Drinking in the Garden City

Davin de Kergommeaux takes us round this island city
By Davin de Kergommeaux
It's a 60 mile trip by sea ferry to get to Victoria, British Columbia from either Seattle or Vancouver. As the ferry threads its way through dozens of small islands, travellers just might be lucky enough to see a pod of orcas. The aptly named "Garden City" sits, a world apart, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

Victoria, a pretty, impeccably well kept place with a population of just under 350,000, is a warm and welcoming city with an intimate small town feel. Its climate is Canada's mildest with pleasantly warm and dry Pacific Ocean summers and flowers in bloom year round.

It's no surprise then that Victoria attracts some 3.5 million visitors each year. Those millions of visitors and the billions of dollars they leave behind support a service infrastructure that far exceeds most cities of similar size.

A whisky drinker's tour stops no fewer than seven times. The proximity of the watering holes to each other simply begs for a good old-fashioned college pub-crawl.

Better to spread it out over a few evenings though. The drams in some of these establishments will have you lingering long over your glass.

The Bard & Banker Scottish Pub

1022 Government Street, Victoria, B.C.

Pub owner, Matt McNeil strives for service and atmosphere. “We don’t have set tastings, Matt says: “rather, we have flights for our guests to try on their own.”

“The whisky scene here in Victoria has a great following. A lot of younger people especially are open to trying whisky and are being introduced to different ones through the popularity in classic drinks.”

Matt’s also the barman who developed the “two-mile beer diet” a nod to Victoria’s thriving micro-brewing industry. “The breweries can have their beer out of the vats, in trucks and pouring through our lines into your glass in about 10 minutes depending on traffic.”

With more than 30 draft lines it’s easy to forget that the 320-seat Bard & Banker pours well more than 100 whiskies, 90 of them single malts.

Veneto Lounge, Hotel Rialto

653 Pandora Avenue, Victoria, B.C.

Located right on the edge of Canada’s oldest and most colourful Chinatown, the Hotel Rialto was first known as the Lim Bang Building, named after a successful Victoria merchant in the 19th century.

Today, Simon Ogden manages the bar. “We’re quite proud of our whisky program,” says Simon, “it’s been a labour of love.”

The Veneto Lounge is best known as a classic cocktail house specialising in custom-styled spirit-forward drinks mixed to suit the specific tastes of individual guests. With 40 American whiskies on the bar, Bourbon cocktails are a specialty.

Perhaps the most interesting offering is a “deluxe boilermaker” that pairs whisky with carefully matched craft beer. The Bourbon list is supplemented with about two dozen malt whiskies and an assortment of Irish, Japanese and Canadians.

Clive's Classic Lounge, Chateau Victoria

740 Burdett Avenue, Victoria, B.C.

Despite its reputation as a high-end, high-volume cocktail bar, Clives Classic Lounge offers a well-rounded beer, wine and spirits list. Its more than 140 whiskies include a number from closed distilleries. “We’d have more,” says lounge manager, Shawn Soole, “but we’ve run out of space on the bar.”

A monthly ‘Bon Vivant Society’ brings industry insiders and casual drinkers together for seminars. “We do a brash of different topics,” says Soole, “but whisky is the focus.”

“Our younger clientele has fallen in love with Bourbons, high-end ryes and Scotch. Once you have them on that then you nudge them towards the Japanese, Welsh and Indian.”

Spinnakers Gastro Brew Pub

308 Catherine Street, Victoria, B.C.

Ryan Bangma, the manager of Canada’s oldest brewpub enthuses about all things malted, be they whisky, beer or vinegar. A couple of dozen whiskies line his bar and each day Ryan hauls out another new cask of beer. When Rabbie Burns Day rolls around, each day for two weeks a different Scotch whisky is paired with a Scottish cask beer.

Spinnakers is located just across the harbour from downtown Victoria, about a 15-minute walk from the heart of the city. But in summer why not take a hop-on-hop-off harbour ferry across?

The Songhees walking path passes by Spinakkers door encouraging athletes and strollers to stop by for a post-workout dram. And if one thing leads to another, 10 guestrooms will accommodate the tipsy who wake up the next morning to a basket of fresh baked goods, juice and coffee or tea.

Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) Officers’ Mess

715 Bay Street, Victoria, B.C.

Unless you are in the military, you can’t just walk into the Officer’s Mess in the Bay Street Armoury. Three times a year though, the doors swing open so members of the public can sample the award-winning whisky collection. If you are in town on one of those days (ask about it at the Strath liquor store) it’s well worth the jaunt. The ever-changing collection of exotic limited-production and hard-to-find whiskies is the legacy of the now-retired messing officer, Lt. Lawrence Graham, currently Victoria’s whisky guru.

Entering the mess is like stepping back in time to the beginnings of the regiment in 1912. As a Scottish regiment, the focus is on Scotch single malts, but this decent collection also features noteworthy Irish, Indian, Welsh, Japanese, Canadian and American whiskies.

Pacific Lounge, Hotel Grand Pacific

463 Belleville Street, Victoria B.C.

Victoria’s whisky year kicks off the third week of January with the always-sold-out Victoria Whisky Festival at the Hotel Grand Pacific. The festival, going into its eighth year, draws brand ambassadors from around the world.

Inspired by the festival, the Pacific Lounge maintains a good selection of Scotch single malts, Irish, Bourbon and Canadian whiskies including winners of the annual Canadian Whisky Awards.

Flights and Light Bites events held twice monthly on Saturday afternoons introduce adventurous imbibers to pairings of food, whisky, beer, and wine, a great way to pick up new knowledge in just an hour.

“There’s really an active whisky tasting crowd here in Victoria,” food & beverage director, Janis Goard says. Whisky’s versatility as a cocktail ingredient is also fueling people’s interest.

The Bengal Lounge, Empress Hotel

721 Government Street, Victoria, B.C.

No visit to Victoria is complete without afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel.

But whisky lovers will be forgiven if they make a bee-line for the hotel’s equally famous Bengal Lounge, not for the signature curry buffet, but to sample some of the 30-odd whiskies, primarily single malt Scotches, on the bar.

The staff are too refined to boast, but the Bengal was the first licensed cocktail lounge in Victoria and as recently as 1954, was only the second in British Columbia. The Bengal’s colonial charm and style have been lovingly preserved.

For sheer elegance nothing compares with its welcoming charm and richly appointed comfort. And where else in the world are you greeted by a life-size statue of a panther?