Distillery District

Top choice in Old Town, Corktown & Distillery District

The Distillery shining at night. Historic district built in 1832 in Toronto Currently one of the major tourist attractions with many shops restaurants and art galleries Toronto Ontario Canada 2008

Getty Images/All Canada Photos

Centered on the 1832 Gooderham and Worts distillery – once the largest distillery in the British Empire – the 5-hectare Distillery District is one of Toronto's best downtown attractions. Its Victorian industrial warehouses have been converted into soaring galleries, artists studios, design boutiques, cafes and eateries.

On weekends newlyweds pose before a backdrop of red brick and cobblestone, young families walk their dogs and the fashionable shop for art beneath charmingly decrepit gables and gantries. Year-round the place is buzzing. In summer, live music and pop-up events fill the air. In winter, a festival of lights and a Christmas market lure people out from the warmth.

History

The setting is a beautifully preserved Victorian industrial complex – red brick, cobblestone walkways and imposing buildings. Though it now consists of 30 buildings, brothers-in-law James Worts and William Gooderham started out with the construction of a single 70-ft brick windmill in 1832 with an eye on creating an industrial empire in what was then the British-controlled town of York, soon to be renamed Toronto. Worts had recently moved there from England, bringing his 20 years of experience as a miller with him and seeking a new life for his young family.

Though the mill prospered quickly, tragedy struck just two years later when James Worts' wife died during childbirth. The grief was too much for Worts who died shortly afterwards. Gooderham continued alone and established the distillery a few years later, which prospered immediately. He then brought James Worts' orphaned son in as a full partner once he was old enough and the two made a huge success of the family business. It survived prohibition and two world wars by ceasing production of alcohol and creating explosives for the government when required. 

The last drop of alcohol was produced on the site in 1990 and over 158 years after Gooderham and Worts started their industrial activity there. It lay dormant and decrepit for many years, with locals worried about the ultimate fate of this heritage site. The current owners moved ahead with plans to convert it into an arts and cultural center in 2001 and the result is the vibrant and beautiful Distillery District beloved by Torontonians today.

Visitors drinking at an outdoor bar in the Distillery District, Toronto
Visitors drinking at an outdoor bar in the Distillery District © Gilberto Mesquita/Shutterstock

Shopping and dining

There are over 40 boutiques selling high-end and unique fashion, accessories, beauty treatments, and small-batch food-and-wine gifts. The emphasis is very deliberately on locally owned stores and products – the owners refuse to allow large corporations and franchises to let units in the district. This provides a lovely local feel to the area and supports small businesses who would otherwise struggle for retail space in a major city.

There are a wealth of options available when it comes to culinary delights after some retail therapy. Several high-end restaurants are on offer if you fancy something a little more special. If casual and easy-going is more your thing, there are also charming pubs and pizza parlors offering delicious food made from locally sourced ingredients. Artisanal cafes are ready and waiting to whip up your preferred blend of coffee when you start to flag after a day of sight seeing.

Events and nightlife

The $14-million Young Centre for Performing Arts houses four performance spaces, used by theatrical tenants including Soulpepper and George Brown Theatre Co. There's an on-site bookstore and bar, too. Make some time to visit the various galleries showcasing the work of incredible artists – the best time to speak with them is in the early afternoon, when many will have their doors open or signs inviting visitors in.

With 13 specialty beers made on-site, Mill Street Brewery are a leading light in local microbrewing. Order a sample platter so you can taste all the award-winning brews, including the Tankhouse Pale Ale, Stock Ale and Organic Lager. On a sunny afternoon the courtyard is the place to be. The beer-friendly food includes burgers and wraps.

The Distillery District is at its festive best from mid-November to Christmas Eve during its European-style Christmas Market, showcasing hundreds of local handcrafted products, a carousel and photo ops with Santa.