Nestled just west of Toronto’s Little Italy, on the far end of College Street, is a paean to Scottish culture. With a name evoking a storied Roman past, The Caledonian is an upscale pub that’s as warm and homey as it is polished. It was also host to the women-only Balvenie whisky tasting I attended on May 6.
Matching my gait to The xx melody filtering through my headphones, I head to College from Ossington subway station. It’s a beautiful spring evening, May 6 — the air fresh despite the rush-hour traffic, the hazy light inviting the mind to wander. A knot takes shape in my stomach. I had been to a tasting before, but not in Canada and definitely not by myself. What if I’m the youngest one there? Or the eldest? Or the lone single in a room of pairs? Worse still, what if I’m out of my element, too inexperienced with scotch to fit in or enjoy the evening?
Should I turn back?
I imagine what I’ll tell my husband, who — sharing my love of whisky — had been so encouraging.
“Why don’t you go? You’ve tried a lot of Irish whiskey,” he had pointed out. “And there will probably be a lot of women your age there; whisky’s a bit older than college tastes. You could make some new friends.” The man had faith in my whiskey knowledge and my ability to blend with the crowd. How could I disappoint him?
How could I disappoint myself?
I fell in love with Irish whiskey less than a year ago. I had been a bourbon drinker, but when my local LCBO was out of Woodford Reserve one day, my gaze fell on a shelf of Spicebox Whisky. This was new. Intrigued, admittedly, by the retro-style label, I brought a bottle home and savoured the smooth sweetness–like the caramelized sugar of creme brulee–with notes of allspice. What a treat! I started wondering if all whiskies were like that, and with a trip to Ireland on the horizon, I vowed to try a some proper whiskey in my travels. (Spicebox is only 34.8% alcohol; whisky is actually supposed to be at least 40% alcohol.)
Our first night in Dublin, my husband and I found ourselves in the Fitzwilliam Hotel bar, looking for the perfect way to cap a once-in-a-lifetime Kevin Thornton dinner. We seated ourselves at the bar and after exchanging a few pleasantries with the bartender, we asked him to suggest a few Irish whiskies. I settled on the single pot still Redbreast 12 Years, and I was immediately won over. Smooth and full, tasting of spice and dried fruits, it was sweet, but not cloying. It was exactly what I was looking for that evening, and it continues to be a favourite spirit of mine, the benchmark against which I measure all other whiskies.
Back home in Canada, I continued my whiskey education, trying as many Irish whiskies as the LCBO stocks. (There’s one or two I still haven’t tried. I have to save my pennies for those. Exhibit A.)
The very glass of “proper whiskey” that began it all.
Now, I was ready to try scotch, brave the peat.
I walk into The Caledonian, hoping my thinly worn nerves don’t show. Past the bar, crowned with shelves of whiskies from around the world, I spy the Glencairn whisky glass-lined tables in the pub’s curtained back rooms, as yet empty but for a lone mother and daughter duo. Oh, no. Were my worst fears about to come true?
I must look as uncertain as I feel. Or maybe I don’t, because in my experience at The Caledonian, proprietress Donna Wolff greets everyone as a friend. The pub is suffused with her warmth, and it’s hard not to think the pub is really an extension of Donna’s own uncanny ability to make her guests feel at home. She welcomes me tonight with affection — I am called “sweetie,” genuinely — and leads me to the nearer back room. She takes my coat as I settle in at a small four-person table between the fireplace and kitchen door. I order a drink — water — so I’ll have something to occupy my still-anxious hands. I am alternately playing with my straw and peeking at my email on my phone when Valerie arrives.
Valerie addresses the wait staff by name. Unlike me, she’s a Caledonian regular, but like me, she’s on her own tonight. Stevie, our waitress, seats Valerie across from me, introducing us as if we’re friends of hers whose first meeting ends years of name-only acquaintance.
“Have you ever been to a tasting before?” Valerie asks.
We trade stories, of whisky and travel, of work and family, and soon we are old friends. We order dinner as the room around us continues to fill. A pair of friends, Jassi and Nabila, complete our table, but we’ve barely exchanged pleasantries when our attention is called to the doorway joining the back rooms. It’s Donna introducing the event and our guide for the evening.
Guided by Beth Havers, Canadian brand ambassador for The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, we sample three of The Balvenie’s core range single-malt whiskies one at a time: the DoubleWood 12 Year Old, the Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old, and the Single Barrel 12 Year Old. As an Irish whiskey drinker only recently acquainted with its Scottish cousin, I am continually amazed by the variety and distinctiveness of scotches. The Balvenie trio we taste are at the sweeter end of the spectrum, with notes of fruit and spice. The DoubleWood, tasting of honeyed apple and nutmeg, is my favourite, but I really enjoy the richness of the Caribbean Cask and the brightness of the Single Barrel, too.
Beth explains how each whisky is made, inviting us to discuss with her and with each other what we’re smelling and tasting. My table relaxes into a rhythm of sipping and sharing and laughing, and soon we’re no longer comparing only tasting notes.
“Whisky’s such a great social lubricant,” Jassi observes.
And it is.
Over two hours on the evening of May 6, my doubts about my age, my palate, and my ability to fit in all drain with three drams of Balvenie. I had set out that night to expand my knowledge of scotch, but in sharing with strangers an experience of something we all love, I extended my community in Toronto. I was at home among those whisky women, and I can’t wait for the next tasting in July.