Sunday, 23 September 2012

Drinking at Halifax Henry's

What to do on a Friday night in Halifax, Nova Scotia when you've only been in town for a day?

Following a local's tip-off about a bar, I was about to step out of my hotel when I noticed people queuing for entry at a previously unnoticed door.

Above the door was the title "Yuk Yuk's". The apostrophe was a worry, but judging from the board next to the ticket desk it was a comedy club. I wavered a moment; then heard a patron being told it was free to hotel guests.

I was in, and shortly joining a queue for the slowest bar service in the world. Have you ever noticed that people ahead of you who are taking forever to order, will also be paying electronically?

Anyway, it turned out the bar was selling a bottle of Molson's Canadian beer for $4, or (from memory) seven of them for $24 in a small bucket with ice.

Having a laugh

I declined the seven bottle offer, though groups of friends in the audience were keen on the idea. I doubted I'd need seven bottles to enjoy the stand-up comedy. How bad could it be?

Pretty awful, as it turned out. I've never seen such lazy, we've-performed-this-a-thousand-times routines on a live comedy stage. Even the seven-bottle tables were finding it hard to raise much laughter. During the third act, I slipped out to my original destination.

It was only a block away, and Halifax is very pleasant place to walk. The city centre has some marvellous grand timber buildings and I strolled past the neat grounds of Cornwallis Park on the way, with its statue of the city's founder on a plinth. Halifax was a touch foggy that night too, lending a soft, slightly mystical look to its streets.

Henry's hacienda

Then I reached the Henry House at 1222 Barrington St. A grand stone building constructed in 1834, it had belonged to a prominent local. William Alexander Henry was a lawyer, politician, judge and one of the Fathers of Confederation (Canada's unifying moment in the 19th century).

I walked up the steps and through the front door to be met by, of all things, an Australian waiter from Melbourne. He gave me an overview of the house's three levels: a pub on the lower floor, a dining room in the middle and The Drying Room on the top floor.

This last, where I headed, was a gem. A dimly lit space, it had loads of atmosphere - exposed stone walls, big timber beams, and talented cocktail creators leaping around behind the bar. It was a stylish environment and, I imagine, one of the most sophisticated places you might find a drink in Halifax.

The locals are friendly

And full of interesting people. The barman, Scotty, was a part time surf photographer who had lived for a while in New Zealand. He revealed this as he was whipping me up an 1895 New York cocktail called the Corpse Reviver (Scotty: "One brings you back to life. Four and you're back in the grave.").

It contained my favourite cocktail ingredient - absinthe. Oscar Wilde had once stayed nearby in a local inn, so it all seemed to fit.

While I drank it, I chatted with my neighbour at the next stool, a geologist from Alberta who'd once studied in Halifax and was back in town on business. He loved the city, and it turned out he had been to Australia, so there was plenty to talk about.

Smoke gets in your drink

At some stage (the details are blurry) he somehow talked me into ordering a whisky cocktail which was made from scotch and vermouth, passed through a large jug full of smoke which was held in place by the vessel having being chilled beforehand.

Watching it being made was quite entertaining and the result, Scotty's special Hickory Smoked Rob Roy, was excellent. Smooth, very smoky to the taste at first but mellowing to a perfect blend of spirits and the elements.

I was glad I went out after all, rather than turning back to my room after the disappointing comedy. This was more like it - a meld of the small-city friendliness of Halifax with some superb and dedicated cocktail creation.

It seemed the sort of town where you could talk to anyone and share a drink with them. I liked it.

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Nova Scotia Tourism and the Canadian Tourism Commission.