Robbie Burns Day (January 25) was always a highlight for my family. We traditionally honoured the much-loved Scottish poet (“Rabbie,” to purists) out of respect for my maternal grandfather, William MacDonald, a fellow countryman…or so we thought.
It was only when my granddad died and I queried my grannie about the curious inscription on the tombstone that a family secret was revealed: “Grannie,” I asked, “Why is grandad’s tombstone engraved with ‘William Bill MacDonald.’ That’s like saying his name was William William or Bill Bill.” To which my Grannie, a small town woman who never fussed about the finer details in legal documents or the spellings of people’s names, replied: “Oh, no matter, MacDonald wasn’t his real name either.”
The big graveside reveal: Seems granddad’s real last name, as grannie nonchalantly explained, “was Prokipchuck or Pornubrowski – something like that. He was Ukrainian. Not a tap of Scottish blood in the old man.”
Scottish genes or not. Traditions are traditions. Once started, it’s too difficult to put a stop to them. All these years later, I celebrate Robbie Burns day with great relish – and a glass of excellent Scotch whisky.
Here are five excellent bars to sip excellent Scotch whisky in Toronto, and perfect establishments to raise a glass to Robbie Burns – or to my late Granddad MacDonald (a.k.a. Grandad Prokipchuck).
First-timers at this College Street bar, take note: Spend the first ten minutes on the food menu. Starters and mains include beer-battered Haggis Fritters, curry sauce and chips, Kosher pickles, Scotch Eggs, and mashed neeps. Plus, there’s a decent vegetarian haggis, as well. Now, brace yourself. Choosing from the staggering list of 300-plus Scotch malts and whisky blends is going to take longer. Every whisky region of Scotland is represented, from Speyside and the Highland to Islay and the Isle of Jura. Distilleries from Speyside dominate the offerings, which will be familiar to neophytes and seasoned Scotch whisky lovers: Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Speyburn, The Glenlivet, The Glenrothes and The Macallan.
Try this whisky: there’s a lovely Robert Burns single malt from the Isle of Arran distillery.
856 College St.; http://www.thecaledonian.ca
#2. Feathers Pub & Single Malt Bar
The first time I visited this much-loved pub in the Upper Beaches was to attend the wake of a Scottish friend’s father. The Feathers has been pouring Scotch single malts for appreciative customers since 1981. It has a definite neighbourhood ambience. Patrons soon learn to leave rain-wet umbrellas and all pretentions at the door. Tasting events run throughout the month. The kitchen churns out traditional but reliable fare: Cock-a-leekie soup, steak and ploughman’s lunch, as well as meat-free quesadillas.
Try this whisky: if you’re new to the world of Scotch whisky, request the Flight Tasting Menu to see whether peaty or buttery-smooth better suits your palate. For seasoned Scotch drinkers, take a peek at the offerings from the Orkney Islands. Perhaps a Highland Park 30-Year-Old Single Malt from Orkney will, as they say, suitably wet your whistle.
962 Kingston Rd.; http://www.thefeatherspub.ca
#3. Via Allegro Ristorante
If you’re bemused that my Ukrainian granddad embraced Scottish cultural habits so easily, then you’ll be equally entertained to learn that one of the best-stocked whisky bars in Toronto –which won The Supreme Whisky Award for Best Scotch List in the world – is an Italian restaurant! The Queensway restaurant-pub has more than 1,000 bottles of whisky. The Via Allegro is just as serious about the food. Rabbit pappardelle vies with mushroom risotto for my favourite dish.
Try this whisky: I’d suggest you opt for a Macallan whisky but I won’t say which – because Via Allegro lists 50 Macallan whiskies on the list. One of them was produced in the 1930s.
1750 The Queensway; http://www.viaallegroristorante.com
#4. Emmet Ray
If you enjoy live entertainment while savouring your drink, this popular College Street venue could easily become your go-to spot on a Friday or Saturday night: jazz quartets, comedy acts, DJ nights, hip-hop, and soul music acts take to the stage nightly. The bar reflects whisky distilleries from all over the world but the Emmet Ray gets extra marks for its impressive selection of whiskies from the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. Upscale versions of bangers and mash, curry chicken, cottage pie and curry tofu aim to please. Scotch eggs are a must.
Try this whisky: the 15-year-old Dalwhinnie single malt delivers a whiff of heather.
924 College St.; http://www.theemmetray.com
Allen’s pub, like my granddad, crossed multiple cultural boundaries. This 40-year-old Danforth establishment is smack in the middle of Greek town, shares a wall with an Irish pub (the popular Dora Keough) and stocks no less than 100 Scotch malts. The food is excellent. For brunch, wild salmon hash with poached eggs will leave you too sated to want supper. Turkey meatloaf sweats garlic. If you want something closer to traditional UK pub food, there’s always chicken, leek, pea and potato pot pie.
Try this whisky: I have a fondness for Laphroaig, which some drinkers find too peaty. Ask the bartender for the 10 Year Old Laphroaig. One sniff and you’ll be transplanted to a bog in remote Scotland. If it’s a significant birthday (yours) and you’re with a friend with deep pockets, hint loudly that you’d love to try the Ladyburn 1973 27-Year-Old. You only live once.
143 Danforth Avenue; http://www.allens.to/allens/spirits.shtml