Windsor's Canadian Club ending tours next month

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

The historic Canadian Club Brand Centre in Windsor is ending tours next month, possibly cutting off public access to the 1894 Albert Kahn building that once hosted Al Capone and Detroit's Purple Gang.

Beam Suntory, an Illinois-based spirits manufacturer, owns Canadian Club whisky and rents the brand's former headquarters along the Detroit River at 2072 Riverside. The building itself is owned by Pernod Ricard, another beverage company.

The front of the Canadian Club Brand Centre in Walkerville is seen on Feb. 9, 2017.

A Beam Suntory representative confirmed on Thursday that tours of the building will end March 31 after nearly15 years.

"We assure you that our commitment to the Windsor community is just as strong as ever – we are just refocusing our investments to better cultivate the brand both locally and around the world," spokeswoman Paula Oreskovich said in an email. "We remain focused on bringing the broadened portfolio of spirits to whisky lovers here in Canada and beyond."

The center will remain open through Dec. 31 for scheduled events including weddings, Oreskovich said. Canadian Club whisky will continue to be produced at the nearby Windsor distillery.

Pernod Richard did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. A representative told the Windsor Star the company was aware of Beam Suntory's plan to stop tours and would review the situation.

Meanwhile, community members are pushing back against the closure. Around 15,000 people visit the center per year, not including those who attend weddings and other events hosted at the site, according to Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens.

"We were notified last week of the company’s intention to close the facility down," Dilkens said on Thursday. "It's one of the most beautiful buildings in the entire city of Windsor, and one of the oldest. For us, it’s such a vital piece of our history that the community has really rallied in an effort to work with the company to keep it open."

Built by Canadian Club founder Hiram Walker, the center once served as base for his whisky empire. Walker founded the company in 1858 as Club Whisky, but renamed the brand Canadian Club after a United States law required Canadian distillers to include their country of origin on their labels, according to the company's website.

Prohibition in 1920 provided a boost to the business, which became a regular stop for Al Capone and other bootleggers. Canadian Club was the most frequently smuggled whisky in the United States, according to the company website.

Before Prohibition, Walker used his distillery to build a community, according to Dilkens. The growing business sparked nearby housing developments, railroad construction and a ferry route to and from Detroit. The area, once private farmland, became known as Walkerville, which eventually was absorbed into the city of Windsor.

Dilkens on Thursday compared Canadian Club to Detroit's auto industry.

"(Walker) built that entire operation and he built this entire town. The whole town was basically built on Canadian Club," Dilkens said. "He’s a founder of the community."

At the heart of that history is the Canadian Club Brand Centre, where Walker created his empire.

"It's such an important part of our historical record," Dilkens said.

The mayor learned last week that Beam Suntory planned to close the facility, he said. He quickly joined an online effort to keep it running and on Monday flew to Chicago to meet with Beam Suntory executives.

"We had a healthy discussion about the business aspects and some of the challenges" of keeping the center open, Dilkens said. "We both agreed to share information. We’re just working through the answers to those questions and we’re going to continue to talk.

"My goal is to continue to work with them and find a solution that keeps the Canadian Club Brand Centre in operation."

Dilkens did not provide specifics about the talk, but said he considered Beam Suntory's participation vital to keeping Canadian Club's legacy alive. The company owns historic artifacts inside the building that are linked to Canadian Club's history, including stained glass windows and other treasures.

Beam Suntory plans to relocate the artifacts.

"While we do not own the Heritage Centre building, we own the brand assets inside,  which include a vast collection of art pieces and artifacts," Oreskovich said. "We plan to continue utilizing those items to help promote the brand’s rich history and heritage, and to support the Windsor community."

Dilkens said he has been told the items will stay local.

"It would be a travesty to see this history leave the community and they committed to working with us," he said. "They’re not interested in moving things out of the city."

Removing those items from the building would separate them from their historic home, Dilkens said. Similarly, attempting to repurpose the building for another use "wouldn't be authentic," he added.

"It’s where (Hiram Walker) worked, where he touched the knobs on the doors, where he walked the halls, where he made it all happen," Dilkens said. "It was Canadian Club that Al Capone was buying in the speakeasy in that basement."

Dilkens is dedicated to keeping the building connected to its history.

"That center is the foundation of a big part of our community," Dilkens said. "And it’s also the heart of a big part of our community."

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Twitter: @HollyPFournier