Into the Reek

The sun is bright for late September and the breeze drifting across Clew Bay is teasingly summery. This may be one of the last truly lovely days of the season, and we’re going to make the most of it.

“It’s not a bad climb,” we’re told, “But the last bit is quite steep.”

A and I are four days into our week-long hiking trip through the west and north of Ireland. Our legs are feeling stronger, more solid than they did after Monday’s climb up Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park, when they felt more like unset gelatin than limbs. Whether it was the ride up from Clifden or a temporary lapse in memory, we’re eager to get moving. This is what we’ve come for. Croagh Patrick.

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Terse Tuesday 9

The thing about genealogy is that the more you learn, the more questions you have. What lead my great-grandparents to leave Ireland? How did they scrape together the money for passage? How did they reconcile leaving so much, and so many, behind?

Or today’s question: were any of my great grand aunts, uncles, or cousins involved with the Rising’s Ulster front? How so? As I read how Ireland prepares to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, I can’t help but wonder…

For those with Ulster roots who want to do some wondering of their own, this great RTE podcast, first broadcast over radio in 1964, is a great place to start: “1916 in Ulster.”

Anatomy of a Jane’s Walk

I have a love/hate relationship with Toronto.

I love its diversity and openness. The city attracts people from all over the world, and without meaning to sound trite, there’s always something to do, not just during the summer. Toronto is a city of incredible potential, but for those of us calling the city home, it often fails to realize that.

We have crumbling infrastructure and a city council too mired in personal troubles and political agendas to even begin addressing the real problems undermining the good: lack of affordable housing, gridlock, pollution, and inadequate public transit. Those problems are apparent. What’s been especially troubling me lately, though, is a problem bubbling just below the surface: the loss of community.

The Gladstone Hotel, the first stop of the Convenience Stories walk, as seen from the south side of Queen Street West.Toronto is very much a city of small neighbourhoods, and while pride in our respective corners is strong, what about our sense of belonging? We feel connected to a geography, yes, but to our fellow inhabitants? Do we really interact with our neighbours? I think our answers to these questions depend on the character of our communal spaces.

With names as varied as the items therein, the convenience store is an unsung community hub and the subject of Convenience Stories, the Toronto Jane’s Walk I took in early May. The brainchild of design students at OCAD University, Convenience Stories grew out of a class project that sought to celebrate, and memorialize, the convenience store as a site of commerce and of socialization. Discussions of store design and product taxonomy had quickly become more personal, with colleagues swapping stories of shoplifting, break-ups, independence, and security, and the role their own convenience stores played in each.

A group of people with umbrellas gathered outside a Queen Street West convenience storeWe meet our walk guides, OCADU students, at the Gladstone Hotel to get organized before setting out eastward along Queen Street West in the rain. A short walk and we arrive at a convenience store that offers not only pantyhose, cigarettes, and milk, but an in-store coffee shop complete with seating and Wi-Fi. Our guides speculate that this feature was added in response to the changing cultural and economic character of the neighbourhood, and I quietly wonder what it would be like to have a store like this in my own corner of Toronto. What it would be like to stroll to the end of the street after dinner to buy bread or a magazine and, seeing a familiar face, have a neighbourly greeting ebb into chatter over coffee.

Convenience stores are great equalizers. Who hasn’t run to one in a panic, having forgotten to buy a much-needed staple for the next morning’s breakfast? Who hasn’t stumbled into one at an ungodly hour, looking to satisfy a post-club craving for salt or sugar? Who doesn’t have some memory of measuring maturity, our own grown-upness, by being allowed to walk to, or beyond, the neighbourhood convenience store?

A woman peeks in the window of the now-boarded-up Eight Variety StoreOur group makes its way toward Ossington Avenue. Like ducklings we shuffle, huddled under our umbrellas, until the rain finally stops. We’ve arrived at the recently shuttered Super Eight Variety Store. I stare at its sadly papered windows as our guides point out that the Super Eight is not alone in its demise. All over the city, convenience stores have been disappearing, small mom-and-pop shops no longer able to pay obscene Toronto rents and hold off large chains like Shoppers Drug Mart, which are increasingly carrying convenience store-type items.

But the demise of the convenience store in Toronto isn’t just a sad small-business story. We are losing vital community hubs. Places that draw everyone in our neighbourhoods. Cafés are social spaces, yes, but what if you don’t drink coffee or tea? What if you don’t have the kind of income or job that allows you to while away the hours in a coffee house? For many, cafés can be economically prohibitive, but a convenience store? A convenience store has something, is something, for everyone.

And I worry. As Toronto neighbourhoods lose their convenience stores, we lose more than having pantyhose, cigarettes, and milk always at our fingertips. We lose a place to connect with our neighbours, regardless of what is or has gone on in their lives. And I worry what that means for me and for my city.

Terse Tuesday 7: Oh, Canadian Whisky!

This Tuesday isn’t actually so terse.

In honour of Canada Day — today — and my abiding love of whiskies, I wanted to take a moment to highlight a couple of the Canadian whiskies I’ve been enjoying lately. And no, none of them ends in “club”!

Though there’s currently no bottle of Spicebox in my whisky collection, I’d be remiss to talk about Canadian whiskies I love without mentioning the blend that started me on my whisky love affair. At only 34.8% alcohol, this Montreal-distilled spirit isn’t so much a whisky as a liqueur, but what a lovely liqueur it is! I’ve described it as having notes of caramelized sugar and allspice, but what I didn’t note is how well-balanced it is. Make no mistake, it is sweet, but it’s not cloying, and I’d highly recommend it as a gateway to anyone looking to transition from bourbon to Irish, Canadian, and even Scottish whiskies, which makes sense, I suppose, since the easy-drinking Spice Box is aged in bourbon barrels.

Still Waters Stalk & Barrel 1+11 Blended Canadian Whisky and Toronto Distillery Co.'s Organic Ontario Wheat Whisky

Two recommended Canadian whiskies.

More interesting than it is easy-drinking, Toronto Distillery Co.‘s Organic Ontario Wheat is an unaged whisky that’s heavy on the cereal. The distillery’s own web copy describes this spirit as “a pure expression of the grain it was distilled from” and “a must for whisky enthusiasts who want to understand what various grains bring to the drink on their own merits,” and I’d agree. But if you’re looking for something smoother or more complex, this might not be the whisky for you. This whisky never lets you forget that you’re sipping alcohol.

What a treat, then, to discover by chance Still Waters Distillery‘s unforgettable Stalk & Barrel 1+11 Special Blend! I stumbled upon this whisky while looking for Canada Day-themed spirits in the LCBO yesterday. I don’t usually buy full bottles of unknown whisky, but this one came highly recommended, prominently displaying on its accompanying tag tasting notes by Canada’s whisky guru Davin de Kergommeaux:

“A tingling effervescence turns initially buttery and mouth-filling, toffee indulgences into clear, clean refreshment. Ever-present hot pepper buttresses a richness of body and crisp cleansing pith.”

I can’t describe it any better myself. Truly. The toffee notes are prominent, though never over-powering, and the lovely mouthfeel — a mild, prickly heat akin to the sensation of eating an orange peel, though not so lingering — can only be called effervescent, which is unexpected but entirely pleasant in a non-carbonated beverage.

During a recent conversation on Twitter, Fred Minnick — bourbon expert and the author of Whiskey Womenopined that Canada’s whisky-makers don’t market themselves properly, and perhaps there’s truth in that. Because I wouldn’t have known about Spice Box, Toronto Distillery Co., or Still Waters — let alone their spirits, which I’ve so enjoyed — had it not been for placement at the LCBO. And I think that’s sad. There’s far more to Canadian whisky than Canadian Club and Crown Royal. It’s high time to celebrate that.