My knowledge of liquor, up until recently, covered wine, beer, cognac, and a few randoms liqueurs. After a trip to Canadian Club’s Brand Centre in Walkerville though, I’ve learned a whole new appreciation for whisky, thanks to lessons on how it’s made, tricks in the art of making whisky cocktails, and history lessons that sound wonderfully dramatic.
The Canadian Club Brand Centre, also known as the Heritage Center, sits along the Detroit river in the little-known area of Walkerville, an old town inside the city borders of Windsor where Canadian Club founder Hiram Walker set up his long-standing liquor business. The building is where Canadian Club was born, and it represents the old world of whisky-making in Canada while boasting one of the most interesting histories I’ve ever heard from any company, with roots that touch deeply into the American prohibition era and notorious characters like Al Capone.
Really, you might ask–the Al Capone? Canadian Club has been world famous for decades, the whisky has graced the glasses of royalty and celebrities around the world, and, yes, it has played a major part in the days when alcohol was illegal in the United States.
From original owner Hiram Walker’s office, which has been kept intact since he worked there, to the Speakeasy which was discovered in the basement, the building has a long history, and lots of stories to tell.
Bringing the Brand Centre’s story to life is none other than Canadian Club Global Brand Ambassador, Tish Harcus, who seriously knows her stuff about whisky, and the entire company’s history dating back to the very start of the distillery. Chatting with Harcus about Canadian Club was an eye-opening experience, and she gave me a real appreciation for how the company made a name for themselves, and their rather delicious whiskys (particular favourites of mine, after a few tasting sessions in Walkerville and Windsor would be the Sherry Cask, and Reserve).
At the heart of Canadian Club’s VIP tour, and their outreach for the brand itself, the beautiful Brand Centre once acted as the head office for the company’s operations until just a few years ago. Walker built the centre in 1894, replicating an Italian estate, and used it for business, and to meet with the royalty and dignitaries who wanted to buy his whisky.
The other “dignitaries” who visited the building, however, are of the more notorious variety from the United States, like Al Capone, who started visiting in the Prohibition era when liquor was discreetly “imported” across the river and sold at exorbitant prices, thanks in part to the company’s owner at that time. The speakeasy in the basement is especially steeped in history since it was used for many of these meetings with American gangsters, but it was also almost forgotten about until a few years ago when research turned up some of the history of the room.
As the story goes, some terms we throw around today might even originate from Canadian Club’s long history. Terms like cocktails, bootleggers, and the “Real McCoy” may owe their use today because of Canadian Club and the Prohibition era which sparked creative ways of importing liquor into the States. Where do they all come from? You may have to take a visit to the Brand Centre to find out, but I’ll tell you this, Harcus knows the stories, and they sound even better when enjoyed over a whisky.
Over the years the building has changed, and it has expanded. Aside from the rooms honouring the company’s long history there is now also an impressive art gallery with works by great Canadian artists, hospitality rooms for sampling, and of course, a gift shop. The building also hosts special events, like weddings, but for whatever reason you might come, it’s a fantastic place to discover a history that has to be heard to be believed.
When I toured the property, I was lucky enough to get a two-day VIP tour that provided a glimpse behind-the-scenes, including within the company’s barrel facility where the whisky is aged. It was an experience that left me realizing that Canada has more history than we sometimes even realize, and that includes moments that are grittier than we might consider too. Canadian Club is glad to talk about that history, from the bright days to some of the darker ones, and whether you’re going for a quick tour, or the full experience, it’s worth a visit, especially if you wrap it up with a sampling.
Hours and Tour Details
January to March:
Friday & Saturday – 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM. Tours at noon, 2:00 and 4:00.
Sunday – 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Tours at noon and 2:00.
Gift shop open Friday and Saturday from 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM, Sundays from 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM.
April to December:
Wednesday to Saturday – 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Tours at 11:00, 1:00, 3:00 and 5:00.
Sunday – 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Tours at noon and 2pm
Gift shop open Wednesday to Saturday from 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM, and on Sunday from 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM.
Photos courtesy Drew Duck, Gladstone Media.