It’s one of the world’s oldest beverages: the Sumerians drank it, Charlemagne loved it, and it even played a role in a serious putsch. We are of course talking about beer, the fermented brew that’s intertwined with Toronto’s rise and development. To further explore our city’s alcohol-fuelled history, we signed up for Beer Makes History Better, a new walking tour by Tour Guys’ Jason Kucherawy and Intrepid Travel’s Toronto Urban Adventures. Toronto has a lot of walking tours, so carving out a niche in the city’s packed lineup can be a bit of a challenge. But then again, with beer on the menu, it already has a leg up on the competition. Imagine Jane’s Walk, but boozier.
Jason Kucherawy at the Mill Street Brewery.
For the most part, Beer Makes History Better stays in and around the St. Lawrence area to give guests a taste of what’s left of Toronto’s nineteenth-century architecture, before ending in the Distillery District. Kucherawy pays a lot of attention to Gooderham and Worts, the mill that was founded by William Gooderham and James Worts in 1831. The company later became a distillery in 1859, and finally rose to become Canada’s largest producer of spirits and Toronto’s largest employer in the late nineteenth century under Gooderham’s son, George. Kucherawy also discusses the Gooderham Building, the classic triangular brick structure that George had built at Front Street East and Wellington Street East. “George’s office was under the cupola at the top of the building under the fifth floor,” explains Kucherawy. “He was like the original big brother. He could just sit in his office and watch his empire work—as whisky was made the money just flowed in.”
While the focus is on alcohol, interesting tidbits about Toronto’s social, religious, and economic histories are weaved in through locales like St. James Cathedral and St. Lawrence Market, where Kucherawy gives a lesson on the awesomeness of the peameal bacon sandwich. Beer breaks are also made at C’est What, the underground pub on Front Street East; Betty’s, the pub on King Street East that used to be known as the Betty Ford Clinic until it was legally asked to change its name; and finally, the Mill Street Brewery, which offers free samples of four of its beers.
St. James Cathedral, the site of John Ridout’s tombstone.
Kucherawy, who has worked as a tour guide and a comedian for thirteen years, knows how to spin a good yarn. “I like to think of myself as a storyteller,” he says. “Even when I do stand-up, I’m not a joke guy. I tell stories: things that have happened to me. I like to emphasize the story part of history, as cheesy as that sounds.”
One of the highlights of the trip is Kucherawy’s dramatic retelling of John Ridout and Samuel Jarvis’s famous 1817 duel. According to the narrative, the two met in a meadow just northwest of Yonge and College Streets, and then faced off at eight paces, but Ridout, for reasons that are unknown, shot early and missed. Unsure of what to do, the men’s seconds, who were there to enforce the rules of the duel, conferred and decided that Ridout had wasted his shot. So, the count began again, but this time, only Jarvis was armed. On “fire,” Jarvis lifted his pistol, and shot the unarmed Ridout.
Now this is where the story takes a turn. According to the autopsy, Ridout died instantly. But, Jarvis and the seconds later claimed that after he was struck, he spun around, collapsed into Jarvis’s arms, and then forgave all the parties involved for any misdeeds before falling to the ground. This gentlemanly version of the story is almost certainly false, which Kucherawy pokes fun at in his over-dramatized one-man show.
While Kucherawy’s stories are entertaining, and an afternoon of nothing but history would probably be a bit much, he can rely a little too much on his personal anecdotes to carry parts of the tour. He also admits that the tour has a few pacing issues to work out: Beer Makes History Better is supposed to last about three hours, but when we took the tour, it lasted four and a half. (Though in all fairness, we were mostly slowed down by the rain.)
At its best, Beer Makes History Better is like an evening out drinking with your buddies, with the added bonus that you might actually learn something. The pub stops also give the tour an unpredictable edge. Sure, if you linger too long at a bar or two, the tour’s going to run long, but if you’re not on a schedule, that’s part of the fun. There’s also something about alcohol that just makes history sexier. “A ‘milk makes history better’ tour just wouldn’t have the same ring to it,” laughs Kucherawy.
To sign up, visit Toronto Urban Adventures’ website. The tour costs $37 and runs Tuesday to Saturday every week at 3 p.m.
Photos by Eugen Sakhnenko/Torontoist.