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!

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.