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The Glen of Tranquility

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House Night.jpg

Its 10:30 PM on a mild May night in the highlands of Scotland, and I am gazing out towards the North Sea as I stumble in the dark through the walled garden of Glenmorangie House. Picking my steps carefully in the wet grass, a camera tripod in one hand and a wide tumbler of Ardbeg Uigeadail in the other, I am grateful for the wellies I have been provided by the staff as my fellow travel companions get situated for some stargazing and photography. It is our last real night in Scotland, the end of a whisky odyssey that began 12 days earlier, and has taken us from the tasting lab of The Whisky Exchange in London to the Spirit of Speyside festival in Dufftown, from the island distilleries of Islay and Jura to the peak of Ben Nevis, and ended here at the Glenmorangie House outside Tain.

The Glenmorangie House is a 17th century country home 45 minutes north of Inverness, situated among the ruins of Cadboll castle, which is now owned by the Glenmorangie Distillery and provides guests with luxury hotel amenities in the atmosphere of a relaxed country house party. For a whisky traveller, Glenmorangie House represents the pinnacle of Highland hospitality, receiving visitors with open arms and offering an unmatched experience of stunning landscape, Scottish tradition, and opulent comfort. Not to mention the full range of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg whiskies to be enjoyed, paired skillfully with locally sourced, Michelin-star cuisine. Our group was generously offered the opportunity to experience a stay at the house before our tour of the distillery itself the following morning, where we would witness the production of the spirit itself.

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?


Robbie Burns Day Planner

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As always, January 25th is Robbie Burns Day, and as usual many restaurants and pubs will be offering up specials on food and drink, poetry, dancing, and more. But what about us whisky fanatics in Toronto? What are we to do? 

In years past I would hum and haw, mulling my options until it was too late to get a ticket anywhere, and ultimately end up at home or a friend's with a bottle from my own collection. Surely there must be a better way right? A short list of venues with extensive whisky lists and their menus, offerings, and prices perhaps? Well, there is now.

This is your Toronto Robbie Burns Day shortlist.  

Ardbeg Tasting at Harbour Sixty

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Harbour Sixty EntranceMatchmaking has long been a skill that mankind has sought to perfect. But pairing a tasting of a Scotch whisky with a cult following with arguably Toronto's most venerated steakhouse may just be the pinnacle of such quests to occur in Toronto this year. 

Combining rich ambiance, a knowledgeable and personable group, fantastic food and drink, and some excellent news, LVMH and DDB served to raise the bar for tasting events very early this whisky season. 

Laphroaig at Harbour Sixty

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Last week I had the chance to visit the Harbour Sixty steakhouse for an evening of fine food and a guided tasting of Laphroaig single malts. Led by Simon Brooking, Laphroaig and Ardmore's brand ambassador, this was a truly sophisticated evening of marvelous toasts, expertly paired food, and of course a flight of Laphroaig's rich, peated Islay single malts.

The evening began in the main bar of Harbour Sixty, where guests gathered to sample the showcased cocktail, a "smokey bitter" concoction of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Glayva Liquor, and Nonno Amaro. While I am normally reticent about scotch-based cocktails, this one was perfectly balanced, dry and slightly fruity, which enhanced rather than masked the peaty flavour of the Laphroaig. Served on the rocks with some good hard cheeses and baskets of sweetly glazed, crispy bacon, it helped everyone to slip into easy conversation and take in the luxurious surroundings.

After an invigorating gathering outdoors for a rain-swept group photo--good Islay weather, Simon called it--we were escorted into the lower level dining room and arranged at our tables, each seat set out with five tempting tulip glasses of whisky.

As Simon took us through a highly informative presentation touching on the history and geography of Islay and the Laphroaig distillery, I made my way from one whisky to the next, each matched with a superb selection of miniature delicacies. First up was a golden crab cake with roasted red pepper aioli, seared ahi tuna with wasabi mayo, and a grilled spear of pear with walnut and roquefort cheese, which I enjoyed alongside the woody and smoky quarter cask expression. This was followed by the Laphroaig ten year old, saltier and peatier than the small barrel version, and perfectly suited to the grilled lamb shank and smoked salmon canapé which accompanied it.

Next I moved onto the Laphroaig 18 year old, which is a truly standout expression. Having never sampled it before, I was amazed as the smooth, sweet, floral notes which set it apart from the bold heat and peat smoke I have come to expect form Laphroaig. At 18 years the malt takes on an entirely different character, mellow and chocolaty, which left me wanting more. The 18 year old just became available at the LCBO this month, priced at $179.95. This will no doubt be a treat for special occasions.

While polishing off a tasty brazed shortrib on soda bread, I sampled the exceptional 25 year old bottling, which is matured in ex-Bourbon and Oloroso Sherry barrels which impart a rich red colour and sherry sweetness to the still peaty malt, and finishes long with spice and fruit. Finally, the flight was completed with a unique festival bottling crafted this year from 11, 15 and 19 year old malts which was hot, spicy, full of classic Laphroaig peat and smoke, but more complex than the quarter cask or ten year old varieties.

Simon Brooking's poetic toasts and rousing songs transported all in attendance to a misty Scottish isle for an evening, and his expertise in the nosing and tasting helped me gain a deeper appreciation for this wonderful family of single malts. Special thanks to Simon, and the folks at Beam Global and PraxisPR for making this night possible.

IMG_2376.JPGUpon walking into Via Allegro, be sure to look left, but be equally sure to mind your jaw lest it fall agape at the sight you will behold. For it is there that Toronto's most impressive tower of whisky resides. This is the domain of manager Joseph Cassidy and it is his philosophy that governs the approximately 750 whiskies on hand.

However, rather than attempting to provide everything under the sun, Joseph aims to ensure that it is the unique bottles that have primacy of place stating that "the whiskies must represent the individual regions that they come from and still be unique". To ensure this, private bottlings and cask strength whiskies are a key focus as there is "a different flavour in each bottle, and one that can't be easily found again". It is this philosophy that has resulted in Via Allegro winning Whisky Magazine's "Supreme Whisky Award" for having the best whisky list in the world.

Our purpose for attending this Etobicoke establishment was to attend an all Speyside tasting courtesy of Joseph and Diageo. A flight of six of the region's finest were on offer on this day.

First up was Cardhu which was successfully paired with a wood smoked gouda; the dried apricot notes and dry finish of the whisky playing well against the creamy texture and nutty body of the cheese, further reinforcing my stance that the time has come for whisky to replace wine at the bookends of a meal.

Glen Elgin in glass.JPGFollowing this was the Glen Elgin 12 year old with its faint nose of white chocolate and honey and smooth, lightly smokey palate featuring a near perfect amount of salt and peat. It is truly a shame that this single malt is not available for personal purchase in Ontario, as it certainly has a place on my shelf once I can locate a bottle.

Now came the time for the chef to begin flexing his culinary muscle as Cragganmore's 12 year old single malt was expertly paired with one of the finest risotti I have ever had. Here the saltiness and ripe fruits of the whisky played perfectly against the earthiness of the mushroom and mascarpone risotto, serving to heighten the flavours of each, while simultaneously cleansing the palate in preparation for the accompanying pairing. For this was a fine one-two punch of whiskies and food, as the plate also carried a seared sea scallop adorned with a lightly wilted fennel salad to be paired Johnnie Walker's Green Label blended malt. For those who don't know, this blend is comprised of Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood, and as such it was the floral notes of the Linkwood which worked well against the fennel while the salt and iodine of the other components played off the scallop to pleasant effect.

Via Allegro Lamb.JPGAfter a brief break in the action it was time for the star attraction of the day: a whole pressed roast lamb paired with an elusive 28 year old cask strength Convalmore. Bottled in 1977 and hitting hard at 57.9% ABV, the nose of explosive vanilla, honey, and heather combined with the gamey and herbacious aromas emanating from the lamb to devastating effect on my resolve, leaving me salivating at near Pavlovian proportions. Upon tucking Convalmore.JPGin, the spice, smoke and lightly viscous nature of the Convalmore paired perfectly with the expertly roasted lamb, while its dry, faintly smokey finish left the most delightful lingering notes of black cherry and almonds on the palate. Truly a treat, and exactly the kind of joy one hopes to find when pairing whisky with food. 

The closer for the flight was Johnnie Walker's Blue Label blended malt. While reaffirming my belief that it is worth nowhere near its pricetag, the sweet, orange peel notes of this blend provided an excellent finish to the flight, leaving the palate cleansed in spite of the somewhat muddled flavours it has to offer. Thankfully for yours truly, one of the members of Scotchblog.ca was unable to attend, allowing me to round out my day with one more dram of the Convalmore.

All in all, this was easily the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon: sampling a sextet of Speyside's finest paired with some of Toronto's best Italian cuisine while enjoying the encyclopedic knowledge and convivial company of Joseph Cassidy. In closing, I must point out that if there is a specific whisky you hope to find, be certain to call ahead and inquire as to its availability when making your reservation, as the most unique bottles typically see their time on the shelf last less than a month. That said, even if you don't find exactly the whisky you are hunting for, be sure to ask for Joseph's advice as you will most certainly be presented with a malt and experience to remember. Thus, do not wait to make your arrangements to attend Via Allegro, as I for one cannot wait until I make my return to continue working my way through the list.

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Recent Comments

  • Gerald Eddy commented on McClelland's Single Malt Scotch Whisky - Islay:

    I've read many reviews if this whiskey that condemn it as an unfavorable dram. I agree that as a peated Islay it can't compare to a Laphroig or an Ardbeg. However, despite the lack of complexities of those great single malts, at a third if the cost it will do nicely if your a Scotch whiskey drinker. It is a bit sweet, but it has peaty overtone to their other malts and has a nice vanilla and banana flavor as well. No...it's not a great whiskey, but it is palatable on a budget and is better then a lot if blends at a lower price. I would rather spend my money on this the a Johnny Walker Red which lacks any complexity and is far overrated.

  • Blair Conrad commented on Via Allegro: An Afternoon of Fine Food and Speyside Malts:

    Wow. This is amazing.

    I have a hard time pairing whisky with food as I normally just want to taste the whisky. :)

    However this makes me want to try it more and more. By the way that lamb looks like roadkill. That's definitely a man's meal.

    Fantastic blog. Keep it going, we appreciate your work.

  • Michael commented on Craigellachie 13 year old:

    I opened mine many months ago, just for a taste. Found it off putting and bitter for the first couple of samples. Skip ahead to the summer, after a few months of breathing new air, this is a different whisky. I look forward to pouring this one now, definitely worth the patience.

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