Once upon a time in 1860, in the lovely industrial city of York (now Toronto), there was a giant Distillery, the biggest in North America and allegedly the whole world. Founded by Gooderhem and Wort, the distillery’s location was considered ideal. Spread out on the bank of Lake Ontario and at a Canadian National Railway hub, the Distillery benefited from unlimited water supply and the best transportation imaginable at the end of 19th century. Production flourished, marking the Golden-era of the Canadian whiskey.
The time passed by. WWI, dry laws, tax disputes and deindustrialization led to a decline in operations and an eventual shutdown. As a result, an enormous collection of Victorian-era industrial machinery and architecture was left unattended to the mercy of the Canadian climate. The extension of the shoreline further south didn’t help either.
In 2003, after a massive renovations, the Distillery Heritage District reappeared on Toronto’s social map, eager to face the soon to rise generation of millennials, hipsters, Instagrammers and other daring folk.
While investors were keen on keeping the name and transforming the rusting equipment into museum exhibits, they favoured start-ups (OhYeah!) over established chains like Starbucks, Tim Hortons or Swiss Chalet as tenants. The subsequent transformation of the Distillery District evolved into a collection of various businesses like theatres, limited edition art, dance studios, local designers, craft beers, a sake brewery but surprisingly no distillery. The historic district of distillery featured no distillery except in the name. Right until May 2017.
The Spirit of York opened in a former malting facility with the collective effort of 35 shareholders with a similar vision: “Make Canadian Spirits Great Again” (I’m joking, or am I?). The Spirit of York Distillery consists of a production area and spacious lounge for tasting, mixing, shopping and celebrating. The state-of-the-art distillation facility is well hidden from the eyes of general wanderers, but not from the curious visitors to the lounge area.
The realization of how incredibly sharp this place is hits you right at the entrance. The Spirit of York designers accomplished a very rustic urban look with a prevailing vibe of masculinity and Wild West type of adventure. Look at the ceiling for example:
Not a bottle wasted! The same feeling is applied across the space, making it worth spending a sunny afternoon indoors. Take your time walking around staring at the old exposed brick, fortress like windows, infinity, coded into symmetrical symbols, beautifully polished copper and shining glass. Not to mention a peculiar looking bar on the right reserved for events and parties with a large resemblance to the one in “The Shining”.
A cool heritage building feature is floors made of from an old concrete mix that is no longer used, but sadly coated in parts with a rubber-like layer to comply with modern safety standards.
The production area is designed as an open concept space seperated from the retail area by just a glass wall. The entire production cycle from mashing to labelling is facilitated in-house. Quality was the first word that popped into my mind.
I was very lucky to spend two hours with Mark Harrop, in the production area, “entertaining” him with questions like: “How many hours at the Distillery does it take to get high on vapors?” or “During tasting do you follow the rule of sommeliers or do you feel sorry wasting a good rye?”.
While Mark talked passionately about locally sources ingredients (rye and spring water), added botanicals and a new recipe for aquavit he was working on, I couldn’t resist the urge of tasting. So I headed to the bar to investigate if the Spirits of York were worth the hype.
Oh, yes they were! With the floral hints of lavender, citrus, spicy coriander and a warming taste of rye, the Spirit of York gin was absolutely delightful sipped alone or mixed with a tonic. The aquavit impressed me with a distinguish taste of dill and rye, a combination that many a chilly Northern person appreciates.
Looking through the wonders of the little gift shop I realized how complicated the art of beverage making actually is. Next time I will a way more generous tipping my favorite bartenders whoes hard work and hard listening skills are often underestimated.
More about Spirit of York or The Historic Distillery District