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A Brief History of Toronto’s Distillery District

The entrance to the Distillery District at night

There is a lot to be said about the famous historical wonder that is the Toronto Distillery District. Once home to the largest distillery in the British Empire, the Distillery District officially opened in 2003 as a premier destination for art, dining, culture, entertainment, and shopping. There’s simply something for everyone and something is always happening! This makes the Distillery Historic District a favourite city escape among locals and a must-see destination for tourists.

But what makes the Toronto Distillery District so unique is that it’s like taking a journey back in time. This 13-acre Victorian haven is regarded as a National Historic Site of Canada and yet, it’s only a few minutes from Toronto’s financial core. As you step in, you will find yourself dazzled by the Victorian Industrial architecture - seen in over 40 of the site’s heritage buildings. You will be walking in the district’s narrow, brick-paved pathways that guide you to the site’s charming boutiques, fine distilleries, quaint coffee-shops, top-notch restaurants, exciting entertainment centers, and more. You can even take your journey as leisurely as you like - because the area is closed off from traffic. It’s a gem in the heart of Toronto and definitely one of the best places to unwind and be inspired.

If you’ve ever wondered how this beautiful historic site and vibrant lifestyle center came to be, then you’re in luck! Because this article will give you all the juicy details about the history of Toronto’s beloved Distillery Historic District.

Let’s get started!

The Distillery Historic District Clock with a piano beside it

The Beginning: A Windmill In the Wilderness

Our story starts with the building of an iconic windmill in the wilderness. In the year 1832, two English immigrants who were brothers-in-law, James Wort and William Gooderham, constructed a 22-metre brick windmill close to the Toronto Bay. This iconic windmill soon became a symbol of the city’s early years.

Worts brought with him 20 years of experience as a miller. Meanwhile, Gooderham brought with him his business acumen and supplied most of the capital for the endeavour. It was a strong start, but tragedy struck when James Wort met an early death in 1834 (just two years after) and Gooderham had to carry on alone. However, he wouldn’t be alone for long.

The Gooderham and Worts Distillery

In the year 1837, Gooderham laid the foundation for a business that would soon impact the fate of Toronto’s waterfront. At the time, there was an increase in harvested grain from Upper Canada farms and Gooderham seized the opportunity by adding a distillery to the gristmill and thereby producing his first spirit, whiskey. Gooderham’s son and nephew (Worts’ son) joined in partnership with him - and under their collective, determined leadership, the distillery became fully functional by the year 1850.

In the year 1861, Gooderham and his partners opened a five-storey limestone mill and distillery. By this time, production had drastically increased from 80,000 gallons to two million gallons every year. This structure is still the oldest and largest heritage building within the site.

Business for Gooderham and Worts thrived in their developing complex. And in the decade to follow, they became, for a time, the largest exporter and producer of spirits in the world.

The Fate Of The Iconic Windmill & The Birth of New Structures

If you’re wondering about the original windmill that started this story and, perhaps, wondering where it is right now, well, unfortunately, it had been demolished in the early part of the 1960s. Though it may seem sad, this demolition gave way to the construction of more redbrick buildings along this part of Trinity Street.

Most of the final Victorian buildings, that were added to the site, were designed by the celebrated Toronto architect, David Roberts Jr who, by the way, also designed the new Gooderham and Worts Distillery that opened in 1861.

The Prohibition Era & The First World War

The business went through tough times after the passing of Gooderham and Worts’ son (i.e. the original founders). Both World War I and the Prohibition Era, understandably, were trying times. The business was converted momentarily into an industry to support WWI efforts - specifically, in the manufacturing of British Acetones which was an ingredient for smokeless gunpowder.

After the war, the continued prohibition of alcohol compelled Gooderham’s son to sell the business to Harry C. Hatch. Hatch merged the business with Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd, renaming the business in the year 1927 to Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Ltd.

The Closing of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery

Under new management, the production of Canadian Club Whiskey moved to Windsor. However, rum production continued in the Gooderham and Worts Distillery. In the year 1988, the Gooderham and Worts Complex was designated as one of Canada’s National Historic Sites. Rum production continued in the complex until the year 1990 when the distillery closed its doors for good. This was after 153 years of production.

The Stone Distillery

Becoming a Film Destination and Restoration By Cityscape Developments

Even with the Gooderham and Worts Distillery officially closed, the site became a popular destination for filmmakers. Over 1700 films were shot in this area. It seems that this part of Toronto just can’t stop being a source of inspiration.

Only about a decade after the old distillery closed, the complex was purchased by Cityscape Holdings in the year 2001. They began to restore and shape the area into what would be the Distillery Historic District that we all know and love today.

Grand Opening of the Distillery District in May 2003

The Distillery District was restored into a neighbourhood that is dedicated to the preservation of heritage and to being a center for art, culture, and entertainment. In May 2003, it was opened to the public and it quickly rose to be one of Toronto’s most beloved areas - for locals and tourists alike.

Spirit of York Finds Its Home

In early 2017, Spirit of York Distillery Co. found its home in the Toronto Distillery District, reclaiming what used to be the Gooderham and Worts malting room.

Come Visit Us In the Distillery Historic District!

If you want the full Distillery District experience, then you need a visit to one of the best distilleries in the area. We, at Spirit of York, are committed to crafting Canada’s best-tasting spirits. We are determined to always find a way to refine our methods and to have reliable machinery to match.

And of course, we are just as selective with the ingredients and materials that we use. Everything we make, from glass to grain, is 100% Canadian in origin. All these efforts combined allow us to produce gin, vodka, whiskey, and other specialty spirits that are undeniably premium and world-class in quality.

Get ready to crown your Distillery District experience with a memorable visit to our iconic redbrick building! Whether it will be spirit tasting, a behind-the-scenes tour, or simply bringing home quality spirits as a souvenir from this historic site, we’ve got you covered. Contact us today!

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