Travel

Heroic Virtue and Whisky

A voyage of dark spirit discovery
By Blair Phillips
Tasting events are a resource for whisky writers. Though he's a doting dad, lately Blair has been doing yeoman's work in that department. Theoretically, we should take turns; I have a lot to do to catch up. In the depths of my remorse, fate intervenes with a chance to redeem myself. If I take this assignment, instead of passing it to Blair, he will get the break he deserves. Ungrudgingly, I board a plane south.

Blair: A picture is worth a thousand words and in this case, they are all curse words. I open my Facebook and there is Davin decked out in cabana wear, palm trees in mid-flutter, cocktail dangling from his hand, sunglasses concealing his idle eyes. His drink, beaded with condensation, has either contracted malaria or is ice cold. STAY OFF social media if you're going to sneak down to the Dominican Republic!

Davin: Neil Morris meets me at the Sheraton Hotel in Santo Domingo. Neil represents the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers' Association (WIRSPA), is global ambassador for Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) and my host for the week. He is spearheading a campaign to implement standards for rum production across the Caribbean. Producers who follow these standards can display the ACR logo on their labels.

We chat by the pool as rum cocktails and the freshest seafood consume the afternoon. Dinner is booked for Pat's Palo restaurant and we don't want to be late. Midnight rounds of Dominican rum and cigars will stall our return, though. Tomorrow we visit Barceló Distillery in San Pedro de Macorís... Tonight we relax.

Blair: Though I've forgotten to print the directions to Laphroaig's 200th birthday party, the mushroom cloud towering above Toronto's Byblos Restaurant guides me like a post-apocalyptic wiseman to the whisky's second coming. Have they lit 200 birthday candles or has mixologist Lauren Mote split an atom rattling her shaker? Lauren has joined distillery manager John Campbell to show us how brilliant Laphroaig 15 Years Old is as a sipper and how versatile Laphroaig is when woven into cocktails.

Imagining the man behind the hulking Laphroaig, I envisage a beard as ragged as the Islay coast, gigantic hands harvesting peat, a tartaned oak-barrel-frame chest-bumping the stills. One look from those steely dark eyes and I'd silently hand him my wallet then thank him for mugging me. His neck tattoo, depicting the moment he got a neck tattoo, would reduce the image of Mel Gibson as Braveheart's ferocious William Wallace, to a duckling nuzzled on a bed of cotton candy.

But when he arrives, Campbell isn't at all like the whisky he makes. Neatly groomed and a gentleman. In poetic tones and with comedic timing he speaks of his beloved Laphroaig, "It's like running bare foot through a soaking wet forest fire. Magical."

Davin: Barceló is one of two ACR rums made in Dominican Republic. We navigate huge swaths of sugar cane and soon are standing outdoors sipping cocktails beside the tall single column still that turns 3,000 hectares of sugar cane into alcohol each year. Before long, we're sweltering in the blazing sun so head in for more refreshments. With his fair complexion Blair would never have been able to take this heat. Karma will reward my selflessness.

Neil goes all out for my visit and before long we're back at the pool, where 17 ACR producers walk me through their rums before we all head over to Lulu's Tasting Bar for dinner.

Blair: Lauren has a three megaton blast of flavour ready for us. It's a balancing act of a cocktail she's named the Duke of Argyll. A banner proclaims "a big peaty slap in the face," though it is more like being spanked by a mermaid. As condensation begins to bead up on my glass, I realise I don't need palm trees to have a slice of paradise. Starting with a whisky-smoke blanket of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Lauren amplifies the herbal notes with green chartreuse, lemon juice and sage-leaf syrup. Ginger beer adds spicy heat to complement the smoke, while a splash of Lauren's own clingstone peach bitters brings equilibrium. "Bitters play a significant role as they contribute to balance without actually coming across as bitter on the palate," she explains.

Lauren makes and sells her own bitters under the brand name Bittered Sling. She's a flavour geek and she enjoys working with whisky. "Using whisky in a cocktail allows me to incorporate richer ingredients that might overpower a lighter spirit."

Davin: We board a micro-plane for Puerto Plata to see Brugal. That's another thing. Blair hates, small planes. My goodness, I'm closing in on sainthood! Our tour stops at a warehouse where ex-Bourbon barrels sport painted hoops. Red-hooped barrels are the oldest, manager Gustavo Ortega tells me. By noon, the heat has leveled us so we head over to Hotel Colonial for a bite. Four hours later I wake up on a beach. "Time to go! We've got to get back to the hotel for dinner and cocktails." We grab a Mojito and lollygag back to the airport.

Blair: The most popular whisky cocktail in the world is the Whisky Sour. Lauren blends Laphroaig Quarter Cask with Knob Creek 9 Years Old, adding a dash of her Bittered Sling Kensington Aromatic Bitters. Not all whiskies are created equal, she explains, and it's important to break out of the 'Scotch with Scotch' comfort zone. For example, smoky Islays affect Bourbon differently than milder Scotches or rye. "I like to experiment with flavour combinations while adhering to classic cocktail designs. The flavour profile of each whisky is unique; the common thread they share is complexity."

Not to be outdone, mixologist Danielle Tatarin playfully mingles Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Maker's Mark in an Old Fashioned. It simply floods my mouth with flavour. Then, Christina Kuypers makes Rob Roys using Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Highland Park 10 Years Old. Between sips, my paradise theory becomes law. Paradise isn't a tropical location; it's a state of mind. Yes, palm trees and sunsets help set the scene but cocktails this delicious do too. I'm relaxed and can now gently curse Davin's Facebook page from the comfort of my own Shangri-La.

Davin: We're heading now to Port-au-Prince to visit Barbancourt, Haiti's only ACR certified distillery. Neil has arranged for a local to meet our flight. While we sip espresso, she's busy getting our passports stamped. Wisps of smoke in the coffee remind me I'll miss the Laphroaig tasting in Toronto tonight.

Driving across Port-au-Prince I'm surprised by smiling faces and laughing children. Not the hair-raising crime zone I'd expected. The city is beautiful and welcoming, and Barbancourt with its tropical gardens is charming. Cocktails quench our thirst as we wander around watching Haitians make rum.

Grinding mills extract juice from fresh sugar cane before it's evaporated into an oily syrup, fermented, distilled in a column still, barreled and stacked in low cement-floored warehouses to mature. We sip our way through the range.

Tomorrow we will fly to Miami to say our goodbyes. Just as I thank Neil, out comes the pièce de résistance: Barbancourt 30, embodying the flavours and fragrances of Haiti.

I love my whisky, but I've discovered other dark spirits that give them a good run for their money. I can hardly wait to see the grateful look on Blair's face when he learns of these, and of my heroic virtue in saving him from tiny planes and searing sunshine.



Tasting Notes



Laphroaig 15 Years Old

An unforgettable day at the beach with saltwater mist, seaweed, peat smoke and grapefruit citrus. Fine Nicaraguan cigar tobacco draws to a long smoky finish.

Bittered Sling Kensington Aromatic Bitters

Beautifully polishes whisky cocktails to a shine with spiced cake, resin, Chinese root herbs and orange peel. A drop does wonders, a dash will astound.

Barceló Gran Añejo

Marzipan sweet, with notes of brewed coffee, Nutella subdued gingery white pepper, caramel and toasted bread.

Brugal 1888

Eight years in sherry casks then three in ex-Bourbon give toffee with whispers of bitter molasses, clean wood, herbal notes, an earthiness, hot spices and a leathery finish.

Barbancourt 15

Limousin barrels yield a syrupy, smooth and sweet palate with loads of toasted barrel notes, dried fruit and animated spices. Lovely.