Spirit of York Distillery is steeped in the history of Toronto, but it’s forging a bold path setting its own course for excellence in craft distilling. I am predicting meteoric success for this brand. The setting is stunning, the booze is amazing, and the people who work there are passionate about their product. This is craft in its most elevated form: a superior product created with the care and passion that define mastery of a craft.
Beth-Anne and I spent a wonderful evening chatting with the team in their opening week. Co-founder Gerry Guitor and Simon Ho, previously head mixologist at The Drake, took us through the premises in the Gooderham and Worts building from which Toronto’s Distillery District takes its name. As we sat within full view of the spectacular copper stills, they shared the story of how they got there and their plans for what’s next. The glass walls to the distillery workings, the access to the specific botanicals that go into the gin, and the openness and enthusiasm that the team had to share their story all speak to the transparency they aim for in their business.
Currently available from Spirit of York are their vodka and gin, but aquavit and fruit brandies made from locally-grown peach, apricot and raspberries are in the works. Simon was fizzing with new ideas, and it’s clear that there is much more to come.
Gerry captured beautifully what the team hoped to impart with their name. Spirit of York harkens back to the settlers’ first name for Toronto, and both “spirit” and the setting in the Gooderham and Worts building, once the largest distillery in the world, invoke the ghosts of distilleries past. Spirit also more literally means the booze in the bottle, and the aim here is to put Toronto’s contemporary craft distilling on the world map. These are world-class spirits, for all that they they’re small batch. But it’s the third meaning of spirit that has the most resonance: spirit as community enthusiasm. People engage and create community over drinks, and Spirit of York not only wants to encourage that kind of gathering, it wants to encourage community engagement. To that end, it will be donating 10% of its profits to charities and community organizations in the Golden Horseshoe.
The first thing to strike you when you enter the building is the giant hexagonal bar. It is imposing and grand in scale, but softened by the greenery that grows on its two tiers. Those tiers are reflected in the elevated catwalk that rings the perimeter of the main space.
The setting is high-impact and impressive, but the more time you spend inside, the more you are drawn to the details. The bottles are works of art in their own right and are something you’d want to display on a bar cart. Simon told us that they went through 750 design ideas before settling on the final version. Mixologist that he is, he demonstrated one of the most important design features: a neck long enough for a bartender to hold to pour from the bottle when it’s upside down. And here I’ve been holding my bottles awkwardly around the widest part all these years.
Spirit of York makes its vodka and gin from rye grown in southern Ontario, the yeast is cultivated at Guelph University, and the spring water comes from Elmvale, Ontario. This is very much a story of Ontario. The catwalk around the distillery is a fully interactive instructional tour of the process of making the spirits, and you can grind the rye, you can taste the water, you can smell the botanicals that go into the gin.
There is also a wonderful apothecary-inspired bitters bar, where Simon will help you to create custom bitters. Be still my beating heart.
The latin names for the ingredients in all of the bottles were hand-written on labels by Simon’s aunt and father, who slyly also included air as one of the ingredients:
The setting is simply stunning, and even if you can wait until the product is available at the LCBO (coming soon!), you should visit the distillery in person. Learning about all of the flavour profiles of gin from the copper gin wheel, and being able to smell individually all of the botanicals that go into their own gin only heightens the experience of tasting it, which you can and absolutely must do back at the bar. Simon’s favourite way to enjoy the gin? Neat with citrus zest or in a Negroni. Simple. Classic.
Of course, none of this imposing setting and attention to detail matters a bit if the drinks don’t hold up. But they do! They do!! I am a huge gin fan, and I can honestly say that this is the best gin I’ve ever had. It’s smooth and complex and layered and just such a joy to drink. Beth-Anne, equally, is a vodka fan. We sat and sipped and raved.
Suffice to say we each bought a bottle (or two!) to take home.
Make your own way there, and when you do, wish Marijke behind the bar a happy birthday (they celebrate it monthly!).
Spirit of York is at 12 Trinity St., right at the entrance to Toronto’s Distillery District.