WINDSOR, Ontario—Al Capone must have been paying attention in school the day the teacher recited "Paul Revere's Ride," one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poems:
"Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be …"
Nearly 150 years after the hanging of lanterns in a church tower alerted Colonists to an impending British invasion, Capone would use the same tactic but for a very different purpose. A light high atop a church in Canada was the signal to his men that the coast was clear for them to cross into the U.S. with their bounty of bootleg whisky.
Capone had only a 6th-grade education, but he didn't need a diploma to figure out that the Canadian city closest to Chicago is Windsor, Ontario. The gangster used to make the drive—just 41⁄2 hours—to enjoy his favorite, the locally made Canadian Club whisky. That indulgence is still available today, one of many pleasures awaiting visitors to the south side of the international border.
South? Yes, as you drive into Windsor—across a bridge over, or a tunnel under, the Detroit River—you're actually heading south. Go figure, eh? And once through customs, it's not much farther to the ports from which boats ferry passengers out into Lake Erie to charming Pelee Island, one of several attractions in Essex County. In fact, this offshore spit of land is the southernmost inhabited place in Canada.
I enter via the Ambassador Bridge and almost immediately notice differences that make it obvious I'm in a foreign land, though the Motor City's skyscrapers are still visible in my rearview mirror.
The road signs note that the speed limit along Huron Church Road is 50 kilometers an hour; Canada hasn't used miles for more than 30 years. Another sign tells me I'm at the Tourist Information Centre—they spell things the British way .
Many unfamiliar business names are visible: Canadian Tire, Petro Canada and Scotiabank, to name just three. In their signage, many sport the ubiquitous red maple leaf that appears on the equally common Canadian flags. But, to a Yank's relief, plenty of familiar signs exist too: Shell, Walmart and Holiday Inn included. In fact, just a mile or so—OK, a couple of kilometers—off the bridge, I spot a Dairy Queen. The familiarity, however, fades once I'm inside.
Sure, there are burgers and fries, but there also are some unusual offerings, such as a Moolatte (a frozen coffee drink) and a Blizzard made with pieces of Crispy Crunch (a Canadian candy bar).
And then there's the poutine. Particularly popular in Quebec—hence the French name—poutine is a true Canadian creation, a curious mix of french fries topped with white cheese curds and then slathered with gobs of brown gravy. If you're brave enough to tuck in, be sure to use a fork, and set the salt shaker aside; one serving has 99 percent of the daily value—what we call the recommended daily allowance—of sodium.
Thank goodness the Canadian Club Brand Centre is just a short drive away. This is where I can taste something I know I'll like: Canadian whisky.
The majestic old building—where until recently the whisky was made—sits on the riverbank just east of downtown Windsor. Tour guide Brian Daniel assures my fellow guests and me that we'll get to sample the wares at the end of his informative tour. It includes a visit to the former basement bar where Al Capone used to place his orders, both by the glassful and the caseload.
"Capone was known for being a real Canadian Club guy," Daniel explains. "He loved the whisky. He was a really big fan."
The guide goes on to explain how Big Al, apparently with some discreet assistance from members of founder Hiram Walker's family, devised a plan for keeping his boys from being intercepted by federal agents as they moved boatloads of illegal whisky across the Detroit River into officially dry America.
The story—for obvious reasons—isn't well-documented but is nonetheless legendary in Windsor. It seems that the Chicago mobster paid for a large, illuminated cross to adorn the top of Our Lady of the Rosary church, a Catholic parish, located not-coincidentally within sight of the river.
"Al Capone saw this church as being a perfect way to signal his smugglers on the river," Daniel tells visitors. "When you can see that lit cross, that means the river's safe. It's free to bring the whisky across."