Where do you start when telling about a once-in-a-lifetime experience? I suppose that, like any story, you start at the beginning. There are several distilleries that have a fantastic on-line presence. The Knockdhu distillery is certainly one of them. In Spring 2013, word spread in the whiskysphere that anCnoc, as part of their collaboration with Peter Arkle, would be having a photo competition. The theme: where do you enjoy a glass of anCnoc? Ten lucky whiskyphiles would win a bespoke bottle of anCnoc 12 year old, featuring their photo, but reimagined by Peter.
I had a rough idea of what I wanted to use for my entry. I grew up in Herring Cove, Nova Scotia, and still live nearby. Although it’s now just another suburb of Halifax, a city of about 350,000 people it still looks like the idyllic fishing village it once was. There are still a few people who fish on the side, mostly for lobster. Since I still live nearby, I took the drive over and looked for some good shots. Here’s the last picture I took, and the one I submitted:
Admittedly, I cropped out the lamppost, but the picture is otherwise unedited. A somewhat distant relative of mine owns this shed, and it stands unused, bordering on a public wharf. I could walk here from the house where I grew up in less than three minutes. My parents still live there, and we take my boys there to feed seagulls and ducks. I used to jump off the wharf in the summer with friends. It’s a beautiful place that brings back every good memory of my childhood. I captioned my picture this way:
“Warm summers, maritime winters; sea spray, granite shores, and lobster sheds. My anCnoc is Home.”
I had a good feeling about the picture from the minute I saw it. I knew it had great potential to be a top-10 finalist. Lo and behold, Peter Arkle picked it as one of the finalists! I’d only been into whisky for a few months, and I was already the winner of a gorgeous bespoke bottle. But dare I hope that I would win the grand prize? A trip to New York and a dinner with Peter would be the opportunity of a lifetime! My heart was in my throat as I watched the big reveal…
I was at work, and it was about 11am, but I immediately did two things: I called my wife and told her I won, and I ran downstairs to the nearest liquor store and picked up the last bottle of anCnoc 16 on the shelf to celebrate.
Picking up right where I left off last time, when I found out that I had won a trip to New York, I knew that I couldn’t take my wife. As much as I wanted to, it just wouldn’t work. Now, before anyone gets offended, I should say that she had given birth just a month before! My second child, another boy, Felix Raymond, was born in May 2013, and the idea of taking a newborn on a five day trip to NYC was out of the question. Furthermore, my wife insisted that she stay with him; I had to pick someone else…
I thought about taking my father, but he had already planned his trip of a lifetime to England and France for that summer. I thought about my brother, and several of my friends, but none of them are really into whisky, and all of them had been to New York before. (As an aside, I’ll note here that not only had I never been to New York….I hadn’t been on a plane since I was a year old!) Eventually, my wife suggested that I take her father, Ray. It sounded crazy at first, but the more I considered it over the next few days, the more it made sense. Ray is an experienced traveller, having lived and worked as far as Tuktoyaktuk in the Canadian Arctic, but somehow, had never been to New York City (outside of a layover at JFK airport). On top of that, he makes his living as an artist; I figured he would hugely enjoy meeting Peter Arkle. Here’s his self-portrait, plus some of my favourite works of his:
We would fly from Halifax to New York on a Thursday morning, and stay until late Monday night. The only planned event was a dinner with Peter Arkle at Highlands restaurant in the Village. Other than that, we were free to roam the city. anCnoc didn’t skimp in the slightest, putting us up at the Belvedere hotel just a couple of blocks from Times Square. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a mishap the day before we left. I was wrestling with my older son, Theo, and we managed to break my glasses! Nothing too serious; one of the nosepads broke off. They were wearable, but uncomfortable. I was determined to get them fixed before we left, but that was not too be; I needed a laser solder to fix them, and the only shop in town that had one was closed!
So I had to suffer with awkward-fitting glasses while on my first flight in almost thirty years. But I found a glasses repair shop in New York that we could walk to after we dropped off our bags at the hotel. Even better, the walk there would take us through Central Park. The flight was rather short, just shy of 90 minutes, but I felt like a little boy looking out the window of that plane. I captured a few pictures of the flight and our rainy ride into the city:
Upon arriving at the repair shop, they told me that they could do the job, but it would take two or three days! If I was in a rush, I was better off heading to the diamond district. Oh. My. Goodness. Shop, after shop, after shop, after shop, filled with jewellery of every kind, and more money in diamonds than I could ever have thought possible. I saw so many people with miniature briefcases; extremely well-dressed men chatting with Hasidic Jewish men in traditional clothing; I heard people shouting in English, Greek, Italian, Russian, and plenty of languages I couldn’t be sure of; and there were gorgeous women with accessories ranging from chihuahuas to what I’m pretty sure could have been a mobster. But after trying a few likely looking shops, we couldn’t find one with a laser solder. Ray decided we’d turn the next corner and ask the first person we saw if they had an inkling.
We nearly walked right into one of the largest men I’ve ever seen. At least six foot eight, with an enormous barrel chest, and a beard and hat that would make Gandalf the Grey a bit jealous, he was a quiet and kindly Jewish man. He was happy to point us to a diamond exchange. And I thought the stuff visible from the street was impressive. Thousands of square feet, filled with little booths, each booth a separate store, owned and operated by one or two jewellers. We went to the back, down a spiral staircase, and found Roman, another bear of a man, this time with a thick Russian accent, who owned the necessary equipment. Twenty minutes and twenty dollars later, I could see!
And that was the first three hours of my anCnoc adventure in New York. We went on to eat at a place that could have been in an episode of Seinfeld, rested up at the hotel for a bit, and then spent all evening just wandering around Times Square. It was a surreal experience just being there. We spent four or five hours just absorbing the light from the displays, sipping coffee, listening to the cacophony and never-ending heartbeat of the City. It lasted for hours, but felt like minutes.
The next day, we went on a walking tour of New York, but that’s for next time. But here’s a preview. Did you know that if you have an Android phone, Google keeps a record of your location?
Ray and I spent our first full day of NYC on a walking tour. We wanted to see as much as we could, while avoiding too much of the cliché touristy stuff. There was no way we were spending 45 minutes in a line-up to see anything; there was too much other stuff worth seeing. Once again, here’s Google tracking our location:
From our hotel on 48th Street, Times Square was just a couple blocks east. We started every morning by walking to one of the carts there and grabbing a bagel. It was kind of funny to see so many places advertising then with cream cheese and Nova Scotia lox. I was wondering how we were managing to send so much of the stuff to New York until I learned that it actually refers to the curing and smoking process, not the physical origin. We do smoke a mean salmon up here though!
We actually learned that on the day we arrived, Paul McCartney played in Times Square. We saw them setting up, but missed the show as we were on our way to Central Park and the Diamond District. The last time I was that close to him was on my wedding day. He played Halifax on the same day, and the downtown was crazy! There’s always something happening in Times Square. On Friday, we walked past a skateboard halfpipe and punk concert. On Saturday, the cleanest taxi you’ll ever see was crawling with models for some kind of sportswear photoshoot.
A few more blocks east past Times Square took us to Rockefeller Center. My wife and I were in the middle of watching 30 Rock during my trip, so I snapped a few pictures. And Radio City Music Hall is part of the Center; Tony Bennett was playing that week. A gorgeous building.
At the east end of Rockefeller Center you end up on Fifth Avenue. What a sight. It’s hard to explain just how magnificent it is. Every building has impeccable and intricate details. Traffic never ends but always seems to be moving. Thousands of people shopping, going to work, on the phone, in black Cadillac Escalades (saw literally hundreds of them every day), delivering stuff, doing stuff. Ray said something insightful: “In New York, you’re completely anonymous. There’s nowhere else you could be surrounded by so many people and yet be entirely alone.” You can feel the city pulsing all around you, whether you’re moving along with it or not.
Turning south,The New York Public Library is only six blocks away. More magnificence! The front entry is entirely made of marble, and the names of benefactors going back through the decades are proudly etched for all to see. I wish I could have spent even more time there. But we had so much more to do. Two blocks east brought us to Grand Central Terminal, the heart of the New York subway system. Though similar looking to the library, it has an entirely different feel because of the tall surrounding buildings. Knowing we were heading in there to catch a train, it felt like climbing into the top of an enormous submarine. The main concourse is almost absurdly large, but incredibly beautiful. From there, we took a trip to Wall Street.
After spending a little over 24 hours uptown, Wall Street, and the entire Financial District, felt surprisingly small and cramped. Not the buildings which were monolithic glass behemoths, but the streets! Narrow, crooked, and disorganized; and surprisingly empty for noon on a Friday. A few tourists here and there, but nothing close to Times Square. We walked east again to the East River. The day was turning grey with a threat of rain, so we didn’t see too many people as we walked under FDR drive toward the Staten Island Ferry and Battery Park. The park was undergoing some reconstruction, but it was largely quiet due to the U.S. government shut down. But that was where I caught my first glimpse of the new World Trade Center. Very impressive, to say the least. We headed that way next. Most of the Trade Center site was also shut down, but I was able to get close enough to get a few good pictures.
As you read in Part 3, Ray and I spent the first few hours of our Friday in New York walking around seeing the sights. The day was warm, but grey, and the rain never seemed to fall. We were determined to walk across what is arguably the most iconic bridge in the world: the Brooklyn Bridge! Now, we have two bridges in Halifax, and they’re both pretty big; but they certainly aren’t an aesthetic delight, not even close when compared to the Brooklyn Bridge. Like us, most of the people walking over the bridge were tourists. We saw many walk only as far as it took to take a picture with Manhattan in the background, and then return there themselves. Where’s the fun in that? We were going all or nothing. Mother nature tried to discourage us, giving us our only rain for the entire duration of the trip while we were nearly halfway across. But it was only a light drizzle, and it only lasted ten minutes.
We didn’t stay long in Brooklyn itself. We’d been walking for several hours at this point, and contented ourselves with sitting in a coffee shop, having a snack, and people watching for an hour or so. Then it was a quick subway ride back to Times Square and our hotel. Our plans for the evening were pretty standard as far as New York tourist stuff goes: dinner and a show! As I wrote earlier, Ray is an artist; he currently does a fair amount of work for the Neptune Theatre here in Halifax, particularly in set design. Through his contacts there, we were put in touch with Bryna Wasserman, the head of Folksbiene: the National Yiddish Theatre, the oldest theatre company in New York. We contacted her during our morning walk, and though it was short notice, she was able to get us tickets for a show that evening. She advised us that it wasn’t just off-Broadway, it was off-off-Broadway, but that we would really enjoy the show.
It was only a short walk from the hotel to the theatre, and there was a highly rated pizzeria nearby, so we meandered our way about a dozen blocks north. The theatre itself was in the basement of a church. The play, entitled Covers, was written and performed by a subgroup of Folksbiene, called the Lost and Found Project – a group of young Russian Jewish New York actors. The show itself was about 95% in English, and though I certainly didn’t understand any of the Yiddish or Russian expressions, it was funny, moving, and very thought-provoking. It was about the “covers” that we present to the world, our friends, our families, and ourselves. Ray and I agreed that it was a tremendous performance by equally tremendous actors.
As it happens, the theatre was quite close to Lincoln Square, home of the Juilliard School. It was lit up beautifully, and one of my favourite pictures from the entire trip is of Lincoln Square as we walked by:
I woke early on Saturday morning. Actually, I woke early on every morning in New York; Ray and I were out the door by 7:30 every day, and didn’t return until after midnight. Saturday was no exception, except we split up. Ray wanted to see more of Central Park, and was determined to walk to the Apollo Theatre. I was on my way to WhiskyFest.
The lovely folks at anCnoc were kind enough to let me pick whatever dates I wanted to visit New York, as long as Peter Arkle would be available to meet me during the stay. I wanted to make whisky a central theme of the trip, and decided that I couldn’t miss WhiskyFest, one of the largest whisky shows in North America. The dates lined up for everyone, so I bought a ticket for the day-long seminar and evening tasting.
And what a show! There were whisky greats from all over the world; from Kentucky to Japan, from the Orkney Is
lands to Australia. I sampled whisky almost twice my age. Some of it would have cost half my yearly salary for a single bottle. I sampled whisky that had never been tasted before. I sampled whisky from half a dozen closed distilleries, and a single malt that (until then) was used exclusively in blends.
And that was before lunch.
The lunch was one of the most entertaining meals I’ve ever had. Not only was the food fantastic, and who happened to sit next to me, but none other than Lew Bryson, a fantastic beer and whisky writer, the Managing Editor for Whisky Advocate, the host of the event! He regaled the rest of the table with some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on at WhiskyFest.
After lunch it was back to the seminar, for more excellent whisky. I’ll admit that after sampling no less than four whiskies over lunch, (not to mention the nearly two dozen in the morning!) I remember slightly less about the afternoon. Still, I had a few hours to relax that afternoon between the end of the seminar and the grand tasting that evening. It was a beautiful day, so I went for a walk to work some of the alcohol out of my system.
I headed to Central Park for a bit, then went back to the hotel to change into some more appropriate clothes for the tasting. On my way down 7th Avenue, which was surprisingly empty, I saw someone walking toward me that I recognized. It took me a moment to figure out how I knew her, as I wasn’t exactly expecting to run into anyone I knew. And then it hit me; I knew her from television!
It was Molly Quinn, best known in her role as Alexis in Castle. Except, and this pains me to remember, I couldn’t recall her name! I realized who she was as we walked right by each other, but I didn’t want to stop and say “Hey Alexis!” My wife and I are both avid watchers of the show, so a bit of a missed opportunity for a selfie with Ms. Quinn there, but oh well.
The grand tasting at WhiskyFest was a sight to behold. Hundreds of whiskies from all over the world, from standard releases to super-premium bottles. I met Steve Hall, who was representing anCnoc and her sister malts, Old Pulteney and Balblair. He was very nice to speak to, and told me he himself had booked the following evening’s dinner with Peter Arkle. I spent the better part of five hours meandering my way around the dozens and dozens of booths, sampling as much as I could, with plenty of visits to the hors d’oeuvres to keep some of the alcohol in check. All in all, a wonderful experience that I would do again in a heartbeat.
WhiskyFest was held in a hotel that fronted directly on Times Square. I exited into a crush of people coming out of theatres. I grabbed a cup of coffee and spent another hour just taking in the sights and sounds. Perhaps the whisky had made me a bit philosophical, but as I reflect on it, I still remember that day as being one of the highlights of my life!
Our last full day in New York was Sunday. Ray had had a great day exploring the northern part of Central Park and visiting the Apollo Theater, and I was more or less recovered from my day at WhiskyFest. We had most of the day for sightseeing, but an important dinner date that evening. We hopped on an early subway to southern tip of Manhattan, and boarded the Staten Island Ferry. We’d heard it was great for taking pictures of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, and it turned out that was very good advice indeed.
The view from just a few hundred feet out in to the water was incredible. Even though all the skyscrapers tower over you as you walk among them, the sheer scale of them is more apparent when you can see dozens at once. The Statue of Liberty, on the other hand, while still very large, seems tiny by comparison!
As it turned out, it was Staten Island Day. A marathon was ending not far from the terminal, there was live music, and crowds of people almost to rival what we saw in Times Square. But space is not as nearly the same premium as it is on Manhattan. It only took a few minutes to walk and take the photo of an old dock with New Jersey, Manhattan, and Brooklyn in the background. It’s one of my favourite photos from the trip.
We took the ferry back to Manhattan, and spent most of the rest of the day seeing some of the major sights that we hadn’t yet seen. We went up the east side of the island, walking through Chinatown on our way to the United Nations. Then it was onward to the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, and the US Postal Service building. I am forever envious of the architecture in New York, with the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building being (to me) the crown jewels.
Back to the hotel again to relax, change, and get ready for the main event of my anCnoc Adventure: dinner with Peter Arkle and his wife, Amy. We arrived at Highlands, a Scottish restaurant in the Village, at 7pm exactly. Peter and Amy were already there; we made our introductions and sat down. Immediately, we ordered a round of scotch cocktails, starring (of course) some anCnoc 12-year-old. We quickly learned that we’d all embarrassed ourselves quite thoroughly. Only Ray had remembered to bring a camera! My phone had almost no charge, and was of no help, either. But the company was excellent. Peter, Amy, Ray, and I chatted for the better part of three hours, about New York, about Halifax, about how Peter became involved with anCnoc, and about what inspired me to take my winning photo. He confessed to me that he and Amy were both struck by the fishing shed; the quaintness of it, and the bright red door. Ray, as an artist himself, was eager to speak about some of his own work. Peter, I think, found Ray’s work in snow sculpting to be very interesting. Dinner was nearly as good as the company. I had a fantastic mushroom shepherd’s pie, while Peter, a true Scotsman, had haggis and potatoes. Coupled with a lovely red wine, it was a perfect meal. I’ll be honest; I completely forget what I had for dessert. I want to say it was an apple tart of some kind, but it was overshadowed by the presentation of my winning bottle. The waitstaff brought it out, still in the shipping box. As Peter hadn’t yet seen the bottle, he was just as eager to see his handiwork come to life.
And so it had. The colours are vibrant, the lines are crisp, and the little fishing shed is lit up and waiting. This is my anCnoc, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Not only is it a truly unique bottle (with my name on it and everything!) but it was based on my own photo, beautifully re-imagined by an incredibly talented artist. From the moment I took the picture last June, I knew I had captured something special. I didn’t think that it was going to get me to New York, and I was very pleased to even be among the ten finalists.
It was definitely an adventure. From being a complete whisky newbie to this in less than a year is so incredible of itself that I can still scarcely believe it. Now I’m more into whisky than ever, slowly amassing a collection from all over the world. But what’s sitting at the top of my bar, still unopened, being saved for some momentous future event?
The final day in New York was somewhat less eventful. We Made our way down to the Flatiron Building to take in probably the last iconic sight we hadn’t seen thus far. A great highlight for me, and another one of my favourite photos. There wasn’t too much time before we had to make our way to the airport and head back, so we headed back to get packed and ready. The sun was setting, and I snapped a couple great photos of Manhattan at dusk.
And that’s the end of my anCnoc Adventure. Thanks so much to Peter Arkle and everyone at anCnoc who made it possible. Thanks to my wife, Kelly, for insisting that I take her father in her place; Ray was a blast when exploring New York. I’ll leave you with one final picture of the bottle next to its inspiration: