Summer has arrived on the Isle of Islay. As of writing, the island is basking in sunshine and whisky tourists are starting to arrive in earnest, just a few weeks before the annual Feis Ile Festival begins. We started our week of whisky exploration at Laphroaig, walking up from Port Ellen along the coast and the first part of the Three Distilleries Trail.
Whilst Laphroaig is oft-times pictured with the dark, rugged and roiling Atlantic ocean breaking against it's warehouse walls, the micro-climate around the south coast of Islay can often lead to the distillery and its grounds being rather warm. That's how we find it in the first week of May, bathed in sun with the whitewashed walls glowing against the calm and clear waters of the bay. Oh, and there's a swan here too, paddling around in spent lees.
Following an excellent tour of the facilities with the knowledgeable and passionate Tom Edwards (who The Dramble will be interviewing next month) it was time for Warehouse 7 - Laphroaig's cask tasting experience - where we had three very different drams of 'the most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies.'
Bottle Name: Laphroaig 2002 15 year old single cask 3797
Our first tasting was from a 2002 15 year old ex-bourbon cask which Tom informed us was originally from Makers Mark
Nose: Spiced toffee apples is where we're going here. The spirit is still discernable, but is both sweet and fresh, almost steely. The smoke is surprisingly light and rather in the background to the sugary fruits. Notes, pears, stone fruits and vanilla.
Taste: Sweetness again, with the smoke coming through stronger now. But, interestingly, this is not the medicinal, TCP-type smoke you're expecting at all. It's oily, sooty and ash-laden. Hard peaches with wood spicing which favours white pepper. The mouthfeel is certainly full, but is very mineral and flinty sharp.
Finish: Lingering fruits, with the oak spicing pleasantly fading away. Again, the highly mineralistic (that's a word right?) characteristics come through strongly to leave a dry stoney aftertaste
Super-interesting stuff, and so far away from what you'd normally associate with Laphroaig, that tasted blind, you'd be hard pressed to do so. The most interesting of the three warehouse drams for me, and the one I decided to hand-bottle.
Bottle Name: Laphroaig 2002 15 year old single cask 3799
Interestingly this is the same makeup as #3797 - 2002, 15 year old ex-bourbon, Maker's Mark. The similarities stop there.
Nose: Smoke,and a smattering of medicinal maritme peat - but not too much. The malt spirit is still very present and brings the malts and cereals quite heavily. This gives the dram quite a sharp nose, pleasingly tempered by some salt and iodine which bring it back into balance.
Taste: Here's the TCP. Rich and mouth-filling, but at the same time seemingly young tasting, despite its 15 years of age. A tarry and slightly ashy note plays with a hint of citrus.
Finish: Medium and very drying. Salt and pepper both here - it's like table seasoning!
Balanced and integrated, and in a fairly unusual manner. This is not typical Laphroaig and possesses both a degree of poise as well as a degree of youth. Reminds me a little of An Cuan Mor but with the ABV turned up to cask strength.
Bottle Name: Laphroaig 2005 12 year old single cask 0000104
Our final tasting at the Laphroaig Warehouse 7 tasting was a combination cask, where the initial ex-bourbon was re-racked in 2013 into a quarter cask for its final 4 years of maturation.
Nose: Quarter cask (with it's greater liquid to surface area) evident here as vanillins are ago-go. Maritime notes, seaweed and hospital smells take centre stage with toffee notes and a light but sharp citrus, probably best described as 'tang'. A typically Laphroaig nose.
Taste: Sharp medicinal peat. Not a wisp, more of a full wintery coastal blast. All that you'd expect in terms of TCP and rich smoldering earth. Tempered by a great high ABV mouthfeel and heavy spicing from the increase oak contact.
Finish: Sustained and drying with the smoke making way for peppery notes.
Very 'Laphroaig' with rich and powerful flavours and a hard hitting ABV to match. Punchy, robust and probably not for your little cousin who's looking to try their very first whisky, For grown-ups only.