This article was published in summer 2022. Black’s Distillery is under new management as of winter 2023, so some details may no longer be relevant.
The David Fife cabin is far from the grandest building on the grounds of Lang Pioneer Village. It’s a rustic 18’ x 14’ room, built in 1825 by early settlers racing to complete their shelter before the cold hit. Apart from a view into life two hundred years ago, however, the cabin is significant for another reason—it was the first home of a family that that would leave an indelible mark on agriculture in North America.
“David Fife was considered a progressive farmer, so he was really interested in agriculture and figuring out how to make food production better in our climate here in Canada,” says Elizabeth King, operations manager at Lang. The living history museum outside Keene specializes in historical re-enactments and demonstrations of traditional skills from 1825-1899, with the Fife Cabin representing the beginnings of that era. King says after David Fife, his wife Jane, and their six children were established, the family turned their attention to farming wheat. “They were having problems with the climate—it wasn’t thriving because of the cold, and it was also falling susceptible to fungus,” she adds. “So in those struggles [David] decided to write to a friend back in Scotland and say ‘can you send me some different types of seeds, because we’re not having any luck with what we’ve got here.’”
One of the varieties the Fifes received proved exceptionally promising, but the story nearly ended there. As legend has it, Jane Fife rescued the first tiny crop from hungry oxen that had wandered into the garden. She happened to look out the window just in time to save two or three heads, making history in the process. “In the end they dried them and kept them over the winter and then replanted the next season and had a much better crop,” King says. “So after doing that for a few years they were able to start sharing the seeds with their friends and neighbours and then it just kind of grew from there as being one of—well, the hardiest and best wheat to grow here in Canada.”
The wheat became known as Red Fife, named after its reddish colour and the family that popularized it. By the middle of the century it had spread across Canada, prized not just for its hardiness but its suitability for milling and baking. Around the turn of the century other strains rose to prominence, and the original Red Fife wheat would eventually be cross bred to improve its disease resistance. Still, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Red Fife lineage to modern agriculture, and farmers in Kawarthas Northumberland continue to raise it today.
Merrylynd Organics northwest of Peterborough is one such producer. The heritage and rich flavour of Red Fife mean it’s well suited to Merrylynd’s organic, GMO-free ethos, and the emphasis on local attracts other artisans with similar values. Merrylynd supplies Red Fife wheat to Black’s Distillery at 99 Hunter St E, Peterborough, providing the storied grain another chance to leave its mark on the region.
“I just started doing some searching around and I found their name,” says the distillery’s owner Robert Black, who uses Red Fife to produce his gin and vodka. “I actually went out to the farm and spoke with Peter [Leahy] and he thought it was a great idea, and here we are.”
Black was clearly onto something, because his gin would go on to win a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2019 and a bronze at the London Spirits Competition in England. He says Red Fife wheat produces a noticeably superior vodka as well. “It has a kind of nice buttery smoothness to it,” he says. “If you taste a vodka that’s made from corn, it’s quite harsh. Pour a little bit in your hand, rub your hands together, bring it up to your face. If it burns your eyes and smells like isopropyl alcohol, it’s likely made from corn and that will translate to the palate. The wheat doesn’t do that—it’s so soft.” Although the vodka is distilled twenty times for purity, a hint of distinctive character remains in the flavour as well.
Black also uses locally grown rye to produce his Miller’s Toll rye whisky, and real botanicals as opposed to artificial flavours or pre-made tinctures to create his spirits. His support for local projects extends to music, and through the COVID era he commissioned musicians like Jimmy Bowskill to record songs about his spirits, providing a small boost to artists who found their livelihood threatened by the closure of live venues.
That faith in local enterprise brings him full circle, because the link to regional history is was what first piqued Black’s curiosity. “I wanted to use the Red Fife,” he says. “I was born and raised in Peterborough. My family came from Glasgow, from Scotland. I remember as a young guy going to Lang Pioneer Village on a school trip and how fascinated I was… talking about the grain and the blacksmiths and all the things that went on. That stuck in my mind.”
Raising those first fragile heads of wheat, the Fifes could not have known the extent of the impact they would have on Canadian history. It gratifies historians like Elizabeth King, though, who believe that preserving local stories at Lang plays a role in keeping the modern scene vital. “The whole idea is to personify the history,” King says, seated a few steps from the Fife’s original 1825 cabin. “These were real people and these were real stories, it’s not just some boring, dry story in a book.”