The Queen City of Canada

The Queen City of Canada

We take a tour round some of Toronto's excellent whisky drinking establishments

Places | 07 Jun 2013 | Issue 112 | By Blair Phillips

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Canada's largest city has a rich whisky history. James Worts and William Gooderham developed the Distillery District nearly two centuries ago into what became the world's largest distillery. Tragically, before bottling a single drop, Worts drowned his sorrows by throwing himself into the company well.

Gooderham later partnered with Worts' eldest son to distill millions of litres of whisky. The distillery closed in 1990 but whisky continues to flow in bars and restaurants. The Caledonian and Allen's are regarded for their Scotch lists. Mixologists have fuelled a Bourbon craze at several cocktail bars such as Barchef.

The C'est What Brewpub in the nearby St Lawrence Market neighbourhood brews a smoked ale that puts tears of joy in any Islay whisky lover's eyes. Toronto's most famous landmark further cements the city as a drinking town. The 553-metre tall CN Tower resembles a giant drinking straw next to the Rogers Centre - a stadium that could serve as a colossal tumbler with a retractable roof perfect for nosing whisky. Toronto brims with variety and these eight locations are just a start.

1. Spirit House

487 Adelaide Street West


A shift in the city's cocktail scene echos what Escoffier did to French gastronomy in the late 19th Century. Excess has been trimmed back leaving the spirit to shine. Garnishes that enhance the cocktail have replaced elaborate ones that were unnecessarily complex. SpiritHouse has strongly influenced the local bar scene since its 2012 opening. Bar manager Brad Gubbins, who cut his teeth mixing drinks in London, leads a room of bartending experts at the top of their game. SpiritHouse celebrates its name with 400 spirits including 140 whiskies. Drink ingredients fluctuate with the seasons especially in their barrel-aged cocktails. Food and drink interact as in duck poutine - french fries, duck confit and cheese curds topped with béchamel and gravy kissed with whisky. All without being kitschy.

2. Momofuku Daisho

190 University Avenue


When Canadian whisky explodes across the world, the sound it makes will be Momofuku Daisho. Chef David Chang cooked up a new dining attitude when he opened New York's Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004. In 2012, he invaded Canada armed with his culinary aesthetic. However, don't look for a cheese cart to roll up after a meal. The Canadian whisky cart has replaced this cliché. It began pre-opening when executive chef Sam Gelman and beverage director Jonathan Gonsenhauser looked to playfully separate them from the rest. Canadian whisky is naturally at home on their cocktail list as in the Bar-U, a play on a Sazerac using Alberta Premium Dark Horse rye, absinthe and bitters. The restaurant's vision is to have the largest Canadian whisky selection in Canada and so far, it's glorious.

3. The Céilí Cottage

1301 Queen Street East


A cottage built in 1884 was the perfect location for the oyster shucking Guinness World Records holder, Patrick McMurray, to open an Irish local. The look of the cottage room remains intact with charming church pews serving as benches. The bar room is decorated with Irish themed pictures and a tribute wall to oyster shucking. Céilí is Irish for a social get-together of music and dance, and nothing will get your mouth dancing like their selection of draft beer and whisky. 25 Irish and 50 international whiskies are available. The kitchen uses local ingredients for their Irish and Canadian cookery with freshly shucked oysters available at the bar. Just don't expect them to attempt any world records when the whisky starts flowing.

4. The Combine Eatery

162 Danforth Ave


Forget about Dionysus because in Toronto's Greek town this eatery has set out to make Bourbon the God of libations. Albert and Amy Chan celebrate Bourbon with a list close to 50 selections. Bourbon also plays a role in Chef Mario Escobar's comforting southwestern inspired cuisine where it spices up marinades and infuses flavour into their mouth-watering barbecue sauce. Instead of a house wine, they serve house Bourbon. Four Roses finds its way into all Bourbon cocktails including the doublesmoked bacon-rimmed Bourbon margarita and the Kentucky Maple made with Bourbon, maple syrup, pear and lime juice shaken over ice. If that isn't enough comfort, eight frosty local beers are served on tap ideal for their beautiful patio.

5. The Emmet Ray

924 College Street


Emmet Ray was a jazz legend played by Sean Penn in the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown. Penn was so convincing as a heavy drinking guitar genius that rumours circulated his character existed. Proprietor Andrew Kaiser related to the movie. Every time he drank whisky, he thought he was a genius. However, it took brains to open a bar that mixes an eclectic blend of live music with a whisky list just shy of 200 selections. He also has a medley of local and imported full flavoured beers. The bar's goal is to get people into whisky through a casual approach while maintaining a brilliant international list. Many countries are represented: Canada, United States, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, France, Sweden and Taiwan. It's like the opening ceremony to the whisky Olympics.

6. The Feathers Pub

962 Kingston Road


A whisky landmark in the Beaches area, this traditional English pub was named by original owner Ian Innes after a pub in his home land of Scotland. When Reid Pickering purchased the pub in 2009, he kept the name, introduced more local beer and continued the tradition of maintaining one of the best Scottish single malt lists in North America. The list of more than 400 single malts covers more than 100 producers including a substantial number of independent bottles and silent stills. Sit down on the traditional red upholstered seating and immerse yourself in one of the whisky tours accompanied by tasting notes and distillery history. Traditional British pub fare is also available if you work up an appetite at the dartboard or after one of their whisky events.

7. The Roof Lounge

4 Avenue Rd


Saddling up to the bar, taking a belt of whisky from the bottle then smashing it across the bad guy's face. That's how John Wayne would have done it in the movies but in real life, he was all class when he visited The Roof Lounge. The Duke impressed bartender Joe Gomes from the first time he poured him a drink in the early 1960s. Now, after 54 years behind the bar, retirement is not on the horizon. The Roof Lounge sits atop the luxurious Park Hyatt hotel. It hasn't changed from the 1940s with rich wood trim and comfy armchairs by the fireplace. Enjoy the spectacular panoramic view of the city while sipping a Scotch on the patio. This place is steeped in history and bartenders like Joe Gomes keep it refined and relaxed.

8. Via Allegro

1750 The Queensway West


If whisky is the water of life then Via Allegro is the fountain of youth. Felice Sabatino has built a stunning multiple-awardwinning list of more than 1000 Scotch whiskies. His methodical whisky experience includes proper stemware and imported Scottish water. This Italian restaurant also offers a wine list of more than 5,700 bottles. It doesn't stop there. Sabatino's holistic passion for doing it properly or not at all has grown a grappa list of 200 and an additional list of international whiskies and spirits. It may seem overwhelming but whisky expert Joseph Cassidy and a team of professionals are on hand to guide you on your journey matching any of their culinary delights. These massive lists are heavy so you may want to do pushups beforehand. That is a small price to pay for whisky paradise.
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