For years now Toronto has been home to three truly world class whisky restaurants: Via Allegro in the West End, Allen's Restaurant staking its claim in the centre of town on Danforth Avenue, and The Feathers Pub in the East. Each houses a truly astonishing collection of rare bottles and provides something unique in terms of menu, venue, and location.
Over the past three years though, a more contemporary and closely clustered trio of restaurants with a strong whisky focus has developed along short stretch of College Street bracketed by Ossington Avenue and Dovercourt Road. In fact, the distance between the two furthest from each other measures a mere 200 metres from door to door.
But who are these newcomers and what do they bring to the table?
Starting with the elder statesman of the strip means beginning at Toronto's best value bar, The Emmet Ray. Established in 2009, this cozy cash-only confines boasts 161 whiskies and counting (64 Scotch, 40 Bourbon, 23 Canadian, 15 Irish, 10 non-bourbon American whiskies, and 9 from the rest of the world), none of which exceed $16 per dram. As if that wasn't enough to qualify it for the above title, then add in the fact that draught pints are $4.50 every single day of the week from open at 5pm until 9pm, and you've got a clear cut winner. When asked about his philosophy behind the bar, proprietor Andrew Kaiser simply states "everyone should drink whisky and be able to afford it". Worn-in like your favourite pair of shoes, it features live music 5 nights of the week and DJs for the other two. Expect a lively place where you are treated more like family than a mere customer.
A little closer to Ossington, you will find Toronto's first true Scottish pub: The Caledonian. Opened in September of 2010, it is home to 140 whiskies (mainly Scotch of course), 10 draught beer taps, and the some of the best Scottish fare I've had anywhere, including Scotland. Featuring excellent haggis in multiple formats, Ardbeg smoked salmon, and arguably the best fish and chips in the city, owners Donna and David Wolff have brought not only the menu, but the true feel from across the Atlantic. On any given night you are apt to find Scottish ex-pats looking for a slice of home that extends beyond the plate, and on some special nights I have even been able to enjoy a dram while listening to softly
sung Gaelic folk songs from a group that is most assuredly not in the employ of the establishment. Beyond the bar, and if the weather is right, you can even take your dram onto one of the best patios in the city; with its walled-in seclusion and small grove of cedars, this may just be the best place I've ever had the luxury of sampling a Bruichladdich Dark Arts outside the distillery walls. In the end, The Caledonian is a hidden gem that manages to evoke the feelings of Scotland, but with the convenience and predictable weather of Toronto.
Last and most certainly not least is the new kid on the block: Habits Gastropub. Opening just over 10 months ago, owners Luis and Michelle have quickly amassed a selection of 75 whiskies (running the gambit from Scotch to bourbon to Canadian and beyond) to accompany their craft beer focused taps and well appointed wine list. All of this serves to heighten the experience when sitting down to the brilliant creations of chef Eric and his spin on classic comfort food and pub fare, including their brie-stuffed burger which for my money may well be the best burger in the city. Offering live music 3 to 4 nights per week,
an interesting and ever evolving array of infused cocktails for those in your group not quite as keen on whisky, and a brunch that keeps bringing me back again and again, Habits is beginning to carve out its niche with steadily evolving aplomb. Ultimately, while not yet as well known as the other two on the strip, the passion evident in every interaction with its staff, food, and drink serves to provide a top notch experience regardless of the time of day or season.
So there you have it. A 200 metre stretch of Toronto featuring three very unique establishments offering up nearly 400 whiskies (duplicates notwithstanding). At either end is some of the best modern pub fare Toronto has to offer, while in the middle of the trifecta sits the best place for you and your wallet to drain a dram or two. If you are venturing down to the whisky strip and happen to run into a rather brash individual with his nose buried deep in a glass one moment and preaching the wonders of whisky with evangelical fervour the next, please do stop by and say hello.