Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Is the Spirit of Toronto Whisky Gala worth attending? Damn skippy it is!!!

My goal this year was to attend 5 whisky events across Canada.  Spirit of Toronto has officially been checked off as #3. My parameters:  Cost (accommodations, events, classes, etc), Venue (Locale, food, geographic location), Classes (Quality, type, length), Main event (Availability of whiskies, venue, services, knowledge of exhibitors, etc.) & Overall personal experience (People, place, Whisky).  Scoring system:  A (Exceptional value), B (Great Value), C (70-80 Good value), D (Some value) and F (Fail) - Waste of time.

Here we go:  The Spirit of Toronto Whisky Gala has been running for 9 years.  It's produced by Johanna Ngoh who is known as an independent and outspoken reviewer of the whisky business.  SoT bills itself as the largest whisky show in Canada. It's a one evening event every year in May.  If you would like more information please visit their website at:

Pro #1 - It's held in Toronto which is easily accessible from any airport in the world.  

Pro #2 - Although only a one day event, it offers something for everyone (novice to full out whisky geeks)

Con #1:  Waited a long time for ticket info and confirmed classes (that's hard for someone coming from out of town that has to make flight & hotel arrangements)

Con #2:  I am a bit confused wit the definition of largest whisky show in Canada.  Largest how?

Accommodations: The first of my chosen events not to have the venue at a hotel, so that meant doing a bit more research.  The SoT website offered 2 hotels with show rates: Fairmount Royal York and Marriott Residence Inn.  Fairmount rate $229/SoT rate $159.  Marriott rate $299/SoT rate $159.  Best deal I could find online (not related to show) for both: $129 for Fairmount and $179 for Marriott.  So, I took the $129 rate and saved $75.  

Heart of Downtown Toronto
The Fairmount Royal York is one of Toronto's oldest finest hotels.  Fact:  They have 3 bee hives on the 13th floor roof terrace.  The bees make about 700 lbs of honey every year and help pollinate the in-house herb/flower garden the kitchen uses. (thought I would share that, hehe).  It truly was a lovely stay at their hotel.

Events:  Nice selection and very unique: BBQ, Bourbon & Blues, Sipping with Ralfy (from Ralfy's Canadian Bothy), Whisky Cocktail lounge (with renown cocktail designers:  Yuki Yamasaki & Kentaro Wada) and an open poolside terrace to enjoy a cigar and a whisky (if that's your thing).  The only one that had a cost: Bourbon, BBQ & Blues - $10.00.  The others were part of your general admission ticket which was $135.

Classes:  12 classes total offered & ranged from $15 - $55.  They all sold out before the show.

Cost for my tickets:  $235 (Three master classes, early bird entry and show ticket)  

Total cost for lodging & whisky related events:  $533.



Roy Thomson Hall is situated in the downtown theater district of Toronto.  On bus, tram and subway route.  

Pro #1:  Walking distance to hotel and everything else.  Literally at the heart of Toronto.

Pro #2:  Beautiful facility for this event.

Pro #3:  Spacious for master classes as well as main event.  
Locale:  As odd as this is going to sound the masterclasses seem to take place in the basement.  However, this was actually a plus I think because we were far removed from the main event, it was quiet and staff where everywhere to help with getting to/from the venue.  There was no opportunity to get lost.  Staff was plentiful and extremely helpful.

Food:  Unlike the other shows I have attended this year, the Spirit of Toronto does not take place at a hotel so the "food" portion of the actual event will be reviewed as part of the main showcase event below.  HOWEVER, from a food perspective for Toronto:  Whoa!  
Famous but defunct
We ate well no matter what type of meal we had, and it was never overly expensive.  Found a great cup of coffee in the Distillery district that didn't cost $5.00. Hundreds of great restaurants all within walking distance or a quick subway ride.  Truly great!

Location:  I have to say I'm not a big fan of Toronto however there is so much to see/do.  The transportation system is cheap, fairly easily to use and there isn't anything you can't get to within 20 minutes.  

Quality/type:  If I go back to the definitions I used during Victoria Whisky Festival, the "master classes" were misnamed in some cases.  Some of the master classes, in my opinion, should have been labeled as Grand Tastings:  Chip Tate, Angela D'Orazio, Harlem Wheatley and Michael Urquhart.  

There were 12 classes total available and it was very difficult to only pick two.  How can you pit Chip Tate against Charlie MacLean AND Angela D'Orazio!!!!   So coins were flipped and I had to choose.  So hard!!!

I chose my classes based on "availability".  In other words what was the likelihood I would ever get to see/imbibe with these people again?  So, Icons of Islay from Past to Present with Charlie MacLean and on recommendation from Chris Ste-Croix (fellow blogger) - Single Minded, About more than single malt scotch with Johanna Ngoh.   WELLLL...  neither class disappointed.  Although the whiskies were not crazy impressive (I did enjoy trying the Bowmore 1968) I certainly was impressed in in awe of Charlie MacLean.  He's the type of speaker than makes you feel like you are getting one on one attention and you hang on his every word.  The room was truly mesmerized and not many spoke.  

Johanna's class BLEW me away.  The whiskies are from her personal collection (HER HOUSE!!) and she picked some jaw dropping whiskies to share, with us. I think that is fabulous.  I think they are worth mentioning:

#1:  Sweden - Box - Forsmak 63% ABV, New make.  
1981 Karuizawa
#2: India - Amrut - Greedy Angel 53% ABV (1 of 144)
#3: Scotland - Berry Brother's - Blue Hanger 6th rel, 45.6% ABV
#4: Scotland - Girvan 48 year old (1964) 49.5% ABV (Whisky Agency "Fights" 2012)
#5: Japan - Karuizawa 1981 (30 years old) 55.8% ABV (Cocktail Series). 

People gasped, clapped hands and were beyond surprised with every reveal.  Johanna also did a fantastic job walking us through each whisky in a way that I had never seen done before.  Truly was as great as Chris told me it would be.  (Thanks!)

Pro#1:  Classes were extremely relaxed and we were encouraged to take our time and stay afterwards to talk to the presenters.  I LOVED THAT!


Main Event:

I purchased an early bird ticket that cost $35.00.  It allowed access 30 minutes before the show.  I highly recommend doing this at any show if you can afford it.  It's worth it for me because I can go directly to the tables that have the whiskies I want to try.  Spirit of Toronto Gala was so diversified because you could
Charlie, me and Ralfy sharing a Lot 40
wander in/out of areas like:  Ralfy's Canadian Bothy and share a dram with him or walk over to the pool side patio and enjoy a really great cigar with your whisky then attend a master class, try a few more whiskies, or some cocktails served on hand carved ice balls.   The food:  WOW!  I have never encountered this level of deliciousness at a whisky event.  Personal wok boxes/chopsticks, Yorkshire puddings, carved ham (cooked to perfection) on baguette with grain mustard and cranberries, tables filled with gourmet cheeses, it was truly ENDLESS.  I ate very well.

The whiskies - over 100, spread out very nicely over two large areas.  Plenty of water available and spitoons.  Whisky varied from regional (Still Waters was there with their newest releases), North American and Internationally.  Independent bottlers, small craft distillers and of course the "Big guys".  The people pouring were great, mostly knowledgeable and quite friendly.

Whisky surprises for me:  G&M Mortlach 21 (I went back twice), Balcones 5th anniversary bourbon and Isle of Arran 16 year old.  ALL THREE IMPRESSIVE.

The only downfall of the Gala and it's so minor:  Trio of musicians were playing right beside where Ralfy was set up which meant he had to yell over the music in order to be heard.  


Overall Personal Experience:

This Gala was truly exceptional in nature and had something available for the first time imbiber all the way to the geeks.  The venue was great, the people working behind the scenes helpful and very friendly.  Again yet another highlight for me was the caliber of people I got to meet and hang out with. The "bloggers" from GTA were the friendliest we have met thus far.  Rick (@rmculver) picked us up at the airport and showed us the time of our lives on Friday:  Breakfast at a marina (we are sailors so that was beautiful), his place for a quick couple of drams and some sample exchanges, to the Forty Creek Distillery where not only did we get personal one on one time with Ralfy but I got to see where my favorite Canadian Whisky is made.  
Me kissing the sleeping whisky !!!
I have secrets I can't divulge but what is coming for 2013 is going to surpass expectations from the Forty Creek followers!  If you want to reserve the bottle, visit on May 27th to reserve your very own bottle of Heart of Gold. Check the site for the details (as there are restrictions..) Rick then brought us to Stillwaters Distillery ( for a quick tour and where I purchased several bottles of the newest single malt done in Canada.  Then supper at Habits Gastropub with Angela D'Orazio & Jonathan Luks from Mackmyra, Matt (@scotchblog) & his wife, Ross (@ScotchGuyTO), Jeff (@boozeandbrains), Igor (@whiskyvip), Jarred (thecyclingyogi) and those are who I remembered (sorry if you are not listed).  

My Saturday morning was spent doing something quite exceptional with Angela D'Orazio that was exhilarating and was the highlight of my trip, then lunch then a few quiet minutes with Chip Tate (@BalconesWhisky) and then the show.  Afterwards of course was a huge party at Elephant & Castle. What a fantastic whisky community in Toronto!

We were treated like gold and I came away feeling utterly exhausted but happy.  Some of the notable people I got to see again:  Mark Gillespie, Lawrence Graham & John Hall.  Some new faces I was ecstatic to meet:  Charlie MacLean, Ralfy, Barry & Barry (Still Waters), Chip Tate & Angela D'Orazio.  


Something I'd like to acknowledge is how hard Johanna Ngoh must have worked to get this show accomplished.  I'm sure that behind the scenes there must have been moments of madness but you would never know it.  She has pulled off a coup by getting Chip Tate and Balcones Whiskies to Canada.  
 Of all the feedback I have received about what was the most impressive for the evening (and I asked over 100 people) - BALCONES was it!   Many would love it here in Canada, so let's hope Chip is working his magic and able to divest into the Canadian market sometime in the near future.

My only advice to organizers:  Keep up the fantastic work.  You shouldn't bill yourself as the largest whisky show in Canada, I think that label clearly goes to the Victoria Whisky Festival, in my opinion.  

HOWEVER, you have the right to bill yourself as one of the BEST Canada has to offer!


If you live in Canada or are a fairly close US cousin, you really need to add Spirit of Toronto to your 2014 whisky events list.  It truly is the best show I've been too, so far this year.  Excellent value!

Ready for the next adventure, I hope you will join me soon...


No comments:

Post a Comment