Canada’s winter survival secret: Pass the Sortilege

Indian snow sculpture in Ottawa's ByWard Market district.
The spirit of hockey never wavers in Toronto, even in a down year for the Maple Leafs, or in Canada's other NHL cities.
The spirit of hockey never wavers in Toronto, even in a down year for the Maple Leafs, or in Canada’s other NHL cities.

By Craig Davis,

A weeklong February hockey tour through Eastern Canada brought a new appreciation for the hearty denizens who muster through the seemingly endless winters north of the border – and do so with admirable decorum and humor.

The term Great White North came into focus flying over frozen Lake Erie on the approach to Toronto.

The wind can be withering in downtown Montreal.
The wind can be withering in downtown Montreal.

When you live in South Florida it is easy to forget what sub-zero weather feels like, even though I’d made a similar trek a year before. The first day in Toronto a venture of only a few blocks took my breath away; in Montreal a hike up a hill into the teeth of a howling wind nearly froze me in my tracks; in Ottawa an all-day snow made for a chilling drive to the arena in the suburbs, in more ways than one.

The sum of these experiences was to ponder the question, how do they cope day to day, month after month in this?

There is hockey and curling, seemingly nonstop, to fortify the soul.

But the lesser known secret to survival was revealed on that previous trip, surprisingly enough by a Florida-bred journalist. It was George Richards, the esteemed hockey writer from the Miami Herald who introduced me to the Quebecois nectar of the gods.

Say, Sortilege, ooh, la, la!

The province is the capital of the maple syrup industry – Canada produces 71 percent of the world’s maple syrup, and more than 90 percent of it comes from Quebec. It was only natural that enterprising distillers would combine it with their knack for producing fine whiskey.

In Montreal, I made my way to McLean’s Pub, where I’d first made acquaintances with the exquisite Sortilege whiskey liqueur.

This time I was in for a shock. They no longer served Sortilege.

No sooner did profound disappointment register on my face than bartender Dave King reached under the bar for a substitute, which he said might be better than Sortilege.

The bottle was labeled Coureur des Bois, which I was told translates to Runner of the Woods (relates to the early fur traders). Which could qualify as the official spirit of Craigslegz. A harrier from way back, I’ve run through many a woods, and recently got lost skiing in one — but that’s another story.

Coureur des Bois helps a Runner of the Woods get through a night without Sortilege in Montreal.
Coureur des Bois helps a Runner of the Woods get through a night without Sortilege in Montreal.

Coureur des Bois passed an extended taste test with King, fellow bartender Kenny, whose day job is teaching physical education and coaching at a Catholic high school, and patron Mike, who coaches youth hockey.

We talked about many things between sips, but a recurring topic was about how the winters have become more extreme, as anyone in the northern United States can attest to as well. I have to wonder if the appetite for maple whiskey is growing at a corresponding rate.

Be assured, Canadians aren’t in love with the cold, they just have no choice but to put up with it.

The bartender at the Marriott Chateau Champlain said it’s the humidity that makes it intolerable, just as it does with South Florida heat in the opposite extreme.

But she prefers very cold, and wanted to know how we stand the sweltering summers in Florida. I said we couldn’t exist without air conditioning.

She said she didn’t trust A/C, was afraid of it, heard that it could cause damage to one’s lungs. That was a theory I’d never encountered before. I told her that artificial heating dries me out, causes my nose to bleed and skin to crack. She stared at me blankly.

I mentioned we were having an extended cold snap back home and that night they were bracing for a low in the mid 30s. We were having trouble quantifying what that meant because I was speaking in Farenheit and she was thinking in Celcius.

“What do you have to wear in that, like a sweatshirt with a hoodie?”

Right, Belichick weather.

The desk clerk at the hotel in Ottawa said not only have the winters been getting longer and more severe, but last summer was chilly and rainy, too. She had to take refuge on a beach in Mexico.

“We complain a lot,” she said with a laugh.

Quebec produces a number of maple whiskey liqueurs, but Sortilege is hard to be.
Quebec produces a number of maple whiskey liqueurs, but Sortilege is hard to be.

But in my observation, the Canadians do a remarkable job of making the best of their situation.

Ottawa hockey writer Chris Stevenson said the cold doesn’t prevent him from enjoying the outdoors, except when the wind is excessive.

“I go for a run, play hockey on the pond and go cross-country skiing, and the winter passes,” he said. “But this winter, even for us, people are talking about it.”

More like him were evident when I arrived in Ottawa on a sunny, albeit bitter-cold afternoon, and followed winding Colonel By Drive that hugs the Rideau Canal leading into downtown.

It is common on similar boulevards in many cities to see runners following a path along a river. But here hundreds of people were getting their exercise right on the frozen canal itself, skating for miles. Some skated vigorously, others leisurely in clusters, and some as couples holding hands. I was envious, wishing to join them on their joyous afternoon skate.

As it turned out, I had to go to Ontario to finally sate my thirst for Sortilege. Pat, bartender at the Lowertown Brewery in Ottawa’s ByWard Market district and a big fan of it too, said they only recently were able to get it from the source in the neighboring province.

So that night this veteran Runner of the Woods raised a glass of the Nectar of the Frozen North and drank a toast to the Skaters of the Canal.

And to all of their comrades who soldier on against the unrelenting winter. But it occurred to me that if they didn’t get that bad-to-the-bone cold, the sap wouldn’t flow to produce the best syrup on earth, and there would be no Sortilege or Coureur des Bois.

Is one better than the other? I’d have to compare them side by side. I love the edgy burst of aftertaste with Sortilege, so I’ll stick with that as the preferred choice. The Coureur had a smooth and full-bodied flavor, very satisfying too.

Pat at Lowertown favored the Sortilege Prestige, a 7-year variety that I took home from the previous trip, and it is clearly No. 1 of the maple whiskeys I’ve sampled, including several available in Florida – Cabin Fever, Tap 357 and Crown Royal Maple, among others.

They are all soothing, satisfying. I think it’s all in the maple syrup. If it comes from Quebec, you can’t go wrong.

It is what keeps them smiling and sane in the harshest of climes.

Visit a photo gallery of highlights from the hockey tour through Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Hearty skaters go for miles on weekday afternoons and weekends on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.
Hearty skaters go for miles on weekday afternoons and weekends on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.


About craigslegz 108 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.