Toronto’s Distillery District is recognized for its cobblestone streets, Victorian industrial architecture and being one of the city’s hubs for arts, culture and events. Today it’s home to a variety of boutique stores, art galleries, restaurants, and probably best known for playing host to the beloved annual Christmas Market.
But before it came to be known for what it is today, this industrial landmark comes with a rich past that many don’t know much about. It’s character and charm is rooted in over 150 years of history which have all led to it becoming the Canadian attraction that it’s known for being today.
Here are five things you didn’t know about the Distillery District:
Formerly The Biggest Distillery In The World
The story of the Distillery District begins back in 1831 when James Wort first came to Canada and opened a mill. For this endeavour, he partnered up with William Gooderham, who later took over the business with Worts’ oldest son following Worts’ death in 1834.
In 1837, Gooderham added a distillery to the mill and produced his first spirit -- a whiskey. By the 1850s, the distillery was fully functioning, which included four mills and other facilities including storage units and a cooper shop for barrel-making. By 1869, Gooderham opened a new distillery on Mill Street which helped the entire business thrive even more. At their peak in 1871, Gooderham and Worts was one of the largest exporters of spirits in North and South America and dubbed the largest distillery in the world for that time.
But like all good things, the good times started to come to an end at the turn of the century. Things started to go down hill in the 1900s starting with World War I and Prohibition which forced spirit production to stop altogether. Gooderham’s son who inherited the business sold the Distillery to Harry C. Hatch, which later merged with Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd., and renamed the business Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Ltd. in 1927. As soon as that happened, the focus of the distillery started to take shift and the downsizing began. Whiskey production in the distillery was eventually moved to Windsor in 1957, while rum production continued on-site until the official close of the distillery in 1990. While it was a bittersweet end to a long tradition of distilling in the area, it was a tradition that lasted over a century.
The Distillery Is Home To The Haunted
The Distillery is home to spirits, and we’re not talking about the drinking kind. Over the years, there have been many ghost sightings and unusual activity in the District, reported by various tourists, locals and those who work in the neighbourhood. For many years, there have been reports of random doors opening and closing, erratic and strange banging sounds around the area and much more.
The most common ghost sighting in the Distillery is former Distillery co-owner James Wort who apparently likes to roam throughout the various buildings in the neighbourhood. Soon after his wife passed away in 1834, Worts drowned himself in a well near the windmill after experiencing inconsolable grief, which is why many believe his spirit lives on in the area today.
He’s known for making brief appearances to unsuspecting locals and occasionally likes to cause a little trouble by shutting doors and playing with the lights of local businesses -- or so they say!
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it’s a quirky little fact about the Distillery that many have chosen to embrace. If you want to test your luck and hope for a paranormal encounter for yourself, there are a number of walking tours that roam through the neighbourhood late at night and recount the Distillery’s spooky past in hopes of a special appearance from Worts himself.
The Distillery District: The Former Hollywood North
After the Distillery District closed its doors in 1990, it thrived throughout the next decade as it became one of the most popular film destinations in North America. Over 1,700 movies, T.V shows, commercials and music videos were filmed here which rightfully dubbed the location as Hollywood North.
At its prime, it was the number one film location in Canada and second outside of Hollywood. It played host to a number of famous celebrities and directors and was most notably known for its appearance in the movie Chicago in 2002, which later won six Oscars including one for Best Picture. Other actors who’ve filmed here include Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Whoopi Goldberg, Matt Damon, Halle Berry and many more.
The Distillery District Re-Opens To The Public In 2003
These days, it’s hard to imagine a time in which the Distillery District wasn’t a major Toronto hotspot and tourist attraction. Once it’s Hollywood North phase came to pass, the Distillery was bought out by Cityscape Holdings in 2001. During this time, it underwent a major restoration project that would turn it into pedestrian-only neighbourhood while preserving it’s 47 historic buildings and their Victorian-era architecture. Once the project was complete, the Distillery District re-opened to the public in 2003 and the rest, they say, is history.
Spirit Of York Brings Distillation Back in 2017
The Distillery District first made a name for itself for distilling and that’s a little bit of history we wanted to bring back when we moved in. Spirit Of York opened its doors to the public in 2017, and with it, brought distilling back to it’s proper home. While times have changed, our techniques have not as we stay true to traditional distilling processes in order to make our whole line of spirits -- vodka, gin, whiskey and aquavit.
Apart from bringing distilling back to its roots, we’re 100% Canadian. From our grains, our water and our bottles -- we’ve ensured that every vender used is local so we reinvest right back into our communities.
Moving here and being part of a new era of the Distillery District only made sense to us. While we haven’t been here long, we’re happy to call this neighborhood home and glad to be part of their history now too.