Toronto is the most unlikely place in Canada to hold a whisky festival. Why? Because every whisky at the tables and masterclasses must be bought from the only provincial outlet. How do you spell government liquor monopoly in Ontario? LCBO. This provincial crown corporation carries about 140 whiskies at any one time, a few of them goodies, but mostly bottom-shelf blends.
You don't go to a Toronto whisky show for the whisky. It's the scene - meeting old friends and chatting about the latest treasures in the whisky underground. Really, underground is where Toronto's real whisky scene happens. If you are a whisky lover in Ontario's largest city, you have to take supply into your own hands.
"The whisky geeks find their whisky elsewhere," says Gerald Glavota. "People bring special bottles back when they travel. They meet in little clubs. Everyone chips in and then they share the whisky. Some people get them shipped to Niagara Falls, and sneak them across into Canada."
Blair winces, his clouded mind conjuring visions of a border patrol back room, a single dangling light bulb and a burly border agent reaching for a blue latex glove. This may sound a lot like the days of Prohibition and the speakeasy, but Ontario has since legalised gambling and is now eager to sell marijuana. Even so, when it comes to booze, it seems the government didn't learn a thing from America's Noble Experiment.
Real whisky professionals cross-train rigorously. Full enjoyment of key whisky events such as Whisky Live Toronto requires more than simply studying the floor plan and mapping out a comprehensive course. Sadly, Blair didn't include Vitamin C in his regime. When event night arrives, a head cold has him knackered. He pours himself a shaky spoonful of Tylenol Cold Non-Drowsy Syrup but his tasting prowess has been compromised. Davin's fingers, already limber from months of Glencairn inspired yoga, jump to his phone to call in stunt doubles. If Blair can't taste, then Toronto's whisky elite certainly can.
Gerald, always willing, demonstrates his expertise immediately by pointing towards the Laphroaig table. "Ask if they have anything special," he murmurs with a wink. "Something over 30 years old." I return, a long pour of ancient Islay glistening in my glass. "I wonder how this got here," I whisper and Gerald just give one of those smiles.
Though Blair trained like a champion, congestion and fever-fed delirium threaten an early end to his evening. He doesn't need whisky; he needs the strongest over-the-counter cold products, legal. The kind where you go to bed with rhinitis and wake up with a beard. Instead, he soldiers on. Escalators flanking the Whisky Live floor lead to a train of Beam booths at one end, and Ontario's craft distillers at the other. He decides to go local.
He arrives to find Peter Stroz of 66 Gilead pouring Crimson Rye, Wild Oak Whisky and Maple Whisky. Their eyes lock in instant recollection of events both would rather forget. The last time Blair saw Peter was when kidney stones knocked Blair on his butt and Peter had to race him over Prince Edward County backroads to get him to the nearest hospital. How times change. This time, Peter has something to knock Blair's cold on its butt. And it isn't whisky.
66 Gilead has hooked up with Nyman Farms to harvest spring gold from a sugar bush near the distillery. Peter joins John Nyman to boil the maple sap each day it's running. "John has the evaporator and converts the sap into syrup in his sugar shack," says Peter. They barrel it in used 66 Gilead barrels, "As far as ageing is concerned, we have found that at least one year is best, though we only bottle when we feel it is ready."
Maple syrup is full of disease fighting antioxidants; it's known to boost the immune system. He guzzles an ounce or two and though it doesn't cure his cold it puts Blair back in the tasting game. He's ready to move on to the Highland Park booth. There, Brand Ambassador Nicolas Villalon fills his glass with Dark Origins. It is as though Highland Park founder, Magnus Eunson, has smuggled flavour past the congestion: Glorious.
Local bartender and spirits writer, Sarah Parniak notices a sea change in the popularity of whisky in Toronto. "People want more whisky-based cocktails," she says. "The Old Fashioned has become the new whisky and soda."
Gerald agrees. "The cocktail scene is more evolved than it was six years ago."
Sarah nods. "There are more and more places with better whisky selections," she adds. "Younger people are getting more into Scotch. Bourbon is an important part of the Toronto whisky scene too," she says. "More Japanese and more Canadian. "It's cool to see the Canadian whisky companies responding
with premium stuff." Still, Sarah laments all the lost opportunities. "We are quite behind in Ontario in what we can get."
Despite their best intentions, for bar owners, building a whisky list is a bad dream. It takes time and perseverance, as David Wolff can attest. "We opened The Caledonian in October 2010, with a list of 65 single malts, basically everything you could purchase at that time through the LCBO," says the Caledonian owner. "We wanted to create a whisky list that went further than the standard classic malts. That became very difficult with having to purchase through the LCBO. Although they carry a good number of single malts, most are not stocked on a consistent basis."
Dave explains the complex and time-demanding procedures behind the scenes. "After building an amazing relationship with The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, David Stewart, Malt Master and Whisky Icon vatted a selection of 30-plus-year malts of very rare sherry casks and bottled it as The Caledonian Malt, just for us. It's something that we treasure but cannot sell, as it was not purchased through the LCBO. Behind the bar we have the entire Valhalla Collection from Highland Park: Thor, Loki, Freya, and Odin. Sounds simple, but this was a three year quest to find, stock, and save all four expressions through our liquor license."
Joseph Cassidy is very familiar with this kind of drill. He is the sommelier at Via Allegro where, along with Canada's largest Canadian whisky and Bourbon selections, he has slowly amassed over 1,000 single malts and 5,700 wines. Via Allegro is Toronto's best Italian restaurant and is the only restaurant on the planet to have won both an Icons of Whisky award and Wine Spectator grand award, along with a raft of prestigious food awards.
As Whisky Live winds down, we meander over to Char No. 5 at the Delta Hotel where Ray Daniel pours 62 different Canadian whiskies along with a few high end Scotches, including Bowmore 23 Years Old and Highland Park Odin. Now you'd think building a Canadian whisky list would be a breeze in the largest hotel in Toronto, but such is not the case. "LCBO is very difficult," Ray says. "They're constantly listing and de-listing whiskies and we can't get anything from British Columbia."
Char No. 5 has hosted pre-Whisky Live tastings all week and tonight has brought in a jazz band to match the tone of Whisky Live's classy new digs. Where else? But at the recently renovated Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Canada's largest and plushiest theatre. Despite all the bureaucratic hoops it turns out that this has been the best Whisky Live ever in Toronto. We relax, dram in hand, grateful for all the underground tips we managed to pick up tonight. We know that we should be grateful. Grateful, that is, until these tips land us in a dark room, a single light bulb dangling above.
Blair Phillips and Davin de Kergommeaux are travelling across Canada collecting stories for a book about Canada's drinking culture and history.
Whisky Live Tasting Notes
Highland Park Dark Origins 46.8% ABV
A sinus clearing salted trail mix perfume with smoking oak. Ripe plums and a touch of honey introduce a balanced spiciness to the hot finish.
66 Gilead Distillery Wild Oak Whisky 47% ABV
WOW! Floral, spicy like a wild spring flower field. Oak foundation with welcome young notes. Hints of rural earthiness flood the mouth rising and peaking into an outstanding finish.
Laphroaig 32 years old 46.6% ABV
Sherry splashed on a crumbly plum pudding with almost-forgotten road tar and Scotland's Atlantic beaches. Richly sweet layers of fading ancient peat.
Wiser's Hopped Whisky 40% ABV
Flavoured whisky worth writing home about. Burlap, sweet flowers and dry hay then burnt caramel, searing spices and ripe fruits. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2015 51.5% ABV
Lovely smell of smoke, bacon, and sweetness trading places. Sweetness hits the center of the tongue, saltiness over the sides with rising smoke becoming noticeable.