There’s a high school business class receiving a tour of the Distillery Historic District. “You are surrounded by the largest surviving collection of Victorian industrial architecture in all of the North America,” the tour guide proclaims with such enthusiasm that passing Christmas shoppers stop to listen. The students, however, quietly talk among themselves despite their teacher’s intermittent attempts to shush them. The tour guide tries again, “You might have heard of some of the hundreds of movies and TV series that have been filmed here: Tommy Boy, Cinderella Man , Chicago, Murdoch Mysteries, Road to Avonlea.”
I remember how the Distillery District stood in for Halifax harbour in Road to Avonlea but there’s no sign of recognition from the students. The tour guide takes a deep breath and tries once more, “Al Capone’s Canadian office was just over there, where thumbs were chopped off and kneecaps were broken.” Now the students are listening.
During Prohibition, Toronto’s Gooderham and Worts Distillery sold liquor to American bootleggers including the famous Al Capone. James Worts and his brother-in-law William Gooderham established a grist mill on the site in 1832. In 1834, a distraught James Worts threw himself into the company well after his wife died in childbirth. (His ghost is said to haunt the Distillery District to the present day).
Gooderham added a distillery in 1837, the year of the Upper Canada Rebellion. In the hard drinking 19th century, distilling whiskey was a lucrative trade. By 1871, the distillery was producing 2.1 million gallons of whiskey and spirits every year. During the First World War, production switched to the acetone needed for antifreeze.
In 1916, the Ontario Temperance Act banned sales of alcohol in the province. The act followed a decades long campaign by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Canada, the largest non-denominational Canadian women’s organization of the time, which raised awareness of the domestic abuse and economic hardship that men’s heavy drinking outside the home caused for women. The act remained in force until 1927 and the Gooderham and Worts distillery seemed destined for bankruptcy.
In Quebec, where alcohol was traditionally consumed more moderately by men and women inside the home, Prohibition lasted only two weeks. The Gooderham and Worts distillery skirted the laws in Ontario by sending their spirits to Montreal to “age” overnight then importing their products back to the distillery. Bootleggers like Capone bought up Canadian Club whiskey and resold it for an enormous profit in the United States, where Prohibition was in force from 1920 until 1933. The distillery survived Prohibition and continued to be in business until 1990.
Today, the Distillery District is one of Toronto’s most popular tourist attractions, filled with unique shops, restaurants and galleries. From November 20 until December 20, the historic neighbourhood is the setting of the Toronto Christmas Market. There’s a gigantic Christmas tree, gingerbread house shaped kiosks selling tasty treats and unique crafts, and Christmas carolers. In between live carol singing sets, the sound system plays a uniquely Canadian mix of Christmas songs from the melancholy strains of Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night to the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan medley of We Three Kings and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
Enjoy the Christmas Market and sample the desserts. (I recommend the giant nanaimo bars at the Brick Street bakery). The next set of walks will take us north along the Don Valley Ravine, under the Bloor Street Viaduct to Taylor Creek Park.
Getting there by public transit: Subway to King station, 504 King streetcar eastbound to Parliament Street.
Further Reading: Toronto’s Distillery District by Sally Gibson
Next: The Lower Don Trail