Toronto tasting

Toronto tasting

There's plenty of places to hang out in Canada's biggest city, but its whisky bars offer something a bit special. Kathleen Sloan and Ted Mcintosh make merry among the malts.

Bars | 16 Jun 2000 | Issue 10 | By Kathleen Sloan

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Contrary to what the rest of the world may think, Canadians do not, exclusively, think rye when they drink whisky. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, the home of many fine bars and a multi-national population, the Anglo-Celtic roots still run deep. Before the 1960s, when huge numbers of people from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa made their home there, immigrants to this city came mostly from Great Britain and Europe.The legacy remains in the shapes of pubs and European-style taverns. These days, whether in one of these establishments or in an all-Canadian bar, imbibers are just as likely to choose a pedigree whisk(e)y from Scotland or Ireland, or a smoky Southern bourbon as they are a rye born on the Canadian prairies. The name Toronto derives from a Huron Indian word for meeting place, and, certainly, we’ve no shortage of places to meet and enjoy a quality dram or a pint. At the last reckoning there were at least 16,000 licensed establishments in the province of Ontario. We are home to no end of those English-styled pubs, with monikers that may include a nod to a duke, an earl, a black bull, a white swan, or parts of the female anatomy such as the barmaid’s arms or the Queen’s head. As pleasant as they can be tough, most are very much of a muchness. They are generally decorated in brass and red velvet, filled with shiny pumps and frothy pints and bonhomie that flows as steadily as the brews and bevvies. But within the vast group of public houses and contemporary bars in Toronto, there are two that stand out as far as whisky lovers go. Boasting close to 230 single malts, The Feathers Brewpub is owned by Edinburgh-born Ian Innes, a man of few words but many malts. His is a real, honest-to-goodness pub with a true-to-spirit atmosphere complete with no-nonsense service, a happy absence of video machines and seriously good whisky and beer selection. When asked why he came to Canada in the first place back in 1967, Innes delivers a one-word answer in his initially deadpan style, “Poverty.” Choosing a relatively conservative area of east end Toronto, rather off the beaten track compared to the buzz of downtown, Innes opened Feathers in 1981. He decided to feature a serious single malt selection early on when his own interest in the subject was stimulated. Apart from an incredible selection, the prices are definitely good at Feathers. There are four whisky lists: regular (under $5, £2), deluxe (under $6, £2.50), imperial (under $8, £3.40) and supreme (under $12, £5.10 ). Within the almost 80 single malts available in the regular category are a 12-year-old Bunnahabhain, a 17-year-old Dallas Dhu and a 14-year-old Inchgower.

“I don’t buy any funny stuff at $300 (£128) a bottle because I can’t sell it at these prices,” says Ian pragmatically. “We’ve got about 212 whiskies right now. By the time you leave, it might be 230. I’m just waiting to hear about some real crackers
coming in.”When it comes to the ordering and purchasing of fine single malts, or any quality alcohol beverage in Ontario, waiting is something publicans like Innes know only too well. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is the government-run organisation that decides, for the most part, what is available to consumers and licencees alike. As the largest single purchaser of beverage alcohol in the world they are in the very lucrative business of acquiring fine wine, spirits and beer from more than 60 countries for the province of Ontario. But, like any governmental agency, things do not happen with any haste. “They’re just so slow, that’s my biggest problem with the LCBO,” says Ian. “That and the fact that UDV (United Distillers & Vintners), the biggest producers of single malts, only seem to concentrate on core brands [in terms of marketing] and don’t really pay much attention to lesser-known products.”“I’ve had lots of difficulties with UDV. If it wasn’t for independents, like Signatory, I wouldn’t have any unusual whiskies,” he says, referring to Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky, an independent whisky merchant, founded in 1988, that specializes in single malts, many cask strength, from current, dormant or closed distilleries. One of the most attractive things offered by the Feathers is the monthly single malt tasting evenings. Crowds of 50 or more sign up for these events which cost about $35 and will include tastings of 10 whiskies that will share a common denominator such as cask strength, a new import or malts from defunct distilleries. “I call them Whisky Challenges, not so much tastings,” points out Ian. “Everyone receives a sheet with the names and descriptions of the whiskies and their designate of Lowland, Highland and Island categories. Participants earn three points for correctly identifying each whisky and one point if the region is correct. Scotch nosings can be so boring, but this way everybody learns something, tastes some great malts and has a bit of fun.”For something completely different and unique, head for Allen’s, Toronto’s New York-style Irish bar owned and operated by the equally unique John Maxwell. A native New Yorker, Maxwell came to Toronto in 1979, from London, England where he lived for more than 10 years. He taught English, before working as the manager of the Joe Allen bar in London. “I had my first serious whiskey experience with Bellows Partners Choice, a blended American whiskey,” Maxwell recalls. “When I came to Toronto I opened the Joe Allen bar and decided to offer an extensive selection. We started with 40 whiskies.” In 1987, Maxwell opened Allen’s on the Danforth, an east end neighbourhood, and has enjoyed a loyal following ever since. Perhaps because of his American roots, or more likely because of his wide-ranging interest in the subject, Maxwell stocks the city’s most comprehensive selection of bourbons which, along with the finest Scottish single malts, Irish whiskies and Canadian ryes, makes Allen’s, without question, Toronto’s best all-round whisky bar. His Canadian ryes include the phenomenal Tangle Ridge Double Casked 10 Year Old, reputed to be Canada’s only 100 per cent rye whisky, Hudson’s Bay Royal Charter 12 Year Old, and bourbons like Ancient Age Barrel 107 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky and Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon (107 proof), Booker’s and Eagle Rare 10 Year Old. Maxwell dubs Ireland’s Jameson his everyday drinking Irish whiskey for its unbeatable value. Asked about his Scottish favourites, Maxwell gets lyrical. “I’d choose Lagavulin for the same reason. But I’m also mad about the Irish Connemara, Tyrconnell and the 12-year-old Redbreast. For a special treat, I have a few heralded favourites, the Longmorn 15-year-old and if I was on a desert island, give me a case of my favourite Islay malt, Caol Ila 1974, 22-year-old. It’s subtle, sophisticated, not an unrelenting blast of the sea, beautifully moderated by other flavours and notes.” he says. Subtle, sophisticated? That’s a fair comment on Allen’s itself.
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