It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when you couldn’t legally buy a drink in this province.
In fact, for ten years – 1916 to 1926 – it was illegal to buy or sell alcohol here. Oddly enough, for most of those years you could still manufacture alcohol, as long as it was being exported.
The last few whiffs of the temperance movement have been swept away in Ontario, although there are still a handful of “dry” counties and municipalities to be found. These days, the province is home to a booming booze industry, first with wineries, then craft breweries, and now distilleries popping up like spring flowers after a rain.
Muskoka, of course, is no exception. Every spring seems to bring a new local tipple to our shelves, including a few non-alcoholic ones.
Here’s a rundown of what’s out there, including a few that are found on the boundaries of Muskoka proper.
With a climate that’s unfriendly to grapes, it’s not surprising that we don’t have a lot of wineries. But that hasn’t stopped the folks at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh. In 2000 the decades-old family farm offered their first wines – cranberry and cranberry-blueberry. They’ve since added five more wines to the list, and last summer also added a cranberry-apple cider.
Many of their products are available in the LCBO, but for the full experience stop by the farm and winery, just outside Bala. You’ll get a chance to taste the wines, and chat with staff or family members.
Beer is where the real growth has been in Muskoka – and across Canada – for the past few years.
Our local suds market started more than 20 years ago, when two amateur beer makers decided to turn their hobby into a business and launched Muskoka Brewery. With 160 employees, it’s now among the biggest employers in Muskoka, but they haven’t lost sight of the craft. There are more than a dozen beers that are part of the regular lineup, including light ales, rich stout, and, of course, IPAs in a range of hoppiness. If that’s not enough, check out the Moonlight Kettle series, limited edition brews that change each month. You can even sign up to have them delivered to your door. The brewery is on Muskoka Beach Road in Bracebridge.
Sawdust City Brewery opened about five years ago, and has quickly become one of the most popular stops in Gravenhurst. Their innovative brewing schedule means there’s always something new to enjoy: they have 18 taps, and might have as many as two dozen varieties in the fridge, but if you find something you like you may need to snap it up while it’s still available. Their main street location includes a popular bar (which, in summer, has a superb chip truck parked outside – try the bulgogi beef poutine paired with a pint of crisp Little Norway lager). They have live music and trivia nights in the bar, and once a summer they celebrate the love-it-or-hate-it world of sour beers with a parking lot festival called Funkfest.
Lake of Bays Brewery has been around since 2010, and is a must-stop if you’re passing through Baysville. Unlike some of the other breweries, Lake of Bays has taken the step of opening a completely separate facility, with the Huntsville Brewhouse on the main street of Huntsville. Not just an outlet for their beer and a really good restaurant, it’s also a small brewery in its own right, a place for staff and guest brewers to try some experimental beers, the best of which are on tap. If you’re toying with the idea of getting into brewing yourself, Lake of Bays also rents out brewing space in the Baysville facility, and will be happy to chat with you about the ups and downs of the craft brewing industry.
The latest addition to the brewing world here is Clear Lake Brewing Company. Newly opened in 2018, this brewery in Torrance offers just three beers, but is no doubt bringing more out this summer. Their funky site has a restaurant and live music, and is located right beside Pie on Highway 169.
Craft distilling in Ontario is where brewing was 20 years ago – just emerging, thanks to a gradual loosening of the restrictive regulations. Muskoka Brewery was the first out of the gate, adding a distillery to their business and launching Muskoka Oddity Gin.
Just north of Muskoka, you’ll find a more diverse range of spirits available at Copperhead Distillery. Located in Sundridge, the folks at Copperhead make an array of rum, whiskey, vodka, gin and liqueurs. Their products are sold in traditional bottles at the LCBO, but if you go to the distillery you can get them packaged in funky mason jars.
To round out the party, don’t forget to pick up some of Muskoka’s oldest brew. Muskoka Springs started bottling water in 1873, using an artesian well on its property in Gravenhurst to offer an alternative at a time when the lake water was becoming too polluted to drink. Before long they were also making ginger ale and ginger beer, products which are still sold today. If you’ve only ever had mass market ginger ale, Muskoka Springs’ product is a revelation of flavour. Recently they’ve also added tonic water to the lineup, along with birch beer, orange, and more. Their drinks are available in Sobeys, or at the original plant on Bay Street in Gravenhurst.