Among the stiffest competition in the world, The Irish Heather and The Shebeen, Vancouver’s only authentic Irish pub, has taken home a much deserved nod at the recent 2017 Irish Pubs Global Awards in Dublin. Beating out many thousands of establishments throughout North America, owner Sean Heather has, for a long time, believed that whiskey is the way to go.
Almost 15 years ago, Sean felt the change happening in the industry and decided to put his efforts into developing The Shebeen; the word derives from the Irish síbín, meaning ‘illicit whiskey’.
To win Best Irish Whiskey Experience in North America, you have to be able to do more than just pour a triple distilled shot of uisce beatha. You need time, patience, hard work, commitment, passion for the strong stuff and a big heart. Sean Heather has kept his doors open for 20 years in Gastown, never compromising on quality, forever revising, improving and seeking out fantastic whiskeys to add to his list.
Humbly, the man of the house sits alone in the snug, quietly comfortable with the knowledge that his little Shebeen is a place the whole world might just want to visit.
2017 Irish Pubs Global Awards
Best Irish Whiskey Experience Winner North America
Irish Heather & Shebeen – Gastown
How do you feel about the recent nod?
It’s always great when the folks back home seem to be paying attention to what you’re doing. It’s gratifying to get recognized and to receive an award like this one. Having grown up in Ireland, quite a few of my friends are pub owners, so to get one over on them is a rare occurrence and I’m quite happy with that! Considering the vastness of the North American market, to be mentioned in the same circle as The Dead Rabbit in New York is an honor indeed as they are the standard for the Irish pub business in North America. It’s also a great nod to the team here with all the hard work they have put in. Around 14 years ago we saw the world was heading towards an increasing interest in whiskey. Our little Shebeen in the back of the house has been lauded and recognized over the years and I guess it shows that we were right to take a gamble by putting all our efforts into whiskey.
What’s the criteria (level of service) required to win this award?
For proper Irish whiskey service, there needs to be a selection of whiskey but also the knowledge behind what you’re serving. There are a lot of new distilleries in Ireland with whiskeys appearing every month. Some of them aren’t worthy to be on our list and it’s important to be able to justify why we don’t serve certain varieties and brands without offending a customer.
The list can’t just be every Irish whiskey out there. Rather, it must be thoughtfully curated and we must have reasons why our list is arranged as it is. Judges are also looking for unique ways in which we serve the whiskey. We have a custom flight program where a customer can tell us how much they want to spend and what direction they want to go in and we’ll create a flight tailored to their needs. We do that for every region across the board.
What sets the Shebeen apart from other Irish pubs?
It’s not overtly Irish and that’s part of its charm. It’s not a “diddle-de-eye” clichéd Irish pub. When you’re here, you know you are in an Irish establishment. We also give a fair nod to our Scottish, American and Canadian whiskey making brethren. To be Irish, you don’t need to have leprechauns, shillelaghs and shamrocks hanging out of your business. If you go to some of the better pubs in Dublin right now, they’re Irish but they don’t have shillelaghs. I think the Shebeen is that kind of Irish. It’s more of what you’ll find in contemporary Ireland. The focus is on whisky with an honest Irish menu while still maintaining its identity.
Part of the the whole experience of being in The Heather and The Shebeen is feeling at home. How do you keep it that way?
It’s important to me to have The Heather seen as a place that is welcoming to all. It’s also vital that The Heather takes a role in the community and helps to give back. I’ve gone out of my way to ensure our business is non-sectarian. I’ve had Catholics and Protestants standing side by side, working behind the bar, both from Belfast. Normally they wouldn’t say hello to each back in Belfast and now they’re working together. It’s always interesting to see that when you get people together they realize they have more in common than they have apart. They love Irish rugby, Guinness, brown bread and rashers. Not to simplify it but there’s more to get along about than to fight over. I want The Heather and The Shebeen to be always known as a safe haven.
Favorite Irish Whiskey?
Red Breast from the Middleton Distillery in Cork. It’s pure pot still, which is the Irish version of a single malt. All Irish whiskeys are triple distilled and all Scottish whiskeys are distilled twice. When you distill whiskey three times, you take more of the impurities out of it. The Scottish will say that if you leave the impurities in you get more flavor. We say, you take the impurities out, you get a smoother product. Red Breast gives you peach and apricot notes with sweetness like honey. Even for those that don’t drink whiskey, put a glass of Red Breast in their hands and they’ll start drinking whiskey soon enough.