Situated among the forty-plus buildings that comprise Toronto’s Distillery District in a dramatically reinvented old Pump House is a café named after one of the greatest French writers, Honoré de Balzac.
Balzac’s is a busy place where affluent couples relax over lattés and croissants and artsy Torontonians come for their caffeine fix before visiting the numerous art galleries. The cafes soaring walls and dark-wood-and-raw-stone interior with its décor of French tables and chairs is reminiscent of Parisian cafes.
In 2003, Balzac’s cafe was the first business to open here in Toronto’s refurbished Distillery District. Today the area is a postcard scene filled with galleries, artists’ studios, artist workshops, restaurants and retail sites. However underneath the reputation that the Distillery District is the “ultra-chic’ place to be and be seen in Toronto there is a rich human history.
In the early 1830’s an Englishman named James Worts came to what is now called Toronto to scout for a location to establish a mill in which to process flour grown from newly settled lands in Ontario. James Worts’ bother-in-law, William Gooderham, arrived in 1832 along with 54 people that included their wives, children, and servants to join him in the milling business.
In 1834, depressed because his wife had died in childbirth, James committed suicide. William Gooderham, took control of the factory and re-named it Gooderham and Worts. The “Worts” was for James’ eldest son, James Gooderham Worts, who inherited his fathers’ share of the firm. In 1837, with a surplus of wheat, William Gooderman tried his hand at producing beer and whiskey. It wasn’t long before he discovered that more money was to be made from converting the grain to alcohol rather then flour.
Over the next 150 years the company Gooderham and Worts developed into the largest distillery in the British Empire. It produced millions of gallons of distilled whiskey and spirits that was exported throughout the world. After World War l, prohibition was enforced and the business slowed down. In 1990 after over a century and a half of continuous production the distillery ceased operations.
In late 2001 Cityscape Development Corp. and Wallace Studios purchased the property for $15 million, and began converting the 13-acre sight into a pedestrian-oriented arts, culture and entertainment neighbourhood. Matthew Rosenblatt, a real estate broker for Cityscape is quoted in the Globe and Mail describing, “Our vision was to combine the romance and relaxing atmosphere of European walking and patio districts with the hip, cool dynamic of an area like New York City’s SoHo or Chelsea, where creative minds get together and you feel as if anything could happen.”
In 2003, after the massive restoration and development project was completed and the district was reopened to the public. All the prospective tenants were hand-picked by the new property owners and absolutely no franchise or chain operations were allowed. As a result, the area has attracted a plethora of unique boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and coffee shops, as well as The Mill Street Brewery, a micro brewery well known for their organic ale. The upper floors of several buildings have been converted to studio spaces and leased to artists or office tenants with a “creative focus”.
The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, a new theatre built on the premises is home to The Soul Pepper Theatre Company as well as to the George Brown College Drama Department. There are also plans to develop residential condominiums, offices and more retail space on the vacant lands that surround the district in the near future.
Throughout the year the Distillery is filled with activity day and night with live music, outdoor exhibitions, fairs and special events all year around such as the Distillery Jazz Festival, Partigras, and the Roots Music Festival. It has also been used as an atmospheric location for over 800 film and television productions in the past decade, including Chicago, X-Men, Against the Ropes and The Hurricane.
We had lunch at The Boiler House restaurant in the heart of the district. They offer a magnificent Sunday Jazz Brunch complete with eggs benedict & endless slices of succulent roast beef. The restaurant’s award winning industrial-chic design includes a massive 22 foot wine rack, intimate private rooms and hand crafted heavy timber tables.
The Distillery District is a National Historic Site that has been designated for protection under the Ontario Heritage Act since 1976. This is because it contains the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian-Era industrial architecture in North America. The public can take a fascinating tour to see and hear about how whiskey was made in the various buildings which were used for malting, fermenting, making pure spirits and storing the young whiskey in barrels in order to age it.
The distillery district is Toronto’s first pedestrian only village and the city’s only historic district. This unique neighbourhood is a wonderful place to take an afternoon walk while exploring the Victorian brick and limestone buildings while soaking in the history of what was once the largest distillery in the world.