Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The whisky bars of Montreal, part trois

The first post in my series covering the whisky bars of Montreal explored the “big three” on the city’s whisky scene and the next post continued with the city’s second tier of whisky dispensaries. This third and final installment will look at a few establishments that are worthy of mention for one reason or another, even though they each fall short of achieving full whisky bar status.

address: 1494 Rue Ontario Est
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Gay Village
closest metro station: 11 minute walk from Beaudry (green line), 14 minute walk from Sherbrooke (orange line)

When I belly up to the bar at just about any pub or restaurant, my eyes tend to gravitate rather quickly toward the whisky bottles on display. My reaction to what I see can range from indifference to excitement. There are about a dozen single malts, each the flagship offering of their respective distilleries, which are as ubiquitous as they are well-known. These are the bottlings that receive the most marketing attention and biggest slice of the promotional budget from the companies that own them. Those parent companies also tend have the most extensive distribution networks.

When establishments have small selections of single malts, say 15 or less, the majority of them are usually plucked from the above mentioned group as well as some of their brand siblings a step or two up the price scale. That’s not to say that there is something wrong with any of those whiskies on their own, but seeing them almost everywhere without alternatives does get boring awfully fast and elicits my indifference. Conversely, what gets me excited is seeing a small list that is well-selected. Ideally it will have a mix of little-known, high-quality single malts along with obscure and limited bottlings that don’t run too far up the price scale. And that is exactly what Station has.

Owner Fred Cormier established his Hopfenstark brewery in 2006. Its location in L’Assomption, an off-island suburb north of the city, is a good place to lease industrial property and make beer. It’s not such a great place for showcasing that beer to its target audience. So mid way through 2013 the brewery’s tasting room was closed and the Station beer bar was opened in the city, taking its place.

While Dieu Du Ciel is Quebec’s best known craft brewery, Hopfenstark has more of an underground presence and a cult following. Fred’s beer can be eccentric and follows no rules or trends, but garners great respect from those who know it. One example is the Boson de Higgs; part Saison, part Berliner Weisse, part Rauchbier, and named after a sub-atomic particle.

If you’re concerned about the neighborhood where this bar is located (which really shouldn’t be an issue in the first place), don’t be. The Gay Village is an expansive area and Station is located on the periphery of it. I actually had no idea which neighborhood this locale was part of until I looked on the map. This was previously somewhat of a rough section of Rue Ontario in terms of drug abuse and panhandling, but a wave of gentrification has gradually pushed that activity further east over the past few years.

The space is simple and rustic, but still warm and inviting. It serves its purpose well, which is to showcase the beers and whiskies that are offered. About two years after opening they expanded into the space next door, but the dividing wall remains intact and the new room is only used when needed for large crowds, keeping the feel of the original space intact. Their third summer also saw the addition of seasonal outdoor seating.

Food is available but limited so a small number of items that can be prepared behind the bar. The owner is not a fan of the latest trend of people going out to public gathering spots only to bury their faces in their smart phones, so expect to engage in conversation with those around you or be subjected to scornful looks. I know a lot of modern bars struggle with the question of whether or not to have televisions. They don’t want to have a “sports bar” atmosphere, but they don’t want to be completely empty during major sporting events. Station has found a good compromise here; one of my visits was during a big NHL playoff game and they chose to show it, but projected onto a wall, in black and white, and with no sound.

When it comes to whisky lists, more is almost always better because you’re getting greater variety, if nothing else. But the selection of single malts at Station shows what can be done with just 20 bottles if the person picking them truly knows Scotch and isn’t required to include popular bottlings. A list that size featuring 10 year Springbank, 12 year Hazelburn, 21 year Old Pulteney, Highland Park Freya and an Amarone cask finished Arran gets instant respect from me. I went with a cask strength (61.4%) Caol Ila bottling from Gordon & Macphail that was distilled in 2000 and bottled at the end of 2012. Official cask strength offerings from Caol Ila are quite rare and their lower proof standard offerings are all chill filtered. Most of the Caol Ila distillate ends up in bourbon barrels, so the fact that this bottling is from first fill sherry casks makes it even more special.

The nose is intense, with peat smoke that is dry and earthy in nature accompanied by a touch of brine and slightly medicinal notes. In the mouth this is classic Caol Ila, big and oily. On the palate there is a sharp attack up front that starts with malt and mint before the peat smoke starts coming in waves and building in intensity. Moving into the finish the smoke evolves, taking on a hot spicy character, but it remains bracing and phenolic for some time. This is a big, powerful whisky, but not to the point of being unruly. The sherry cask influence was less obvious than I expected. I’m sure it added balance, but the peat smoke took center stage with everything else appearing as background notes, as is the case with bourbon barrel aged Caol Ila bottlings. It’s nice to see the potential of this distillery realized, but this example is not for the faint of heart.

Bar Big In Japan
address: 4175 Boulevard Saint-Laurant
borough: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
neighborhood: Little Portugal (a small sub-neighborhood that is within The Plateau)
closest metro station: 13 minute walk from Mont-Royal (orange line)

If you dig deep with online searches for whisky bars in Montreal and try to find something beyond the usual suspects, the name Bar Big in Japan might come up. If you investigate further and peruse their online reviews, you’ll see that of the ones which mention their whisky selection, about half make positive comments and half make negative comments. This seemed quite odd to me and I had a theory about it, so I decided to stop in, investigate and get to the bottom of the mystery.

Easily confused with its similarly named sister establishment, Restaurant Big in Japan, the two are located on the same street, about four blocks apart. Even if you’re looking for the correct place, it can be kind of tough to find as it follows the modern speakeasy formula of having a semi hidden entrance. No sign, no bright light, no marked street number, just a non-descript door (originally red, later brownish-gray, sometimes with graffiti) with a couple of very small Japanese characters on the window. Looking through that window is like staring into a tunnel with just a bit of light at the end.

Walking through the door, you find yourself in a long, dark, curtain lined hallway. At the end it opens into the main room, which is connected to smaller secondary room further back. The space is dimly lit but accented by many candles. The interior design and uniquely shaped bar create a space that is quite stunning visually. The staff members, outfitted in Tuxedo shirts and bow ties, make the atmosphere feel uptight and pretentious though.

Craft cocktails are the driving force of Bar Big in Japan, and I assume that is something they do well. But what of the whisky? Well, as I had expected, the selection was rather anemic; just two Japanese whiskies, four single malt Scotches and 10 American whiskies (and really nothing exotic or even too interesting among them). Was there an explanation of those online reviews talking up their extensive whisky collection? Well, the bar does have a unique feature. You can buy a full bottle of Japanese whisky (limited to the two selections on the list) and if you don’t finish it, they will put your name on it and hold it for your future visits. There is a ceiling beam running down the center of the bar with metal rods hanging down from it, each rod having a bottle cap affixed to its end. The stored customer bottles are screwed onto those caps, creating a line of several dozen bottles hanging like pendants down the center of the room.

As I suspected, the people raving about the great whisky collection here are the ones who are too dumb to realize that each of these hanging bottles is one of the two available that can be purchased whole and stored. Bar Big in Japan may be a great place to bring a first date that you are trying to impress, but it is not worthy of the attention of whisky aficionados.

Since I made the effort to find the place and see what it was all about, I felt obligated to have a glass of whisky and make a few notes. Thankfully they did have Nikka Yoichi 10 year (45%), which is what I drank on that first visit to the Whisky Café, back in 2010 when this whole odyssey began.

On the nose it shows delicate peat smoke, malt and just a touch of citrus. On the palate gentle peat smoke, malty grain notes and stewed fruits come through up front, but it’s a bit rambunctious, with a little too much heat relative to the level of flavor intensity. It quickly turns very dry as it rolls into the finish. A hint of earthy peat smoke lingers and is joined by dry spice notes. Overall it shows much potential, but lacks refinement.

Dominion Square Tavern
address: 1243 Rue Metcalf
borough: Ville-Marie
neighborhood: Downtown
closest metro station: 6 minute walk from Peel (green line), 8 minute walk from Bonaventure (orange line)

A friend who visits Montreal often mentioned that I should check out the Dominion Square Tavern if I was writing about Montreal’s whisky bars. There really wasn’t much online to indicate that this might be a whisky destination, but it is owned by the people who own the Whisky Café. Scrutinizing some pictures of the place, what I could see of the whisky bottles on the shelf didn’t look too promising. I did consider the possibility that photos might not be current, and since I was making a third trip to the city to visit the Whisky Café, I decided to stop by here too for the sake of being thorough.

Designed as a vintage 1920’s era tavern, the interior is masterfully done. You really do feel as if you’re stepping back in time nearly 100 years as you walk through the door. The heavily patinated mirrors that line the wall behind the bar don’t photograph well, but they provide an impressive look in person. Perusing their menus, it’s obvious that the greatest strengths here are the food and the cocktail program.

As for the whisky, they do have a respectable selection of 25 single malts. And while there were a few interesting rarities on the list, the majority of the bottles were selected from that group of all too common single malts that I mentioned above. I wouldn’t put Dominion Square Tavern on a list of pure whisky destinations, but it’s still worthy of mention. If you are stuck with a group who are particular about food and cocktails and they don’t want to stray from downtown Montreal, you can take them here and still have some respectable whisky options for yourself.

I was happy to find Bruichladdich Waves on the list. This is a relic of the irreverent days at Bruichladdich when they put out a never-ending stream of new and unique bottlings, and one which I was yet to have tried. There were several editions of Waves released between 2006 and 2012, and the bottling was inspired by Islay’s rough seas and storm-lashed coast. The overall theme here was young (think 6 to 7 years), slightly elevated peat level, and a mix of Bourbon and Madeira casks. This example appears to have been bottled early in 2012 and was at 46% abv.

The nose is very coastal, with bright malt notes, sea spray, fish nets, beach grass and pebbles. Tree fruit and gentle malts notes are joined on the palate by a discernable bit of peat smoke. Some immature malt character comes to the fore as it moves into the finish, but it’s not overtly offensive. Gentle spice notes come around at the very end providing redemption. Overall it’s very approachable without being too mild mannered.

As for price and pour size, I won’t bother with that information for Bar Big in Japan since it really isn’t relevant as a whisky establishment. Dominion Square Tavern has a 1 ¼ ounce pour, but their prices are on the high side across their range (actually, their food looks pretty pricey too, it’s just an expensive place, period). I also noticed that their listed prices do not include the required 15% tax, which is added when you get the bill. They seem to be the city’s exception rather than the rule in that regard.

Station had been issuing 1 ½ ounce pours. When I mentioned the drink size of other bars in the city to the owner, he said he might back down to 1 ¼ ounces. The prices here are still very reasonable, even if Fred does follow through with a slightly smaller pour.

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