Last September we were just starting to plan our 2014 visits to Islay when a rather intriguing e-mail popped into our inbox from Johanna Ngoh inviting us to take part in the 2014 Spirit of Toronto Whisky Gala , needless to say we accepted and this is our little adventure……..
The first thing i needed to do was get a passport as i have never had one (never been out of the UK ) and that was an experience and a half ! I had to go down to the local office in Durham for an “interview” (not an interrogation as they said at arrival…..) , it is a weird interview , a friendly , nicey nicey interrogation , basically trying to catch you out for being not what you say you are .
So to the trip , our flight was from Manchester , so after work on the 30th April we drove down to spend a night in a hotel beside the Airport .
Thursday 1st May
The day of departure , my first flight ! I have to say departing from an Airport is not as good as fun as departing from Kennacraig ! Checking in was ok but the people at the security security check really need to lighten up ! (check out the end…..) Why so surly ? We were flying with Air Transat so headed off to our gate to await departure , on the way we stopped off at World of Whiskies and wasn’t impressed with selection or price , i can pick up The Signet for £110 at my local Tesco !
So to my first flight…… I wasn’t too nervous but any nerves i did have vanished as soon as we got into the air , i really enjoyed the take off (i did love roller coasters as a kid…..) and seeing the world from up in the air was fantastic . The Cabin crew on Air Transat were Fantastic and even though the flight was over 7 hours it (excuse the pun….) flew over…..
We arrived at Pearson Mid afternoon and headed for the customs clutching our Declaration form , i thought this bit would be fun , (a) seeing if our bottles had made it through baggage handling and (b) seeing how customs would react to 10 bottles of Single Malt Whisky ? (a) they did and (b) they weren’t particularly bothered or interested ! Just one question for seasoned travellers , is it always such a long walk from the arrival gate to exit of the airport ? We decided to get a limo from the Airport to the Hotel as it was only $5 more and you may as well arrive in style ! The first view of Toronto are stunning , the Skyscrapers along the Lake Shore , our driver was great , pointing things out and giving us tips for the trip .
We arrived at our Hotel for the stay and we have to say photos don’t do it justice , we were staying at the Fairmont Royal York opposite Union Station……
(Click on photos to see full size )
We were both trying to think of a way to describe it , sort of ‘Pretty Woman’ meets 1930’s glamourous Hollywood movie hotel place , Amazing is a pretty good word as well !
We were originally staying on the 2nd floor but due to a lack of hot water in the room got moved to the 13th floor on the Friday , it was a bit of a shame as we had a nice view out of the window…..
After we freshened up we headed down to one of the many bars in the Hotel to have a drink and a bite to eat , we ended up in The Piper’s Gastropub , Melanie got to try her first Ontario wine ( Crush Pinot Grigio ) and i got to try my first Canadian Whisky (Collingwoods) , Melanie went for the Royal York’s Signature ½ Pound Beef Burger and i went for the Bison Burger , they were , as our American friends would say , Awesome . It was at this point we realised that we were effectively eating after midnight UK time . We have to say the service was fantastic here , the waitress went beyond the call of duty , when she asked us if we wanted dessert Melanie asked about one she’d dropped off at the next table , it was a special the chef done for that regular customer , we decided to pass but 10 minutes later she returned with one……
It was a Chocolate Moose in a Chocolate Cup , Chocolate Ice Cream in a Chocolate Shell served with fresh fruit and a chocolate sauce , How good was it ?
We then headed up to Library Bar for a drink , while sitting there we got a text from Johanna saying her and Charles were meeting Angus Macraild in the Library bar for a drink…. They were just next to us ! After a good old natter and a few more drinks we called it a night , it was actually the next morning for us (4am UK) and headed back to our room .
Friday 2nd May
Our first full day in Toronto , after a bit of a leisurely lie in we went off for a bit of an exploration , first off down to the Shore then slightly west via the CN Tower to the Theatre District and finally caught a cab to the Distillery District .
The Distillery District was a beautiful area , lots of great shops and places to eat .
We had Lunch in the Pure Spirit Oyster House and Grill, a very nice bar , luckily we just managed to order lunch before the electricity went off in the District , they did still managed to serve us , we both went for the Pure Spirits Pappardelle (lobster, wild mushrooms, black truffle cream sauce ) and a glass of the Local wine .
Lunch was superb and the service was excellent (this seems to be the standard in Toronto , maybe most of the UK hospitality trade should take note…..) . After another wander around the area we headed back to the Hotel to change rooms and get ready for a meal out with Johanna and Charles . Not only were we moved it appeared we’d been upgraded room wise……
The Bedroom and Lounge area were now separate and we now had two bathrooms ! After a freshen up we met up with Johanna and Charles who took us to The Keg for a bite to eat with Angus and our old friend Ashok . I went for a 10oz Prime Rib and Melanie went for the Grilled Shrimp , i was surprised how rare looking it was even though i’d asked for medium but it was pure melt in the mouth steak . After much drinking and talking we all headed back to our hotels for ‘Show Day’ .
Saturday 3rd May – Showtime !
I’d had a bit of a restless night worrying about my first ever presentation in front of an audience so to relax we done a bit of exploration to the north of the hotel via Osgoode House and the City Hall – where there appeared to be some filming going on and preparations for the next days Marathon .
After a visit to one of the Legendary LCBO shops We hit a Red Lobster for a spot of lunch , Melanie went for the Ultimate Feast and i went for the Fire-Grilled Lobster, Shrimp and Scallops , We love our seafood and this place is the ‘clachan a choin’ ! We headed back to our hotel to prepare for the Whisky Gala……
So it was time ! We were picked up from the hotel and taken to the Roy Thomson Hall , i have to say it is a pretty impressive place to have a Whisky Festival ! First up Johanna gave us a tour of the venue showing us where the Islay Lounge would be and then took us down to the room where our Masterclass would be . We spent an hour setting up and then we were ready !
(Photo Courtesy of Johanna Ngoh © Spirit of Toronto )
Johanna introduced us to the Room and then the First Dram she’d sneaked in , I actually thought it was a Bowmore but it turned out to be a 1950’s White Horse Blend ! No one got it ! We then went onto the Drams i’d fetched across for the tasting , the first 4 were known but i kept the 5th Blind , The format was Johanna introduced each one , then i talked a little about what each dram meant to me and why i’d included it , Melanie interjected with a few personal stories of what different places meant to her on Islay . One person got the blind bottle but we’re not including him as he is a Malt Maniac ! you little cheat Nabil , LOL !
The full line up for the Masterclass was….
- 1950’s White Horse Blend
- SMOS 1979 28yo Bunnahabhain
- Signatory 1978 23yo Port Ellen
- Ardbeg 1976 27yo Sherry cask 2398
- My own 4yo Port Charlotte Bloodtub R23
I have to say the hour absolutely flew over ! I thoroughly enjoyed it in the end , i think having Johanna and Melanie at my side helped an awful lot ! The room seemed to enjoy it as well !! We moved upstairs into the Islay Lounge with the remains of these bottles and added a few more……
- Ardbeg ‘Very Young’ Committee Release
- Bruichladdich ‘Drambusters’ Valinch 1990 16yo
- Whiskybroker ‘Islay Malt’ 1990 21yo (Bunnahabhain)
- Bladnoch Forum Caol Ila 1980 30yo
- Laphroaig 10yo Caskstrength Batch 005
To say they went down well was an understatement ! We met lots of people from the social media sites including a long time friend from the SOI days , Wendy Harker , glad to finally see you in person Wendy ! We were looking after half the Islay Lounge so i didn’t get a chance to look at the other half , there was also a Whisky and Oyster bar and they seemed to be doing a roaring trade serving fresh oysters with Islay Malts .
Our Supplies ran out with over an hour to go so we got a chance to explore the show and have a bite to eat (great food Johanna !) , we met up with Ashok as well and had a dram with him and Wendy and also got a small gift off Wendy , Some Canadian Bacon for a post show snack (was delicious ) and some Maple Syrup to take home , many thanks Wendy .
Thanks to Ashok for the photo !
Though i didn’t manage to try many drams i have to say the Gibsons 18yo was outstanding (a bottle was later purchased….) , well worth hunting down . After the show we headed back to the Fairmont for a post show drink with Johanna , Charles and Angus then headed off to bed for a well earned rest !
I have to thank Johanna and Charles for inviting us over for their excellent Whisky Gala and giving us the chance to share our love of Islay , you have a fantastic show Guys !!!! Also thanks to everyone one at the show for making us feel so welcome and all the kind words expressed to us during the show and later on Facebook and Twitter , i’m glad i didn’t balls it up !
More photos may be published here when i scrounge or pinch them (kidding about the latter !)