For first-time travelers to Toronto, it’s often Yorkville and West Queen West that get most of the love. But another part of downtown that’s also worth a trip is the Distillery District, on the east side. This complex of Victorian-era stone and brick buildings, now a multi-use development, is already known for its restaurants and boutiques. Come April, the area will also get its own sake brewery, the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company. It will be a true rarity, one of just a handful of sake-makers in North America, and the only one on the eastern half.
Of course, making alcohol here is nothing new, and sake ambitions pale when compared to the many gallons of whiskey and other hard liquor that once rolled off the factory line. In the 1880s, when it was still called the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, this complex was the largest such factory in the world. It would go on producing liquor (and industrial chemicals) until production ended in 1990. For about a decade, the site wasn’t used for much more than location shoots — X-Men and Chicago were among the many movies filmed here. (More recently, it’s been used for scenes in MTV’s “Americanized” version of the teen drama Skins.)
After extensive renovation, the site re-opened in 2001 as the Distillery District, its 14 brick-paved acres used for 100 tenants, including restaurants, bars, boutiques, galleries, studios, schools, offices, theaters, and several condos. The developers, Cityscape Holdings and Dundee Realty Corporation, refuse to rent to large chains or franchises — this choice, along with the diversity of tenants, helps the District avoid the dead-end tourist-trappiness of New York’s South Street Seaport and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
One theme among the retail operations here is an artisanal focus. At Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, for instance, the beans are indeed roasted on-site, in a former pump house that’s been given the belle-epoque treatment. At Soma Chocolatemaker, the truffles and pralines are made in tiny batches from organic, fair trade, and even pre-Columbian “feral” cacao beans. And naturally the beer at the Mill St. Brew Pub is made on location. Other products, such as Hoi Bo’s high-end handbags, are also crafted on the premises.
Like most of its future neighbors, the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company will be crafting its products on-site. One sort of sake most likely to be in demand will be the unpasteurized (“namazake“), which must be stored cold and is therefore difficult and expensive to import from Japan. According to Kazuto Hayashi, the company’s marketing manager, namazake has a “sharper, fresher” and “quite often fruitier” taste than the more usual pasteurized sake. Although the brewery probably won’t be serving food of its own, it intends to collaborate with restaurants to help play up the ease with which sake pairs with lots of different kinds of food. Hayashi hopes to schedule the pressing out of the sake on weekends, so that more people can see this part of the process. If things go well, Ontario Spring Water could be one part in a growing interest and knowledge of sake throughout all of North America as well as Canada.