Davin: Chicken Skin Music jangles from the speakers; the cruise control is set at 89 - urban legend has it the cops won't pull you over 'til you're ten over the limit. I'm in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, heading into Genuine Whisky Territory. A Tyendinaga boy himself, Harry Hatch was a big-time whisky baron back in Prohibition days.
There's a Highway to the Heavens rising ahead. Crossing an arm of the Bay of Quinte, the road flows onto a bridge that seems to go up until it disappears in mid-air. It's a fitting gateway to the enchanted land beyond: Canada's artisanal, epicurean epicenter, Portlandia by the Quinte, better known as Prince Edward County.
In Hatch's day, a flotilla of Lake Ontario fishermen-turned-rumrunners knew every inch of this shoreline here and across the lake on the US side. This 'navy's' exploits are the stuff of local legend and community theatre. Duck Island, just outside the US border, was the rumrunner's halfway hideout. Wrong label, though. It was whisky, Canadian rye whisky, that Hatch's nocturnal navy ferried across the lake. Now, 66 Gilead distillery has revived the Duck Island name. Their Duck Island rum - yes, real rum this time - is as buttery and as fruity as a rum and raisin candy bar. An instant favourite, like nearly everything that comes out of 'The County's' only distillery.
We're here for the launch of their latest whisky creation, Crimson Rye. A pre-release barrel sample tells me it's good stuff, a delectable new whisky from a promising micro-distillery. Blair's family is under the weather so he'll arrive in the morning. I spend the first night alone in a spacious century old carriage beach house. Its creaky floors and slamming doors remind me of the 'haunted' Canadian Club Brand Centre.
Blair: Sorry about the late arrival. New whisky should be celebrated like it's Christmas, though three Wise Men and a guiding star are not required, just two knucklehead whisky writers following the glow of their GPS. No manger, no animals, only the barnyard ambience of Davin's snoring. A pain in my lower back has delayed but not stopped me. I point my rental car toward 66 Gilead. The Stones are blasting on the radio but music isn't the analgesic I need. The distillery certainly will be.
66 Gilead is one picturesque distillery. This 1874 lavish second-empire house sets the tone for the tasting room and gift shop. Chickens dart between an old hops barn and a cooperage on this property dotted with antique farming equipment. Nyman Farms are grilling up sausages, and Instant Rivalry are tuning their guitars. Crimson Rye Manhattans made with a generous dash of the distillery's cherry bitters flow freely. Meanwhile, in the hops barn, Davin is holding forth on rye whisky. Crimson Rye, it seems, is standing its ground to Whistle Pig and Rittenhouse 100.
Distillery owner Sophia Pantazi is standing her ground too. "You don't let the barrel do the distiller's job," she says to a whisky fan who has questioned its tender age. "Taste it first, and then decide."
As the afternoon drifts away, Davin and I, glasses in hand, find a table in the shade to plan our attack on the rest of this County.
Davin: Barley Days craft brewery is on the itinerary, along with stops at an artisanal vinegary, a local-fruit craft cidery, an artisanal cheesery, a renowned pub with a long whisky menu and an impressive list of martinis, and many craft wineries.
Welcome to Prince Edward County, surrounded on 3½ sides by Lake Ontario, making it a vinifera oasis in a labrusca province. And a favoured weekend retreat for Torontonians with money to burn and a taste for free-range, heritage, gluten-free, organic, 100-mile anything.
That's tomorrow. Tonight we dine with distillery owners, Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi. Their son, Michael is braising ribs from Wild Oak Farm, where grass-fed cattle also graze on spent grain from the distillery. As we chat, Blair abruptly ends his double-fisted sampling of the cheeses that Sophia has set out, and heads for the kitchen. I hear him talking with Michael and Peter, then he's back. "I'm not feeling so well," he tells me.
"No wonder, you've overdosed on cheese," I conclude, though silently.
"I'm going to the beach house to lie down." Blair is walking away from Michael's grass-fed, distillery supplemented ribs. He must be feeling bad. I'm tableside, licking my chops and patting my belly when my cell phone rings. It's rude, I know, but I look and see it's Blair.
"Can you drive me to the hospital?"
I explain to my hosts and Peter offers to join me. At the beach house, Blair is pacing and ranting, delirious with pain.
Blair: "Yellow Fever! Davin diagnosed it." (He knows everything, just ask him.)
The pain in my left flank has a pulse of its own. Peter gives me a fist-full of Tylenol, but no matter which way I shift, it gets worse.
"Let Peter have a look," Dr. Davin insists. (Note to self: the next time I need a doctor, don't ask Davin, he'll show up with a…distiller.)
My sweat-drenched face can't hide my rising panic.
"You do know Peter is a doctor?" Davin reassures me, as Peter springs into action.
"Severe flank pain, abnormal looking urine, chills, nausea. Hmm." Peter muses. "Renal colic."
I stare back blankly.
"Stones. Kidney stones."
Shoot me four times, light me on fire, make me dine with my mother-in-law, kick me in the groin, then stab me six times before I suffer another rolling kidney stone. They are excruciating.
We race to the emergency room. It's packed with locals. All the cuts, bruises, and bloody eyes suggest Mike Tyson is in town offering free thrashings. Among the injured are throngs of moaners and malingerers. And they get seen first!
Every old war movie has that scene where a soldier lies on the ground, his entrails hanging out. He calls for a medic who crawls over, pulls out a morphine syrette and jabs it into his leg. Miraculously, the soldier is able to limp his injury away whistling Disney tunes. Or dies.
Butterflies dance in my stomach. The doctor has morphine ready for the pain. Nose and palate be damned though, that finish is euphoric!
Davin: Back at the beach house at 3:05am, Blair stumbles up the stairs and plunges onto his bunk in his morphine-induced coma. Next morning, though, I hear him in the shower, humming Chim Chim Cher-ee as if nothing has happened.
Our artisanal weekend is saved!
Pete Bradford has invited us to visit Black Prince winery where he is refurbishing a couple of dozen González Byass barrels. In the century they have been in use they have remained as sweet and aromatic as new. Bradford is using them for vinegar now, while Black Prince winemaker, Geoff Webb, has a few of them turning average Chardonnay into what he hopes will be above average sherry.
We taste two of his works in progress, a scrumptious buttery number that coats your mouth, and a crisp dry one with just a hint of gooseberry tartness. These are no run-of-the-mill barrels.
Blair: A lucky wrong turn delivers us to The Barley Room Pub where bartender, Al Sager, has been tending bar, for many a year. We've been tipped off to try his specialty, a burnt martini, made with J&B scotch. Fourteen beer taps and two whisky cabinets anchored to the wall, each containing about 15 top quality whiskies add to the room's classic pub feel. Al pours us a couple of pints of Barley Days, as we talk about the scotch club that meets here monthly for drams and dinner. Davin orders Al's signature drink then scrambles to the other side of the bar to watch him assemble it. The day is getting away from us. Besides, we're here in Prince Edward County to celebrate 66 Gilead and their Crimson Rye. And indeed we have, in a celebration we'll never forget.
After all, I have proved the prophet Jeremiah* wrong. There is both balm and physician in 66 Gilead after all.
*The book of Jeremiah 8:22. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?"
66 Gilead Crimson Rye, 47% ABV
Rich with red fruits and sizzling spice, hints of dry grain and earthy riverbanks. At 42 months, well balanced and precociously mature.
66 Gilead Wild Oak Whisky, 46% ABV
Soft caramel and searing pepper over woody notes with vanilla galore along with ripe red fruits and earthy herbal notes.
66 Gilead Duck Island Rum, 45% ABV
Sweet and mouth filling with slippery butter slathered onto raisin-like dried fruits and in the background fresh, clean barrel notes. Captivating.
Barley Days Brewery Loyalist Lager, 4.5% ABV
Crisp Pilsner style lager. Floral and earthy. Sweet bready malts with a mildly bitter hop bite. Best served ice cold when the sun is shining.
Barley Days Brewery Harvest Gold Pale Ale, 4.5% ABV
Easy drinking with orchard fruits and some spice. The bitter citrusy English hops are playful without overpowering the grainy, malty frame. A simple brew.