Road Trips & Travel

Exploring Walkerville: Windsor's Original Distillery District

Historic Walkerville in Windsor
Jane Antoniak
Written by Jane Antoniak

Historic Walkerville in Windsor

Have you heard that you can now get Canadian Club and coke together in a can? Honestly, my grandfather would roll over in his you know what. Like many Canadian families, we’ve been drinking rye and water since, well, forever. Okay, there was the rye and ginger phase. But Canadian Club and coke premixed in can? Wonder what Hiram Walker would think? He’d probably like it if it a meant a profit!

It was just one of the things I picked up while strolling through an area of Windsor called Walkerville, on the Detroit River. It’s the original Canadian company town — built and owned by Hiram Walker in the late 1800s. Walkerville is a step back into the time when Al Capone hung out in the basement of the corporate headquarters and bootleggers ran whisky — Canadian Club whisky — over the frozen river into Prohibition-era USA. Hiram made oodles of dough and our whisky (even though the company was founded and owned by an American who never lived on our side of the river) has become the number-one selling rye worldwide.

FACT: Canadian Club Premium six-year-old whisky has sales of ten million cases a year, making up 91 percent of the worldwide market share, according to Karen Smallwood, our knowledgeable tour guide at The Canadian Club Brand Heritage Centre. “This is what keeps the lights on,” she chuckles as she pours us some bronze liquid samplers. We sip and gaze out onto the pristine grounds and the Detroit River while surrounded by wood and marble in the very rooms where Capone and Walker did business. It’s something out of Mad Men crossed with Boardwalk Empire. The Americans are the biggest buyers of CC, followed by us, and then the Japanese. Smallwood says she gets many Japanese tourists who come all the way to Windsor just to soak in the Canadian Club experience.

FACT: “Every drop is made here, bottled here and shipped worldwide, except for the US-bound rye, which has to be bottled in the US so we ship it to Illinois for bottling,” explains Smallwood.

FACT: The historic Heritage Centre (which is now a popular site for weddings and special events) was built for $100,000 in 1894 when a bottle of whisky was 6 cents. Basically, Hiram was loaded. And he made it all on booze, the American dream story, rising from humble grocer to whisky maker, marrying well, and buying American dollars low then selling them high. He built “The Whisky Palace” in Italian Renaissance Style, importing marble from all over the world.

FACT: You can buy an original tenement row house in Walkerville for $134,000. And it’s nice. Hiram built and owned the entire town, and “the benevolent dictator” was a stickler for quality. “It was like winning the lottery to get a job here,” says Smallwood. While you owed your soul to the company store, you did have a decent brick house with running water, paved roads, wood delivered, and your sidewalk shovelled. Your kids went to the Hiram-built school, and the town had police, fire and even a Hiram-built bank. His trademark red brick is impressive today as you stroll Chilver and Wynadotte streets, eyeing the homes of past Walker executives and workers alike.

The small yet vibrant shopping area in Walkerville features historic buildings that are now restaurants, vintage clothing shops and pubs. Since we were in Windsor, we had to have wood-fired pizza, which was delivered, along with gigantic meatballs and arancini di Riso, seafood soup and calamari, from Vito’s (www.vitospizzeria.net). “You can’t lose on a pizza here in Windsor,” says Pina Ciotoli, a bubbly ambassador of the region with her brother Adriano. Together they own and operate Windsoreats.com and offer walking tours of Walkerville. When we complained of being stuffed by giant meatballs at lunch, Pina obliged by showing us the haunts of Walkerville on foot, including the Victoria Tavern. Pina and Adriano grew up in Walkerville, and their love for the area is evident. Adriano had his wedding at Willistead Manor, a 36-room mansion and former home of Hiram’s son (the only Walker to actually live in Canada). “There’s such a sense of depth to this area, I just love it,” says Pina proudly.

Meanwhile, Chris Ryan of Walkerville Brewery (www.walkervillebrewery.com) has made something old new again. Ryan, a former beer rep, has revitalized an old Walker business with the relaunch this past fall of the brewery. They are making and selling on-site a lager and a pilsner, plus some seasonal beers. He hopes to bring on an IPA, unfiltered beer and a summer brew in 2013. Housed in a 1928 former Walker warehouse, the brewery has a tasting room and it’s fun to bring home a growler. (Growlers are half-gallon glass bottles that resemble moonshine jugs.)

If you’re still thirsty after a day of rye and beer, you can head over to Walkermole for some tequila and Mexican cuisine. Operated by the enthusiastic Brandon Bedard, it is here that you can order from a list of more than 50 tequilas, including a taste of Clase Azul Extra Anejo for $195 a shot. But this is for sipping, not shooting. A flight of tequila is a great way to sample and enjoy the smooth flavours alongside some queso fundido and flavourful soups, steak and fish tacos.

After a boozy day in Walkerville, rather than drive home, it’s ideal to stroll over to Ye Old Walkerville B&B, where Joyce and Larry Duffield provide bedrooms with private baths, lots of stories about their days working for Canadian foreign services, and an impressive breakfast including Essex county apple cider and a smoked salmon/bagel strata.

Walkerville is an easy two-hour drive from London and a fun getaway. On the way home, you may want to venture off the 401 and onto the EPIC wine trail (Essex Pelee Island Coast, www.epicwineries.com), where new and visually attractive wineries such as Coopers Hawk and Oxley Estate are enthusiastically greeting visitors with new tasting rooms and dining options. But that will be another story!

 

Jane Antoniak is a food travel writer for eatdrink who enjoys pairing food, drinks and history. She operates Saucy: Meats & So Much More, as well as a communications company in London.

Bruce Fyfe is a regular contributing photographer to eatdrink who likes to take a break from his day job as assistant librarian at Weldon, Western University, to embark upon culinary adventures.

About the author

Jane Antoniak

Jane Antoniak

Jane Antoniak is a longtime contributor to Eatdrink, sharing her passion for food, drink, travel and the arts through her writing, while always connecting with the people she meets along the way. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations, at King’s University College in London.