Rock 'n' Roll and Whisky

Rock 'n' Roll and Whisky

A tour of Toronto's distilling district, revived along with a wave of heavy metal reunions

Travel | 01 Sep 2017 | Issue 146 | By Blair Phillips

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Did Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind cause the extinction of heavy metal? Asteroid 'Kurt Cobain' may not have acted alone; heavy metal's final gasps for air were snuffed out by record companies with a fetish for bubblegum-flavoured hair bands. Until then, the top of the music food chain had been the domain of whisky bands; when the hair bands abandoned whisky for vodka, musical integrity collapsed. Toronto's Gooderham & Worts Distillery stopped making whisky in 1950. In a staff photo taken in 1990, when the distillery finally closed, workers surround a truck loaded with their final barrels of rum. One sole employee still sports a heavy metal haircut; the rest had given up.

But by 2013, heavy metal bands were reuniting and touring again, albeit to smaller audiences. Vodka was out and whisky was back centre stage. And back at Gooderham & Worts - now redeveloped as a tourist destination called 'The Distillery District' - Mill Street Brewing and Distilling was laying down whisky on site again. Gone were the days of mass production though, replaced by small batch distillation in a city that had been waiting virtually the entire history of rock 'n' roll for whisky makers to return to The District.

Mill Street Brewing & Distilling Your Toronto distillery tour begins at the corner of King Street East and Trinity. As a man of faith, William Gooderham said hells bells to the notion that people must pay pew fees. So, in 1842, he built this pretty, red brick, Gothic Revival-style church where his distillery workers could worship for free. Architectural tourists often include Little Trinity Anglican church on their itineraries, and so should you. From there, it's just five minutes walk to Mill Street Brewing & Distilling, right in the heart of Gooderham's historic distillery. Head south down Trinity to where it intersects with Mill Street. A real gem waits just around a cobblestone corner. The brewery itself is so successful that its reputation overshadows the small on-site distillery. However, it was Mill Street that brought distilling back into the city. It had been decades since anyone in Toronto had applied for a distilling licence and an inexperienced city bureaucracy took a frustrating two years to approve the Mill Street stills being turned on in May 2013. In addition to schnapps, it is fitting that Mill Street began distilling quality whisky spirit on the old Gooderham & Worts site. Their first whisky, a budding Cinderella story of a single malt, is made with several different brewing and rye malts, just now coming of age. If you've made a late start why not grab lunch in Mill Street's Beer Hall before you leave? Pub fare, giant pretzels and healthier than pub fare are served in a casual atmosphere and if your table is in the back room, you can admire the stills from behind explosion-proof glass, while you eat.

Spirit of York Back on Trinity Street, a sign beckons you into the former Gooderham & Worts malting room. It's now home to the Spirit of York microdistillery, the latest in Toronto's burgeoning microdistilling scene. Back behind explosion-proof glass you'll see what look like fermenters. Two 40-foot column stills sit outside in their own casing. Unfortunately, health and safety regulations forbid drop-ins but you are welcome to sample their gin and vodka at the bar, both made from 100 per cent rye grain sourced just west of Toronto. If you are more adventurous, they also provide all the ingredients to create your own power chord bitters. Call ahead if you want to see the operations.

Yongehurst Distilling Company Two long-time friends, Rocco Panacci and John-Paul Sacco opened the Yongehurst Distillery northwest of downtown Toronto in 2015. Located in a brick industrial building, the distillery borders a neighbourhood of single-family homes. Don't mistake its size for weakness, quality takes precedence over quantity at Yongehurst.

In Canada, spirit does not become whisky until it has spent three years in barrels, and the best whisky makers often wait much longer than that. In the mean time, Yongehurst pays the rent, riffing like Led Zeppelin, as they make Triple Sec, Elderflower Gin, Barrel Aged Gin, Limoncello and the cornerstone of their lineup, a white spirit called Harbour Rum. For this flavourful earthy beast, organic Paraguay molasses is fermented with a wild yeast strain harvested from Ontario Russet apples. Ask for the batch put aside two years ago to age in ex-Four Roses Bourbon barrels and finished in toasted new American oak. However, the real story of these ex-Bourbon barrels is that some are filled with wheat and rye spirit. Oh, Rocco and John-Paul make 'vodka' too, including a flavourful sipper that is distilled from fermented milk whey. Still Waters A technicality puts Still Waters Distillery just outside the official borders of Toronto but if you have time to see just one distillery while you are in the city, head out on the highway. Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein launched Ontario's microdistilling industry in 2009 when they began distilling their Stalk & Barrel single malt whisky. It shows the benefits of time and experience, causing a quiet riot by winning gold medals in head to head competition with the major distillers. As demand for their whiskies grows, Still Waters is expanding the distillery. When you visit, try their single malt, and then treat yourself to the first Canadian microdistilled whisky to bring new flavours to the canon. Stalk & Barrel 100 per cent rye is breaking new paths for Canadian whisky. You can find the 46% ABV version at LCBO, but make your way to the distillery shop for the full natural cask strength version.

Last Straw Distillery Over the hills and far away, a massive six-kilometre-long Canadian National Railway yard separates Still Waters from its neighbour, the Last Straw Distillery. But Last Straw proves there is no skid row side of the tracks. Don DiMonte began distilling in 2013, tucking his distillery away in an industrial park where it took an allstar team three years to cut through enough government red tape to fill a railcar so they could sell spirits from their modest bottle shop.

While waiting for their single-grain whiskies (malt, rye and corn) to mature, they are selling gin, a blackstrap rum that people in the know rave about, and a pair of traditional Ontario corn, aged moonshines, so delicious that you'll check your map to make sure you're not in the Kentucky backwoods. Distiller Brandon DiMonte applies the lessons he learned ageing his moonshine and rum to maturing his single grain whiskies. If you're not patient, or are looking to take part in a NASA cryogenic sleep program, set your alarm clock for 2019. This is when Last Straw's first rye whisky is slated for release. It is ageing now in charred new oak, and has the hallmarks of a spicy brute. If you can't wait, pick up a bottle of Darker Side of the Moonshine, knowing the dancing days of whisky are coming as you head back into paradise city, heavy metal blasting on your rental car radio.

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