The rise  and rise of a scion

The rise and rise of a scion

The story behind the iconic Canadian distiller

Whisky & Culture | 18 Oct 2019 | Issue 163 | By Blair Phillips

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When you’re the scion of industrialist William Gooderham, you’re told a different kind of bedtime story. Corby whisky ambassador Spencer Gooderham didn’t drift to sleep with The Little Engine That Could. His father, Stephen Gooderham, told a better story, with endless processions of railcars pulling grain into the family’s Toronto distillery, and a massive feedlot next door disposing of spent grains. On this feedlot were some cows, E-I-E-I-O. These adventures never began with ‘once upon a time,’ because Stephen knew their origins.

It was 1837 when William Gooderham expanded his milling business into distilling. The man enjoyed a drink, but that wasn’t the distillery’s purpose. Mill waste, including leftover wheat and middlings – a combination of flour, bran and wheat germ – were mashed with malt, then distilled.

There were no ageing laws back then, and a charcoal packed wooden rectifying column added in 1842 improved the whisky’s flavour.
In 1845, Gooderham brought his nephew, James Gooderham Worts into the business. Worts dove headfirst into converting the distillery from a waste disposal unit into a thriving business of its own. Using copper pot stills, he turned a mash that now included rye into Gooderham whisky.

Then in 1856, William’s son George took the distillery’s whisky game to the next level, building a 5-storey, dedicated distillery with the most complex steam-driven technology available. A spur off the Grand Trunk Railway brought railcars of grain to be milled, mashed, fermented, distilled and barrelled with little intervention from human hands. Distilling had become the firm’s primary business by 1861, with a capacity for two million gallons of spirit a year. Malting and coopering operations also expanded and the taxman collected millions. Old Yankee Stadium may be the house the Ruth built, but Toronto became the city that Gooderham built.

 “Every time you’d turn, you’d hear another story about the Gooderham’s impact on the city,” Stephen recalls. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Bank of Toronto, Toronto Harbour Commission, King Edward Hotel, Connaught Laboratories, Canadian Academy of Music, hospitals and the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company all had Gooderham connections.

In 1869 fire gutted the distillery, though the stone walls survived. The Gooderham’s saw the opportunity in their loss and within months refurbished the distillery into a textbook factory equipped with more power to produce better spirits. Though facing astronomical repair costs, William Gooderham cut a cheque to the fire department in appreciation.

William died in 1881 and James Worts the following year, just as a new red-bricked flatiron building was completed at 49 Wellington Street. George Gooderham became the distillery’s sole proprietor and made the flatiron the heart of all the company’s business activity.

“I got the chance to go inside that building when I was fifteen,” says Spencer. “My dad wanted to check it out, so we lined up to see the main floor; the upper floors were off-limits.” They chatted about their lineage with security who then brought them up to see the rest of the building. “I got to stomp around George’s old office. There was a weird little window on the south-facing side of the building that slid open. The story goes that George was a quirky guy and he installed that sliding window so while he worked, he could feed pigeons from his office.”

The Montreal Gazette declared Gooderham & Worts the largest distillery in the world as George continued to drive the distillery and the Toronto skyline upward. When in 1890, the Canadian government became the first country to pass bonding laws requiring whisky be held in barrels for two years, George invested 90 per cent of William Gooderham’s estate into building barrel warehouses. Some Canadian distillers, including Gooderham, opposed the law, claiming that taxing spirit lost through evaporation was unjust. But the bill had a beneficial side effect. With the Canadian government guaranteeing its age, Canadian whisky became an international phenomenon. Sales went through the roof.

George died in 1905 leaving the distillery to his sons Albert, William and, Stephen Gooderham’s great-great-grandfather, George Horace. “As I discovered more, I thought it was important to pass on that history because every time you turned around, there was another crazy story,” says Stephen. For example, one of George Horace’s homes was converted into a residential hotel where Ernest Hemingway, then a Toronto Star reporter, lived in the 1920s. It’s claimed that Hemingway wrote parts of A Farewell to Arms there.

An emerging temperance movement dampened the family’s enthusiasm for whisky, and the distillery shifted to making acetone to support efforts during the First World War. Then came American prohibition in 1920. “Three years into prohibition, no one knew when or if alcohol would become legal again in the United States,” explains Spencer. Ontario was also in the middle of its own prohibition.
Although the firm had a diverse portfolio of businesses, whisky was its vital profit centre, so it struggled and in 1923, William George’s son, Edward Douglas Gooderham encouraged the family to sell the distillery to one Harry Hatch. When Hatch later bought Hiram Walker and consolidated the distilleries into Hiram Walker-Gooderham and Worts, Edward Douglas’ name re-appeared on the board of directors. Hatch kept the Gooderham brand alive with Gooderham & Worts Two, Five and Seven Star, Rich & Rare, Bonded Stock, Gooderham & Worts Special, and several others. In 1957, the company shifted whisky production to Windsor, Ontario, leading to the Toronto distillery’s closure in 1990. The Gooderham brands disappeared from the shelf.

“I remember 40 years ago I was working with Sears and bought a bottle of Gooderham’s Rich & Rare to take to my boss” recounts Stephen. “She had a big Christmas party at her house and she thought that was so cool.”

There was always a bottle of Bonded Stock in his father, George Dean Gooderham’s cabinet.

Bonded Stock still bore the Gooderham label in 1998, when successor, Corby, revived Gooderham & Worts Natural Small Batch as part of the Canadian Whisky Guild Series. “I still have the bottle, I was eight years old and when it got released,” says Spencer. “My dad brought me a little 50ml bottle. He starts telling incredible stories about the family, the whisky industry and how it was part of our heritage.” His dad proudly said the bottle would be an heirloom to pass down. “He leaves me in the room and being an eight-year-old not grasping the story, I opened the bottle, took a sip and spit it out. I go to the washroom, fill it up with a splash of water and close it up. I still have the bottle and have never opened it again. That was the first sip of whisky I ever had in my life.” The whisky was discontinued at the turn of the century and Bonded Stock followed a couple of years later, leaving Gooderham & Worts whisky a forgotten relic.

Then in 2015, Corby Spirit and Wine, who manages the Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Brands on behalf of owner, Pernod Ricard, surprised the whisky world when it released Gooderham & Worts Four Grain. Hiram Walker master blender Dr. Don Livermore remembers the day, “It’s in the spirit of Gooderham & Worts, so we wanted it to be grain forward and put together a four-grain whisky with rye, wheat, corn and barley.” In 2017, Corby released a 17-year-old whisky called Gooderham & Worts Three Grain, Little Trinity, followed in 2018 by Gooderham & Worts Eleven Souls. This year’s release pays tribute to the Gooderham red-bricked flatiron building located at 49 Wellington Street.

Gooderham & Worts 49 Wellington blends whisky from unmalted rye, rye malt, barley malt, wheat and corn. “We added whisky distilled with red winter wheat to the blend and whisky aged in red oak,” says Livermore. “We put mature whisky in oak barrels fitted with red oak inserts, then aged it for an additional six years.”

Stories insist that at the start of Ontario’s prohibition, a tunnel running from the Gooderham building to the King Edward Hotel and on to the old distillery brought whisky to the hotel’s VIP guests undetected. Times have changed and today’s generation of Gooderhams beam with pride knowing the whisky has returned to where George Dean Gooderham kept his. In full sight in people’s liquor cabinets.


Tasting notes



Gooderham & Worts

Four Grain 44.4% ABV
Each grain plays a role in this tightly woven whisky. Layers of rye spices and cereals are supported with floral gusto.

Gooderham & Worts

Three Grain Little Trinity, 17 Years Old 45% ABV
This alluring sipper is rich with vanilla, dusty oak, nutty honey, malty rye bread and deep spices. Every flavour orbits a solar system of barrel tones.

Gooderham & Worts

Eleven Souls 49% ABV
This cohesive gem shines bright with orchard fruit blossoms, creamy vanilla, toasted bread, black cherry and fresh grass.

Gooderham & Worts

49 Wellington, 19 Years Old 49% ABV
Clove honey and cinnamon are braided into apple bread, caramel and roasted cereals. A subtle maltiness adds complexity with a sky-scraping peppery finish.
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