Detailed Explorations of Toronto’s Distillery District

During our stroll up Tank House Lane, Mathew informed me that the cobble-stoned streets of the Distillery District are real brick pavers from the 1850s that used to be located in Cleveland. When Cityscape bought this complex, there were only dirt roads that had to be dug up to install modern gas, sewer and electrical lines. When it came to repaving the developers were looking for historically authentic material and found it when the City of Cleveland was selling off its unused stock of brick pavers. The developers wanted to use authentic historic paving material which had to come from another northern city in order to provide sufficient durability. So they went all the way to Cleveland to secure this batch of historic brick pavers.

To give me a real taste of the Distillery District, Mathew took me into “Soma”, manufacturers of some of the best chocolate, handmade truffles, praline, cookies and fresh churned gelato in Toronto. Soma’s craftsmanship and dedication to quality has made them winners of the “Toronto Choice Awards” for best chocolate. Mathew invited me to taste a “Mayan Chocolate Shot”, which was an espresso-size cup full of the most aromatic medium-brown liquid chocolate I have ever tasted. The intriguing taste is derived from a blend of authentic Mayan chocolate, spiced with Australian ginger, Madagascar Vanilla, orange peel, chili and Soma’s unique blend of spices.

Soma – chocolate artisans

Further down Tank House Lane is the “Young Centre for the Performing Arts”, a 50,000 square foot state of the art, brand new performing arts facility and the result of a unique partnership between George Brown College and the Soulpepper Theatre Company. Performing arts are big in the Distillery District: it just hosted a Dance Festival and also is the venue for an annual Opera Ballet Festival. The district’s three indoor and one outdoor theatres delight performing arts aficionados with their diverse offerings.

We turned onto Brewery Lane and walked through the “Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill”, one of Toronto’s most popular fresh fish and seafood restaurants. The Barrel Shipping Room is a magnificent setting for dining or after work drinks and even in the middle of the afternoon this restaurant was very busy. The 100-seat outdoor patio was positively packed with people enjoying the sunny afternoon.

The Pure Spirits Building

Mathew pointed out that each business inside the Distillery District has one or two artifacts from the original distillery operations, and the “Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill” features an original wooden armoire and a wooden hatch from the pre-restoration era. In a hallway behind the restaurant I saw a colourful ornate safe that Mathew informed me was once owned by William Gooderham himself, who incidentally also founded the Bank of Toronto which later became the Toronto Dominion Bank. Throughout the entire district, the integration of historical elements and the modern adaptation of the original architecture is a phenomenal example of architectural revitalization. I enjoyed the historical setting without ever feeling like I was in a museum.

Right opposite this restaurant is the home of the “Mill Street Brewery”, Toronto’s most award-winning micro-brewery, which is just adding a brew pub to its facility. Walking further south the laneway opens up into large square that is used for various outdoor performances throughout the year. Then heading back west we walked down Case Goods Lane which on the right hand side features “Grand Piano Pastries”, a café with exposed brick walls and an Old World atmosphere. Next door is “Pikto”, a gallery featuring internationally renowned and emerging photographers that holds monthly photo contests.

Interior of the Grand Piano Pastries Café

On the south side of Case Good Lane the “Case Goods Warehouse”, which houses “Artscape”, a collective of artists and artists’ studios, many of whom provide live demonstrations of their crafts, from hat making to ceramics to clothes design. Many of the working studios in the district are open to the public and Mathew explained that many of these artists demonstrate their crafts and actual processes to interested onlookers.

As we were completing our loop Mathew showed me the original millstone, imported originally from England in 1832, which was part of the first mill in the district. We walked by the sales office for the Pure Spirits Condominiums which are going up just west of the historic Distillery District. Mathew indicated that this project is helping offset the costs of redeveloping this historic district and the majority of the condos were sold out within a week, simply because of the desirability of their location, right next to door to one of Toronto’s most vibrant and diverse entertainment districts.

The original millstone from 1832

Talking about real estate and architecture, I was particularly interested in the rehabilitation process that turned 44 run-down, outdated industrial buildings into one of the hippest entertainment districts in all of North America. Mathew said that the revitalization project was difficult and very costly, but in just about 18 months they turned 13 acres of obsolete unused industrial carcasses and more than 40 buildings into a visionary project that has become the trendsetter for industrial rehabilitation all throughout North America.

The smokestack of the Boiler House

Mathew explained that the more than 100 tenants at the Distillery represent every field of arts, culture and entertainment, including the various restaurants and eateries, galleries, retailers, performance theatres and even educational institutions which include a day care centre, the Distillery Early Learning Centre, George Brown College and the Voice Intermediate School. What motivated him and his partners to even to consider this project were his visits to other international destinations where he wanted to explore the city not as a tourist, but to experience it as the locals do. And when you go to the Distillery District you will not see any touristy shops or souvenir or t-shirt vendors. Instead you will find top notch arts, culture and entertainment at every price point, and you can enjoy a whole day in this venue, even on a shoestring budget.

Pure Spirits Building

Cityscape selected their tenants very carefully. They did not want chain stores and franchises in their complex and decided to forego some often lucrative leasing offers. Instead they deliberately set out to attract high quality tenants with unique products or service offerings and a real passion for their craft. Mathew added that they wanted to combine big city sophistication with small town charm and likens the end product to the SOHO of the 1960s. He and his partners wanted this place to be a melting pot of disciplines and an incubator of new ideas.

Wildhagen Hats – Cold Weather Perfect

According to Mathew, key to the success of this project was the fact that Cityscape and Dundee Realty are able to retain control of this project and carry out a consistent vision from start to finish. What distinguishes this project from other neighbourhoods is the conscious choice of tenants that reflect the developers’ dreams of creating a one-of-a-kind centre of culture, arts and entertainment in a unique historic setting. The Distillery District has definitely succeeded and become the trailblazer for industrial revitalization projects all through North America.

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