Friday, March 16, 2012

This is the Distillery District

By Sandra M. Pereira

TORONTO, Ontario --- The Distillery District looks like any other group of brick buildings in downtown Toronto. A passerby wouldn't look twice at the Victorian-inspired architecture. What makes this particular group of buildings unique is attributed to the work and passion of the CityScape Holdings and Dundee Property Companies who purchased the buildings in 2003. Their mandate was to create an auto-free community of shops and cafes, a space where local artists can show their craft. Today, the Distillery District is known as a 'pedestrian-oriented arts, culture and entertainment neighbourhood'. The uniqueness of the Distillery District is due largely to its rich history.

In 1831, an experienced miller named James Worts and his brother-in-law, William Gooderham, emigrated from England to build upon a successful milling business. This became the first venture for the Gooderham and Worts partnership, which comprised of grounding up wheat into flour and selling it to local bakeries. Two years later, James Worts’ wife dies during childbirth and he takes his own life by throwing himself down the company well. William Gooderham chose to continue the business by partnering with James Worts’ eldest son. During a year where they saw an increase in the harvest of grain, they were inspired to make their own whiskey. It was so successful, brewing and distilling became their primary business.

This led to the addition of several buildings to the area: an icehouse, a cooper shop, a dairy, a wharf, flourmills, and two red-brick storehouses. In 1862, the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, in its first full year of production, made some 700,000 imperial gallons of spirits. It was considered to be a quarter of all the spirits produced in Canada at that time. By 1871, they were producing half of the total spirits production in Ontario and the Gooderham and Worts Distillery had become the largest distillery in the world. It was considered to be one of Toronto's largest employers at the time.

By 1882, both William Gooderham and James Worts Jr. had passed away and the Distillery was passed onto Gooderham’s son, George. George Gooderham continued to build on their success until World War I forced him to convert the Distillery's operations to manufacturing acetone. Once the war ended, the prohibition era brought production of alcohol beverages to a standstill. This effectively shut down the Distillery until 1923 when Harry C. Hatch purchased the business and re-focused its energy into making the Canadian Club brand of whiskey, which resulted in the addition of the tank and rack houses whose facades are still intact 100 years later.

The Distillery changed hands a few times over the course of the next 70 years and it shifted production from whiskey to rum. After 153 years of continuous production, the Gooderham & Worts Distillery ceased operations in 1990. Throughout the 90's to 2001, The Distillery became the number one film location in Canada. Many film studios sought to use the Victorian architecture as background in their films which included The X-Men: Part 1, Cinderella Man, Chicago, The Recruit, and television series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Due South, and The Murdoch Mysteries.

In 2001, CityScape Holdings and Dundee Property Companies partnered together to restore the Distillery. In 2003, the Distillery Historic District re-opened as the largest pedestrian-only village for arts, culture and entertainment. The new owners refused to lease any of their space to national brands or franchises; therefore, the majority of the buildings are occupied with unique boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, caf├ęs and their own microbrewery, the Mill Street Brewery. Here, you will find unique experiences such as the Sake Brewery, Soma Chocolate & Gelato (who make their own chocolate on-site) and a new theatre, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, which serves as the home of the Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Today, the Distillery District's 14 acres is home to 18 retails stores and boutiques, five cafes, seven restaurants and 22 art galleries. You will also find 17 performing art companies and 4 educational facilities. The Distillery District is a National Historic Site and has been designated for protection under the Ontario Heritage Act since 1976. It represents the largest collection of Victorian-industrial architecture in North America. It is home to the most unique festival line-ups in Canada, arts festivals, farmers markets and beer tasting events.

The Distillery District may look like any other group of brick buildings in the downtown area but its Victorian-inspired architecture shows us a window into the early days of Toronto’s history. An important contributor to the growth and wealth of Toronto, the Distillery District helped create the vibrant city it is today.