It was Friday morning, deadline day, when I opened Blair's email. He'd attached his Distillery District notes and I was to turn them into a Canadian whisky travelogue.
Toronto. Lots to see here but what if he hadn't come through? There was no time now to hop a train and go see the place for myself. Sure, I'd visited the district a dozen times, photographed it from every angle and once crawled into a sealed off barrelhouse where years ago some heartbroken warehouse jockey had scrawled his ode to lost illusions on a wall. But I needed something fresh, something now.
Those scrawls, made long before June 1990, when workers at Toronto's Gooderham & Worts Distillery posed with the last truckload of whisky, haunted me. This had once been the largest distillery in the Commonwealth. That old photo Blair had dug up. Flat bellies tell of healthier times but grim smiles say they were not happier times. A man, standing to one side of the group sports a mullet - business in front, party at the back. His crossed arms make it clear: this party was over. For the next decade, Gooderham & Worts would stand under the shadow of the CN Tower collecting dust.
This is not a lost distillery story with a sad ending, though. At least, not for us. By 2003, developers had restored the sprawling distillery structures into the small village they had once been, surrounded by Toronto, the big city they had once supported. North America's largest collection of Victorian industrial architecture found new life, with yuppie cafés, restaurants, condos, art galleries, boutiques and performance studios filling buildings built for making whisky.
Visually it's captivating and no whisky traveller should miss its historic ambience. But whisky itself has packed up and moved on leaving behind a trail of empty barrels, antique distilling artifacts and historical plaques. Oh, the restaurants do serve whisky but it's Scotch - bar Scotch - not the golden juice that once made rye the largest source of revenue for a fledgling nation.
"Whisky travel is not a list of distilleries," my Editor tells me, remembering my Whisky Magazine debut. "It's not a list! These are road trips, written about the place, the people, the quirks," he insists.
Blair's visit had taken him to Bergo Designs, a large boutique on Tank House Lane with an eclectic mix of barware, kitchen gadgets and toys. One-stop shopping for sock monkeys, switchblade combs, peppermills and every wine gadget under the sun. Of whisky wares though, he'd found none.
Bergo? No go. I skipped it. The Mill Street Brewpub across the cobblestone path always distracted me. They began brewing beer here in the original Gooderham & Worts tank house in 2002. I grabbed a bite and something malty to drink. Beer though, not whisky. Their Tankhouse Ale is the refreshing, flavourful pint I'd tentatively pushed across a table to Dave Broom's nodding approval. This was his introduction to Canadian beer. Cobblestone, their rich and creamy traditional Irish stout didn't seem Canadian enough at the time.
My Mill Street burger and fries left little room for the plump, buttery sausage rolls served by the Brick Street Bakery down the street. But an expense account burnt a hole in my pocket. I had them put half a dozen in a box. Then, realising my beery breath would bring undesirable marital attention back at the hotel, I slyly slipped into the Soma chocolate factory for a gift box of milk chocolate sprinkled with Maldon sea salt. There they were, Gooderham & Worts whisky flavoured truffles. I bought two for later.
What I really needed though, was something to perk me up. I ambled over to Balzac's Coffee Roasters in the old pump house. Blair tells me that Honoré de Balzac was a Parisian novelist back in the 19th century and was legendary for writing marathons. These he would fuel by tossing back cup after cup of powerful black coffee. Balzac's sessions went on all day and sometimes all night, turning out such notable works as The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee. Blair would have made a great English major.
Chunks of rope notched into some kind of old wooden frame hang from Balzac's towering ceiling. Art? No, artifact. Distillery workers once used that frame to tow ships into the harbour where they unloaded their grain and took on whisky. This chilly afternoon I loaded up on a single bold cup of Balzac-the-writer's own blend and headed back out.
In every city with a block of old buildings one common story emerges. Ghosts. On-line accounts claim that apparitions and slamming doors are common in this district too. Flying wine bottles may defy physics, but not a single bottle of whisky has ever left its perch. At least not without obvious explanation. They say angels hang out in whisky warehouses, not ghosts. Is founder, James Worts, who perished on site in 1834, still putting in 24 hour days?
The editorial advice I was given earlier notwithstanding, if you're coming all the way to Toronto there are a few other whisky spots you simply have to visit. Three is not a list anyway; it's a trilogy. I learned that from Balzac.
John K. Hall and his Forty Creek Distillery in Grimsby is the first. He's alive and well and not haunting the distillery he built. The only thing supernatural about this whisky is how great it tastes.
If Sir John A. was still prime minister, there'd be a national holiday each September when Hall releases his latest limited edition.
Forty Creek is an hour's drive west of Toronto along the shores of Lake Ontario, and over the Burlington Skyway. Or, it's just a short jaunt on the commuter GO train/bus that stops two blocks from the distillery.
If you go by car, as you cross Burlington Bay you'll see scenic piles of coal and slag, remnants of a rusting steel industry. Three thousand whisky lovers will descend on Forty Creek Distillery this September 28 and 29: human whisky jacks flocking together for bottle signings, tastings, master classes and VIP tours celebrating the new release. It's Feis Isle and Beaujolais nouveau rolled into one at the base of Kittling Ridge.
At Still Waters Distillery, north of Toronto, Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein recently marked their fourth year as micro distillers by releasing Stalk & Barrel, their first single malt whisky. Why, you might wonder, would Canadians set out to make single malt whisky when the Japanese have already perfected it?
The answer is found in the dram itself, poured at Whisky Live in April. At four years of age this rich, creamy and fruity malt whisky has matured into a fullbodied, albeit young, sipper.
Already renowned for their single malt vodka, and blended whisky, last year Barry and Barry also began distilling whisky from rye grain.
In Toronto's Distillery District cash registers in chic boutiques ring in echo where stills once burbled with spirits. Further north from this reclaimed industrial archaeological tourist site is a neighborhood called The Junction. There, two young entrepreneurs have set out to repeat Gooderham & Worts' success of nearly two centuries ago. Charles Benoit and Jesse Razaqpur cofounded the Toronto Distillery Company just months ago, late in 2012.
They make their un-aged whisky spirit from different organic Ontario grains. Yes, they are already distilling - they even have a federal licence for it. Selling is another thing. It falls under provincial jurisdiction.
Blair tells me that if the province eventually grants them permission to sell their grain spirits, he'll be first in line. Good idea, Blair.
This list has no bucket. Only barrels. If you are a whisky traveller and you have not visited the Distillery District, then Toronto is still on your list.
While you're in town, add three more to it: Toronto Distillery, Still Waters and Forty Creek. Canadian distilleries that welcome visitors are a rare commodity. Now visitors to Toronto can get inside three of them.
Forty Creek Barrel Select 40%
Creamed corn with dusty, earthy rye highlight, ripe red Niagara fruits, cream sherry, and hints of lilacs. Hot pepper, ginger, and cinnamon dissolve in a vague essence of citrus peels.
Forty Creek Confederation Oak 40%
Fresh-cut wood, toasted oak and wood smoke bathe in butterscotch and vanilla. Sweet berry juice threads its way through corn mash and granola. Big whisky.
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve 43%
Barrel Select on steroids with rich caramels and searing chilli peppers bursting like fireworks over cloves, nutmeg, ginger, dusty rye grain and bitter orange.
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve 40%
Vanilla, toasted oak caramels, and lemon cream shake hands with glowing pepper, steamed wasabe greens, and ginger. Dry dusty grain and fresh sawdust balance fresh fruit and citrus zest in a whisky you can almost chew away at.
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt Whisky Cask # 3 46%
At four years of age Ontario's first single malt in over a century, is rich, creamy, loaded with farm market fruit, and surprisingly full-bodied.
Still Waters 1+11 Canadian Whisky 40%
This blend of sourced whisky and Still Waters' own malt spirit starts out buttery and mouth filling until a gingery effervescence draws hot pepper and rich caramels into a cleansing citrus pith finale.
Flights to Toronto's Pearson airport depart from most major cities around the world. Pearson is 20 miles/30 minutes from downtown Toronto. Taxi fare is $50 (flat rate) while daily car rental at the airport costs between $70 and $105 plus insurance. You may want a car to drive 50 miles/1 hour 15 minutes to Grimsby. All distillery tours are free.
Where to stay in Toronto
A broad range of accommodations from hostels to 5-star hotels will suit any traveller. I paid $209 to stay at the Fairmont Royal York right in the heart of the bustling city at 100 Front Street W., Toronto, Ontario M5J 1E3 (416 368- 2511). Blair recommends The King Edward Hotel, 37 King Street E., Toronto, Ontario M5C 1E9 (416) 863-9700, Rates start at $189.
Where to stay in Grimsby
There are many local hotels and motels with prices ranging from $80 to $200. Hundreds of hotels 30 miles/45 minutes away in Niagara Falls offer rates from $60 to $350.
The Distillery District
9 Trinity St. #200
Sunday 11am - 5pm
Monday to Wednesday 11am - 6pm
Thursday and Friday 11am - 7pm
Saturday 10am - 7pm
Tour information available at www.thedistillerydistrict.com or call (416) 642-0008. Cost of tours varies from $19 plus tax for a 60 minute walking tour to $69 plus tax for a 60 minute Segway tour. Reservations required. I'd pick up a free map on site and guide myself.
By transit - take "504 King" streetcar. Exit at King and Parliament. Walk two blocks south on Parliament to Mill St.
By car - follow Don Valley Parkway to Richmond St. exit, then west on Richmond to Parliament, south on Parliament to Mill St. (one block south of Front St.), then left onto Mill St. Paid parking is available at nearby municipal lots or accessible from Parliament and Cherry St. at the Distillery Historic District site.
Toronto Distilling Company
90 Cawthra Ave.
Retail Store Hours: Call for info
Tours: Contact them to book a tour
By transit - Bloor Danforth subway to Keele Station. Transfer to the 41 Keele North bus. Exit at Keele St. and West Toronto St. Walk two blocks east of Hirons St. on Parliament to Mill St. then to Cawthra Ave.
By car - take the Gardiner Expressway W. and exit toward Jameson Ave. Merge onto Lake Shore Blvd W. Turn right onto Parkside Dr. Continue onto Keele St. Turn right onto Junction Rd. Left onto Cawthra Ave.
Still Waters Distillery
150 Bradwick Drive
Retail Store Hours Monday to Thursday 1am to 5pm Friday 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday by appointment
Tours: Contact them to book a tour
By transit - check with the TTC for service times and extra fares. Yonge-University subway to Downsview Station. Transfer to 107B Keel North bus. Exit at North Rivermede Rd. at Bradwick Dr. North. Bring a street map, it can be confusing.
By car - head west on Ontario 401 Express. Take exit 359 to merge onto ON-400 N toward Barrie. Take the Highway 7 exit toward Langstaff Road. Turn right onto Hwy 7 E. Turn left onto Bradwick Dr.
Forty Creek Distillery
297 South Service Rd
Retail Store Hours: Monday through Saturday: 10am - 6pm Sunday & Holidays: 11am - 5pm
Tours from June to September on Tuesdays through Sundays at 2pm. Tours from October to May Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.
By transit - from Union Station take Lakeshore West GO train. Exit at Burlington GO Station at Fairview St. and transfer to Niagara Falls/Toronto bus towards 12 Niagara Falls. Exit at Service Rd. and Casablanca Blvd. Forty Creek is a 13-minute walk east on South Service Road.
By car - located about halfway between Toronto and Niagara Falls. Take Gardiner Expressway W. and merge onto QEW following signs for Niagara/East Hamilton/Fort Erie. Take exit 74 for Casablanca Boulevard. Turn left onto South Service Road.