Miss Whisky - The Rise And Fall Of Canada's Forgotten Distillery

Do you know the name of the distillery that single-handedly shaped the distilling industry that we know today in Canada? Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd? Good guess, but wrong. Here's a clue, it was located in Toronto. Any idea? Well, it was the Gooderham & Worts distillery. This distillery was a Mecca of industrial workings in the nineteenth century. In a time when small distilleries were abundant, this distillery soared to supremacy and removed its smaller counterparts from the market place. People knew and appreciated the whisky that this distillery supplied, but like many of the industrial giants of the nineteenth century the Gooderham & Worts name did not last into the twentieth century and has been essentially forgotten by all. Maybe this new century will see a change and we can once again appreciate the historical greatness of this distillery.

James Worts immigrated to Canada from England in 1831 at which time he established a grist mill, which is known today as The Windmill. The Windmill was one of Toronto's old landmarks because it dominated the mouth of the Don River. The following year, William Gooderham (who had had a successful career as a merchant and miller in England) immigrated to Canada with a party of 54 people. This party included 2 families, their servants and 11 orphans. At the time, he invested $3,000 into Worts' milling business creating a new partnership. In view of the fact that both men originated from families of wealth it was relatively easy for them to start a new business in a thriving new town in the heart of Upper Canada. Worts died before he could see the erection of the distillery in 1837 but his son, James Gooderham Worts, assumed his father's position in 1845 to return his family name to the partnership of Gooderham & Worts.

By the early 1850s these gentleman had a thriving business with a well-established presence in Upper Canada. This was primarily because the distillery had been in production for more than 10 years and had been created during Toronto's infancy, which allowed for simultaneous growth with the town. The distillery of Gooderham & Worts was described by the British Colonist of April 16, 1850 to be a distillery that had been growing rapidly since the early 1840s. The establishment was now on as large a scale as many others in the district and the facilities were 'exceedingly extensive'. The Gooderham & Worts distillery contained numerous facilities such as flour mills, a wharf, the distillery, 2 storehouses, an ice house, a cooper shop, and a dairy. Figure 1 provides us with a glimpse into the size of these facilities in 1855 and it is clear that the facilities have been constructed around the old windmill with the wharf in the foreground.

By 1861, this distillery had experienced a huge increase in production from 80,000 gallons of whisky in 1850 to 1,250,000 gallons in 1861. Within 10 years the Gooderham & Worts distillery had surpassed the competition in Upper Canada by leaps and bounds. In less than three years, Molson's would leave the distilling business behind to concentrate their efforts on brewing and with this exit, Gooderham & Worts gained supremacy of Canada's distilling industry. As the production increased, so too did the profits, much of which went into the fixed and floating capital needed to improve the facilities. This distillery was expanding at an alarming rate by undertaking numerous renovations and additions as well as embracing all that the latest technology could offer. The transformation of this distillery in such a short amount of time was remarkable when compared to other secondary manufacturing industries of the time that were all comparatively insignificant in terms of size, technological advancements, and production rates. It was not until well into the 1860s that we begin to see Ontario's secondary manufacturing industries boom with the industrial revolution.

As described by the Annual Review of Trade for Toronto (Toronto Globe) in 1861, the new construction of the Gooderham and Worts facilities were 'the most important contribution to the manufacturing interests of Toronto, it is equalled by few on the continent.' The principal building (that housed the steam mills and distillery), and its contents were estimated to cost up to $200,000. It was 5 stories tall with a chimney that stretched 100 feet high. Figure 2 is a picture of the new distilling building in 1863 as published in the Canadian Illustrated News of Hamilton on April 25, 1863. The firm of Gooderham & Worts maintained the desire to be the best thereby keeping a competitive advantage. Remarkable for the time, the production process in the new distillery was state of the art in terms of continuous distillation. The Annual Review of Trade of Toronto stated that in "scarcely any other establishment in Canada is there so much accomplished without the aid of manual labour. From the time the corn (grain) is received at the door (directly off of the rail car) until it is 'racked' or drawn off in barrels, as whisky or spirits, it is not handled by human hands!" This was unheard of at a time when the industrial revolution and mechanization were just beginning. Even with this reduction in labour, Gooderham & Worts still employed 150 men in 1861.

"the distillery of Messrs. Gooderham & Worts, [was] not only the largest in Canada, but one of the largest in the world."
By 1871 the Gooderham & Worts distillery was producing 2.1 million gallons of whisky and spirits per year or almost half of Ontario's total spirit production. This was a production increase of 68% in only 10 years. The distillery had grown in popularity throughout Canada and exports were in the neighbourhood of a million gallons a year to the principal markets of Montreal, Quebec, St. John NB, Halifax as well as New York, Rio De Janerio, Buenos Aries, Montevideo and other ports in South America. According to an article in the Toronto Globe in 1872 "the distillery of Messrs. Gooderham & Worts, [was] not only the largest in Canada, but one of the largest in the world." Even the fire of 1869, which destroyed the essential core of the distillery and cost the company $100,000, did not hinder the growth. These businessmen simply turned an unfortunate mistake by an employee into a chance to revamp the distilling operations into the perfect factory-organized production process (the earlier version of Henry Ford's assembly line), to manufacture spirits and whisky. In fact, the factory production of spirits helped to crush the smaller competition because this distillery could sell spirits at a lower price than a small distiller could manufacture it. Gooderham & Worts was the fourth largest industrial firm in Ontario (in terms of number of employees, value of fixed capital, gross value of production and value-added), and was outranked only by the Great Western Railway's establishment that made railway cars, a cabinet and upholstery factory and the Grand Trunk's Railway's repair shop.

The 1870s were the pinnacle of Gooderham & Worts' success, but 1881 marked a year of change for the distillery. Both William Gooderham and James Worts died within a year of each other leaving George Gooderham as the sole proprietor. The heirs wasted no time and incorporated the company in 1882. Two business icons of Toronto had died leaving their distilling dynasty behind in a rapidly changing environment of competition between the remaining large-scale distilleries in Canada. Only one year earlier, these men were featured in the Canadian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self-Made Men. The introduction of their sketch stated that, 'The foregoing sketch is of 2 men who have done much for Toronto, and it will be many years after they are dead, before they will be forgotten or cease to be greatly respected. As an example of successful, businessmen, they are pre-eminently worthy of a place in this record of leading men in Ontario'. George would continue to manage the operations for the corporation but the reign of Gooderham & Worts over Canada's distilling industry was coming to an end. Gooderham & Worts had played their cards right by eliminating the majority of the competition, forming strong business ties, taking advantage of the newly expanding transportation network to allow for exports outside of Ontario and Canada, embracing technological change, and expanding the facilities even after spending millions in duty to the Canadian government each year. Unfortunately, Gooderham & Worts had chosen to focus much of their production efforts on industrial alcohol. Although Gooderham & Worts had a few popular brands such as Old Rye and Toddy, they did not compare to the marketable brand of its Canadian counterpart Hiram Walker & Sons. The Canadian Club legend was coming into fruition and by the turn of the century everyone around the world was drinking Canada's premier whisky. (A slogan that has not changed in over a hundred years - available in 150 countries.) Most importantly, Canadian Club landed American appeal whereas Gooderham & Worts industrial alcohol was not an end product. Therefore, it did not have staying power when other competitors entered into the market of producing industrial alcohol.

In 1891 (despite the decrease in production experienced across Canada), Gooderham & Worts Ltd. still dominated production with more than 1.5 million gallons of spirits and whisky. Figure 3 is a photograph of Gooderham & Worts Ltd. in 1896 and when compared to an insurance plan of the facilities in 1889 (Figure 4), it is possible to appreciate the extent of the operations. The grain elevator, grain warehouses, Grand Trunk Railway (that ran through the property), the grist mill and distillery, the 7 tank houses, and the spirit warehouses are all clearly visible in Figure 3. The property was well planned and well organized and the layout of the buildings is often referred to as a 'little city', complete with a grid of streets. Despite the series of buildings that were added to the property over the decades, there was still planning involved as the buildings were organized around the grist mill and distillery.

In the two decades to follow, Gooderham & Worts saw immense change and a destruction of all it had been in the nineteenth century. During World War I and Canada's brief period of prohibition, all distilleries stopped producing alcoholic beverages. Gooderham & Worts continued to stay in business by making the choice of converting their entire operations to the manufacture of acetone, a highly flammable component of the smokeless explosive codite, commonly known as antifreeze. British Acetones Toronto Ltd. adapted many of the storage and other buildings for the use of still rooms and it constructed a compressor house and an anti-freeze canning factory. At the end of the war, Toronto's large-scale harbour reclamation project forced a permanent change on the Gooderham & Worts distillery. The landscape of this distilling enterprise would never be the same without the old wharf, grain elevator of the coal storage facilities - the distillery was now landlocked.

With the distillery of Gooderham & Worts Ltd. on a gradual decline, Harry C. Hatch with his associates bought the company in 1923. He then purchased Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. in 1926 and the following year the two companies were merged under the parent company of Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Ltd. Due to the success of Canadian Club around the world it was decided the future energies would be on the development of this brand and therefore, operations were concentrated at the Walkerville plant in Windsor. Only small amounts of Goodeham & Worts brand whisky and rum, as well as anti-freeze, continued to be manufactured at the Toronto plant and malting production was ceased. Many of the buildings that were no longer in use were left standing simply maintaining the character of the old distilling facilities. The economic boom that followed World War II only increased expansion at the Walkerville plant resulting in the stoppage of production of rye whisky and anti-freeze in 1957 at the Gooderham & Worts site in Toronto. The company maintained small distilling of rum products only to keep the bonded warehouse license at this location. The construction of the Gardiner Expressway provided another huge change to the property, isolating it further.

In 1986 the conglomerate Allied-Lyons bought Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Ltd. There were no big plans for the site and so the buildings sat with little development except for some condos and a Children's Museum, until recently. Announced in November 2, 2001 Cityscape Development Corp. plans to purchase the complex of 44 buildings from Allied Domecq Pension Fund for an undisclosed price (estimated to be $15 million). Due to the unique nature of these nineteenth century buildings the plans are to make a 'cultural Mecca for the city' that will turn the site into a picture postcard scene filled with galleries, artists' studios, artist workshops, restaurants, retail and market sites. Cityscape wants to begin the rehabilitation of this area as soon as possible citing visible changes by spring. The purchase of all the buildings allows the corporation to work with the entire area and use the existing community atmosphere of the buildings and cobble-stone grid street design.

It is about time that we are converting this historical landmark into a useable, viable piece of property that is conveniently located in the heart of Toronto. With the revitalization plans of the waterfront this should prove to be an excellent match. Finally people can enjoy the architecture and history of this once-great distillery. These buildings have something to say and all one needs to do is enter the complex to feel the legacy of Canada's forgotten distillery. It is time for Gooderham & Worts to rise again and take its place as a (cultural) icon of the City of Toronto.

For your reference:
Brown, Lorriane. 200 Years of Tradition: The Story of Candian Whiskey. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhery and Whiteside, 1994.

Canadian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self-Made Men, 1880.

"Canadian Manufacturers - No IV, One of the Largest Distilleries in the World." The Globe. [Toronto] 23 April 1872, p. 2.

Census of Canada 1851 - 1891.

"Description of the Distillery of Messrs. Gooderham & Worts..." The Canadian Illustrated News. [Hamliton] 25 April 1863, p 282-283 and supplement.

Lewington, Jennifer. "Plans call for Transformation of Gooderham and Worts site." The Globe and Mail [Toronto] 2 November 2001, p. A18.

"Messrs. Gooderham & Worts, City Steam Mills and Distillery." The British Colonist. [Toronto] 16 April 1850, p. 2.

Prentice, William. "Gooderham and Worts Ltd." Canadian Beverage Review May-June (1949): 106-112.

Shuttleworth, E.B. The Windmill and its Times. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1924.