It is a Sunday afternoon and the area is, as usual, full of pedestrians enjoying the pleasant old town atmosphere. A Beatles song is playing in the main square, across from famous Balzac Coffee Shop; couples holding hands are wandering around and children are playing freely. The Distillery District is one of the main attractions in Toronto and reviews on Trip Advisor recognize the area as ‘a nice place to go for a drink’ or ‘nice restaurants, art shops, fashion stores, and other delights.’ All truthful statements, but understated after one tries a guided tour. There is so much history in this place that it could actually change your perception of the entire city.
“Toronto was full of drunk people” is what our guide says almost as soon as the excursion starts. Is that how the Distillery District tour is going to be, another parody of how Canadians enjoy their drinking habits? Not that it really displeases me; after all, how can anyone get upset with Gavin, our Dr. Neutron look-alike tour guide?
Thankfully, Gavin quickly moved on from the drunken talk to share some very peculiar history. We stop in an odd corner and are told to look at the floor. A dark-red brick arc identifies where the windmill used to be; where it all started. Experienced miller James Worts, together with businessman William Gooderham, invested in this city when it was the desolated Town of York and had only a few thousand inhabitants. They built a windmill in 1932 marking the start of Gooderham & Worts Distillery.
Being around the collection of Victorian architecture buildings makes it easier to let history transport you to two centuries ago. James Worts sadly didn’t live long to see his company succeed. After his wife died of childbirth complications in 1934, he tragically committed suicide drowning in the property’s well. Gooderham assumed responsibility for Worts’ children and, along with his own kids and other orphans he adopted on the immigration boat from England, he ended up with an amazing number of 29 kids. That explains the floors of the Malt Building that were built in progressive heights: the employee development was correspondent to his own physical growth. Once the younger kids’ heads reached the basement ceiling, they were “promoted” and moved to one level up. And so on.
Most visitors don’t know it, but some of those buildings hold small exhibits with artifacts and paintings that tell the history of how that windmill developed into what was once the largest distillery in the world. Anyone can go and explore the past of this National Heritage Site. However, I would highly recommend taking a walking tour. Not for the history lesson, or even for the chocolate and beer tasting at the end, but mainly for the meaning that this district has for the city of Toronto. That windmill where it all started was the first symbol of what is today the most populous city in Canada. The flour milling business shortly started converting the production grains into whiskey, and the steam engines bring development to the region. By the end of the 19th century, the 40 Victorian buildings were a small industrial town amidst a prosperous municipality.
After analyzing the series of paintings inside the Malt Building, one question seemed to remain unanswered by our tour guide. The lake, according to the drawings, was bordering the distillery vicinity. But, as we know, our lakeshore is at least a couple blocks away from there. Were all painters illustrating a fantasy different from reality? No, the Don River has changed. Garbage was commonly thrown in the lake, and that slowly covered the water and foundations could be built on top of it, slowly making the area as it is today. On that note, our tour guide also goes back to that comment of the beginning of the tour; of how Toronto was full of drunken people. As the sanitation was poorly done, chances were that potable water was making people sick. The whiskey, being distilled and filtered, held fewer bacteria and, at the time, it was believed to contain medicinal qualities.
Everybody was then drinking alcohol and quite proudly getting drunk, while Gooderham & Worts Distillery enjoyed the profits of it. That was until the prohibition times in Canada at the end of 19th century, which marked the beginning of the fall of the company. The distillery closed in 1990 after 150 years of continuous production.
Toronto is today a modern city with a twist of old heritage. The skyscrapers and the CN Tower illustrate the skyline, while conservative brick houses are dominant in most residential neighborhoods. Modern 21st-century constructions such as the glass entrance at the Royal Ontario Museum and the OCAD University buildings are mixed in older areas such as the Kensington Market. And the renovation of the Distillery District in 2003, after a period of abandonment, is yet a new feature of this city’s spirit. As said by one developer, according to the Distillery District official website: “Our vision was to combine the romance and relaxing atmosphere of European walking and patio districts with the hip, cool dynamic of an area like New York City’s Soho or Chelsea, where creative minds get together and you feel as if anything could happen”.