Haphazard History: Pinchbeck known for White Wheat Whiskey

Long before Williams Lake became famous for its Stampede it was known around the province for quite a different commodity.

Long before Williams Lake became famous for its Stampede it was known around the province for quite a different commodity — William Pinchbeck’s White Wheat Whiskey.

I’ve written about Pinchbeck in a previous column but perhaps a brief review might be in order here.

He was a tough but fair police constable sent from Victoria in 1860 to establish and maintain law and order in the new and growing gold rush supply community of Williams Lake.

Very shortly after arriving he formed a partnership with a friend, William Lyne, to purchase land and farm the properties.

Thus, within a couple of years, Pinchbeck found himself juggling government jobs as policeman, lawyer, justice of the peace, and jailer, while at the same time buying up land, building a homestead, and developing a roadhouse with a restaurant, saloon, general store and horse racing track.

By 1863, Pinchbeck’s large, two-storey stopping house with its eight bedrooms above the store and restaurant dominated the valley.

It was a busy place.

His son, William Jr., recalled “Every winter there would be miners boarding about the place waiting for the weather to moderate so they could go back to the mines. They boarded as a rule for $8 a week and, of course, spent a lot of money over at the bar. Meals were 50 cents and drinks 25 cents.”

An advertisement in the Victoria Colonist of 1863 described Pinchbeck’s Hotel and Store as “accommodation for travellers unsurpassed by any hotel in the country. The table is constantly supplied with every delicacy that money can purchase. A large stock of miner’s supplies of every description constantly on hand. The choicest brand of wines, liquors and cigars to be held at the bar.”

During the summers of the 1860s there was a regular horse racing circuit which attracted hundreds of spectators and saw large sums of betting monies change hands.

One memorable contest had the stakes at more than $100,000 — that’s more than $2.5 million in today’s dollars. A nice percentage, of course, went to the track’s owners, Pinchbeck and Lyne.

Along with his other interests, Pinchbeck went heavily into farming, raising beef, hogs, vegetables and grain to supply the hungry miners in the Cariboo gold fields.

During the 1860s and 1870s, more and more land was bought up and brought under cultivation.

Much of the Williams Lake valley was planted in wheat.

By 1875, for example, more than 250,000 bushels of grain were shipped out to market.

Clearly, Pinchbeck was an entrepreneur. It did not take him very long to figure out that producing his own liquor would be far cheaper than importing it from “back east.”

Most of the customers at the bar drank shots of whiskey, and at 25 cents per shot, there was the potential for big profit.

So it was then in 1862, Pinchbeck constructed a brewery and distillery near where the Comer Station Pub is today.

The worms, the long-coiled copper tubes used for condensing the alcohol, and the 200-pound copper boilers were brought up from California by wagon.

Hops were planted along the river, and beer-making equipment was also imported.

In a short time, locally made beer and a new, unique product called Pinchbeck’s White Wheat Whiskey were being sold at the roadhouse.

The whiskey especially caught on with the clientele, and it was reported to be every bit as good as the imported whiskeys.

Gradually, White Wheat Whiskey became famous throughout the northern part of the province.

It was available in 40-ounce bottles for $1.50 a piece, or in gallon jugs (a bargain at $5.)

As well as the willing customers at the roadhouse, there was a ready, eager market in the gold camps, and the pack trains from Williams Lake always included a generous supply, usually shipped in 10-gallon wooden kegs.

The beer did not travel well, so it was sold only at the roadhouse — the whiskey was by far the most popular product.Just as it still is today, the provincial government could not countenance money being made without receiving a cut, so it wasn’t long before a law was passed in Victoria requiring local distillers to be bonded.

Money had to be paid to the government in order for them to continue to do business.

An official from Victoria was paid up to $100 per day to come to the Cariboo and test Pinchbeck’s whiskey for its strength and consistency.

An official from Victoria was paid up to $100 per day to come to the Cariboo and test Pinchbeck’s whiskey for its strength and consistency.

Pinchbeck must have been a pretty generous man since, according to many, at his roadhouse over the years thousands of dollars worth of drinks were put on tabs and never paid for.

Son Billy, in his memoirs, writes of one miner named Scotty, who did part time work around the place to help pay for his room and board: “He must have been a thirsty soul — there are so many entries for drinks. The first day there are 24 drinks charged to him; and the next day 29 drinks, a clay pipe and a day lost; the third day 25 drinks and a day lost; and the fourth day 41 drinks and a lost day. Scotty … must have been treating his friends, and I don’t think he ever earned enough to pay what he owed.”

Shortly after 1871, when B.C. entered Confederation, all distilling licences in the new province were cancelled and instructions were sent from Ottawa that all worms used in the whiskey-making process were to be shipped back to the capital.

Somehow, the message wasn’t quite understood in Williams Lake, since for many years afterwards, a certain number of animals in each pack train originating at Pinchbeck’s store were loaded, as usual, with kegs of White Wheat Whiskey.

It was not until the mid 1880s, when Pinchbeck’s health had begun to fail and the ranch operations were being downsized, that the distillery ceased production forever, thus closing an interesting chapter of our local history.

Barry Sale is a freelance columnist with the Tribune/Weekend Advisor.