Sir John A. Macdonald, notorious drinker, honoured with Kingston whisky tasting

July 1, 2011 editorial cartoon in the Globe and Mail. Brian Gable / The Globe and Mail / The Canadian Press

What better way to honour Sir John A Macdonald – Canada’s notoriously hard-drinking first prime minister – than a whisky tasting? Parks Canada is on board. The federal agency is inviting people to explore fine whisky and food pairings at Macdonald’s former Kingston home this weekend.

“Ever wanted to grab a drink with Sir John A. Macdonald?” asks the press release from Parks Canada. “Experience the next best thing with a whisky tasting at Bellevue House National Historic Site, Macdonald’s 19th century home.”

Amateur Canadian historians might find raising a glass to Macdonald a highly appropriate way to remember the man – he’s noted not just for his political accomplishments, but also for his love of the bottle.

Macdonald’s fondness for liquor has been well-documented, though historian Ged Martin characterizes it less as “alcoholism” and more as “binge-drinking” in his academic review “John A. Macdonald and the Bottle.” Why? He wasn’t constantly drunk, he was just known for extreme binges.

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WATCH: Canadian Heritage Minute featuring Macdonald highlights alcohol along with Confederation

But some of those binges made for great stories.

One of the most famous stories has a visibly inebriated Macdonald take the stage during an election debate, likely during a January 1864 by-election. He shocked the audience by vomiting on stage mid-debate.

“Is this the man you want running your country?” asked his opponent. “A drunk?”

“I get sick (…) not because of drink [but because] I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent,” Macdonald retorted, according to the story.
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An 1873 political cartoon shows Sir John A. Macdonald with a bottle hanging out of his pocket. Sir John A. Macdonald library

Macdonald’s drinking sometimes had political consequences. He was drunk during the Fenian raid of 1866, when he was acting as minister of militia and defence – too wasted to answer telegrams, according to allegations in the Globe newspaper a few years later.

A Militia bill introduced in 1862 to undertake an overhaul of Canada’s defences failed in part because Macdonald was suffering “one of his old attacks” during crucial debates.

He also occasionally got violent: the Daily British Whig newspaper reported him slapping his opponent’s face at a campaign event in 1872. His campaign manager, Alexander Campbell, said that throughout the election, Macdonald “kept himself more or less under the influence of wine” and so had “no clear recollection of what he did on many occasions,” according to Martin’s article.

READ MORE: ‘I’ll smack your chops’, a history of Canadian politicians behaving badly

And sometimes he injured himself: he once set fire to his hotel bed while staying in London and suffered extensive burns.

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After suffering from severe digestive problems later in his life, possibly related to his drinking, Macdonald’s episodes became fewer and he became fonder of milk than alcohol. But it’s worth noting, as Martin does, that his most remarkable political achievements happened around his heaviest drinking years – a testament to his political ability. “Canadians had good reason to prefer John A. drunk to anyone else sober,” he wrote.

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