Ms. Go Go Drinks: A Bowmore and Laphroaig Whisky Tasting with Simon Brooking

As a long-time aficionado of Islay whiskies, a tasting of Bowmore and Laphroaig Scotches with National Brand Ambassador Simon Brooking is Ms. Go Go’s died-and-gone-to-heaven dream evening. A co-presentation of Langley Social Club and Beam Suntory, the event was beautifully curated from whisky selections to venue to cocktails with Simon Brooking the undisputed highlight.

Simon Brooking sings

An Icon of Whiskey

Spend an evening — even a few minutes — with Simon Brooking, and you understand why the National Brand Ambassador for Beam Suntory’s Bowmore and Laphroaig was recognized as a highly commended “Icon of Whisky” at WhiskyLive 2016 in New York City.

Punctuating his whisky presentation with songs, jokes and toasts, Brooking holds the crowd rapt in the charmingly rustic back room of Townhouse in Venice. (Kudos to Beam Suntory and Langley Social for such a perfect venue, which evokes cozy highland pubs.)

Brooking has been in the whiskey game for 20 years but his presentation is fresh, genuine, passionate and downright infectious; it’s impossible not to get swept up in his excitement over the Scottish “water of life”.

Six + One = Delicious

The tasting begins with Bowmore 12: a gently peated whiskey with lighter floral notes.  It’s a great starting place for whisky drinkers who are peat-curious but fearful they’re going to get a mouthful of charcoal.  Bowmore 25 is aged in bourbon and sherry casks and delivers a rich, intriguing yet satisfying balance of sweet (from the sherry casks) and salt from the coastal influences.

Brooking explains that sherry casks impart sweetness, which subdues the smoke a bit.  Bourbon casks are more neutral, adding depth while allowing the smoky peatiness to have more of a presence.

Guests have the chance to explore that note in-depth with the four Laphroaig expressions.  Like the Bowmore 12, Laphroaig Select, with its notes of citrus, ginger and rich butter, is also a good choice for Islay whisky newbies while also deftly managing to be a literal crowd pleaser; the Friends of Laphroaig “selected” this blend from among six: all with a base of  regular Laphroaig.

Laphroaig bottlesThe Quarter Cask is at the other end of the spectrum: a year-plus finishing in smaller casks specially built for this expression means more contact with the wood.  As a result, the Quarter Cask delivers a big dose of peat paired with velvety sweetness and a higher ABV at 48%. A drop of water opens up this home bar collection must-have even further.

Laphroaig’s Triple Wood was originally launched for the duty-free market; Brooking explains this distribution strategy allows brands to monitor sales demographics and markets because duty-free shops are required to keep records of purchases. (And shopping for spirits certainly takes the sting out of long layovers for whiskey-loving travelers!) The Triple Wood is worth seeking out wherever you: the explosive combination of peat and sweetness is achieved by maturation in bourbon barrels — Brooking notes that Laphroiag exclusively uses bourbon barrels from Maker’s Mark — then a transfer into quarter casks with a final maturation in Oloroso sherry European oak butts. At 48% ABV, it ups the ante in terms of alcohol content as well and like the Quarter Cask, displays further complexity with a drop or two of water.

Brooking is a firm believer that whisky, and Scotch whisky in particular, is all about stories both in and out of the bottle.  In that vein, Laphroiag Distillery Manager John Campbell created Laphroiag Lore as the story of — and a tribute to — generations of past distillery managers.  Lore is a Non Age Statement Scotch with at least some of the whiskey distilled as far back as 1993; the expression has been expertly blended from Laphroaig stored in barrels ranging from first-fill bourbon to quarter casks and Oloroso hogsheads.  Campbell correctly describes Lore as “the richest of the rich”; the expression is $100+ a bottle and the complex layers of flavor, which change with every sip, make it worth every penny.

Pour of Laphroaig Cairdeas (photo Eugene Lee)

Brooking says he always likes to bring something “extra” to tastings.  At Tuesday’s tasting, the “extra” is a doozy: Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira Cask 2016.  Every year, Campbell handcrafts a limited edition malt with a specific theme to celebrate friendship (“Cairdeas” in Gaelic); the 2016 edition is mature, 8 – 10-year-old Laphroaig aged further in Madeira casks.  Unlike sherry casks, which tamp down the peatiness, or bourbon casks, which highlight it, Madeira melds with the peat as an equal flavor partner.  The result is an incredibly rich and smoky sweetness that I found too satisfying to dilute with water.

Happy Hour at Townhouse

The Tuesday Happy Hour menu in the front Townhouse bar features a trio of cocktails highlighting Laphroiag and Auchentoshan.  Auchentoshan Single Malts are triple-distilled (and therefore good transition Scotches for Irish whiskey drinkers) and are from the Lowland region of Scotland, which produces more grain-forward whiskies.  The citrus notes in the American Oak play beautifully off the Benedictine in Saints & Sinners, which also features Laphroiag 10, Yellow Chartreuse and Angostura Bitters.  Fans of sweet, slightly smoky cocktails will love the Blood & Sand: Laphroiag Select, Blood Orange Juice, Sweet Vermouth and Cherry Heering. Walnut bitters give the Laphroaig Select Old-Fashioned a rich nuttiness that amplifies the other classic flavours without overpowering them.

Townhouse is just steps from the Venice boardwalk but the interior recalls more like Scottish glen rather than Cali beach. If you find yourself in Venice surrounded by summer crowds, think of Townhouse for crafted cocktails in a dimly lit welcome retreat from sand, surf and tourists.