Monday, July 12, 2010

The Most Whiskey In The World

The Gooderham & Worts Distillery
There are lots of names that keep popping up over and over again in my research, but few as often as the names Gooderham and Worts.

Their story goes all the way back to the city's first few decades. In 1831, James Worts, a miller from Suffolk, moved here to build an enormous windmill at the spot where the Don River met the lake. More than 20 meters high, it was easily one of the biggest and most striking landmarks in Toronto's early days—one website I've wandered across calls it "the CN Tower of its day".

The next year, Worts invited his brother-in-law, William Gooderham, to come join him and the Gooderham & Worts company was born. It would quickly become one of the city's most successful enterprises, grinding grain into flour and then shipping it out across the lake or down the St. Lawrence. Worts, sadly, wouldn't live to see much of that success. Only three years after he arrived in the city, he lost his wife in childbirth. Later that day, devastated, he threw himself into the windmill's well and drowned.

Gooderham continued on with Worts' son, and a few years later they made one of the most important decisions in Toronto's history. Saddled with extra wheat, they decided to try their hands at distilling it into beer and whiskey. It turned out to be a damned good idea. Within a few decades, Gooderham & Worts would be making half the alcohol in Canada and more booze than any other distillery in the entire world. The windmill came down; in its place rose an entire complex of facilities: a huge new distillery; flour mills; storehouses; buildings for an ice house and a cooper and a dairy; even their very own wharf at the edge of the lake.

And their influence didn't end there. Throughout the 1800s, Gooderham, his son George, and James Worts Jr. were towering figures in the city. They ran railroads and ferries, teamed up with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to found the Manufacturer's Life Insurance Company (now Manulife) and each served a term as the president of the Bank of Toronto (which would eventually merge with the Dominion Bank and become TD). George Gooderham built a brand new head office for their company at the intersection of Front and Wellington—and the Gooderham Building, better known as the Flatiron Building, is still one of the most iconic sights in Toronto. Once that was up, he built the King Edward Hotel. Even his house is a landmark: the mansion behind the red brick wall on the north-east corner of Bloor and St. George.

The 20th century didn't go quite as well. During the war years, Gooderham & Worts cut back production and pitched in with the military effort by producing acetone and antifreeze. Between the wars, they were crippled by prohibition, forced to merge with Ontario's other world famous whiskey manufacturer, Hiram-Walker, and dedicate themselves to making that company's Canadian Club brand.

The distillery itself was kept running, though, right up until the early '90s. And when it finally did close, it didn't stay that way for long. In 2003, the Gooderham & Worts distillery reopened as one of the most beautiful places in Toronto. Instead of mountains of grain and giant vats of whiskey, the gorgeous Distillery District is now home to caf├ęs, restaurants, art galleries, theatres, the Mill Street Brewery and, as Wikipedia puts it, "the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America."

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