Travel

Whiskied Away: Three Days in St. John’s, Newfoundland with Balvenie

[PHOTOS: RICK O'BRIEN]

Some of the world’s most solid brands are built on a collection of rich and colourful stories — many, over a century old.

The Balvenie is no exception. The Scottish company’s easy-on-the-palate single malt scotch whiskies are made by hand at The Balvenie Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland. William Grant founded the award-winning independent distiller William Grant & Sons Ltd. back in 1886 to produce the whisky, and his direct descendants now operate the longtime family business. The brand’s latest collection of rare whiskies, The Balvenie Stories Collection, comes with intriguing backstories; tales of character (and characters) and craftsmanship.

To launch The Balvenie Stories, a group of Canadian journalists were invited to the charming city of St. John’s, Newfoundland for an interactive (and boozy) look into the brand’s backstory and the chance to taste the anticipated whisky before it hit the Canadian market on November 5. “The Balvenie Stories Collection is a celebration of the craft, tradition and technique behind each barrel, each bottle, each dram,” said Jamie Johnson, Canadian Brand Ambassador, The Balvenie. And celebrate, we certainly did.

We sipped our way through St. John’s — a photogenic city filled with colourful row houses (Google “Jellybean Row”) and dreamy ocean views — one dram at a time, making all the right stops along the way, from inevitable tourist must-sees, to both storied and refined watering holes and restaurants.

Johnson has had a soft spot for Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city for years. She recounts her first visit to St. John’s when, while walking home from a night on the town, she encountered a man walking down Gower Street playing a fiddle. “That’s when I fell in love with the place,” said Johnson. 

In addition to her love for St. John’s, the city was a natural choice for the launch thanks to its long-rooted Scottish influences. The city also has a rich history of animated storytelling, offering an easy fit for the stories we’d hear about the Balvenie brand — everything from the Balvenie’s famed resident ghost, to the original, turn-of-the-century craftsmanship practices. Global Brand Ambassador Gemma Paterson is a captivating storyteller and preserver of The Balvenie stories, having interviewed Balvenie artisans and told their tales around the world. With each passionate, imagery-filled story told by Paterson and members of the Balvenie team, the history of The Balvenie brand came alive in the imagination. Consumers can hear about The Balvenie’s storied past through both packaging and via a special audio accompaniment associated with The Balvenie Stories range.

In our three-day stay, we managed to explore much of what St. John’s has to offer. Here’s a quick list of where to stay and play, what to do and eat in this sometimes-overlooked-but-beautiful part of the country.

Where To Stay

For a charming, but refined and well-curated stay, check into one of the lofty rooms at The Inn By Mallard Cottage in the quaint – yet relatively convenient, at just 10 minutes from downtown – Quidi Vidi Village, a historic fishing village. Here, two renovated guesthouses each feature four thoughtfully decorated rooms with talking point-filled décor from past and present. Completed in 2017, the Inn complements the pre-existing Mallard Cottage restaurant across the street, a cozy 18th century Irish-Newfoundland vernacular-style space that serves up comforting dishes to a clientele of loyal locals and visitors. 

Other reliable, more central spots to lay your head include the sleek Alt Hotel or the rock n roll-inspired JAG Hotel.  

What To Do

You can’t visit St. John’s and not visit Cape Spear, the most easterly point of North America. Sitting across the Atlantic from Scotland, the dramatic (and super windy) region is filled with rocky cliffs that shoot up from the sea and viewpoints of the crashing waves below. The spot’s famous lighthouse completes the inevitable photo op. 

Another view-filled spot to hit is Signal Hill. The massive hill overlooks the city of St. John’s and offers sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean below. Most of the hill is a National Historic Park, as the hill was the site of St. John’s harbour defences from the 17th century to the Second World War. The remaining fort offers a lesson in history, while a handful of hiking trails provide fresh air-filled activity and soul-soothing views. 

In the warmer months, take in the fresh ocean air from the source itself, and make time for a boat tour. There are a handful of tour companies that will offer iceberg and humpback whale-filled tours. Ocean Quest Adventures offers both one-hour and three-hour ocean safaris, as well as private boat charters for larger groups. 

Where To Eat

Housed in the former Bank of Nova Scotia building, The Merchant Tavern has more of an urban, industrial vibe compared to other more east coast-feeling spots to dine. Despite this, it still maintains a welcoming, homey charm that’s as comforting as the elevated local cuisine it serves up. The restaurant is co-owned by Jeremy Charles, a celebrated local chef who was named Canada’s Best Chef in 2018. 

The team behind Mallard Cottage opened the doors to WaterWest Kitchen and Meats summer 2019. Located in the city’s west end, the intimate 20-seat restaurant/bakery/deli offers up a local, butcher-driven fare, fresh pasta and memorable sides and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If you’d rather enjoy the offerings from the comfort of your hotel suite, a grab-and-go counter helps your cause. For fish and chips worth writing home about, hit Chafe’s Landing in the town of Petty Harbour. Sitting just steps from the ocean, this local institution serves up lobster, cod, clams, squid, crab, shrimp, mussels and scallops (in addition to other quality pub grub). If not for the fresh seafood, hit this spot to check out the surrounding storybook-like Petty Harbour, where you’ll find rolling hills, simple fishing boats, quant houses and simple, log and stick-made docks.

Where To Play

The craft beer lovers will appreciate the airy Bannerman Brewing Co., housed in a former fire station in the city’s east end. In the taproom here, guests can enjoy beer (from light lagers to IPAs and stouts), cocktails, quality coffee and comforting snacks from an assortment of communal tables. 

If you’re looking to let loose and party like a local, all you have to do is head to the historic bar, restaurant and live music-filled George Street. Though there are many options to choose from (perfect for a pub crawl), one place famous for fun times and “screeching in” (a process to become an honourary Newfoundlander that involved kissing a cod) is Christian’s Bar. It is at the fabulously dingy Christian’s, the oldest bar on George Street, where Anthony Bourdain was once screeched in. 

Not only did the quick little jaunt out east open my eyes to the offerings of St. John’s, it opened my palate to the quality whisky. The Balvenie Stories range features three new expressions, two of which – “The Week of Peat,” and “A Day of Dark Barley” – are now available at select retailers in Canada.