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!
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Tasting Flight: Six must-read profiles of whisky-loving women

A photo of the author sipping whisky while admiring The Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection in Edinburgh.International Women’s Day is still two weeks away, but why celebrate women’s achievements on only one day? As a whisky-drinking woman, I’ve loved reading about and learning from women who share my passion. Here are six admirable women in whisky to kick off Women’s Day festivities early:

– Alwynne Gwilt, whisky enthusiast, journalist and the palate behind the excellent Miss Whisky — where she reviews drams, explores distilleries and profiles fellow women in whiskytells The Whiskey Reviewer how she fell in love with the spirit, and how to introduce Scotch to the uninitiated.

Mackmyra master blender Angela D’Orazio shares what it’s like working at Sweden’s flagship whisky distillery, as well as her interests outside of the spirits business.

Helen Mulholland, Bushmills’ master blender, is all business as she discusses the distillery’s range and packaging. And I second her recommendation of the Black Bush blend, which is one of my own favourites!

– when it comes to women in whisky, Allison Patel is a powerhouse. She’s the founder and owner of Brenne Whisky, which is uniquely finished in cognac barrels. Here she talks about crafting Brenne’s flavour profile.

– if job envy’s a thing, Eimear Kelleher leaves me positively green! She’s a Brooklyn-based brand ambassador for Tullamore D.E.W., and she’s spreading her love of Irish whiskey.

– a list of whisky women I admire wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Johanne McInnis, a.k.a. the Whisky Lassie. Knowledgeable and friendly, Johanne is highly active on Twitter, connecting whisky-lovers or, to paraphrase Johanne, weaving the whisky fabric. When I started to tweet about whisky, Johanne was one of the first people to engage me in conversation and in doing so, she made me feel welcome. With one small gesture, she took away a lot of the remaining whisky intimidation — the sense that everyone knew what he or she was talking about but me — and I’ll be forever grateful for that. Johanne is a connector — of people to whisky and to each other — and The East at last gives her the in-depth profile she deserves.

Random Observations upon Returning from British Columbia

The Rocky Mountains as seen on a clear day in Langley, British ColumbiaOver the last five years, I’ve looked outside Canada for vacations. Canada is home, and home just doesn’t seem interesting or appealing when you have the chance to escape your comfort zone, does it? But Canada is a big place — almost-10-million-square-kilometres big — so there’s actually quite a bit of room for the novel and different. I was reminded of this fact over Christmas when I visited British Columbia for the first time.

I’m still processing my B.C. experience, but my impressions were varied and generally positive. A few random observations:

– Vancouver is just like any other large North American city, except for the mountains and ocean peeking around seemingly every corner. That’s the draw of this place: the proximity to such natural beauty — an open-invitation to leave the city behind, if only for an hour. I was enchanted. The hiker in me can’t wait to return so I can spend time in those mountains.

Vancouver skyline– given B.C.’s reputation for being green, I was startled by the number of public recycling bins and garbage receptacles in Vancouver, Langley, and White Rock. This will sound like the set-up for a joke, but it’s not: waste receptacles are everywhere in Toronto. In B.C.’s lower mainland? Not so much. What do people do with trash on the west coast? Stow it in their pockets until they return home? Or are Vancouverites just more adept at those other two Rs — reduce and reuse?

– a lot of people complain about the LCBO’s monopoly on and pricing of alcohol sales in Ontario, but if my unscientific study is any indication, a public-private retail mix may not mean lower prices for consumers. My husband and I made a point of visiting a public and several private liquor stores in Langley, and we discovered that where whisky’s concerned, bottles there command on average $3 to $5 more than they do here in Ontario. And then there were the jaw-dropping exceptions to the rule, like a bottle of The Balvenie DoubleWood — about $90 here in Ontario — going for about $120 in B.C. What B.C.’s public-private mix does seem to guarantee is variety. Expressions that can sometimes be challenging to find at the LCBO — namely Auchentoshan Three Wood and Nikka Whisky from the Barrel — were easier to find at B.C. liquor stores. If one store didn’t have it, there would be another one not too far away that did have it. Perhaps that’s something worth paying more for?

Dram of Ardbeg Uigeadail at Vancouver's ChambarChambar. Known for its Belgian beers and seafood, this restaurant was a serendipitous discovery when we had all but given up finding an open bar that wasn’t rammed full of rowdy football-watching patrons. After a rainy Sunday spent walking around Vancouver, my husband and I were both looking to warm up with some whisky. We were returning to our SkyTrain stop after striking out at several Gastown pubs when we noticed Chambar’s large uncovered windows from the courtyard below. With its exposed red brick and amber-coloured tables, it looked chic and inviting and — above all — spacious. We were sold and quickly entered to settle in at the bar. They had a small but good selection of whiskies, including a bottle of the Macallan Amber, which I’ve been meaning to try and would have that day had the damp hours in Stanley Park not whetted my appetite for peat. On this visit, I ordered a dram of my comfort whisky — Ardbeg Uigeadail — but I would love to return to Chambar when we have the time to explore their cocktails and menu more fully. During our short time there, we found the beer and cocktail selection intriguing, the staff friendly, and the ambiance at once sophisticated and unstuffy. An added bonus? I’ve since discovered Chambar is committed to doing business ethically and sustainably. How very Vancouver!

Wit and Whisky

Funny man Nick Offerman is, it turns out, a fellow whisky fan, so he did what any whisky lover does: he found a way to celebrate his favourite drams publicly. Partnering with Diageo, makers of Lagavulin and Oban, among others, Offerman presents his “Tales of Whisky” on a dedicated YouTube Channel. The result? A perfect pairing of wit and whisky!

A taste courtesy of my favourite Offerman whisky video: “Taste It All.”