Are you sure it's July?" I ask through chattering teeth. His back braced against the numbing wind, Davin shows no interest in conversation or in the icebergs drifting by in the rough sea behind us. "This can't be summer," he grumbles.
Signal Hill in St. John's, Newfoundland. The very spot where one December day in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi received a wireless message from England, proving that transatlantic transmissions would bend with the curvature of the earth. If it's this cold here in July, why he chose December is beyond comprehension. Perhaps he planned to warm up afterwards in one of the many watering holes beckoning across the harbour.
Suddenly, I have a bright idea. Marconi's message travelled 1,700 miles through the air more than a century ago. If Marconi, shivering in the icy rain, headset frozen to his ear, sat patiently on this very spot waiting for his trans-Atlantic message, the least I can do is text my wife, at home 1,311 miles away in Toronto. If you believe, as I did, that the earth is blanketed in cellphone towers and satellites, you haven't visited Newfoundland. With my frozen gonads retracting into my body like frightened turtles I glance up from my equally disengaged cellphone to see Davin shaking his head in disbelief as he stumbles down the hill towards warming libations.
St. John's is a rum town with a budding underground whisky resistance. Gazing down on the brightly painted city we have planned our attack. The notorious George Street, cloaked in all the dignity of a celebrity with a freshly leaked sex tape, is not in our crosshairs. Somehow though, that's where we end up.
Screech and be screeched
Newfoundlanders are a fun-loving lot who never take themselves too seriously. It's reported, for instance, that George Street dispenses more beverage alcohol per square foot than any other destination in North America. Tourists and business travellers flock here to get smashed and 'Screeched In.' Several sketchy vows of allegiance, three slammed shots of Newfoundland Screech (rum), and a kiss on the lips of a frozen codfish or a stuffed puffin makes them honorary Newfies. Beer chasers follow, then more shots, a visit to one of many street-side hot dog stands and shortly thereafter the inevitable sidewalk pizza.
Trapper John's Museum and Pub near the foot of George Street proclaims itself the home of the screech-in. Yes, screech is alcohol and alcohol kills germs, but the seemingly scabies-free locals point vigorously to Christian's Bar just up the street. With its warm décor and well-stocked bar, Christian's doubles as an afterhours hangout for bartenders and staff. Afterhours means any time after 3 or 4am.
Irish on the Rock
Damian Dubourdieu, bar manager at O'Reilly's tells us that Newfoundland, lovingly called 'The Rock' has always been a rum province. It was just 30 years ago that whisky began to gain popularity here. Today's spirit of choice is still Lamb's Navy rum, but Canadian rye is a close second. Wiser's abounds, and St. John's has just the right ambiance to sample whiskies you might not try at home. Elsewhere you'd likely relegate Schenley Golden Wedding to a rye and ginger, but here, after a few drams straight, you can skip the screech-in. You're a local now by practice. Dubourdieu keeps the Classic Malts on his bar. "We have a lot of great whisky in Newfoundland," he tells us, "but the tourists always ask for Scotch."
In 1865, when Bridie Molloy (don't call her birdie) was born in Couch Bay, more than half of Newfoundland's 162,000 residents thought of themselves as Irish. They loved sitting around, drink in hand, 'havin' the craic,' and Bridie we are told was particularly gifted. Her great-grandson, Jerome Coady maintains this tradition in his Irish pub on George Street. Guinness and conversation flow freely from 11am to 3am in this well-stocked bar named (what else?) 'Bridie Molloys.' "Have a coffee," Davin insists, "If 3am sounds like late closing, this is St. John's, get used to it."
Bridie's is just one of 25 establishments keeping late hours in the few hundred steps from The Yellowbelly Brewery and Public House at one end of George Street to Siren's Cabaret at the other. The Yellowbelly, named for an old Irish sect, was built in 1725, making it one of the earliest commercial buildings in North America. Two citywide fires, one in 1846 and the second in 1892, couldn't destroy this place so I'm not worried about Davin's incendiary hotdog breath. We wander downstairs into The Underbelly where manager, Brandon Francis shows us a scorched wooden beam. It was rum in those days, but today Francis draws on one of Newfoundland's finest selections of Irish, Scotch, Bourbon and Canadian rye whiskies. And nestled among those whiskies sits a vintage bust of Basil Hayden Sr. - an ancient advertisement for Old Grand-Dad Bourbon.
Several other George Street bars have decent selections of whiskies too. Yet, despite its high profile, George Street has not cornered St. John's market on great whisky bars.
The loaves and the fishes
Every visit to St. John's must include a stop at the Duke of Duckworth, a few blocks away on McMurdo's Lane. There's a better than average selection of spirits and draft but the real attraction is the most delectable fish and chips in all of Newfoundland. I wonder what magical sea they pluck their cod from as I scan the room for a hipster dressed like Jesus, hoping he can turn my already miraculous portion into 5,000 more to take home. No such luck. I smack my lips, down my Quidi Vidi Iceberg lager, and we head on.
From The Duke it's just a few steps to Water Street and several well-stocked whisky bars. The celebrity of Water Street originates not in some contrived publicity stunt but from its critically acclaimed authenticity. Among the dive bars, Water Street is dotted with world-class restaurants and boutiques. It's also the front line of the city's whisky resistance. Here bartenders quietly defy the cliché frat party convention of George Street, differentiating their digs from their neighbour's through innovation and sophistication. And whisky is their spirit of choice.
Single malt central
The Gypsy Tea Room pours a broad selection of Scotches and other whiskies as does its neighbour, Blue on Water. Together, these two bars have become Newfoundland's single-malt central. The Tea Room's dynamite-like calamari with its aggressively seasoned homemade green sriracha dipping aioli, bolster the spiciness of any whisky. I choose Lagavulin 16 Years Old to further fuel my blazing chops. "Just water," Davin mumbles, finally tapping out.
Thankfully, we've saved a little room for our visit next door to Blue on Water. There, we sample manager, Peter Barrington's barrel-aged cocktails. His Sazerac, with a dash of Pernod is arguably the most northerly Sazerac on the planet and one of the tastiest. Barrington matures these, and his Negronis and Old Fashioneds in small oak barrels, bottling them just when they reach perfection. Abominable weather be damned! Open any door on Water Street and St. John's becomes welcoming, sunny and warm.
We pile into a cab heading for Liddy's Bar, a short ride away in Torbay. Though a bit of a dive, Liddy's is the oldest legal bar in the province, and manager Glenn Stokes, 'ugly stick' in hand, does a splendid screech-in. The regulars may be covered in tribal tattoos and have the vocal timbre of someone who brushes their teeth with a chainsaw, but they are friendly. "As long as you don't feed the wildlife," I whisper. But it's too late. Davin pounds an India Beer as some local Queequeg guzzles a Black Horse lager. The empty Black Horse hits the bar first and Davin pays. These formerly major Canadian brands still survive in Newfoundland. And so, I pray, will we.
Yes, there's many a checklist of charming clichés to follow when visiting St. John's: Climb Signal Hill, walk streets so steep the sidewalks turn into staircases, photograph colourfully painted 'salt box' houses, watch whales and eat cod tongues. But to experience the real St. John's, drop into any bar and minutes later you'll be havin' the craic with friends who only moments earlier were strangers. And if you really must feed them, they prefer their hotdogs pickled and with a dab of mustard.
Blair Phillips and Davin de Kergommeaux are travelling across Canada writing a book about Canada's drinking culture and history.
Fly directly to St. John's International Airport from Dublin, London Heathrow, Halifax, Montreal, Newark, Ottawa and Toronto. Other direct flights operate seasonally. The airport is just minutes from the downtown core. Cab fare downtown ranges from $12.50 to $30.
Drivers take a 6 -hour ferry ride to Port Aux Basques for $110 plus $42 per passenger then pass a full day driving to St. John's. For $226 plus $113 per person spend 14 hours aboard a ship that docks at Argentia, 90 minutes from St. John's.
Where to stay in Saint John's
There are many options downtown including bed & breakfasts and hotels.
The Sheraton Hotel within walking distance of downtown is also a close but demanding walk to Signal Hill. Located at 115 Cavendish Square, Saint John's, NL, A1C 3K2, Canada, 1-709-726-4980. Rates vary but we paid $155 per night.
The Roses B&B consists of two colourful Victorian houses overlooking the harbour. Located at 9 Military Road, Saint John's, NL, A1C 2AC, Canada, 1-877-767-3722. Rates vary depending on the room but Davin paid $109 per night.
Memorial University offers summer accommodation for the budget conscious from May to mid August. A short taxi ride to downtown, the university is located at 40 Livyers Loop, Saint John's, NL, A1B 3P7, Canada, 1-877-730- 7657. Rates vary but Blair paid $35 per night.
Saint John's Tasting Notes
Wiser's Deluxe, 40% ABV
Scorched butterscotch with fiery blasts of pepper, baking spices and flinty rye. The pepper lingers then fades into bitter citrus pith.
Golden Wedding, 40% ABV
Peppery, spirity and rich in toffee. Nutty dry grain. Rye notes come through as dusty. Pith finish. Simple and enjoyable mixed, on ice or straight.
Old Grand Dad Bourbon, 40% ABV
Nutty nougat and lots of caramel like an O'Henry candy bar without the chocolate. Spicy fruity rye flickers with the central corn cereal base.
Amherst Gate, 40% ABV
A simple, pleasing whisky with a hot peppery twitch and refreshing bitter grapefruit finale. Very mixable. Newfoundland is the only place where you'll find it.
Screech Rum, 40% ABV
Shot 1: Smooth molasses sugars with warming banana. Shot 2: Hot baking spice builds with orange smack. Shot 3: Who are you looking at?