Peat Monsters: A blind tasting with The Wee Dram Girl

They say that alcohol is a social lubricant, and while I’ve never needed a drink to make friends, I’ve recently bonded with a number of smart, funny women over our mutual love of whisky. I’m sure friendships of this kind are the norm not the exception, but I can’t help feeling lucky to have made these new acquaintances. And all the more so since YouTuber The Wee Dram Girl, alter ego of Laura Meehan, asked me to be a guest on her blind tasting series, “The Couch.”

The premise of the series is simple: Laura pours three whiskies from her extensive collection, and she films her guests as they experience and discuss the aromas and flavours of each — all without the guests knowing what’s in their Glencairn glasses. Guests pick a favourite without the influence of branding or distillery tasting notes. The result? Good fun and some surprises! Continue reading

Four Places to Drink in Edinburgh

For various reasons, my husband and I stuck close to home in 2015, but that doesn’t mean our desire to travel has diminished. Being Preparing to sip a cocktail.home-bound for so long, though, means that I’m feeling especially nostalgic for past adventures. Maybe it’s on account of all the Christmas Market and Hogmanay photos I’ve seen on travel blogs and social media lately, but I keep finding myself thinking especially of my 2014 trip to Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is rich in history and culture, and there’s no shortage of great places to eat and especially to drink. I really can’t begin to do justice to the city’s bar scene here, so instead, I’ll offer a sampling of what’s in store for travelers through the lens of four of my favourites. Continue reading

Beyond the Basics: How to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Toronto now

Celtic cross at MonasterboiceOh, North America! You have a lot of things to answer for, least among them the secularization of St. Patrick’s Day. But one thing at a time. Really, you don’t have to be religious or Irish to celebrate the gifts Ireland’s bestowed upon the world. Being curious and engaged, though? That helps.

Instead of my regular rapid-fire Tuesday post, here are six St. Patrick’s Day swaps to help you make the most of today.

  1. Instead of green beer, try some proper Irish craft beer. I like O’Hara’s Irish Stout, now available in bottles through the LCBO.
  2. Instead of Jameson, try a dram from Dublin’s newer distillery, Teeling. I highly recommend the rich and spicy Teeling Small Batch, a blend, and I’ve read nothing but good things about their Single Grain and Single Malt.
  3. Instead of whiling away the hours in an outpost of one of those franchised faux-Irish pubs, visit the real deal. I humbly suggest the family-friendly Galway Arms, which draws Irish ex-pats and Canadians alike with its warm service and companionable clientele. Bonus: draught Smithwick’s!
  4. Instead of wearing an offensive-sloganed novelty tee, try on some Donegal tweed or an Aran knit. This is a great time for Irish design, with all sectors of the industry poised for increased international attention. In Toronto, you can see what the fuss is about at the Irish Design House, an excellent source for all manner of Irish goods. Well worth the trip to Leslieville!
  5. Instead of James Joyce, read Donal Ryan or Maeve Brennan. Ryan’s The Thing About December and The Spinning Heart movingly chronicle life in Tipperary, roughly bookending the Celtic Tiger. Ryan’s writing cuts to the marrow of contemporary Ireland, but it’s not without humour or sympathy. You’ll laugh and cry at alternating sentences, and long to return to the characters after the covers have closed. Unfortunately, the glorious Maeve Brennan can only be given short shrift in a post like this; she commands volumes of her own. Though very much a woman of her time, Brennan’s voice continues to resonate today. Hers is the voice of the ex-patriot (though a very particular, very privileged kind of ex-patriot), and her stories and essays are essential to anyone looking to better understand contemporary diasporic writings or how the Irish shaped North America in the 20th century.
  6. Instead of The Mahones or Flogging Molly, listen to The Undertones or Rudi, stalwarts of the 1970s Ulster punk scene. Musically, there were lots of interesting things happening at the height of The Troubles. The Undertones and Rudi provide a glimpse into what it was like to be — or to try to be — a normal teen despite the conflict. At the very least, if they don’t have you rethinking your St. Patrick’s playlist, they’ll give you pause the next time you think of mixing Jameson, Guinness and Bailey’s. If a trad session is more your speed, though, check out The Gloaming — all the extraordinary musicianship you’d expect from traditional folk musicians, but with arrangements that are modern and frequently unexpected. And Iarla Ó Lionáird has one of the most hauntingly beautiful voices you’ll ever hear!

Travelling with Strangers: A few words on group travel

Planning your next vacation? Trying to decide whether to go it alone or to join a tour? To help you decide if group travel is for you, I’ve cobbled together a few points from my experiences.

1. Package deals where most, if not all, meals are included make it easier to budget your money.

2. Accommodations are arranged and paid for in advance, and guides are vetted for you. This takes away some of the stress of trip planning.

3. There’s less control over where you stay and where you eat. On the up side, you can end up in some real gems you may have overlooked on your own–for me, this was All the Twos guest house in Clifden, County Galway, and The Old Inn‘s restaurant and pub in Gairloch, Scotland–but you can also end up in places whose only redeeming qualities are location and price.

4. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people. This can be a pro or a con, depending both on your outlook and the people who end up in your tour group. I’ve had the good fortune to travel with many warm, witty, cultured people whose openness and warmth have enriched my experiences with a destination. On my most recent trip, including our guides, our decidedly international band came from Scotland, Belgium, France, Germany, Australia, and the United States (in addition to Canada, of course). There were teachers and dentists, writers and biochemists. There were retired professors, and several public servants. The bus ride banter and dinner chatter was as compelling as it was multilingual, and I came away from the trip with almost as much knowledge of my companions’ countries (albeit secondhand) as I did of our host country.

On the other hand, I have less fond memories of companions whose stubborn singlemindedness threatened to wrest control of the travel agenda from our guide and derail a long-hoped-for trip to, for instance, Slieve League.

5. While group tours can provide some helpful structure to your travel plans, there’s less room for spontaneity. Vacation or no, I’m always tempted to linger in bed, and schedules get me out the door and into life before it and the sights pass me by. However, in my experience, group tours rarely allow room to linger a little longer in that perfect pub discovered off the beaten path, or to explore the shops before that rest-stop town shutters for the day. With group travel, the needs of the group come before the whims of the individual.

6. Homegrown tour companies are a great way to access the local perspective. While there’s really no substitute for seeking out non- touristy pubs, cafés, and galleries and chatting up residents yourself, tour operators often hire local people as guides, and there’s nothing like experiencing a host city or country as home! Local guides know the history as well as how people live now. They know the tricks of navigating cultural terrain that the guidebooks miss. The point is Trafalgar isn’t the only option out there for North Americans. As with any travel undertaking, do your homework. It will be richly rewarded!IMG_2193.JPG

Saturday Spotlight: Extreme Ireland

Given last Sunday’s post on climbing Croagh Patrick, it seems appropriate to devote the first Saturday Spotlight to my favourite Irish tour operator, Dublin’s Extreme Ireland.

For our first trip to Ireland, A and I scheduled most of our time in Dublin, but we knew we wanted to take a couple day-trips out of the city. “When will we have another opportunity to see the Cliffs of Moher or Blarney Castle or the Hill of Tara?” we reasoned.

After several hours of research spearheaded by my master-planner husband, we settled on three tours with Extreme Ireland: one to the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren; one to the Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, and Cork; and one through the Boyne Valley with stops at the Hill of Tara, Trim Castle, Loughcrew, Drogheda, Monasterboice, and the Jumping Church.

Right off the bat, we were impressed by the variety of destinations Extreme Ireland’s tours covered, and the ease and flexibility of booking — we could buy tickets online or in person at their office — but the best was to come. While Extreme Ireland certainly can’t take credit for the country’s lush terrain and rich history, it can lay claim to expertly curated day trips and some of the most knowledgeable, engaging driver-guides you’ll ever have the pleasure to travel with.

My husband, A, is notoriously hard to impress. But I knew even he was won over when half way through our Boyne Valley tour he turned to me and said, “You know, these guys do multi-day hiking trips, too.” Very high praise indeed.

Higher still: we returned to take one of those hiking trips the following year. We wouldn’t have climbed Croagh Patrick or Diamond Hill — highlights of my life so far — without Extreme Ireland, and for the planning and expertise of their guides, I’m extremely grateful.

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.