If you had to guess where the world’s whisky epicentre was in the late 19th century, you’d say Scotland, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong. In the 1870s, the world’s biggest producer of whisky was in Toronto, Canada. Today that distillery is the nucleus of the city’s Distillery District. Its original red-brick warehouses, limestone distillery and cooperage are inhabited by coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries and artists’ studios, but the distillery’s original go-getting spirit is still in its DNA.
Gooderham & Worts Distillery was founded in 1832 during Toronto’s cowboy years. Canada’s fledgling township was awash with opportunism and cholera, and alcohol was advertised as a cure for the latter. What started as a mill, established by two British immigrants, William Gooderham and his brother-in-law James Worts, quickly found its calling as a brewery and then whisky distillery.
The operation grew until, by the 1870s, the distillery encompassed more than 40 red-brick buildings across an area of five hectares (13 acres), connected by cobblestone streets. It produced up to 16 million litres (3.5 million gallons) of whisky a year, almost a third more than its nearest global competitor. To this day, the original 19th-century buildings collectively represent the largest example of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.
From filming to farming
Following two world wars and 11 years of prohibition, production at the distillery was drastically reduced in the 1940s–50s and eventually tailed off in the 1980s. But it wasn’t long before the striking industrial architecture was discovered by filming location scouts.
By the 1990s the abandoned distillery had been reinvented as the largest movie site outside Hollywood. Three Men and a Baby, Chicago and X-Men are just a few of the films shot here. “There were times when we had three to four major Hollywood movies all filming here at the same time,” says Distillery District co-founder Mathew Rosenblatt. “They could be driving tanks down the street, making explosions, and it didn’t matter.”
Rosenblatt and his business partners bought the distillery complex in 2001. The creative cachet brought by the film industry made culture a natural fit for their development plans. Wooing Toronto’s arts community with cheap rent and the promise of unique spaces was a deliberate ploy to create energy in a down-at-heel outpost of the city. This was a time when boardroom homogenisation was starting to strangle local culture in other areas of Toronto.
“One of the first two galleries that we rented to was literally rent free and we even paid to build some of its space, because we wanted the right people,” admits Rosenblatt. “At the time, we saw ourselves as urban farmers. We said, ‘We’re going to create this fertile soil and plant some really amazing seeds.’” Some of Toronto’s more established galleries thought they were crazy.
The rise of Toronto’s Distillery District
Today the district is a permanent base for many of the city’s most exciting creative forces. There are more than 40 arts tenants on-site, including the internationally acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre Company, the George Brown Theatre School, and the four-storey Artscape building. Plus, eight established galleries including Arta, Corkin and the Sculptors Society of Canada.
Thompson Landry is one of the Distillery District’s best-known names, with two distinct galleries. It’s also one of the district’s longest-standing tenants. When Joanne Thompson launched here, she recalls it felt like the shabby fringe of the city, despite being one of the oldest areas of Toronto. “My staff would be scared to go home at night. There just weren’t a lot of people around,” she says.
Now the Distillery District has an annual footfall of up to 3.2 million people. The construction of several apartment blocks around the distillery has helped draw people in, as has the launch of a streetcar to the area. “In the past 10 years Toronto has grown to the east and recently it’s really taken off,” says Thompson.
Development is happening around the waterfront just south of the Distillery District and Corktown to the north has become an up-and-coming base for young professionals. Toronto officials also recently announced plans to build a subway link to eventually connect the whole area. “When we opened in 2006, we were a brand-new gallery,” says Thompson, who was just 35 years old at the time and an unknown figure in the Canadian art scene. “Now we have a huge following and we built that by being in this area that people just want to explore.”
Pedestrianisation, pavement cafes and public art
The Distillery District was designated a National Historic Site in 1988 and is the city’s only pedestrianised neighbourhood. “The Distillery District has got a really classic, distinct vibe because it is this beautiful Victorian architecture,” says Aaron Binder, chief experience officer at Go Tours Canada, which leads architecture and history tours here. “You really get a sense of being somewhere important.”
In response to the need for social distancing this summer, the city authorities have relaxed bylaws to allow patio terraces to flow into the cobbled streets, creating a pavement cafe scene akin to something you might find in Europe.
Two of the district’s biggest annual events are Light Fest between January and March, and Artfest in May, along with the distillery’s huge Christmas market. Rotating public art is also a key component of the district. From July until October this year, the distillery is running an outdoor exhibition by experimental US artist Scott Froschauer called The Word on the Street. The artist has taken familiar street signs and replaced the wording with mindful messaging such as “Breathe” and “Believe” – a poignant reminder to enjoy life at a stressful time.
Inside the world of the artist
One of the most unique aspects of the distillery is the building run by Artscape, an institution that supports artists and other arts-related businesses by offering working space with subsidised rents. Fine artist Sarah Phelps has had a studio here for five years and says it’s the best space she’s ever worked from. “I’m inspired by the buildings and the history and the energy,” she says. “It has a very positive vibe.”
And having a messy studio that art lovers can visit is good for business, says Phelps. “People love it because it’s a really intimate experience where they can actually go into the world of the artist,” she explains. “They can smell the paint; they can see the paint. It’s like experiencing that raw part of the artist, but at the same time being able to browse through all the artworks and see if there’s anything that interests them.”
With so many arts businesses wedged into such a small area, there’s also a sense of community and camaraderie. The distillery is a place where connections are made, and mutually beneficial friendships are forged. Cafes and coffee shops in the distillery put on group shows to highlight the hyper-local art. “There’s always something going on, so you feel like you’re all in it for the same reason,” says Phelps.
Thompson adds that the distillery setting works wonders for the art aesthetics. “What I love about it – especially our Cooperage gallery – is from the outside you don’t know what you’re walking into,” she says. “There’s that drama. You don’t expect it and then when you walk in, the art just pops. The old walls, the old floor and all that, become this beautiful backdrop. We hang on everything – we’re shameless!”
William Gooderham and James Worts might be surprised that their distilling tanks are now bearing art and not booze, but they’d no doubt approve of the entrepreneurial spirit.
Toronto’s Distillery District: A snapshot
DO Tour the distillery on foot or by Segway with Go Tours Canada. Guides will introduce you to working artists and regale you with tales of the distillery’s roller-coaster past.
SEE Symbols of peace and love emblazoned in permanent public installations. Look out for Wisdoms – words of hope and inspiration written by visitors onto individual cedar shingles that are hung from a cylindrical structure.
EAT Tarts filled with gooey caramelised butter that’s guaranteed to get everywhere, a Canadian speciality. Some of Toronto’s very best are baked on site at Brick Street Bakery.
DRINK There are a handful of coffee shops in the distillery, but the pick of the bunch is Arvo – a speciality roaster serving single-origin coffees from around the world, cold brews and loaded sourdough toasts.
BUY Gallery Indigena is a family business that promotes the art of the native peoples of Canada, including sculpture, jewellery and fine art in mixed media – high-quality souvenirs for art collectors.
Check Toronto’s Distillery District website for what’s on, and where to shop and dine.