Reviewing Booze: A Distilled History by Craig Heron

By John Horn

So, a wild buffalo, four twelve year old boys and Jenny the Alcoholic Bear walk into Joe Beef’s tavern in Montreal.

Seriously. That really happened…in 1859. Regardless of when it was, I bet that the mechanical bull you rode last week doesn’t seem too cool anymore, does it?

And this is why Canadian history doesn’t get much better than Booze: A Distilled History (Between the Lines, 2003, $24.95). Craig Heron’s thoroughly enjoyable – and enjoyably thorough – romp through Canada’s boozey past is as approachably prose-worthy as it is an interconnected analysis of the social, economic, political, sexual, medical, racial, and cultural impact of alcohol on this country.

Well illustrated, Booze begins with what it means to be drunk, specifically Heron notes that there has been “a rich vocabulary to convey many subtle gradations: happy, merry, high, tipsy, lit, buzzed, lubricated, fuddled, pickled, sloshed, soused, stewed, loaded, pissed, pie-eyed, tight, plastered, smashed, hammered, blitzed, bombed, stoned, wrecked, wasted, blotto.” (7) This story unpacks our culture’s myriad interpretations of drunkenness – from the endearing town drunk to Alcoholics Anonymous implicitly accepting the premise of alcoholism being “a disease of the will.” (384-85) Booze fails to leave any bottle unopened. Heron is truly at his best when he discusses booze as agency: “although drinking together can often affirm social relationships, it can also be an expression of liberty and independence and therefore threatening or subversive.” (1) Booze will not only make you see the tavern in an entirely new way, but, believe it or not, there are some fantastic pick-up lines and lewd, crowd-pleasing stories that will make you a hit at the next big sporting event shown in your neighbourhood pub.

Dancing in and out of taverns, inns, bars, saloons, and other boozey social spaces, Heron’s description of alcohol as a leveller – as well as confirmer – of social status is certainly an indication of his penchant for EP Thompson working class history: “a saloon was simply a refuge, a port in the industrial storm, a place where working men could informally nurture a different way of thinking and behaving within industrial capitalist society.” (119) He outlines the “paternalism” of booze-making in the distilleries of the 1880s, where, in spite of being mostly removed from labour’s “great upheaval…company executives strived to maintain good relations with their staffs” (100) and a detailed analysis of the complex, often racially-charged relationship between brewery unions and government liquor store employees across Canada in the 1970s.

Heron’s refreshing, approachable and well-informed analysis of breweries as innovators in marketing practices, labour relations and government-business-relations makes a case for this historical work being mandatory reading for commerce students across Canada. For example, find a cooler marketing campaign than this one from Sleemans during the 1880s, alleging their beer was:

“the most efficacious remedial agent of its kind for Indigestion, Dyspepsia, Loss of Appetite, General Debility, Nervous Exhaustion, Sleeplessness, Coughs, Colds, and other maladies that may result from an impaired constitution.” (96)

We do ourselves a disservice by using bikinis and sports metaphors today. And, for the record, I don’t know about you, but I’m a little parched and could use a Sleemans honey brown lager right about now…

Known romantically as a rum-running nation during the 1920s, Canada knows temperance very well, too. Prohibition, however, could only be implemented during the most unique of circumstances – the back drop of the First World War allowed for the temperance movement to dig its heels into the Canadian cultural landscape – John Barleycorn almost died on December 22, 1917 following a newly elected Unionist federal government and a metaphoric interpretation of the Great War as a fight against “the Alcohol Kaiser of life!” (178) Perhaps the most interesting element of Booze is the elusive, indifferent and/or unnameable relationship that many Canadians have with alcohol.

Booze cleverly outlines a relationship between alcohol and society that was, is and, most likely, always will be a non-committal one. Politicians were reluctant to openly side with temperance movements if it meant implementing tougher policies on booze, as this would cost them votes. The owners of capital certainly relished the opportunity to side with temperance when it meant reducing the amount of alcohol consumption on the job; invariably, cutting down on booze in the camp, the office or on the construction site meant higher productivity and far fewer injuries. This being said, Heron clearly outlines that the saloon fostered a space where “men could pick up tips about jobs, and maybe even buy a foreman a drink to get hired.” (108) Side note: one of the best things you can do for your career is hang out in a bar and talk to people…seriously!

Heron succumbs to one historical pitfall: binary opposition. While he in no way creates a straw-person out of the temperance movement, he is critical of prohibition, anti-booze societies and “the drys” in general. Teetotallers, according to Heron, “never agreed that regulation was enough” (176) and “insisted that all ‘inebriety’ was unacceptable, and that all drinking would ultimately make the drinker a drunkard.” (384) Surely there was more to the temperance legacy than folks who just spoiled the party. State policies – as well as family policies – have grown out of our ambivalent, if not hypocritical, relationship with booze. Heron does, however, offer us a fairly good prescription: “we have remained stubbornly unwilling to let personal indulgence and hedonism, however enjoyable, undermines our sense of mutual responsibility.” (387) Did nothing good really come of temperance?

Booze is a recipe for effective engagement of topical historical subject matter. The 400 year journey with “peoples, economies, cultures, and state policies that evolved in what became Canada shaped a particular experience with alcoholic beverages that set us apart from the equally distinctive stories elsewhere.” (371) Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses yields many distinctive stories that do not mirror the very Canadian “mutual responsibility” of our polite culture, as he links the American Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion and the numerous illegal distilleries that littered the American frontier to the restless, fiercely-independent, anti-taxation sentiments that defined the character of the folks who left Europe to start life anew in America. (126-127)

To all the professors teaching first-year Canadian survey courses, well, how do you think students would respond to a class called Booze: 400 Years of Alcohol and Canada’s Cultural Landscape? My guess would be pretty amazingly. The boozey lens through which Heron sees our country’s past is a truly engaging one. Booze addresses the same historical themes that many other narratives do, but, truth be told, this is just a downright better way to present and discuss the information. Kids will love the pictures, too.

Enjoy this book with a nice Canadian rye – fun fact: “rye” has actually been made with corn for well over 100 years, even though the name has stuck – or a spirited micro-brew from your neighbourhood brewery. Dr. Heron, this was a pleasure to read and I hope that your fantastically illustrated narrative is soon deemed mandatory historical Canadiana.

By day, John Horn is a Career Manager at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. By night, he is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Gumboot, Vancouver’s coolest community-minded blog. John likes storytelling, pirates, sandwiches, bike riding, talking to strangers, and connecting world-changers with each other. He lives in Vancouver with his spectacular fiance, Michelle.

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