Ireland is a place that has long been on my ‘to visit’ list. But every time I cross the Atlantic, it just doesn’t work out with the timing of everything else. Something that I hope to remedy soon. Until that happy day comes, I recently decided I should do some research and expand my whisky palate by learning about whiskey with an ‘e’.
And where else would I go do that other than the award-winning Shebeen Whisk(e)y House in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district? Tucked away behind its sister pub, The Irish Heather, Shebeen is a cozy pub room that is perfect for drinks or dinner with friends. I’ve planned a few corporate events in this space, as well as attended friends’ birthdays, and it’s a really great spot. More than likely modeled after the pubs and ‘snugs’ of owner Seán Heather’s native Ireland, these venues are basically Vancouver’s only truly authentic Irish pub experience. There is a reason they won best Best Irish Whiskey Experience in North America at the 2017 Irish Pubs Global Awards. Quality of customer experience and product has been evident every time I’ve ever been there, and I always hear great things, so a well-deserved accolade!
Speaking of product… Let’s get to the whisk(e)y.
To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’?
To start, you might wonder why am I spelling it with the weird parenthesis ‘(e)’… Isn’t it just whisky? Or whiskey? Well, my friends, it’s both. When I sat down with Heather Hospitality’s Director of Operations, a charming Irishman named Darren Pierce, he briefly walked me and the Brit through the history of this spirit. As with many things in history, it started with someone getting their nose out of joint; with the ‘e’ being added to the Irish version in the early 1900s to differentiate from the blended approach that the Scots had recently developed at the time. The Irish just weren’t down with it. The Americans seem to have taken their cue for the spelling from them, but the Scots and the rest of the world stayed with the original spelling.
The dust eventually settled and I’m told the way you spell it is a personal choice; neither is incorrect. The Irish Heather and Shebeen spell it as whisk(e)y to be inclusive, which is a very Canadian thing to do! Personally, I like the quirkiness of it. But when I talk about the Irish version, I will spell it as ‘whiskey’.
To start my Irish whiskey education, Darren installed me at a table in Shebeen with a tasting flight named ‘Ireland’s Call’ and a charcuterie and cheese board for the Brit and I to share. (More on that later.)
Having not properly tasted Irish whiskey before (a shot at a bar when I was 20 absolutely doesn’t count), I was pleasantly surprised to find that three of the four tasters were quite smooth, with a bit of sweetness. Even the one with a little more kick to it was fairly smooth. Irish varieties tend to be lighter on the palate while Scotch tends to have more kick. (Which is why you don’t just knock this stuff back.) The whiskeys in the flight were:
- Jameson ‘Black Barrel’ (Apparently Jameson is underappreciated in its homeland. Give this one a chance, it’s lovely!)
- Midleton ‘Green Spot’ (My favourite of the lot!)
- Powers ‘Signature Release’
- Teeling ‘Small Batch Rum Cask’
This Irish flight runs at $25 CAD, with the other three available options (Regional, Seasonal, and distillery specific) costing between $25-50 CAD. They can do a custom flight upon request and cost would be based on what you order.
As I’ve likely mentioned a few times before, in my opinion, and if given the option, flights and tasting menus are the way to go. Particularly if you like variety, or if you’re like me and have a hard time choosing one option. Flights are also the most #GetThrifty option in terms of value for money – especially if you’re brand new to whatever you are trying and have no idea where to begin. Who wants to spend (at least) $12 CAD on 1 oz of liquid that turns out to taste like rocket fuel for their palate? No one.
Shebeen rotates their flights on a monthly basis, and there is no shortage of anything to choose from. Their whisk(e)y menu is beyond extensive, with an incredible Scotch selection (including some lovely Tomatin!) that is complemented by the Irish, Canadian, American, and other international varieties.
The tasting process
Like wine, and even beer, there is a ‘proper’ tasting process for whiskey. I used to think this was all a bit pretentious, but when you start doing it, you can 100% tell the difference. It’s also fun – which is good because that takes away a bit of the intimidation factor that whisk(e)y seems to present.
Here is my interpretation of how we do for this particular spirit:
COLOUR – Lift your first glass (always by the stem!) to the light at a slightly tilted angle. What colour is the liquid? Is it clear, cloudy, somewhere in between?
NOSE – Bring the glass up to your nose and inhale deeply. What do you smell?
SWIRL – With your glass on a flat surface, firmly hold the lower part of the stem between your thumb and index fingers. Briskly move the glass around in quick clockwise or counter-clockwise circles to get the liquid swirling in a lovely vortex. This opens up the bouquet of your beverage — in both smell and taste.
NOSE – Once again bring the glass up to your nose and inhale deeply. What do you smell now? (There are no wrong answers!)
TASTE – Bring the glass to your mouth and let the liquid touch your lips or take a very minute sip.
(Darren views this step as important because, when you think about it, alcohol is actually a poison. So if you’re not accustomed to what you’re trying, your brain automatically thinks ‘Danger!’. Again, this isn’t something to just knock back.)
Take a bigger sip. How does it taste? Lovely? Strong? Smooth? Does it have vanilla notes? Does it taste like rocket fuel? There are no wrong answers. Adding a bit of water is always a nice option to soften the bite.
ENJOY & BE CURIOUS – The most important part! The Irish Heather and Shebeen staff are all thoroughly trained on the whisk(e)ys, so if you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask! If you like to take notes about these things, you might want a whisk(e)y passport to keep track of what you taste! (See below for how you can get a free one!)
Whisk(e)y and food
Also like wine and beer, whisk(e)y pairs wonderfully with food – particularly with chocolate. But I had never had whisk(e)y with charcuterie and cheese. Verdict: You need to try it. Especially at Shebeen or at The Irish Heather because they make some of their own cured meats!
The Heather is labeled as gastropub, and the food is top notch comfort fare. Their kitchen also feeds Shebeen which makes the experience very fulfilling. If you’ve never had a Spice Bag, you’re missing out!
Let’s have a dram
Winding into Scotch for a moment, The Brit and I are attending Shebeen’s Ardbeg Whisky Dinner event on Friday, November 3. Their Canadian brand manager will be hosting to guide the group through their single malt Islay whisky range – including one that is a new release! Tickets are $60 including tax and gratuity and include a whisky welcome drink, flight, and dinner and dessert via The Irish Heather. It’s a limited seating event, so if you like Islay (smoky, peaty – my favourite!) Scotch, or are just curious, click here to get your tickets!
This tasting adventure was made possible by the Heather Hospitality Group. Thank you to Seán Heather for the opportunity and to Darren Pierce for taking time with me (and for giving me excellent reference materials!) As always, opinions are my own.
I wish to live to 150 years old, but the day I die, I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.
~ Ava Gardner
Photography: Most by The Brit, and some by me.