Food by VICE

Nova Scotia Is Now and Forever Soaked in Rum

Long before it began building ships, Nova Scotia was distilling rum. A favorite haunt of pirates in the 1700s, the province later became a hotbed of rum smuggling during Prohibition. Now, craft distilleries are carrying on the rum tradition.

by Griffin J. Elliot
Dec 15 2015, 5:07pm

Photo via Flickr user matt_hinsa

Two two-fours of Keith's, a 12-pack of Corona, a 12-pack of Heineken, a quart of crème de menthe, a quart of Irish cream, assorted rums and vodkas, Jägermeister, Ironworks Amber Rum and Ironworks Bluenose Black Rum, a quart of gin, and three different types of good Scotch: Over $1,000 later, I was helping my buddy and his mum load a liquor haul that could obliterate a small village into the back of their SUV.

Any hoser will tell you that people in Nova Scotia—from infamous pirate Ned Low to trailer park supervisor Jim Lahey—love to drink. And they have since time immemorial.

"There's that very famous quote about somebody visiting Halifax in the 18th century that says, 'The business of one half of the population is to sell rum and the other half is to drink it,'" comments Dan Colin, a maritime historian and author of Pirates of the Atlantic: Robbery, Murder, and Mayhem Off the Canadian East Coast.

"There is a very long tradition of distilleries and breweries in the province," he says. "One interesting factoid is the very first manufacturing industry in Halifax was a distillery. A merchant named Joshua Major built a distillery in the north end of Halifax right next to the navy base." Major's distillery was seen as an industrial operation in his day, Conlin adds, but it would be considered more like a craft distillery today, based on the number of gallons it produced.

"But that is the very first industry. Long before we were building ships or processing fish, we were distilling rum in Halifax."

The province's rum-soaked historic saga began in the Golden Age of Piracy. The 1720s saw Nova Scotia's Atlantic waters plagued with Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, and the like. According to Conlin, the area was one of the main "pirate rounds" because of the "somewhat uninhabited coastline and all the unhappy fishermen you could recruit to join your crew."

Fast-forward a couple hundred years later, and fishermen traded in their nets and poles for crates of moonshine to smuggle into the Prohibition-era United States. They would load up their vessels with as many gallons of alcohol as would fit and sail to just off the coast of the US; then American gangsters would come out on speed boats and buy the booze.


The still at Ironworks Distillery. Photo via Flickr user Donna Lee.

"The province gradually went dry. Then, in order to get affordable drinks, people would smuggle in booze, so there was a local market during Prohibition. But much more significantly, the United States goes dry in the early 1920s," Conlin says. "Suddenly you have this enormous market of millions of thirsty Americans and gangsters who want to make them happy, and Nova Scotians then step up to be suppliers."

There was small-time rum-running for the local market in Nova Scotia—usually done with lesser boats and fishing schooners—but also big-time trafficking with larger schooners, and later custom-built motor freighters capable of smuggling enormous amounts of alcohol over long distances.

The imposing liquor laws created an "interesting disconnect" in the province's heavy drinking culture, Conlin says. During World War II, there were only two places you could legally buy alcohol in Halifax: Hotel Nova Scotian and the Lord Nelson Hotel.

Despite the Man's best efforts at keeping the people sober, the prohibition laws were overturned in 1930. Slowly but very surely, barkeeps and barflies alike started buzzing around the Maritimes once again.

In modern times, the people of Nova Scotia have found a new way to localize their drinking habits by breaking into the craft distillery scene. Lynne MacKay co-founded Ironworks Distillery with her partner Pierre Guevremont in 2009 and the two have found success distilling alcohol from provincially grown fruit.

"And that is our principal training, in fruit distillation," MacKay says. "The concept of distilling rum came later when people started asking us if we were going to distill rum, and then we woke up to the fact that Nova Scotianers love rum and always have, and probably always will."

"We realized, OK, fine, we can't make rum out of fruit, so we figured out how to deal with that on a slightly local level by making rum out of Crosby's Molasses [from Saint John, NB], which is another tradition down here."


Outside Ironworks. Photo via Flickr user Donna Lee.

Ironworks Distillery is rooted in history. Situated in a blacksmith shop in one of the province's oldest port towns, the place that once forged anchors and chains for the navy is now distilling innovative alcohols like vodka, brandies from Annapolis Valley apples, and blueberry and cranberry liqueurs. Built in 1893, the property is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site under Old Town Lunenburg, and you can even take a horse and buggy right to their doorstep.

"It's a very simple, old-fashioned building—very typical of Lunenburg. It serviced the marine industry," MacKay says. "Vessels had their ironworks made here, which is why it's called Ironworks Distillery. It was homage to the previous incarnation."

The workshop was originally operated by Thomas Walters, a marine blacksmith who provided South Shore shipbuilders with clevises and gaffs, windlasses and fiddleys, fairleads and ferrules, and any other ironworks they needed. Located in the shipyard area of Lunenburg, mismatched vessels float just over the ridge along the harbor; the shop itself is not even a hundred yards from the sea.

"Our 210-litre fabulous still lives at the far corner," she says, "opposite the big double doors that are open all summer, past which the tour buggies go by a couple of times an hour."

Even though the times are a-changin', the people will always want their alcohol, especially on those chilly maritime nights. And the people at Ironworks Distillery are growing in notoriety the same way their swashbuckling and rum-running ancestors did, albeit more legally.

Nova Scotia
Ironworks Distillery