Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part un

Finally, here it is; my long overdue, much ballyhooed review of Montreal’s whisky bars. I’ve lived with two hours of Quebec’s largest city for nearly 20 years and I’ve been an occasional visitor there since the late 1980’s. With my whisky obsession going back at least 10 years it’s kind of surprising that it wasn’t until 2010 when I was struck by the revelation that a world-class city like Montreal must have at least a few good whisky bars.

I found my way to two of the big three right off the bat and eventually got to the third, as well as a handful of lesser known establishments that are also serious about the whisky. I’m going to split this up into three posts, starting with the big players, moving on to the second tier and finishing up with some honorable (and not so honorable) mentions. First though, I’ll give a little orientation of the city.

Montreal lies on an island situated in the Saint Lawrence River, with a secondary island-city, Laval, just to the north-west. Located a mere 30 miles north of the U.S – Canadian border, the city is easily reached from Vermont via Interstate 89 or New York via Interstate 87. The city grid is oriented along the Saint Lawrence, which runs to the north-east (slightly more north in the area of the city). This can make maps and directions a bit confusing if you are unfamiliar with Montreal since everything that is labeled as east and west (est and ouest) looks as if it should logically be north and south (nord and sud).

While some parts of the city are located on smaller, surrounding islands, the city of Montreal does not cover the entire island of Montreal. There are currently 15 other independent municipalities on the island which cover roughly 1/3 of its total area. There’s an interesting history of municipal reorganization on the island which is detailed here. The city itself is broken down into 19 boroughs. Those boroughs, each with a mayor and council, are composed of varying numbers of distinct neighborhoods.

All of the points of interest I’ll be discussing are located in three of the city’s contiguous boroughs; Le Sud-Ouest, Ville-Marie and Le Plateau-Mont-Royal. If one is driving into the city from the South Shore, the most likely approach is across the Champlain Bridge. One of the first exits after crossing the bridge will keep you on Autoroute 10 Ouest. Travelling along this arc, Le Sud-Ouest will be almost entirely to your left. As Highway 10 terminates and feeds onto city streets, it leads into the heart of downtown Montreal (also know as Centre-Ville), which is part of the Ville-Marie borough. The rest of this roughly “L” shaped borough is situated to the north and to the east (as the city grid is arranged) of downtown. A short drive due north across the downtown will bring you to Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, a pie-shaped borough that fills the inside angle of the “L” shape of Ville-Marie.

Ville-Marie is the most heavily touristed part of the city, more specifically the Old Montreal neighborhood and the west end of downtown. In these areas visitors to the city are likely to outnumber the natives. Le Sud-Ouest was historically made up of industrial sites and working-class neighborhoods. As local industry collapsed in the 1970’s, the area became depressed and was mainly known for low-income housing. Over the last 15 years gentrification has brought an economic and social revival to many parts of Le Sud-Ouest. The Plateau, confusingly, is the predominant neighborhood in the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal borough. Many areas here have a close-knit urban neighborhood feel. The Plateau has Montreal’s highest population density and is often included in “hippest places to live” lists. This is the best part of the city to immerse your self in French-Canadian culture. I’ve often felt like I was the only tourist in this area, which can be a nice thing.

Like the rest of Quebec, Montreal is primarily French speaking with smaller Anglophone enclaves. The city is, however, incredibly bilingual. The locals are usually quite accommodating for non-French speakers, assuming you aren’t projecting the stereotype of a loud, arrogant American. The accent alone can be a bit of a language barrier at times though, so even conversations in English can occasionally prove cumbersome.

Navigating the city by car is pretty straight forward but like most modern urban areas, street parking can be scarce and expensive, depending on where exactly you are. I prefer to use the parking garage under the Grand Library on Rue Berri ($9 or $12 for 24 hours depending on when you enter) and walk, or use public transportation. Cabs are plentiful and the three boroughs mentioned above are well-serviced by the green and orange lines of the Montreal Metro (the two lines cross at the Berri-UQAM station, which is a 6 minute walk from the noted parking garage). It’s a flat-rate system ($3.25 for a single trip), so the cost-effectiveness depends on the distance travelled.

Quebec is essentially the same as a liquor control state in the U.S., with the system covering the entire province. The SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec), which runs the monopoly, imports a pretty good selection of Scotch. American whiskey: not so much. Even Canadian whisky is less abundantly available here than one would expect. Basically, if you’re not interested in Scotch, you shouldn’t bother with Montreal as a whisky destination.

On the upside, Quebec will sometimes get whiskies that aren’t imported to the U.S. On the downside, alcohol is taxed very heavily here (I believe that goes for the rest of Canada too). The pricing isn’t consistently higher though. I’ve seen some bottles that are very close to the prices I pay at home and others that are literally twice as expensive. Knowing that the prices are high, I’ll only consider buying bottles to bring home if it’s a whisky that can’t be had in the States. The SAQ does list their inventory online by store, which makes it easy to plan purchases in advance.

I don’t know if bars and restaurants pay retail prices for bottles of liquor in Quebec like they do here in Vermnt, but they do have to add on two taxes for the end consumer: 5% federal and 10% provincial. This results in a combination of high-ish prices and smaller pours. While we’ve become accustomed to getting 1.5 to 2 ounces in a glass of liquor in the U.S., the normal range in Quebec is 1 to 1.25 ounces. Thankfully the exchange rate is currently very favorable, with our dollar being worth about $1.30 Canadian. Of course that helps with anything else you’re spending money on too, not just the whisky.

As I alluded above, coverage of this topic has been a long time in coming. There were several false starts along the way, where I’d go to the city, drink some interesting whiskies, scribble down some notes, take a few pictures and never follow up with any writing. Feeling the need for an adventure during the past winter, I decided that the impetus to getting the job done would be a whirlwind tour of the relevant establishments. The plan was visit five places in the evening, spend the night and stop by two more the next afternoon before heading home. Of course, the best laid plans often go awry, and that single trip turned into three. The additional visits did allow me to add an eighth bar to the list and include some extra details though.

Pub Burgundy Lion
address: 2496 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest
borough: Le Sud-Ouest
neighborhood: Little Burgundy
closest metro station: 6 minute walk from Lionel-Groulx (the orange and green lines cross here)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this now, but when I first started searching out whisky bars in Montreal back in early 2010 I didn’t really pay attention to the Burgundy Lion because their website just didn’t make the place look very appealing. In my defense, they had been open for less than two years at that point after starting with just 40 bottles of whisky, so what I passed up then probably wasn’t nearly as impressive as the place is today.

What finally caught my attention was a Glenfarclas tasting with George Grant that they hosted in September of 2012. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty huge fan of Glenfarclas, and the fact that they had the Brand Ambassador / heir to the distillery running a tasting was quite remarkable. The event sold out quickly and I had waited too long to try to sign up, but at least it motivated me to go check out the Burgundy Lion early in 2013.

This is a world class whisky bar. They’ve built up a selection of over 400 bottles, the majority of which are single malt Scotches. Independent bottlings are also well represented, primarily from Hart Brothers, Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseur’s Choice series and Douglas Laing’s Old Malt Cask series. At some point they also acquired a private collection, so there are a few rare offerings that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

The space is modeled after a classic British pub; warm and inviting with an emphasis on lighter wood tones. Every time I’ve been there it’s been bustling with activity; in fact one of the few downsides to this pub is that I’ve often had a hard time getting a seat at the bar. Detailed food descriptions are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll only mention that there is a full menu which is driven by classic British pub fare. The greatest strength of the Burgundy Lion is their ability to put together impressive tasting events which are usually hosted by distillery representatives, such as the Laphroaig dinner I attended a few months ago. An additional space on the second floor with a smaller bar, a few high-tops and several tables can accommodate upwards of 50 people and allows them to keep the special events separated from their other patrons.

This was the first stop on what was supposed to be my epic 24-hour expedition. I very rarely go for a drink in the $40 to $50 range, but I decided to throw down the gauntlet early on and also partially redeem myself for missing that Glenfarclas event a few years ago. I was torn between the 40 year old and the 1979 Family Casks bottling (a single cask series launched in 2007 and covering every vintage from 1952 to 1994). The former was at 46% and bottled in 2010, thus distilled in 1970 or earlier. The latter was at 52.2% and bottled in mid 2012, making it 33 years old, give or take six months. When I told the bartender which two I was considering, she pulled down both bottles, removed the corks and let me nose them: the ’79 spoke to me. In fact, as I sat there slowly enjoying my first dram of the day in the early afternoon, its aromas elicited a comment from the person sitting next to me, with an inquiry as to what I was drinking.

The nose had an amazing character with great depth of sherry fruit, old wood and earthen floored cellar. The palate was incredibly rich and complex, showing stewed fruits with malt and notes of caramel, leather, butterscotch and cinnamon. The finish was long and warming with lovely spice notes. Overall it was very well composed and balanced throughout, but the underlying sweetness up front gradually faded into a relatively dry finish. Not an everyday drinker, but well worth the price of admission.

A little follow-up research showed that this limited release of 211 bottles was aged in a “plain” Hogshead. While the standard Glenfarclas lineup is aged exclusively in sherry casks, they do use some former bourbon oak (never first fill though), usually for whisky that will be sold to blenders. At Glenfarclas the term “plain” is used to indicate that the former contents of the cask will have little to no contribution to the character of the Scotch that is being aged in it. They use the term both for refill bourbon casks and 4th fill sherry casks. The term Hogshead (250 liter) does not exclude bourbon casks. Bourbon barrels (200 liter) that have been disassembled for shipping can be reassembled into the larger Hogsheads by using more staves.

Whisky Cafe
address: 5800 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: Mile End
closest metro station: 8 minute walk from Rosemont (orange line)

I almost gave up on the Whisky Café. Normally open seven nights a week, it was to be the third stop of my five venue evening, but they were closed that night. I assume this was because they were expecting little to no business on Super Bowl Sunday. I decided to skip the two stops planned for the next afternoon since there was a huge snow storm bearing down on the region and I was going to have to come back again to visit the Whisky Café anyway.

When I returned almost three months later, they were closed again. This time it was my fault. They open at 5:00 every day, except Sunday when they open at 7:00. I thought Monday was the late opening day and showed up at 6:00 on Sunday. I can never remember the days of the week in French so I didn’t realize my mistake when I looked at the sign with their posted hours. I was on the fence about giving this a third go, but six weeks later I was back in Montreal for the Laphroaig dinner at the Burgundy Lion and as soon as it ended I took the metro straight to the Whisky Café.

This was the first whisky bar that I visited in Montreal back in 2010, and I have to admit that I’ve had somewhat of a negative opinion of the place since that initial visit. I was excited to have the opportunity try a Japanese single malt whisky from Nikka’s Yoichi distillery, something we were years away from having available in the U.S. The place didn’t seem so bad on first glance, but it did have sort of a stuffy, pretentious atmosphere. The bartender kept talking about how smooth the whisky I was drinking was. I liked the Yoichi, but “smooth” is about the last word I would have used to describe it. The prices seemed high here, but I had no frame of reference until I found my way to another whisky bar later that night and saw the same Yoichi I had been drinking earlier at half the price I had paid.

While the Whisky Café has an upscale feel to it, it also feels dated. The business was established in 1989 and being there sort of feels like stepping back in time to that period. The space can present an impressive image on first glance with its black leather seating, backlit wall of whisky bottles on display and bar-top adorned with single malt labels. But after spending some time there that all starts to seem like a façade. The large espresso machine behind the bar dominates an area that should be reserved exclusively for whisky bottles. The stark white ceiling looks clinical and out of place. A trip to the men’s restroom reveals that it is the source of the light emanating from the frosted glass on the backside of the whisky display wall. Even the labels that decorate the bar top look like they were supplied by an importer rather than having been carefully removed from sadly finished favorite bottles.

All of that being said; my opinion of the place softened considerably on my last visit. Maybe it was because I excited about the whisky I was drinking and felt like I had paid a fair price for it. Or perhaps it was the good nature of the bartender who was on duty that night. Whatever the reasons, I was able to look past flaws that had bothered me in the past and really enjoyed this visit.

A few other points are worth mentioning. In blunt contrast to the Burgundy Lion, every time I’ve been to the Whisky Café there have very few people there; at most a dozen and on my last visit I was the only guest there shortly after arriving. Located on the northern outskirts of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, the Whisky Café is far from the crowds of downtown and several blocks past the end of the Plateau neighborhood. It was purposely situated in somewhat of a no-man’s-land in order to become a destination location. I’m also under the impression that it doesn’t draw in as many people as it once did, but this could be a good thing if you prefer to avoid crowds. Parking in this area is more plentiful and less expensive as well.

The whisky selection is respectable with about 140 single malts on the list, a few rare gems among them. There is also an attached cigar lounge here, one of a small number in the city that were grandfathered after Montreal’s 2006 ban on smoking in public places. This will have significant appeal for cigar aficionados visiting from the States as businesses in Canada can legally import and sell cigars from Cuba. The Whisky Café also offers a small menu of appetizer sized food items which are all served cold.

On a previous visit I had spied a bottle of Ledaig 15 year old here. I’ve always been intrigued by the Tobermory distillery and its more heavily peated variant. But this wasn’t a current bottling and I knew that peat levels and quality from this producer had varied over the decades so I wanted to do a little research before I tried it.

I’ve written extensively about the history of Tobermory here, so I’ll just go over the information relevant to this post. Tobermory, the only distillery on the Isle of Mull, produces two different single malts; unpeated Tobermory and heavily peated Ledaig (the distillery has gone by each name a couple of times in its long history). After a closure that lasted more than 40 years, it was reopened in 1972 but only operated for about three years, until 1975. During this period all of the whisky was heavily peated but some casks were labeled as Tobermory and other as Ledaig.

The distillery restarted with new owners in 1979 and ran until1983. It was closed until 1989, then opened again and was finally purchased by its current owners in 1993. The practice of making two separate single malts, peated and unpeated, began in 1979. The peat levels (and quality) were inconsistent between 1979 and 1993, but somewhat low on average; maybe around 15 ppm. By the mid 1990’s the new owners had raised the peat levels of the Ledaig distillate to 37 ppm.

From the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s the distillery bottled a 15 year old and a 20 year old, both at 43%. The 20 had red lettering on a white label and the 15 looked similar, but with blue lettering. As far as I can tell, that 15 year bottling was all from distillate produced between 1979 and 1983, while the 20 year was from two periods, 1972-1975 and 1979-1983. I have seen one 20 year bottle that carried a 1974 vintage, but I’m not sure if all of the bottles from that earlier, more desirable period were vintage dated. There were also a few non-age stated Ledaigs bottled around the same time that I’m assuming were from the distillate produced between 1989 and 1993.

The nice thing about finding the 15 year Ledaig at the Whisky Café is that even though it’s a bottling that’s very difficult to find now, it has likely been sitting on their shelf since it was commonly available so it’s still reasonably priced.

It opened with delicate peat on the nose, as well as aromas that were grassy, malty and a bit floral. It had very soft peat on the palate and was surprisingly well-composed, but it still carried too much of the perfumed floral character that goes against my personal preferences. The finish was smooth but lengthy and maintained a good deal of character.

I think this one was better overall but not dramatically different than the 16 year old Ledaig I’ve had from Gordon & MacPhail that was distilled in 1990.

Pub L’Ile Noire
address: 1649 Rue Saint-Denis
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Quartier Latin
closest metro station: 5 minute walk from Berri-UQAM (the orange and green lines cross here)

The Quartier Latin (confusingly this neighborhood is entirely within the newly defined Quartier des Spectacles, which is entirely within the area defined as downtown) has been home to L’Ile Noire since it opened in 1989 (about 6 months before Whisky Café). Originally located on Rue Ontario, the pub was forced to move after 21 years in business when they were unable to renew their lease as the area went through a period of gentrification. The move wasn’t far though, a mere 750 feet and just around the corner on Rue Saint-Denis.

My first visit to L’Ile Noire was at the original location in April of 2010 and I was completely unaware of the impending move that would take place two months later. When I returned for a second visit in October of 2010, I was quite surprised to find that they had relocated. The original space, while following the British pub theme, had a very different feel to it than the Burgundy Lion does. It was much darker, both the wood tones and the lighting. Accented by many candles, it was more lounge-like. But it was still a lively and vibrant place with a solid whisky collection.

The new space had a much different feel to it. It had more of a cold, post-modern interior design character. There was much less wood and a lot more glass, polished stone and stainless steel. Of course the whisky was still there, as well as the friendly staff and the same interesting, eclectic music selection; it all just felt sort of out of place. I’ve often voiced the opinion that it seemed like the owners got it wrong by spending too much money creating the new space and many a Montrealer has agreed with me.

Of course, when I made that second visit everything was still brand new and shiny. Five years later the space is starting to feel like it’s breaking in, maybe some patina is even starting to form. I don’t think it will ever match the original space, but L’Ile Noire does seem more comfortable in its own skin now.

The food menu is small and limited to simple snacks. As for the whisky, the list shows about 200 single malts, but I think they have quite a few more that aren’t listed so they’re probably closer to 250. I’ve definitely had some interesting rarities here over the years, like Highland Park Earl Magnus 12 year and 15 year (which weren’t released to the U.S.), as well as a cask strength 23 year old North Port (Brechin distillery) and a cask strength 25 year old Hillside (Glenesk distillery), both of which were distilled in 1971.

In spite of the Whisky Café being closed on my first attempt to visit for this post, I soldiered on through the -15 F temperatures to the rest of my scheduled stops. L’Ile Noire, being closest to my hotel, was the last one of the night. I decided to go with the 15 year Glenfarclas for a couple of reasons. Having started the day with the 1979 Glenfarclas, it seemed apropos to come full circle. Also, the first time I tried Glenfarclas 17 year was during that visit to L’Ile Noire’s original location. Oh, and we don’t get the 15 year in the U.S. Bottled at 46% and non-chill filtered, Glenfarclas 15 year is somewhat of an anomaly. Most of the rest of their standard lineup (the 10, 12, 17, 18, 21, 25 and 30 year olds) are bottled at 43% and chill filtered.

The nose had lovely dark berry and sherried fruit aromas with a malty backbone and just a hint of peat smoke. On the palate it had good intensity up front with barley malt and stewed fruits leading the charge. It got a little hot on the mid-palate with some of the flavors dropping back a bit. But it regained its balance as it moved into the finish when remnants of the malty core came to the fore and were joined by dry spice notes and a subtle touch of peat smoke. Overall this was an interesting contrast to the 1979, and a nice representation of the Glenfarclas. I should really pick up a bottle of this next time I’m north of the border.

Before I started this little adventure, I knew that the whisky pours in Montreal were smaller than what I get at home. But I wasn’t sure what size they were or if they were uniform from place to place. I didn’t start asking until the second trip, so I had to email a few place to get the info. It turns out that the Burgundy Lion offers a 1 ounce pour while L’Ile Noire and the Whisky Café go with 1 ¼ ounces. L’Ile Noire also offers ½ pours (presumably 5/8 of an ounce), which the other two don’t. These are priced a bit higher than half the cost of a full pour, but can still be a nice way to try some of the more expensive options.

Speaking of prices, I should compare the relative expense of drinking at these three establishments. I looked at about 16 different single malts (I say about because some of them only appeared on two of the three lists) that spanned a wide range of price points. I also adjusted the Burgundy Lion’s prices to account for the smaller pour size. Some solid trends emerged, but as expected there were exceptions. If one place buys a bottle and two years later another place buys the same bottle but its price has gone up 50% (as can happen these days), that would throw off the trend.

L’Ile Noire has the best prices almost universally. Of the malts I looked at, Burgundy Lion only beat their price on one and was tied on another. The prices were higher at Burgundy Lion by 5% to 50% and price point didn’t seem to be a factor in the differential. As I said, this is after adjusting Burgundy Lion’s prices up 25% to take account for the smaller pour size.

The Whisky Café has higher prices than L’Ile Noire across the board. On the low end of the price range the Burgundy Lion is usually slightly more expensive than the Whisky Café. As you get into the higher priced options, L’Ile Noire and Burgundy Lion stay close to each other, with the former usually keeping a slight advantage. But this is where the prices at the Whisky Café really take off. Just a few examples, the location abbreviations should be obvious:

Oban 14 year - $16.25 (BL), $15 (WC), $13 (LN)
Glengoyne 17 year - $16.25 (BL), $18 (WC), $13 (LN)
Glenfarclas 40 year - $55 (BL), $80 (WC), $60 (LN)*
anCnoc 35 year - $63 (BL), $60 (LN)
Bunnahabhain 25 year - $50 (BL), $45 (LN)
Balblair 1975 - $95 (WC), $50 (LN)
Highland Park 25 year - $50 (WC), $30 (LN)
Highland Park 30 year - $55 (BL), $90 (WC)

*2012 price, possibly higher now but the picture was blurry.

With a diverse variety of positive attributes, each of these places is worth visiting. Which one you’ll like most comes down to personal preference. Hopefully my review will help point people in the right direction.

No comments: