Founded on principles of entrepreneurship, partnership, and perseverance, the Distillery District rose above the challenges of grief, suicide, war, and the prohibition of the very liquid gold that both founded and fuelled its growth. From darkness to distillery, from bedlam to brewery, the district’s history is right off the set of a Hollywood movie, and it is no surprise that after its 158-year milling and distilling run that it became grounds for Toronto’s film industry. The Distillery District’s status as a hot new neighbourhood, while being home to the finest collection of surviving 19th-Century Victorian industrial architecture, creates the perfect paradox that gives this area its unique identity, its rich history both complementing and reflecting the emphasis on arts, culture, and entertainment. The pedestrian-only neighbourhood, lined with thousands of historic red brick stones and marked by beautifully restored brick buildings, is home to restaurants, cafés, retail boutiques, galleries, theatres, and artist studios for all your shopping and entertainment needs. The neighbourhood is close to the heart of the city with several top schools in its midst, and it is just a short walk to downtown with easy access to Toronto transit and a 90-second drive to the Gardiner or DVP.


Once upon a time . . .

James Wort decided to see what all the fuss was about across the waters in a place called York. Previously the proprietor of an English mill, Wort worked to re-establish his entrepreneurship Upper-Canada style, purchasing land along the desolate lakeshore near the mouth of the Don River. Within a year and a half of his arrival in 1831, a large windmill — equivalent to today’s CN Tower — was up and running and the first flour was ground. Enter William Gooderham, Worts’ brother-in-law and partner-in-crime, accompanied by a party of 54 entailing both of the men’s wives and children, household servants, plus eleven orphans. With a single boat load, the seeds of the Distillery District were planted, and by 1832 the Gooderham and Worts Distillery was founded.

Sadly, the loss of Wort’s wife in childbirth was too much for him: overcome with grief, he ended his life, leaving the care of his family, community, and company in Gooderham’s capable hands. By confederation, Gooderham’s passion combined with the love of liquor locally and back in the homeland, saw impressive sales and escalating exports as the distillery began to vie for top position as the world’s largest distillery — producing several million gallons of spirits annually. Profits allowed the Gooderhams to play prominent roles in the development of other Canadian companies, particularly the Bank of Toronto and two regional railways. War and prohibition slowed the early growth, and by 1923, the family distillery was sold to Harry C. Hatch who renamed the distillery Hiram Walker-Gooderham and Worts Ltd.

By 1990, after 158 years, the distillery closed its doors, eventually reopening to Toronto’s film industry, with the magnificent historic buildings a perfect backdrop for a wide array of top films. By 2001, the 13-acre site was purchased by Cityscape Holdings Inc. in partnership with Dundee Realty Corporation. After several years of extensive restoration, the revived Toronto landmark was successfully launched as the Distillery District — a seamless juxtaposition of historical significance and contemporary development captured in a trendy “new” neighbourhood.


Bricks & Mortar

While Wort’s Windmill no longer graces the Toronto skyline, more than 40 original heritage buildings remain, giving the Distillery District recognition as a national historic site. One of the most extensive groups of surviving 19th-century industrial buildings nationally, many of the structures that were standing in 1900 remain today and are in excellent condition. A majority of the buildings were designed by Irish-born engineer-millwright David Roberts Sr. (1810-1881) and his son, David Roberts Jr. (1845-1907); as such, the buildings are distinguished by a coherence rare on such a large scale, and those structures added this century display a great respect for the historic streetscape.

While several residential buildings were built on the periphery of the district during the late 1990s, recession stalled further development, making room for Cityscape’s more comprehensive revitalization plans, incorporating mixed-use commercial, residential, and institutional uses. More recent additions to the neighbourhood are the Pure Spirits, Clear Spirit, and Gooderham condominiums. Designed by Peter Clewes, they range in size and scope and are a collection of loft and high-rise suites, amidst the Victorian brick industrial architecture and pristine streets. With condos up to 2000 square feet, suite layouts include high ceilings, large windows, and balconies with both lake and city views. First-rate amenities include indoor state-of-the-art fitness facilities, swimming pools and saunas, and stunning outdoor terraces.


A breath of fresh air

The Distillery District’s cobblestone laneways, outdoor patios, and European-style streetscape add to the neighbourhood’s outdoor-friendly flare, with its music, arts festivals, and local Farmer’s Market. The Distillery Sculpture Park includes ten sculptures from a variety of different artists. With most works abstract in design and modest in size, two large metallic sculptures reminiscent of the monsters encountered in old Star Trek episodes definitely generate conversation and perhaps emphasise the need for the completion of the less urban Don River Park to the east of the Distillery. Adjacent to the athlete’s village for the 2015 Pan American Games, the 18-acre Don River Park will link the Don Valley Discovery Walk to a new Toronto waterfront while opening up the city to pedestrians, cyclists, and inline skaters. The white sand and pink umbrellas of Sugar Beach — located southwest of the Distillery District only a short walk away — showcase the enhancement of Toronto’s waterfront that will continue in the days to come.


Taxi!

The red bricks of the Distillery District’s laneways invite wayward wanderers into this pedestrian-only community, where walking or riding (bike or Segway rentals are available) are the only options. If you are heading in or out of the neighbourhood, a wider world of transportation opens up quickly. The King Street and Queen Street Streetcars will carry you eastward or westward in, out, or through the city. Parliament and Front Street buses run regularly, and both the Yonge-University-Spadina and Bloor-Danforths lines are only minutes away. If you prefer to drive, there is plenty of parking, and Lakeshore Boulevard, the Gardiner Expressway, and the Don Valley Parkway are just minutes away.


Coffee . . . Where are thou?

Meander down cobblestone streets, relax in a European-style café, or opt for the outdoors and enjoy the perfect coffee on one of the many patios. Open since 2002, Balzac’s Café aims to serve an exceptional product in an exceptional environment. Balzac’s Distillery District location does not fall short on this promise with their transformation of the circa 1895 Pump House into a 2-storey Parisian-style café. The giant Vaudeville chandelier adds flair to the welcoming atmosphere, complementing the perfectly roasted Balzac’s blend, while the tables on the south side of the building are perfect for enjoying the fresh air of this historic neighbourhood. Another purveyor of fine coffees, Caffe Furbo is a licensed espresso wine bar that also plays host to fine art and photography exhibitions. Enjoy traditional Italian coffees, exceptional wines, and an array of soups, snacks, sandwiches, and sweets in a modern, chilled space — the Douglas fir, exposed brick, and minimalist design create a perfect backdrop for the modern-meets-industrial vibe of this uber-cool neighbourhood.


Date Night!

Music and art festivals, gallery showings, and performing arts productions promise to keep the entertainment gurus on their toes, while the historic Distillery streets lined with patios, cafés, lounges, and award-winning restaurants will serve culinary creations as unique as the original buildings that host them. The Pure Spirits building is a great first stop, with the restaurant of the same name an excellent dinner choice. Whiskey was first distilled here and sent on rescue missions to areas deprived of such luxuries in the days that prohibition made its way across North America — a unique history and fitting venue for an evening at one of Toronto’s best seafood restaurants. The Pure Spirits Oyster House features fresh fish, lobster, and a variety of other fare paired with exceptional wines. Relax at the bar; sit back, enjoy, or participate in oyster-shucking fun; settle into a cozy booth; or rest easy under the white umbrellas and red-brick walls of the stunning outdoor patio.

For another great dining option, look skyward and find the 156-foot chimney lit by spotlight nightly. Once a major landmark gracing the Toronto Skyline, this beacon of good food and fun will direct you to the Boiler House. Built in 1886, the building once housed massive boilers essential to powering the distillery. Refurbished and transformed into an award-winning restaurant 208 years later, the Boiler House is praised by both architecture and restaurant critics for its exceptional food in an elegant and unique environment. Sunday brunch is also a must; arrive early and relax on the stunning patio to the sounds of live jazz. Made-to-order omelets, eggs benedict, waffles, sizzling bacon, sirloin roast, and pretty much anything you could imagine will be a spectacular start to a much needed day of rest.


Does that come in a size 7?

Retail therapy is synonymous with the Distillery District. Some of Toronto’s best shopping can be found on these cobblestone streets, from jewellery to jeans to so much more. With over 25 retail stores and boutiques to visit, you can build a new wardrobe or buy one with both first-rate fashion and furniture stores on hand. Home décor and design shops will keep your condominium in cutting-edge style, while the local Farmer’s Market and Beer Boutique will stock your fridge for guests. If you need to add some colour to your walls, the Case Goods Warehouse is an entire building dedicated to artist studios, and there are over 20 local galleries to peruse, where you can pick up some of Toronto’s latest and greatest artistic creations. Is it time to take your relationship to the next level? Why not seal the deal with a custom wedding band and engagement ring from Leif Benner. All your shopping needs are covered when you choose to make the Distillery District home!


Where to take the kids. . .

During the Christmas season, the Distillery District hosts the Toronto Christmas Market. Your children will not want to stay home with Santa’s house and workshop, a fairy-tale forest maze, and Rudolph’s reindeer zoo so close. Alternatively, year-round activities to keep your children engaged abound with your local Toronto library less than a kilometre away at 171 Front Street. The St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre (CRC) is also in walking distance and features top-notch facilities with multiple programs (including aquatics) to keep both you and your children active. For budding dancers, the Distillery District’s Dancemakers hosts summer training programs where kids can take to the floor in a comfortable atmosphere while learning from Toronto’s leading contemporary dance artists.

From daycare onward, the Distillery District has some great options for the education of your children. The Distillery District Early Learning Centre is located at 8 Distillery Lane and offers daycare for children 6 months to 5 years of age, with enriched programs including language, math, creative arts, music, drama, science, and technology. Voice Intermediate School features a rigorous academic program with enhanced performing and liberal arts and a dynamic sports program. Most Toronto schools have definite enrollment boundaries, so it’s always a good idea to contact the school you have in mind to ensure your new home falls within its boundaries. For more information, visit the Toronto District and Toronto Catholic School Boards websites.