Tuesday the 17th November 2015 was an exciting day for the Walsh Family. At all of 8 years of age, our youngest daughter, Kate, was setting off to ‘The Áras’ (the residence of the President of Ireland) to sing for none other than, His Excellency, Michael D. Higgins himself and his lovely wife Sabrina. Kate was so excited she could not eat her porridge. She was going to achieve something “even her parents” had not managed to do. Meanwhile the other big kid in the house was me!! I too was having a first that day, my first trip to Canada!
Our ultra-premium, pot still whiskey, Writers Tears (93 Points Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2010), has been exclusively distributed in Canada for four years now by our trusted partners, Woodman Wines & Spirits Inc. of Toronto, Ontario. Thanks to father and son; Russell and Jason Woodman, I was going to have an opportunity to meet with the leading bar and restaurant owners whose support over the years means that we at Walsh Whiskey Distillery are always under pressure to maintain stock levels of our multi-award-winning whiskey.
It was a beautiful day 38,000 feet above the Earth as we clipped Greenland and made land north of St. John’s.
We were looking out across what seemed like endless tundra terrain of varying shades of dark brown, broken by even darker coloured spots that marked deep great lakes. As we approached Toronto the wild landscape shifted to reflect civilisation with nicely squared fields one after another in what seemed like perfectly formed mile-square plots on the flat lands radiating out from Toronto. Again the fields were varying shades of brown but this time that was mainly due to the post-harvest stubble, as this is one of Canada’s biggest tillage areas according to the Canadian sitting next to me.
A few short hours later and I’m hurtling down the highway heading straight into the middle of that amazing Toronto skyline. It’s a mini-Manhattan and strikingly clean. Although the locals complain about the traffic it’s actually not that bad compared to Dublin’s Newlands Cross in the old days!!
There is a nice mix and balance between the local Torontonians, the Canadians (outside the ‘Hadrian’s wall’ of the city limits), French Canadians, Indians, Asians and the odd smattering of US Americans. But the underbelly of Toronto seems to be composed of Irish and Scottish. Today in Ireland we are making a big deal about integrating a few thousand Syrian people into Ireland. During the famine years (1845-1852) Toronto integrated several hundred thousand Irish immigrants into its then small population of just over 30,000. The Irish here are very much part of the fabric of life, a rich tapestry woven over 150 years, through generation after generation of Irish visitors and none more so than John Maxwell who typifies the best of Irish-Canadians.
John is a regular visitor to Ireland for the annual Maxwell Clan Reunion. He runs a fine restaurant and bar on the east of Toronto called Allen’s. It is highly regarded for its fine cuts of steak, exceptional wines and John’s own unique whiskey collection. Arriving a little early for my pre-arranged meeting with John, I sat at the end of the bar taking in the scene around me.
My eye was quickly drawn to four bottles of Writers Tears on the Bar. I remarked to the barman that I was impressed to see John stocking up for the winter. “Not so”, replied the friendly giant of a man, who resembled the fabled Grizzly Adams with his great lumber-jack beard. Apparently this was normal business as “Writers” was pouring well in Allen’s and they “go through” a few bottles every week. Well this was my kinda bar! He then proposed that I have a Writers Tears ‘Old Fashioned’ which is a cocktail dating back from the early 1800s comprising a crushed sugar cube, some Angostura Bitters, club soda and a good pour of our very own Writers Tears all mixed and served in an old fashioned whiskey glass (a wide brimmed, thick based, short tumbler also called a low ball and often with some nice cut glass embellishments). Bliss!
Moments later John arrives in, shakes my hand and out of his left eye glimpses a harem of ladies on a night out, sitting at the window table. Grizzly refers to that table as ‘John’s office’. John glides to the left and has a hug, kiss and a story for all the ladies in his ‘office’! He then introduces one of the ladies as a Mrs Kirk but she quips that the name may originally have been ‘Quirke’ when her family came from Ireland in the 1800’s. Owing mainly to poor literacy levels among emigrants, names were frequently changed when first registered on arrival at Newfoundland. Quirke became Kirk, Burke became Birk, O’Byrne became Burn…and so on. John asked if Mrs Kirk/Quirke would join us for a drink. “Of course”, came the reply, “but only if it is Writers Tears Manhattan!” retorted the ladies. As I said, my kinda bar!
John laid on a beautiful dinner for me and some of his friends. A great night was finished off with the last drop from John’s ’Prohibition Medicinal Whiskey’. As I mentioned, John has an incredible whiskey collection, but he is not a hoarder. He says that whiskey is for drinking…and who was I to disagree? John also claims that he is running a charity as he pointed to the price of Writers Tears at $7.75 for a one ounce pour. He’s right, its $10 up the street…but I’m not complaining.
Every minute of my inaugural trip is accounted for as our good friends, Russell and Jason Woodman move me around the city as though we were pieces on a monopoly board…pointing out the big banks, the key properties and the best places to own a condo (if you were in the market that is!). One of my ‘ride withs’ is Robert Sutherland who is known in every store that we walk into, the staff all seem to be delighted to meet him and occasionally I hear them call out, “Oh here comes the muffin man”. It transpires that every week Robert bakes his own muffins and brings them to all the shop staff on his route that day. He has been doing this for years. Salespeople and consultants please sit up and take note! That’s what you call building customer loyalty.
Although it is a week long, I’m afraid my first visit to Canada is over before I know it, but I can certainly say Toronto is a city worth visiting, if not for the muffins then surely for Writers Tears which seems to be the latest Irish emigrant that has been taken to the warm hearts of the Canadian people.