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Toronto Invents: Canada Dry

The "Champagne of Ginger Ales" was first bottled on Sherbourne Street.

We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.

If you shop at the Dollarama on Sherbourne Street across from Moss Park, grab a bottle of Canada Dry from the pop cooler. Twist off the cap and savour a drink, then contemplate the fact that you’re enjoying the beverage on the site where it first rolled off the production line more than a century ago.

Source: the Financial Post, July 24, 1930.

Born near present-day Oshawa in 1865, John James McLaughlin was the eldest son of Robert McLaughlin, whose carriage firm evolved into the Canadian branch of General Motors. While his brothers joined the family business, McLaughlin studied at the Ontario College of Pharmacy. During his post-grad studies in Brooklyn, New York, during the late 1880s, McLaughlin developed an interest in carbonated beverages while working in a local drugstore, where he noted the increasing popularity of mineral waters mixed with flavoured syrups.

When he returned to Toronto in 1890, McLaughlin launched a soda-fountain-supply and beverage-manufacturing company on Berti Street. His line of mineral and soda waters quickly grew popular, thanks to ads that compared drinking municipal water to committing suicide, at a time when water-borne epidemics were a risk of urban life. Growth necessitated larger facilities, first at Queen and Victoria streets, then, in 1893, at a plant on Sherbourne Street north of Queen. Besides drinks, McLaughlin manufactured equipment and countertops for the growing number of soda fountains around the country. He attracted powerful clients like Simpson’s department store and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Sketch of Canada Dry plant and offices at 145–155 Sherbourne Street, the Financial Post, July 24, 1930.

When the new century arrived, McLaughlin withdrew from daily management of his company because of tuberculosis. Despite weak health, he continued to develop new products. He spent years tinkering with ginger ale recipes, initially devising an Irish-style beverage that customers complained was too dark and syrupy. By 1904 he had developed a lighter, sharper-tasting formula that was branded McLaughlin’s Pale Dry Ginger Ale. A year later, he applied for a patent under the name Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale. His wife, Maud, suggested the drink’s enduring slogan, “the champagne of ginger ales,” which positioned it as a classy beverage.

Canada Dry’s instant success was helped by hyperbolic advertising. While promoting its stall at the 1907 Canadian National Exhibition, Canada Dry boasted that “a drink like that is worth suffering to get,” for people afflicted with extreme thirst. After sampling the drink at the fair, the Star noted that “this ale has a mild yet piquant flavour, which is most agreeable, and its stimulating effect on the digestive organs makes it a prime favourite.”

Advertisements, (left) the Toronto Star, May 23, 1907, (right) the Toronto Star, August 29, 1907.

Despite long stays in the healthier climates of Arizona and Muskoka, McLaughlin’s health continued to deteriorate until his death in January 1914. Because his oldest heir was a teenager, McLaughlin’s brothers, George and Sam, became executors of Canada Dry, despite a strained relationship with John’s widow, Maud. The company’s rapid growth continued, aided by temperance activists who praised ginger ale as a substitute for alcohol, though drinkers soon discovered it went down even better with a shot of rye. Prohibition in Canada and the United States spiked demand on both sides of the border, not only from teetotallers, but also from those smoothing the taste of their bathtub gin.

Advertisement, the Toronto Star, July 18, 1916.

When John’s sons showed little interest in taking over, the McLaughlin family cashed out. The company was sold in 1923 to P.D. Saylor, who had been hired a year earlier to improve Canada Dry’s business south of the border. John’s son Donald personally delivered the secret recipe to New York after his mother sold her remaining shares. Under Saylor, Canada Dry went from producing two million bottles a year in 1923 to 10 million a month in 1930. The product’s popularity endured after prohibition ended, and it continues to be a profitable line for its current owner, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

Additional material from Driving Force: The McLaughlin Family and the Age of the Car by Heather Robertson (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), the July 24, 1930 edition of the Financial Post, and the August 29, 1907 and September 6, 1907 editions of the Toronto Star.

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