Saturday, September 19, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part deux

Part two of my Montreal whisky bar review will cover what I consider to be the second tier of these establishments. If you search around online trying to find such places, pretty much all of the results that come up are for the “big three” that I covered in my previous installment. I discovered the two bars that are the subject of this post by luck more than anything else, so it is very well possible that there are others in the city that fit into this category of which I am unaware.

When I planned what was going to be my epic, slightly more than 24-hour tour of seven of Montreal’s whisky bars, Else’s and Le Boudoir were going to be the last two stops. After visiting five places and spending the night, I would stop by the other two before heading home. Since the Whisky Café had been closed the night before and wasn’t set to open until 7:00 that night, I decided to hit the road ahead of a big snow storm and return for a second visit to cover the three remaining establishments.

Else’s became the first stop of round two since it has the earliest opening time of the three. It was at this point when I realized that inquiring about the sizes of the whisky servings was relevant to the task at hand. I asked the bartender at Else’s and said that she thought it was 1 ounce, but she really wasn’t certain. As our conversation continued, a gentleman sitting nearby interjected with the possibility that even though the drinks in Canada consisted of fewer ounces, they were about the same size as what I got at home because Canada has bigger ounces than we have in the U.S. He went on to explain that it all had to do with the fact that Canada was still part of the British Monarchy, something which the States had rebelled against long ago.

Well, maybe he had a point; the Queen of England can still be found on Canadian currency and I know that the Imperial gallon, though not in use much these days, is significantly bigger than the U.S. gallon. With a bit of research I eventually figured out that he was partially right, but mostly wrong. It’s time for a quick history lesson.

The full story of the origin of the gallon has been lost to time, but we do know that it eventually become the base of systems used to measure goods in England. Of course things needed to be complicated back then, so there were different sized gallons for different goods. The wine gallon, the ale gallon and the corn gallon each had their own defined volumes. There were probably others as well.

According to historical researchers, the size of the wine gallon probably varied over a period of several centuries. Evidence of a 224 cubic inch wine gallon dates back to the mid-1200’s. By the 1500’s it had become 233 cubic inches and a century later the wine gallon was down to 231 cubic inches, likely when its description was simplified by using whole numbers to specify the size of a cylinder that defined its volume. The wine gallon had been used as the unit of measure for taxing wine imports for quite some time, but it wasn’t until 1706 that the English government wrote the 231 cubic inch definition into law.

When the United States declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1776, the new country retained the units of measure that had originated in England, including the three different types of gallons mentioned above. In 1824 the United Kingdom opted to have a single standard for a measure of volume; the Imperial gallon was introduced and all others abandoned. Defined as the volume of 10 pounds of distilled water at 62 degrees Fahrenheit, which works out to about 277.4 cubic inches, the Imperial gallon is slightly smaller than the previous ale gallon of 282 cubic inches. Back in the U.S. in 1832 the Treasury adopted the 231 cubic inch wine gallon as the standard of measure for volumes of liquid. At the same time they adopted the 2150.42 cubic inch bushel as the standard of measure for volumes of dry goods. Although it is rarely used today, the corn gallon, which is 268.8 cubic inches, lives on in the U.S. as 1/8 of a bushel.

Canada’s movement toward independence from the UK was much more slow and incremental than that of the United States. Although the first steps were taken in 1791, the former colonies didn’t federate into a new state until 1867. Up until 1946 Canadians were still legally citizens of Britain, and the final constitutional ties between the two countries weren’t broken until 1982. Canada is still technically part of the British Commonwealth, but it’s purely symbolic at this point; hence the Queen on the $20 bill. This does explain why Canada adopted Britain’s new Imperial units of weights and measures in 1824 though.

And while both countries have largely adopted the metric system at this point, there are still remnants of the old system, most notably in the measure of alcoholic beverages. This is where it gets interesting. A gallon, whether it is an Imperial gallon or a U.S. liquid gallon, is equal to four quarts and each quart is equal to two pints. Of course this means that the Imperial quart and Imperial pint are bigger than their American counterparts. But the Imperial fluid ounce is equal to 1/20 of and Imperial pint where the U.S. fluid ounce is equal to 1/16 of a U.S. pint.

Once the dust has settled and the math is done, it turns out that the U.S. fluid ounce is actually slightly bigger than the Imperial fluid ounce. With respective volumes of 29.57 ml and 28.41 ml, the difference is only about 4%, close enough to say that they are about the same. Keep in mind though that if you order a pint of beer in Canada, you’ll get an Imperial pint, which is 20 Imperial ounces (or 19.2 U.S. ounces).

address: 156 Rue Roy Est
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: The Plateau
closest metro station: 10 minute walk from Sherbrooke (orange line)

Else’s has a pretty interesting origin story which is printed on the back of the menu. In 1993 a 50-something, six foot tall blond Norwegian woman named Else Smith took a five hour cab ride from Toronto to Montreal. Ready for a fresh start in life, she abandoned her quiet suburban ways and opened a bar in her new home city. Sadly, Else Smith passed away in 2000, but her legacy lives on with her son Eliott running the business.

Else’s has a few quirks that should be mentioned. From the start it operated as a bar even though it only had a restaurant permit. After a decade of warnings, penalties and fines, they were finally forced to start operating as a restaurant. I’m assuming that they’re in an area where zoning rules don’t allow bar permits, otherwise they would have obtained one long ago. This means that a little more than 10 years ago they had to set up a kitchen and offer a daily menu of food items. It also means that you can’t just go there and get a drink without ordering at least some food. They are good about keeping a few very minimalist, snack-like items available, so you don’t have to order much food if you are going there primarily for drinks. Oh, and they don’t take credit cards, so make sure you have cash or a debit card before you settle in there. I believe there is an ATM on premise, but I’d rather not find out what sort of fees that involves.

I’ve been to Else’s twice, both times for lunch. On my first visit, in the spring of 2014, the food was what I would describe as approachable pub fare, with items like fish & chips and moules-frites. On my second visit, when I mentioned that the food seemed quite different I was informed that they had a new chef. After 10 years the time had come to shake things up and take the menu in a new direction. While some of the former items remain, the deep fryer, which was the driving force of the old menu, was eliminated. Pork tacos and mini quinoa burgers typify the new offerings, which the chef describes as unpretentious gourmet comfort food.

The area around Else’s is very residential, and the bar exudes the feeling of a local neighborhood gathering spot. The interior is well worn, though not outdated. The space itself is cozy, but open and bright with large windows occupying much of the two exterior walls. Located on a corner and having a wide, rectangular floor-plan, the interior of Else’s is in contrast to many Montreal bars and restaurants, especially those in more densely developed areas which often have a very narrow, deep footprint. Street frontage is not at such a premium in this part of the city, allowing spaces with a greater proportion of exterior walls.

In spite of its respectable collection of more than 70 single malts, Else’s doesn’t seem to be all that well known as a whisky bar. That might be partly because the bottles that are most visible behind the bar are the ones that see frequent use, with many of the Scotch bottles hidden down on lower shelves rather than being prominently displayed. In fact, I only discovered Else’s by chance while scouring the online reviews of another bar to see if it was worth visiting. One of the comments there mentioned that those in search of a good whisky selection would be better off going to Else’s.

I decided to go with Bruichladdich’s 2006 Bere Barely offering for my first drink of the day. Bere is an ancient barley variety that was first cultivated in Mesopotamia some 6000 years ago. The Vikings are likely to have introduced it to Scotland by the 9th century, possibly much earlier. Bere was the barley originally used to make Scottish malt whisky, but it was gradually phased out from the early 1800’s to the early 1900’s as more modern barley varieties took its place. Fortunately a small quantity of Bere has remained under cultivation in Scotland, primarily in the Orkney Islands where it is used to produce traditional baked goods.

When comparing modern varieties of barley, the two-row type has more starch and is therefore higher yielding (more fermentable sugar per ton) and the six-row type has more protein and greater enzyme content. Six-row barley is also higher yielding on the farm (more tons per acre). Scottish malt whisky and most, if not all European beer is made with two-row barley, while six-row barley is used primarily for livestock feed. In the U.S. however, six-row barley is preferred by macro-brewers and whisky distillers because the higher enzyme content is needed to convert starches from the other ingredients used (corn and rice for beer, corn, wheat and rye for whisky) to sugars. While Bere is a six-row variety, it is not a modern one, so it has less yield in the mash and on the farm (Bruichladdich say 50% less than a modern crop).

There have been three releases of Bere Barley single malt from Bruichladdich so far. The first two, a 7200 bottle general release and a 15,600 bottle travel-retail exclusive, both used Islay grown Bere and both were distilled in 2006 and bottled in 2012. The third, a travel-retail exclusive of 36,000 bottles, used Orkney grown Bere and was distilled in 2008 and bottled in 2014. While Bruichladdich’s Bere Barley single malt may be the most readily available, it is not the only modern example, nor was it the first. Michel Couvreur, an independent bottler based in France, had Bere from Orkney malted at Highland Park and distilled at Edradour in 1986. It was offered as a series of small releases in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The Arran distillery also produced a Bere Barley single malt with grain from Orkney in 2004. There have been two releases so far, 5800 bottles in 2012 and 4890 bottles in 2014. Springbank has also commissioned a farmer local to Campbeltown to grow Bere at least twice in the last decade, but they are yet to release a whisky made from it as far as I know.

This first release of 2006 Bruichladdich Bere Barley is aged about 6 years and bottled at 50% abv. It is pale golden-straw in color. The nose is pleasant and bright with citrus and delicate malt notes. It is robust on the palate, with a more assertive character than the nose would suggest. The flavor profile is quite grassy, with candied ginger in front of a gentle malt backdrop. The finish is long and warming with a bit of dry spice coming on late. Overall it has an endearing rustic character.

Le Boudoir
address: 850 Avenue du Mont-Royal Est
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: The Plateau
closest metro station: 3 minute walk from Mont-Royal (orange line)

Le Boudoir was recommended to me three or four years ago by a bartender at Dieu du Ciel! (one of Montreal’s most highly regarded brew pubs) when I mentioned that I was seeking out the city’s whisky bars. Established in 1997, Le Boudoir is located in a bustling part of the Plateau. This is very much a zone of dense commercial development, a fact that is reflected by the bar’s deep, narrow floor plan that I alluded to earlier.

However, this is still an area with a heavy concentration of residential properties and Le Boudoir, much like Else’s, serves as a gathering spot for the local neighborhood. The food here is very minimal, just light snacks that can be prepared behind the bar. Bringing takeout from nearby restaurants is something that is not just tolerated though, it’s actually encouraged. The atmosphere is casual with a pool table and foosball in the back, and the work of local artists graces the walls on a monthly rotation. Well selected beverage offerings and modest pricing combine to draw in an eclectic but friendly crowd. The selection of 70 to 80 single malts (which are very prominently displayed behind the bar) is supplemented by a respectable offering of Quebec micro brews.

While none of the five places that I’ve looked at so far are in heavily touristed parts of the city, the first three are big enough and well known to the point that they do draw in some visitors to the city. Else’s and Le Boudoir on the other hand are both very much local hangouts where tourists are few and far between, though certainly welcomed.

Le Boudoir was the second stop of the day and I decided to try a whisky that I’d been curious about for some time. Unfortunately my selection didn’t live up to my expectations. I wasn’t really looking forward to writing about a whisky that I was underwhelmed by as part of this post, so when I made my third trip to the city to finally visit the Whisky Café it made sense to revisit Le Boudoir and try something different.

This time I decided to go for a whisky from a distillery I was totally unfamiliar with; Glen Elgin 12 year. Owning more than a quarter of Scotland’s 100 (or so) single malt distilleries, Diageo is far and away the biggest player in the Scotch game. But blended whisky has always been the company’s bread and butter. Johnnie Walker may be the most recognizable brand in their portfolio, but it is just one of the 10 blended Scotch brands owned by Diageo. That being said, the company really only strongly promotes a handful its single malt brands and the whiskies from about half of their distilleries aren’t even bottled as single malt.

Glen Elgin falls between those two groups, it’s been bottled as a single malt for almost 15 years (it started of in the Flora & Fauna range in 2001, moved to the Hidden Malts range in 2003 and was added to the Classic Malts range in 2005), but it has never been heavily promoted as such and most of the distillery’s production still goes to blends. Located three miles south of the town of Elgin, in the heart of Speyside, Glen Elgin is generally well regarded but flies under the radar.

The 12 year old, bottled at 43% is the only regularly available official distillery bottling from Glen Elgin. The nose has malty, floral and grassy notes with a lot of subtle complexity. On the palate it is somewhat full bodied and meaty, with a brief hit of malty sweetness up front followed by grassy, floral notes and tree fruit. Then a combination of heat and spice notes (clove?) arrives quickly and becomes more dominant as it moves into the finish, which is quite dry.

What’s interesting here is what I learned when I finally did some more exhaustive research into Glen Elgin while writing this post. This bottling is primarily a European release (obviously some made it to Canada though) and has never been available in the United States. It should also be noted that in spite of a period of modernization in the late  1960’s and early 1970’s, the distillery continues to use long fermentation times (75 hours) and still cools the spirit coming off the stills with traditional worm tubs.

The meaty quality I had noticed is often attributed to the use of worm tubs. There’s occasionally an element of self-doubt as I compose tasting notes, so it’s nice to have a moment of validation like this.

As I sat at the bar sipping on the Glen Elgin, I noticed another bottle on the list that caught my attention; 12 year Glengoyne. And that begged an important question; was it the cask strength version? Much to my delight, the bartender’s answer to that question was “yes”. Glengoyne revamped their core range late in 2012; the flagship 10 year and top end 21 year were left alone, but the 17 year was replaced with a new 15 year and a new 18 year, and the cask strength 12 year was replaced by a 43% abv 12 year old and a non-age stated cask strength bottling. I’m not sure if the 12 year cask strength bottling ever made its way to the States, but when I checked with the importer toward the end of 2013 the NAS cask strength was the only bottling from the core range that wasn’t being exported to the U.S.

I’ve been a big fan of Glengoyne since visiting the distillery in 2012. The cask strength 12 year bottling (100% sherry cask matured and 57.2% abv) is as close as their standard lineup comes to their Teapot Dram, one of my all time favorite whiskies. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to taste it, so Le Boudoir gets two whiskies for their review. Cheers.

It has a big, malty, sherry fruit driven nose with a good dose of mulling spices. On the palate it’s big and fiery in all of its malty, stewed fruit and holiday baking spice glory. The depth of flavor is fantastic. It’s almost mouth-numbing as meanders through the incredibly long finish. Nonetheless, this does show a little more maturity than the 58.8% abv Teapot Dram (60% 9 year, 20% 13 year, 20% 14 year), making it a bit more approachable.

I started off talking about pour sizes and mentioned that the bartender at Else’s said she thought they had a 1 ounce pour, but she didn’t seem too certain. At Le Boudoir I was told that the standard pour is 1 1/8 ounces and the half pours listed on the menu are, well, half of that. The half drams do come at a bit of a premium, at about 2/3 the price of a full dram. I didn’t ask about the availability of ½ pours at Else’s, but I’m assuming they weren’t offered since they weren’t listed on the menu.

With collections of 70-plus single malts, each of these establishments has plenty to choose from, but they certainly don’t have the depth that the “big three” can offer with two to four times as many selections. Rare and obscure bottlings aren’t as prolific either, but the ones that are available at Else’s and Le Boudoir are more affordable, which stands to reason with their price ranges topping out around $25 to $30 per drink. Prices between the two places are quite close, and not much different than those of the “big three”. Overall though, the best values to be found are still at L’Ile Noire.

I should also mention “cinq au sept”, which is what they call happy hour in Montreal. It’s a big deal there; lasting at least two hours (the name translates to “five to seven”, but a lot of places start earlier or go later with it). You probably won’t find any single malts included in the deals, but you can get a few half priced beers to go along with your whisky. The cinq au sept at Le Boudoir, which seems quite popular, is supplemented by “cette semaine”; drink specials which run from open to close and are changed weekly (the names translates to “this week”). A single malt Scotch is always included at Le Boudoir, with Glenfarclas 12 year marked down from $9.00 to $7.75 during my last visit.

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