Canada has long embraced every facet of its history and people, celebrating heritage in whatever form it comes. The Distillery Historic District in Toronto is no different. Many people would have seen a collection of derelict Victorian warehouses as an eyesore. Indeed, for years it was only the National Historic Site status of the Distillery District that saved it from demolition. That is, until a group of developers had grander plans.
Though there was a temptation to turn them into a kitsch entertainment venue, instead they became a blend of the historic and the sensory, exotic with traditional. The pedestrianised area focuses on quality and creativity and is now a favourite destination for tourists and locals alike. So if you have flights to Toronto and are planning a trip to the city, The Distillery District is the perfect place to stop. We spoke to some of the businesses in this area about what makes the location truly tick.
“The Distillery District is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto. As the largest collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America, the National Historic Site transports visitors to a different time – one with horse-drawn carts, cast iron lamp posts and cobblestone streets. There’s just an indescribable energy that pulses through the historic gem, especially during the holidays. I highly recommend spending some time browsing through the boutique shops, admiring the artwork in the galleries and feasting at the quaint coffee shops, restaurants and bars that line the streets!”
Though chocolate is not something we associate with Victorians, this indulgent drink has its place in an otherwise restrained society. Cacao 70 shows no such restraint, bringing its luxurious chocolate from ethical sources, so you can sip guilt free. What originally began as a chocolate drinking bar has gone much further into the realms of cacao pleasure. When asked about the relationship between Cacao 70 and the Distillery Historic District, they responded:
“The reason we chose this location is because of the very rich historical background of the place, and we felt that our concept would fit into the place perfectly. When it comes down to chocolate, hot chocolate is one of our specialities. All the hot chocolate recipes/products are developed in house. And we also feature a chocolate drink that uses the chocolate we made from bean to bar at our very own factory in Montreal.”
The magic of The Distillery Historic District is its ability to transport you into a Victorian novel, surrounded by red bricks and horse drawn carriages. Cacao 70 feels chocolate has a similar influence:
“Chocolate has the power to take you places. A cup of hot chocolate and you’re back in your childhood. A milkshake and you’re in a 50’s diner. A hit of sea salt and you’re on a desert island. Wait! Make that a dessert island (way better). At Cacao 70, we invite you to crunch, sip, slurp and savour your way to a state of chocolate. Bon appétit—and bon voyage!”
SOMA chocolate maker
Soma’s hands on and practical approach to achieving incredible chocolate is well at home amongst the former whiskey factories. It is also clear that Soma appreciates the way things used to be done – with vintage machinery and a historic location. Sometimes old ways are best, and Soma definitely proves that. We spoke to Cynthia, the co-owner of the chocolate-makers about the essential atmosphere The Distillery Historic District brings to their business:
“We chose the Distillery District because it has a “makers” feel to it as a former whiskey distillery. When we started there was a coffee roaster (Balzacs), beer brewer (Mill Street Brewery) and the Case Goods building that is tenanted by makers of all types of jewellery, clothing, handbags, wood working, art and pottery. We fit right in as chocolate makers.”
“The architecture of the building is dripping with history and richness of materials. Our space was a former tank house – big wood beams, brick, and if you look up you can see the original signs where the big tanks sat.”
A Parisian-style coffee shop nestles in a former Victorian pump house. However, Balzac’s is heedless of its building’s lowly origins. With an enormous chandelier and inspiration from Honore de Balzac, a French novelist with a thirst for coffee, Balzac’s was born. We spoke to Vanessa about the incredible location and what it provides:
“We strive to provide our guests the most luxurious coffee experience while staying true to these roots. I think what makes this Balzac’s location so special is my staff’s ability to provide this experience consistently, despite it being one of the busiest cafes in the city. They’re truly amazing! We are located in the original Fire Pump House of the Distillery District, dating back to 1895. With this as our backdrop, Diana masterfully transformed the space into an ode to the grand cafés of Paris in the Belle Époque. The monumental chandelier you see above us is a guest favourite. This striking piece dates back to 1920s Chicago, and provides equal parts aesthetic gravity, warmth and historic charm.”
With an ethos centring on artisan perfection in everything from coffee to setting, it is a well-crafted venue. When speaking about the Distillery District, Vanessa was clearly smitten:
“The Distillery District is an exceptional pocket of the city. The preservation of the original architecture and the curation of fabulous spaces within make it a truly transportive place to visit. You feel it when you’re here. Things slow down; you indulge the senses in all of the delightful things around you… whether it is a latte, a new outfit, or a decadent night out for dinner. There is an unmistakable and unforgettable allure. What business doesn’t want to tap into that fantasy?”
It is also a choice setting for many wedding receptions; for vintage inspired brides, the architecture of the district makes fantastic photo opportunities while the chandelier inside is seriously romantic.
Mill Street Brewery
Mill Street Brewery has no issue with surprising customers while putting their own innovative twist on tradition. Their first beer, ‘Original Organic Lager’ was the first organic beer brewed in Ontario and since then they have gone from strength to strength. According to their website:
“We certainly never lost our dedication to our craft and passion for pushing the envelope. Our ever-expanding portfolio now includes over 60 unique beers earning us well over 100 awards, including 3-time Canadian Brewery of the Year. That’s our story up till now. Who knows where our “Great Beer” adventure will take us next?”
Though 2006 saw Mill Street Brewery expand beyond the confines of the Distillery District, they still kept one foot in the area that first welcomed them, changing the brewery to a brew pub, with small seasonal batches still brewed there.
The Stirling Room
The first and only night club in the area, The Stirling Room plays up to the heritage of its location by incorporating original features of the building into the aesthetic and building upon the atmosphere already present in the district. While the furnishings are in keeping with the Gothic- Victorian vibe, the cocktail menu cries out in speakeasy style. While the concept works, if it was not for the innately industrial-chic element of the district, The Stirling Room would lack something fundamental to its appeal.
Tank takes the creativity of the Distillery District seriously as their hand-blown glass jewellery has found the perfect setting within the Victorian factories. Showcasing different artists’ work, Tank is not only a jewellery boutique but they also offer workshops for those who are as inspired by the area as they are. Jill Cribbin and Amy Bond are the co-founders of this venture that explores the local talent and inspiration of the historic area the studio gallery resides in.