Looking east across the historic Distillery District from Parliament and Mill St.
For many folks, this is where their journey to explore The Distillery begins…
Frozen in time, the historic Distillery District looks much as it did in the 1870s when it was exporting over two million gallons of whisky a year, all over the world. Back then the place was run by two wealthy entrepreneurs, William Gooderham and James Worts, who were distillers and makers of fine whisky. They had built their first grist mill here in1831, which is really early… it predates the city of Toronto actually.
This pencil sketch shows a grist mill in the background of a scene from 1834 – the people celebrated the Incorporation of Toronto. Is that windmill structure the very first Gooderham and Worts grist mill?
I like seeing the treeline right behind the houses… that is what it must have been like, when the place was formerly called Toronto, and still informally known as Muddy York. That’s what it must have been like when these two British immigrants got off the boat.
Fifteen years later they were important businessmen and property holders. The Grand Trunk Railroad ran a line south to the mouth of the Don River in 1852 and a spur backed right up into the distillery. Their product was shipped everywhere, by land and sea. This is why cowboys and ranchers from across Northwestern United States would ride north for good Canadian whisky – it was available everywhere the railroad was in the old west. I remember in HBO series Deadwood when a townsman alludes to barrels of Canadian whisky as being part of a certain wagon’s cargo. The series was set in the Dakotas in the 1870s I believe and that’s just how premium Canadian whiskey would get to those parts – in wooden barrels. When you hear about or read any reference to Canadian whisky in an Old West saloon, or any 1880s era frontier town, know that it was probably Gooderham and Worts product. They were massive.
William Gooderham and James Worts Jr. died within a year of each other in 1881, and George Gooderham inherited The Distillery and became its sole proprietor. He enjoyed unrivaled success for over 30 years.
However in 1914, at the start of World War I, things took a turn for the worst. In order to support the war effort, the distillery converted its operations to manufacturing acetone. Then in 1920, just when things were getting back to normal, Canada’s short-lived prohibition era brought production of alcohol beverages to a standstill. Things were never the same afterwards, and now the entire area remains frozen in time, preserved in 1880′s architecture.
In December 2001 Cityscape Holdings Inc. purchased The Distillery, later partnering with Dundee Realty Corporation. Together they undertook an incredibly ambitious project–to restore The Distillery and its 40+ buildings and transform it into a pedestrians-only village dedicated to arts, culture and entertainment.
To the left is Balzacs famous coffee house early in the morning; already the patio is busy. This is the busiest patio in The Distillery District, which first opened in May 2003 and quickly became a vital part of the City of Toronto, and one of Canada’s top tourist attractions.
Look around the complex and inside the buildings today and you will find artful restorations of period advertising, original equipment and historical plaques outlining traditional whiskey distillation processes. This place was the mother of all Canadian rye whiskey distillers throughout the last half of the 1800s, and that’s a fact worth remembering in pictures, period advertising and antiques.
The buildings themselves are now full of artists and studios, glass blowers, flame workers, bead makers, painters, sculptors, dancers, choreographers and musicians and an abundance of shops and cafes – this is a cultural hotspot.