Laphroaig distillery was established in 1825 by Donald and Alexander Johnston. Laphroaig calls itself "the most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies" and possesses one of only seven active malting floors in Scotland. Peated to a high and medicinal level, Laphroaig often has a distinctive TCP and maritime flavour. The most common bottling is a 10 year old. Over recent years, age statement whiskies such as the 15 and 18 year olds have been removed from the portfolio and a range of Non Age Statement (NAS) bottlings have replaced them.
I’ll be passing through travel retail several times over the coming month. Whilst always appealing, I find it ever the strange place. Transparency and clear honest marketing are often the antithesis to the travel retail experience – a world of shiny (and yet strangely opaque) things designed to appeal to a far wider audience than your average whisky obsessive. Over the years countless unmemorable NAS bottlings have led to a situation where many whisky enthusiasts (including myself) are somewhat wary of the travel retail experience – shelves packed full of more choice and marketing puffery than they are of quality. There are gems out there, but you’ll have to look for them.
Originally a travel retail exclusive, Laphroaig Brodir is matured in ex-bourbon casks and then transferred over, for an unspecified finishing period, into European oak casks which previous held ruby port. The name Brodir translates into 'Brother' from ancient Norse....so we're stepping on the brand toes of Highland Park with some viking-based etymology.
Have my tastes changed? Is there something in the water? Or perhaps I’ve finally succumbed to the continued bombardment of new releases? Either way, over the past year, not only have I found myself drinking more wine influenced whiskies - I’ve found myself enjoying them more. “My name is Matt and I’ve become a wine cask pervert”. Well – not quite. My thoughts on wine cask maturation are well documented across this site – and similarly my views on what I see as failed integrations have not changed. Wine casks are awkward things. They require an adept and watchful touch to ensure that their potentially powerful impact doesn’t overwrite the prevalence of the spirit – and bring with it the greatest sin of the wine cask – an overbearing overabundance of wood and astringency.
Whisky can be a potent memory trigger. Aromas and flavours transporting you to another time or another place. Often these associations are derived from childhood – pear drops, candy floss, grandma’s perfume – youth being an extremely important time for the formation and fixing of taste associations – many of which can last a lifetime. Whisky also has the innate ability to stimulate wider memories - those of when particular drams were experienced for the first time, or of moments enjoying a fine drop whilst in good company. But, at the same time, memories are easy to distort. They can be adapted and re-moulded (often unconsciously) to reflect differing views, divergent opinions and changes in circumstances. And it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of over-romanticising past whisky associations. Things were not always better then.
Depending on how it’s spun, this review is either laughably late, or a perfectly timed retrospective. Of course, given today is Laphroaig’s virtual open day, it’s undoubtedly the latter. But in reality, my tardiness is simply a function of over-accumulation. A rough back of a fag packet calculation indicates that I currently own enough whisky to have a dram every single day for the next 26 years. That’s somewhat reassuring – whilst toilet paper might sometimes prove scarce, finding a drink is not going to be a problem. But on the other hand, and certainly as my wife regularly suggests – that’s simply too much whisky. A combination of sampling bottles and then purchasing, and purchasing bottles for sampling presents us drinkers with first world problems. You can’t take it with you.
You’ve only got to fire up the barbeque to see how much some folks love fire and smoke. Despite there not being a specific taste bud for smoke, we can still clearly detect its presence in both food and drink. It often seems that our limbic systems (which house our long term memories and associations) spring to life with smoky smells in an almost primeval way. Despite the ‘caveman make fire’ analogy, there’s actually some evolutionary truth here. Humans have advanced by learning that cooked food takes less time to digest (therefore leaving more time for hunting and inventing wheels). The elemental aroma of smoke dates back 1.8 million years and is part of our culinary DNA – and that’s not even digging in to its historical used as a preservative.
Laphroaig 10 year old is one of the most well-known whiskies in the world – it’s also the best-selling single malt from Islay. Often described as the most flavourful of Scotch whiskies, it’s the entry-point to the Laphroaig range, but in my view, far from an entry-level whisky. It’s provenance and relative youth lead to a robust and bold character that is both highly recognisable, but also sometimes too intense for those not already enamoured by big full-bodied peaty flavours. Its character is unapologetically medicinal and inherently coastal - the distillery itself recognises that their whisky ‘..is a complex beast’, that engenders feelings of both love and sometimes loathing. They’ve produced a variety of campaigns that capture the wide array of strong opinions about this idiosyncratic whisky.
For no reason whatsoever (no, certainly none at all) I’ve been thinking about character development over the last two weeks. Stories only become meaningful when we can relate to them, and understand their changes and their motivations on a human level. Developing a sense of loyalty and attachment can take years – and mere seconds to betray. And then there’s Laphroaig – a brand which engenders some of the staunchest supporters I’ve ever met within the whisky community – but, a brand which has dramatically altered its course over the last decade. Can this be put down to foreboding, or just the distillery’s ‘writers’ plotting a course which we didn’t expect?
On the surface, it’s simple enough – Scottish angels are responsible 1-2% evaporation loss per annum. Alcohol is lost at a faster rate than water, resulting in a lower overall concentration of the former – ergo an ABV which diminishes over time. Only that’s the simplistic version – the version where temperature, warehouse airflow and coopering quality are all completely consistent. Change any of these variables and there’ll be noticeable fluctuations in both evaporation and/or the depreciation of alcoholic content. Indeed, if you move the whole endeavour out of Scotland to a country with very low humidity, you might even find the ABV actually increasing.
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.
Laphroaig’s 15 year old was first introduced in the 1980’s, and quickly became a fan favourite. It was sadly discontinued in 2009. Boo. For the 200th anniversary of the distillery in 2015, a special limited re-release of the 15 year old took place – cue Laphroaig’s famously temperamental website falling over due to a clamour of demand. The bottling sold out quickly, but is still available (with a mark-up of course) in a few places and indeed regularly on auction sites.
Our first tasting was from a 2002 15 year old ex-bourbon cask which Tom informed us was originally from Makers Mark
Interestingly this is the same makeup as #3797 - 2002, 15 year old ex-bourbon, Maker's Mark. The similarities stop there.
Laphroaig’s popular core range 15 year old was discontinued in 2009, but then reintroduced as a limited edition in 2015. At the end of 2017 the distillery brought back the 15 age-statement once more – this time as a ‘Caideas’ bottling – exclusively for ‘Friends of Laphroaig’ (effectively the distillery’s mailing list). From what I can tell, this bottling, or a bottling similar will become a permanent annual addition to the range. The Cairdeas 15 year old was distilled in 2002, matured in 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels and bottled at 43% ABV. As of writing, it’s still available via Laphroaig’s webshop for £90.
Laphroaig have discontinued several of their mainstay whiskies over the past few years – the 18 year old is probably the saddest removal to my mind. The distillery’s current core range of age-statements bottlings jumps from the 10 year old (and batch produced 10 year old Cask Strength) all the way up to the 25 year old (a £400 whisky). Whilst there are four core NAS expressions (Select, QC, Triple Wood and Lore), all of these are sub-£100, and Laphroaig fans are left with no core age-statement bottlings which bridge the huge financial chasm between the 10 and the 25 year olds.
Not really a mystery, mystery Islay. But easily one of my favourite Sponge labels. Whilst I’m quite not as deeply fond of this distillery as many others are (my attentions are typically a few miles further East or over on the Sound of Islay), nevertheless the story told here, both of the distillery’s history and particularly of Angus’s father’s love for it are both wholly poignant and touchingly dedicatory.
When reviewing whiskies I try, as much as is feasibly possible, to ensure a consistency of both routine and environment. The same time of day, the same glass, even the same seat. Whilst this might seem particularly anal, it’s well documented that our olfactory systems are not consistent things – they ebb and flow throughout the day. Through a set repetition, it’s my belief that the most accurate results can be both observed and recorded. At yet, at the same time, despite being very style/flavour agnostic, it’s hard to overlook that sometimes whisky can feel particular seasonal.
Douglas of Drumlanrig is a collection of single cask whiskies from independent bottler Hunter Laing. The bottlings are named after Drumlanrig Castle (more of an imposing stately home than what most people would think of as a castle) which is situated in the Dumfries and Galloway town of Thornhill. They are all allegedly personally approved by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury – it’s a hard job, but apparently someone has got to do it. Douglas of Drumlanrig expressions were originally exclusive to The Whisky Shop, but now you’ll see a wider variety of outlets stocking the single cask bottlings periodically.
German-based Malts of Scotland seems to have a soft spot for Laphroaig – they've bottled a wealth of it over the past decade – including a solid dozen from the year we’re going to be turning to – 1998.
Young Laphroaig which has spent its life in a 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel.
Over to Islay for a 29 – this one drawn from a 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel.
Another month, another SMWS Laphroaig. This one was distilled in November 1998 and spent 18 years maturing in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Peated profile.
Another month, another 29, but strangely, this one has been slotted into the Heavily Peated profile – as you’ll read from our tasting notes below, those usual TCP-tinged Laphroaig notes are much more understated than you’ll find in many bottlings of 29. Somewhere between Oily & Coastal and Peated would have been a more apt category perhaps – but, this bottling is tricky to pigeon hole. It has been matured for 18 years in ex-bourbon before being re-racked in a 2nd fill hogshead for a final year of maturation.
An unusually categorised Laphroaig that’s spent 16 years in an American oak oloroso butt before being re-racked into a 1st fill Spanish oak oloroso butt. Clearly sometimes there’s never enough sherry.
What’s this? A blue coloured Laphroaig - curiouser and curiouser! This one is a little less transparent than I’d expect from the Society – it’s 20 years of age, and is stated as having been drawn from a 1st fill ex-oloroso hogshead, having ‘previously inhabited an ex-bourbon hogshead’ – but how long in each is anyone’s guess. Oily & Coastal profile.
Ever-reliable independent bottler Signatory are no stranger to single-cask Laphroaig’s – there are 239 currently listed on Whisky Base - the oldest being a 1966 31 year old that would certainly shift for a pretty penny nowadays. Our Signatory Laphroaig comes via The Whisky Exchange in the form of a hand-picked cask – the Exchange team always know a good whisky when they taste one.
Inside door number four and it’s a 6 year old Williamson. If you’ve never heard of Williamson Distillery, fear not, it’s actually not a distillery in its own right, rather, it’s the name given to ‘tea spooned’ Laphroaig. Tea spooning is the process whereby a small amount of whisky from one distillery is added to a cask containing whisky from another. By doing so, the cask is, technically, no longer 100% one thing or another (and perhaps not even a technically a single malt anymore, but that’s a discussion for another time) and therefore has to be sold under a different, new name. Distilleries tea spoon to allow the sale of their whisky (often to independent bottlers), whilst protecting their currently traded brand names.
Nature can often surprise with its tendency to diversity as much as its tendency to uniformity. And peat is no different – it is not all the same. Topography and local climate make a marked difference to the aromas and flavours that peat smoke imbues into barley – the easiest comparison to understand being that of the variations between sea and salt-licked Islay peat and the more vegetal, ‘in-land’ notes that tend to be produced from Highland peat. But, far from being merely diverse in its makeup and thus chemical composition, peat behaves differently (and sometimes inconsistently) when it enters the various stages of the whisky making process. And most unpeated distilleries do not tend to simply go at a peated run without making several knowing alterations to the whisky-making process beforehand.
Popular Belgium-based importer The Nectar was founded in 2006 and celebrated their 15th Anniversary last year with a raft of special release bottlings – I’ve seen Compass Box, Port Askaig, Blackadder, Arran and Wolfburn alongside Daily Dram (Nectar’s own imprint) Benriach, Craigellachie, Clynelish and Hampden rum. Included in the celebratory line-up was this 30 year old Islay Single Malt from Thompson Brothers. Drawn from a single hogshead laid down in 1990, this cask produced 250 bottles at 49% ABV.
Home Needs Wine and Spirits (better known as HNWS) is an independent bottler located in Taoyuan, Taiwan. This Thompson Brothers release of 263 bottles comes from a 1991 cask (refill barrel?) and is delivered at 50.2% ABV.
The larger number of bottles (464) should give you a clue what’s going on here. Two refill barrels of 1990 Islay Single Malt have been combined before being bottled at 49.3%.
A sherry finished Laphroaig which will surely fly off the shelves. Distilled in 1998 and presumably matured in ex-bourbon until 2010, when the liquid was re-racked into a sherry hogshead for nine years of additional maturation. That’s not messing around. 322 bottles were extracted from cask #117. They’re offered at 54.4% ABV and at £399 each from The Whisky Exchange.