In the 21st century, people don’t remember that in the 1930s, Hiram Walker was a major player in the whiskey industry. The company was founded in Canada, just across the border from Detroit, in the 1850s. Hiram Walker created the brand Canadian Club at his distillery in Walkerville, Ontario. It quickly became a very popular whiskey and many distilleries soon created their own “Club” brand to compete with Walker. Unlike American distillers, Hiram Walker was making whiskey during the dark days of American Prohibition and had plenty of aged whiskey to bring into the United States market after Repeal.
In the 1930s, Hiram Walker decided to build a distillery in Peoria, Illinois. Not just any distillery, but the distillery with the largest distilling capacity of the time. This image from Fortune Magazine of November 1933, is an artist’s drawing of the distillery that would open in 1934. The architects were the firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls of Detroit. Before Prohibition, Peoria had a thriving distilling business and the town was excited to have the industry back after Prohibition. This was a $5,000,000 investment by Hiram Walker and the town brought out the brass bands and parades to celebrate the investment.
The image shows a modern distillery with brick warehouses and a column still. It had a capacity of 100,000 gallons of new make whiskey a day. The distillery would have an impact on the industry. Much of the whiskey probably went to support the Canadian Club brand in a similar manner that much of the whiskey made by Seagram in America went to support their Crown Royal brand. However, Hiram Walker had some American blended whiskey brands that needed whiskey and they would create the “Ten High” Bourbon brand from the whiskey made at this distillery.
The distilling industry of the 21st century reflects what was happening in the 1930s. The Bourbon growth of today has caused a lot of investment in new distilleries. Many of the distilleries of today are families getting back into the business (as it was in the 1930s), others are new business looking to make a profit from the popularity of whiskey (as it was in the 1930s) and others are new distilleries being built by established companies in order to increase their supply (as it was in the 1930s).
In the 1930s though, the world was still suffering through the Great Depression. Many of the new distilleries did not survive the time needed to age a whiskey for market and were bought out by well established companies. The modern era is in better economic times, but you see many small distilling companies being purchased by bigger distilling conglomerates. The process has just been slower. Consolidation of the industry is a natural process.
Hiram Walker remained a major player in the industry for many decades. When the Samuels family sold Maker’s Mark in the 1980s, it was Hiram Walker who purchased them. Even so, Hiram Walker was slowly losing ground in the years of whiskey’s decline. They eventually were sold to Pernod Ricard and are now part of Beam Suntory. The distillery in Peoria stopped making whiskey in the 1970s and is now an ethanol plant.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller