spirits were routinely available. For example, a single made-beaver pelt, the medium of exchange or currency at that time, could buy any of the following items: 1 blanket, 2 lb. of Brazilian tobacco, 1 kettle, 8 knives or 1 gallon of brandy. In the early days French brandy was the primary spirit traded. But it was costly and, owing to the continual hostilities between Britain and France, increasingly hard to procure. The Company finally solved the supply problem by deciding to manufacture liquor itself. This was how so-called “English” brandy was born.
English brandy must have been a pretty foul concoction. Essentially it consisted of straight cheap London gin tinted until it resembled brandy. A number of colouring agents might be used, the most common of which were iodine or tobacco. Sometimes even opium or other noxious agents might be added to the mix. By the middle of the 18th century the most common additive was molasses, which added not only the desired colour but also some (much-needed!) sweetness.
About the same time liquor became a standard issue item for employees. Rations were set at 1 quart per man per week – roughly 7.5 gallons per man per year –issued twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday. Extra rations were issued to mark special holidays like Christmas, New Year’s or to toast the reigning monarch on his or her birthday. In this the Europeans, like their native neighbours, used liquor in support of ceremonial. An employee could also earn additional rations of liquor in recognition of outstanding performance. Records tell us of one Thomas Smith, a stonemason, who was awarded and extra 10 gallons a year in recognition of his commitment to hazardous work – namely, regularly using explosives to break the rock used for building walls. Today this concept is called hazard or danger pay. Although the idea of issuing liquor to an explosives specialist would probably contravene current workplace health and safety regulations! For many reasons the Company was making strenuous efforts by the mid-19th century to curtail the use of spirits, particularly given the tensions then brewing in the west.
HBC blending and bottling warehouse Edinburgh, Scotland, n.d.
By the beginning of the 20th century HBC’s home-grown products were well-known throughout North America. The Wholesale Division of the Company was established in 1907 in recognition of the increasing importance of the retail trade to sell both liquor and groceries to the growing population of the west. In 1923 the first registration for the Company’s own private brand premium scotch, “Best Procurable”, was obtained. It became one of Canada’s best-loved brands and was joined over the years by a full range of spirits. In 1987 Hudson's Bay Distillers was sold to Seagrams as the Company continued to focus on its primary business activity – retail. As a result HBC spirits became unavailable in Canada. However, Hudson's Bay Company Blended Scotch Whiskey continues to be sold in the U.S. under special licensing arrangements with Sidney Frank Importing.
Hudson's Bay Light Rum label, ca. 1970s