Bars

Sean's Canadian hub

The Irish Heather is a whisky mecca in downtown Vancouver. Brigid James visited it
By Brigid James
Tucked away in a corner of Vancouver’s historic Gastown, amongst trendy restaurants and gift shops, is an establishment that offers a sense of permanence in this young and restless city. The Irish Heather is a pub that really looks like one, feels like one and allegedly serves the best pint of Guinness in town.But don’t be prepared to settle merely for a decent pint by the bar: the adventurous will head down a corridor and into the conservatory. From there, it’s a step across the courtyard to a mysterious red doorway, with a brass plaque next to it bearing a shape very much like a still.Through the red doorway, a glittering wall of whiskies appears, like an oasis in the desert, promising a tasting odyssey of epic proportions.And the purveyor of such bounty? Meet Sean Heather, an affable Irish-Canadian who sounds like he’s barely been away from his homeland for a day.In 1997, he opened the Irish Heather in a run-down part of town. The pub flourished, and with it the area, now a tourist hot-spot boasting some of the city’s oldest buildings (late 19th century) – among them The Heather.When the former jail coachhouse building across the courtyard became vacant, Sean snapped it up, realizing the potential of this snug little venue with its attractive brickwork and secluded feel.He named it ‘Shebeen’, which means ‘a secretive small room or hovel where illegal alcohol was sold’, as the website explains.And although the alcohol sold is far from illegal, the room certainly feels like a hiddenaway private parlour.This entrepreneur is a self-proclaimed ‘Joe Average’, with no pretensions to being a whisky expert, who believes in making the drink accessible. This attitude shows great business savvy in a city where commercially available wide whisky selections are a find, and normally accompanied by a whopping mark-up in price.So does this whiskey-for-all philosophy work? The bar’s clientele is a real mix, says Sean, commenting that 40 per cent of his whisky-drinkers are under 33. He encourages distillery representatives to give free talks and tastings in the Shebeen for crowds he thinks are “on the edge of trying whiskies.” In this way, he has converted groups of his regulars to the delights of whisky, and plans to stage tastings on a more regular basis.Sean’s collection of 143 whiskies took three and a half years to build up and consists mostly of single malts, but includes blends, Irish whiskeys, ryes and bourbons. Sean views Irish whiskey as a good introductory dram, and is a big fan of Redbreast.The single malts that stir up the most interest amongst aficionados tend to be the rare malts such as Brora 20 Year Old and Convalmore 24 Year Old, and Murray McDavid bottlings including Royal Brackla 1975 and Rosebank 1992.Sean also stocks Crown Royal and Tangle Ridge among his ryes, and Canada’s only single malt, Glen Breton, a young and fragrant dram. In addition, a whisky cocktail menu features pre-Prohibition favourites such as the Rob Roy and Sazerac. Ginger Lady is a tribute to the hedonistic frontman of Irish band The Pogues, who, as the menu explains, starts each day “caressing his ginger lady,” which is in fact a bottle of Paddy Irish whiskey.And, on the subject of celebrities, some famous faces have graced The Heather and the Shebeen, the latter providing a welcome retreat from the public eye. Harrison Ford, Jennifer Connelly, Kenneth Branagh, Will Farrell, comedian Billy Connolly and boyband the Backstreet Boys (driven to break into song when they weren’t recognized by staff) have all visited.The attitude towards the consumption of alcohol in Canada can be a challenge, as Sean remarks: “Here they’ve always looked on alcohol as a drug that has to be controlled.” This leads on to a discussion of the British Columbian (BC) and Canadian whisky scenes. Sean comments that it’s a “beer culture,” as we talk about the lack of distilleries in BC. At the end of this apparently gloomy tunnel, though, there is light. Trends point towards people drinking for quality rather than quantity, as the success of the Shebeen would suggest.And with the prospect of the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, Sean is hopeful for relaxation in the alcohol licensing laws. This whisky pioneer of the ‘New World’ has plenty more tricks up his sleeve and a passion in his heart, but there’s a marathon challenge ahead. Shebeen
7 Gaoler’s Mews
Vancouver BC
Phone: +1 604 915 7338
http://www.irishheather.com