A couple sits quietly amidst the brisk business of Balzac’s Coffee in the Distillery District on a late Sunday morning, the weekend newspaper spread out on the table between them.
The sun pours in over their heads, hitting the elegantly framed mirror behind the tin-topped bar that can barely be seen beneath the chocolatey magic bars, ginger molasses cookies, walnut biscotti and many other pastries delicately displayed on silver cake stands under glass domes. Antique coffee advertisements hang on the exposed brick walls; a spectacular Vaudeville chandelier reigns supreme over the café. They finish up their cups of Balzac’s Blend, a bright and bold coffee, step through the heavy green doors and out into the sunshine, taking stock of Toronto’s historic Distillery District from its southernmost border.
History of the Distillery District
The Distillery District, established in 1831 by James Worts and his brother-in-law William Gooderham, is a Canadian National Historical Site and one of North America’s prime examples of Victorian Industrial Architecture. In its heyday the district housed the largest distillery in the world, producing more than 2 million gallons of whisky and other spirits annually. In 1990 after 153 years, production shut down and the area transformed itself into a popular site to film movies thanks to its red brick lined streets and Victorian village feel. More than 1,700 films, including Cinderella Man, Chicago, and X-Men, were shot over the course of a decade making it the second largest film location outside of Hollywood. The film industry was a precursor to what the Distillery District would eventually become. Restoration efforts to renovate the remaining 47 heritage buildings using original, repurposed materials began in 2001 by Cityscape Holdings Inc. who partnered with Dundee Realty Corporation as its funds ran out. The results are stunning: a gorgeous, pedestrian-only, arts hub with one-of-a-kind stores, galleries and workspaces for artists of all media, bustling cafés and sophisticated nightspots.
Segway of Ontario
That is the squeaky clean version of the Distillery’s history. As with all historical accounts, there is another side. The more salacious version involves drunken child laborers, drunken pigs, deals made during Prohibition, and drug deals gone awry after the Distillery shut down. Take a tour with Aaron Binder, Chief Fun Officer at Segway of Ontario to learn more about these stories as well as how the neighborhood imported South American tiki birds to scare away pigeons. (Hint: look up at the speakers above the Thompson Landry Cooperage Gallery.)
There is no doubt the current version of the Distillery District caters to the artistically hip. Pop into photo shop Pikto to take in the provocative photographs in the gallery as well as the space itself. Exposed brick and wooden beams, track lighting, pillars mounted on stone pedestals from the original building, and deep cushy couches invite the customer to browse leisurely. For the serious digital photographer and for a longer visit to the area, Pikto offers a full service digital darkroom, press, studio space, and much more for rent. There are frequently offered workshops to hone one’s skills on anything from Photoshop to lighting to wedding and event photography, taught by some of the most prestigious photographers in Toronto such as Daniel Neuhaus, Photo Editor of Toronto Life magazine.
The Sweet Escape
Before exploring another gallery fuel up with gluten-free, vegan, and other yummy sweet or savory goodies at The Sweet Escape Patisserie, around the corner from Pikto. This café has been part of the Distillery since owner and pastry chef Michelle Edgar opened its doors in 2008. A relatively small storefront, Sweet Escape has two refrigerated cases to entice you. The savory case sits inside the store, displaying vegan and vegetarian wraps, sandwiches, and salads. The case facing pedestrian traffic lures customers in with decadent peanut butter chocolate cupcakes, colorful gluten-free macarons, vanilla bean crème brûlée and other more seasonal indulgences. Check the shelves in the store for a variety of flavors of shortbread (regular and gluten-free), almond biscotti, and ninja gingerbread (yes, ninja).
Hunger sated and sugar rush on, bounce into Bergo next door. The 3,200 square feet of space displays practical industrial designs to be admired, taken home, or gifted to that certain someone who is nearly impossible to shop for. You can find pieces from world renowned designers including Frank Gehry and Alessi as well as Canadian designers such as molo and Shoshana Farber. Whether you are looking for a distinctive piece of jewelry, a stainless steel hand vacuum or a floating fireplace for your wall, Bergo will delight you.
Before leaving The Distillery make one last sweet stop: SOMA Chocolate. The rich smell of organic Sambirano chocolate from Madagascar wafts out from green doors beckoning you in to sample the tempting Australian ginger truffles, Fleur de Sel caramels, Peruvian 64% dark chocolate bars or biscotti with Peruvian dark chocolate, Costa Rican milk chocolate and roasted almonds. As you follow your nose, a chocolate maker oversees one of the machines in the glass enclosed chocolate laboratory. The Distillery’s former Cask House now houses one of North America’s eminent micro-batch chocolatiers, favoring fair trade and organic chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Panama, and Costa Rica. Order a cup of SOMA’s Mayan hot chocolate with steamed milk to take with you. The fiery spice will linger with you long after you finish, reminding you of the lovely day you spent at Toronto’s Distillery District.
Interested in drinks? Check out where we ended up (hint: in the Distillery District) at the end of a Beer Makes History Better tour.
Where’s your favorite spot in the Distillery District? Let me know in the comments below.