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Eat & Drink

How Canada Dry Ginger Ale was invented in Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / March 1, 2014

toronto canada dryJohn James McLaughlin was 25 when he founded his soft drink empire. Born near Enniskillen, Ont., one of two business-minded sons of carriage maker Robert McLaughlin, "Jack" studied at the Ontario College of Pharmacy in Toronto and moved to Brooklyn to complete his qualifications.

While he studied, the moustachioed and kind-eyed McLaughlin worked the controls of a gleaming marble soda fountain in a New York City drug store, mixing fruit-flavoured syrups with carbonated water and ice for crowds of thirsty customers. Drinks with names like Humdinger, American Gentleman, Happy Hooligan, Gunther's Excelsior, Pugilists' Panacea, and the Japanese Thirst Killer were wildly popular.

The real money was in pop, not dispensaries, he thought.

toronto j j mclaughlinMcLaughlin brought the soda concept home to Toronto and began distributing sparkling soda water and still mineral water from a store near Old City Hall in the early 1890s. His effervescent drinks came in seltzer bottles that could be endlessly re-filled and re-charged with carbon dioxide. A pull on the metal trigger released a burst of fizzing water that tasted like salted club soda.

The business did well, despite competition from at least twelve other rival soda companies, and moved to a larger premises on Berti Street near Queen and Church where it employed its first staff: "two men and a driver." It was here McLaughlin began mixing flavoured fruit syrups with sparkling water to make pop: "sarsaparilla, lemon sour, cream soda, ginger beer, cola," according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

toronto canada dryMcLaughlin also marketed a bottle washing machine that automatically scrubbed, sterilized, and dried used soda bottles ready for re-filling. It sold well, according to newspaper reports, and was used in Manchester, England and other European locations.

Meanwhile, his brother, Samuel McLaughlin, was busily growing their father's business into what would eventually become General Motors of Canada.

The business expanded to another factory on Sherbourne Street, just south of Shuter, in 1893, combining the drinks and equipment manufacturing concerns under one roof. In 1895, McLaughlin employed 80 people and the company was known "from the Pacific to the Atlantic," according to a business supplement published by The Star.

Soon after the building opened, a boiler exploded in the basement after closing one evening, collapsing the brick facade into the street and wrecking the production line. The force was so powerful it smashed windows and scattered furniture in nearby homes, including the Moss Park mansion across the street.

The Globe and Mail reported that a packed streetcar and a passer-by narrowly avoided the cascade of bricks. All told, the blast caused about $10,000 worth of damage, none of which was covered by insurance. It's not entirely clear how McLaughlin was able to rebuild the factory but the accident didn't seem to present much of a setback.

toronto canada dryBy 1905, a team of fruit handlers, surrounded by crates of oranges, lemons, cherries, berries, peaches, and plums stacked floor-to-ceiling, peeled, pitted, and performed "the multiple operations by which fruits are induced to part with their flavours" in the repaired building's basement.

On the main floor, the bottling department used McLaughlin's own machine to scald and scrub glass bottles ready for filling. A massive 1,600-gallon carbonated water machine - the largest of its kind in North America, built specially for the firm in London, England - mixed its sparkling liquid with the fruit syrups brought up from the floor below.

There was also space for offices, a soda fountain showroom, laboratory, machine shop, and stables for the horses that hauled the delivery wagons. The company's ice cream machines and marble soda fountains were installed at the Hudson's Bay Company in Edmonton, the Robert Simpson Company in Toronto, and the Orpheum Store in Montreal.

A large part of McLauglin's business was dedicated to building custom soda fountains and fitting out cafeterias. Two catalogues stored in the Toronto Public Library show multiple elaborate and ornate designs, featuring onyx, marble, slate, bronze, nickel silver, and mahogany.

toronto canada drySome of J. J. McLaughlin's most popular drinks from around the turn of the century included Santoris pure sparkling water, Hygeia distilled table water from a spring in Arnprior, Ont., Hop-Tone "bitter-sweet tonic," and Tona-Cola, a coke drink that unashamedly borrowed from Coca-Cola. The Tona-Cola logo even used the same distinctive cursive script first used by the international drinks giant in 1885.

The drink was nicknamed "Ton O' Coal," a play on the way the name was pronounced, and like other sodas, it was sold through druggists, grocers, and fountains at 5-cents a glass.

toronto canada dryMany of the most popular soft drinks of the age were marketed as health tonics, claiming to cure everything from gland problems to nervousness and fatigue. Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, both of which emerged around the same time as McLaughlin's company, made similar health claims.

Ironically, despite his company's health promises, McLaughlin was frequently unwell. He spent time in Florida - he was in the US when the factory explosion occurred - in the hope the heat and bright sunshine would cure his malaise.

toronto tona-colaThe company had long produced the dark and spicy "McLaughlin's Belfast Style Ginger Ale" - similar to an old-style ginger beer - but the product was refined in 1904 and renamed "Canada Dry" Pale Ginger Ale. "It has a snap and a tingle; a smart spry taste," early ads claimed. It was known as "the champagne of ginger ales" for its light taste and was marketed with a beaver icon and a map of Canada.

So popular was Canada Dry that McLaughlin opened plants in Edmonton and Winnipeg to help with national distribution. The trade name was registered to the company in 1907 and there were several offers to buy the rights to the drink, all of them rejected.

The sweet drink was even appointed to the Royal Household of the Governor General of Canada, at which point the beaver was removed from the logo in favour of a crown and the map of Canada was place inside a shield, as it is today.

toronto canada dryWith Canada Dry continuing its explosive rise, McLaughlin died suddenly of a heart attack in 1914. The company stayed in the family, expanding to New York City in 1920, until it was sold in 1923 to P. D. Saylor and Associates, who renamed it Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Inc.

Today, Canada Dry is no longer associated with Toronto, or Canada. The brand is owned by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. out of Plano, Texas, a faceless corporation that also produces 7 Up, A&W Root Beer, Clamato, Yoo-hoo, and countless others.

I wonder what Jack would have made of that.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star

Discussion

23 Comments

jaykay / March 1, 2014 at 02:38 am
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Im starting to read the book SALT, SUGAR, FATS (title may be mixed up) and it talks about soft drink ingredients... Here we look at GMO and organic products as a superior product, but the executives looked at the chemical ingredients in the sodas the same way. They talked about how the quality of ingredients were better in Coke than in Dr. Pepper... I know sodas are bad in general, but interesting to note.

And I love Canada Dry...Can anyone recommend me a "healthier' ginger ale? I know Q had one..or Fever tree.... And by healthy I just mean more artisan and natural ingredients.
RobertB / March 1, 2014 at 06:20 am
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Does anyone remember Wilson's Ginger Ale? The bottling plant was on O'Connor Drive, I believe. The best I've ever tasted...not the bland watered down tasteless soda Canada Dry has become. They were bought out by Crush in the late 60's and the name and product were immediately put into the dead pool. Simply a case of killing off the competition. I've never been able to find a ginger ale that tasted as good.
Canadadrylover / March 1, 2014 at 07:05 am
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I absolutely love Canada dry. I think it's because it really does remind me of champagne. It sucks when I run out....it's delicious, refreshing, and addictive. I love the really light ginger flavor. Nothing compares :)
W. K. Lis / March 1, 2014 at 08:02 am
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I love Canada Dry Ginger Ale, because it is different than the colas. Sometimes go for the different "shades" of ginger ale, cranberry, lemon tea, etc.. Too bad they had to be bought out by non-Canadians. Just like the big beer companies.

However, I do miss Wilson's.
iSkyscraper / March 1, 2014 at 08:54 am
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"His effervescent drinks came in seltzer bottles that could be endlessly re-filled and re-charged with carbon dioxide."

What's interesting is how full-circle this has come. Some years ago I switched to SodaStream and now guzzle seltzer and other homemade confections like crazy. Have not bought carbonated beverages in a long time.
Sean / March 1, 2014 at 10:03 am
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Good story. Just wish we can go back in time...
Paul replying to a comment from RobertB / March 1, 2014 at 10:07 am
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Certainly do remember Wilson's. I much preferred it over Canada Dry. They also made other great flavours including a superior orange drink. Their facility was used in the seminal Canadian movie "Goin' Down The Road". It was the place where the boys got their first job after arriving in Toronto.

Now here's another question: does anybody else remember Vernor's ginger ale? It was very unusual in both colour and taste. Seems to me that it was available in movie theaters but not in stores for some reason.
Andy / March 1, 2014 at 11:07 am
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Yes to both Wilson's and Vernor's. Both much better than Canada Dry. I thought I had a Wilson's a couple of years ago. Sure it's not around any more?
Ron / March 1, 2014 at 11:17 am
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Anyone know if the old J. J. McLaughlin's and Hygeia Table Water brick buildings are still up in Toronto? The ones on the image above...
Ron replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / March 1, 2014 at 11:19 am
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Owned by a Mexican company now :-(
David replying to a comment from Ron / March 1, 2014 at 12:22 pm
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Long gone. It's now a Dollerama with apartments on top and a homeless shelter. Moss Park Arena is across Sherbourne.
Brian / March 1, 2014 at 02:44 pm
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Caplansky's still serves Vernor's ginger ale.
gosh replying to a comment from jaykay / March 1, 2014 at 03:21 pm
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Salt/sugar/fats were the evil monsters last decade, and red meat was the decade before that. We've continued self-diagnosing with "Gluten" and artificial sweeteners now the guilty parties. Real Wholesome Ingredients and 'no ingredients you cannot pronounce' are currently de riguer, like soft drinks made with "REAL SUGAR"! Canada Dry seems to be under the impression that no one realised Ginger Ale has REAL GINGER in it!!!! Who didn't know ginger ale had ginger in it? And what is with cafes that only sell Jones, imported from Seattle? Is it cooler and more posh aside from being more expensive?
Pass.
W. K. Lis replying to a comment from gosh / March 1, 2014 at 03:49 pm
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Gosh... do you mean that orange soda pop is made from real oranges? Or that cream soda is made from real cream?
Mary Jean / March 1, 2014 at 04:56 pm
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Vernon's products are still available in any grocery store in Windsor, On. Have never understood why no one has them in Toronto. I bring several cases each month to friends in Toronto who love Vernors.
Ron replying to a comment from David / March 1, 2014 at 05:16 pm
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So it was where Moss Park is today?

Thanks.
Len Heidebrecht CD / March 1, 2014 at 09:27 pm
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Why did you put Colonel Sam McLaughlin's rank in parenthesis? He was a long-time Honourary Colonel of what is today the Ontario Regiment and as such a real rank. Putting up the rank surrounded by the marks makes it seem that he was cheating or not deserving of that distinction.
Jason Kucherawy / March 1, 2014 at 10:03 pm
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The image of the Tona-Cola sign on the building with a monument in the foreground is Place Jacques Cartier in Montreal in case anyone is wondering. http://goo.gl/maps/ncB0w
MC / March 1, 2014 at 10:23 pm
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Ginger Beer >>>>>>>>>>> Ginger Ale.
gosh replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / March 2, 2014 at 01:21 am
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Do you mean to tell me that you are actually surprised to discover that there is **gasp** REAL GINGER in ginger ale? Hang on to your hats, there is also REAL GINGER in ginger snaps, too!!! I know!! I was shocked, too!
gosh replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / March 2, 2014 at 01:28 am
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Also, I forgot to mention that both Fanta and Cplus orange soda contain concentrated orange juice, and Orange Crush contains natural flavour. Have a great day! :)
Spike replying to a comment from Paul / March 4, 2014 at 01:04 am
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I remember it quite well; it used to be sold for a while when I was a kid, then disappeared, then came back a few recent years ago (now owned by Dr Pepper Snapple Group), then disappeared again from store shelves in Toronto. I wish that it would come back too.
Soda or Pop? / March 8, 2014 at 09:14 am
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Pepsico has the rights in Canada to distribute Vernors. I've only seen it in 12x355 mL packages at Loblaws. I don't get why nobody has been able to find it in the Toronto area.

And about Jones soda, it is sweetened with cane sugar, as opposed to high fructose corn syrup. Only a few companies that aren't the big 2 use cane sugar. The way it used to be, before the big 2 started focusing more on profit. The trend of using cane sugar again has recently popped up again with Pepsi releasing "Mountain Dew Throwback" and "Pepsi Throwback" complete with retro packaging. We had them in Canada for a very limited run, but is still available in the US. Mexican Coca-Cola is still sweetened with cane sugar as well.

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