Issue 05, Volume 85
June 27, 2012
Situated on the bank of the Detroit River at the base of Walker Road sits the Canadian Club Heritage Centre; the very same building Hiram Walker (not coincidently the man who built the road) commissioned to be built as an office and community bank.
The building was built in 1892 at cost of $100,000. Modeled after a palace in Florence, Italy, that the Walkers saw on a family trip, the building takes on a 16th century Italian renaissance theme, with virtually all materials and workers imported from Florence. Today, the building itself— not including the interior assets— is valued at $35 million.
The Lance was invited to tour the facility and learn about Walker, his family, distillery, and the neighbourhood he built. There were intriguing stories from the rowdy days of prohibition, modern stories of glitz and glamour— due in large part to the successful product placement of Canadian Club in TV shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire— and of course, a whisky tasting.
Hiram Walker, born in 1816 near Boston, was a relatively successful entrepreneur, who moved to Detroit to capitalize on the hustle-and-bustle of the busy urban centre. Walker decided staff his business Canadian because of its cheap products and labour. He purchased 468 acres of land on the Canadian side of the border to open a steam-powered flour mill and a distillery, as he faced very little competition. Politically savvy, Walker realized that with prohibition being lobbied for in the United States, being able to produce alcohol legally in a foreign country could
prove to be an advantage.
Regarding the prohibition era and a pair of cement boots that graced the floor of the building’s basement, Tish Harcus, manager of the Canadian Club Brand Centre, solemnly stated that the Walkers were a “very respectful family.”
“If you crossed them in business, they took care of you that way [acknowledging the cement boots], and swimming with the fishes, or you went into the oven, the incinerator.”
A specific type of Walker’s whisky, Club Whisky, became very popular among social
clubs, golf clubs and other elite social groups across the continent; it even became popular in Bourbon producing regions in the southern United States. This upset Bourbon producers, who lobbied the federal government to legislate that all imported whisky must affix the country of origin on its label. Thus, Canadian
Club was born. The brand gained prestige and recognition due to fact that it was a recognizable as a foreign brand.
Harcus explained that while in 1894 the building sewed as world headquarters for
Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd., today it acts as a quasi-museum, offering tours for those interested in learning about the history of the business. In 2001, the building changed from executive offices to the brand centre.
“Our president at the time wanted to share this building with the world, so that people could come in and enjoy it; not just have executives sitting in here.”
This summer marks the 10th year the centre has been opened to the public.
The guided tour, which costs $6, lasts for roughly an hour and includes visits to the
restored executive offices, Hiram Walker’s private wine cellar (which was turned into
a speakeasy for Al Capone and his contemporaries to conduct business transactions), a whisky tasting and a world class art gallery featuring works by the Group of Seven.
“We’re getting everybody of all ages wanting to come here, and not just the touristy people,” said Harcus. “School kids want to come in here … we talk to them about manufacturing and production, the rich history, prohibition.”
Harcus acknowledges that she works in a historically significant and beautiful building.
“I like it in the morning when I’m in here, and at the end of the day, when it’s just me.”
“You really get to enjoy it. To know who walked these halls, and if these walls could
talk: kings and queens, Hollywood.”
Harcus said Canadian Club strives to build local connections. The relationship between the wineries in the region and Canadian Club is ‘wonderful’.’
“When I have functions in here, I will only support the local wineries,” she said.
Harcus said she plans to introduce joint tours between Walkerville Brewery and Canadian Club.
Canadian Club is a brand that has developed and become cherished over time due to its attention to detail, demand for a superior class product and international recognition. Throughout the world, Canadian Club is a brand that speaks class and sophistication.
Jon Liedtke was the Features and Opinions Editor, Advertising Manager and Deficit Consultant at the UWindsor Lance.