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?
One thing is for sure, Laphroaig have steadily been moving away from age-statement releases - discontinuing a raft of their mainstay whiskies for new NAS expressions which many die-hard fans suggest to be far from equivalent to their predecessors. Questions are arising over the overall ‘style’ of the distillery’s expressions – to many, the Laphroaig spirit character is unapologetically medicinal and inherently coastal - but recent releases (Lore, 1815 etc) all seem to have abandoned this big and bold profile for a much more homogenised, toned-down form - releases seem to be getting younger whilst cask influences are getting heavier. There’s a lot of modern tinkering going on.
I’ve spoken to many a Laphroaig enthusiast who has bemoaned the contemporary approach of the distillery – an abandonment of the DNA – a loss of defined character. But, whilst the wider whisky industry tries to pivot to a new equilibrium (demand exceeding supply and palates changing), there’s still one reliable and relatable character in Laphroaig’s playbook that all fans should seek out…
Laphroaig have been issuing an annual cask strength expression since the late 90’s. The series started with the ‘Original Cask’ (the ‘green stripe’ bottling – circa 1998) and ‘Straight from the wood’ (the ‘red stripe’ bottling) expressions before settling into the now familiar yearly batch releases. There’s been ten so far – and given that Feis Ile is just around the corner, one would expect Batch 011 to be hitting the shelves shortly. Ever popular – you’ll need to muster up all of your patience to navigate the (often broken) Laphroaig website to nab a bottle. CS releases are popular – and for a good reason – they’re often quite excellent.
Whilst we wait for Batch 011, we’ll have a day of reminiscence with a review 2018’s Cask Strength release – Batch 010. Whilst you could consider this to simply be an amped up version of the standard 10 year old (bottled at 40%), there’s a key production difference here in that rather than utilising chill-filtration (sorry if I’ve burst your bubble about Laphroaig’s core range), the CS releases only utilises barrier filtration to remove particulate matter. As such, sans chill filtration, you’d expect more fatty acids, esters and proteins to end up in your bottle – in other words, more flavour and more texture. A more natural Laphroaig.
Originally released at £65, this, like all other Cask Strength expressions sold out quickly – you’ll easily pay double picking one up on the secondary market. One final useful note - as a batch produced whisky, you should expect batch variance – just because you see commentators fawning over one release, don’t go picking up another expecting an identical experience.
Nose: Cavernous, penetrating coal ash and cask char reinforced by a bucket of iodine and antiseptic cream. Sweet vanilla oak, salted caramel and citrus peels lighten the affair somewhat, whilst brine, seashells and smoked kippers provide a direct link to the coast. In the background, nettle soup, pine needles and seaweed provide some ‘green’ notes whilst smoked blackcurrants and rhubarb are joined by chopped herbs (thyme). Part sweet, part acrid – all Laphroaig. Heady stuff. Reduction unleashes a softer ‘meaty’ smoke of pan-fried scallops and langoustines, whilst also adding some dirt – engine oils, axle grease and floor cleaner.
Taste: Thick, oily (almost resinous) and compact on arrival – intense TCP and tarmac alongside lump coal, swarfega and hospital bandages. The development moves into flintiness with shale, granite and smoke-gun cordite before heading cask-wards with burnt logs and tingling black pepper. In the back-palate – kelp, algae and ozone – earthy, moist and rather vegetal. Dilution has two effects – its brightens with orange zest and toffee apples, whilst also emphasising coastal phenols – punchy antiseptic alongside iron filings, and bitumous road gravel.
Finish: Long with concentrated ashiness, flints, iron, lemon zest and pepperiness.
Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength Batch 010 takes absolutely no prisoners. In essence, it seems like such a simple thing – a hulking beast of a whisky – unrefined and unsophisticated. But, at its heart its pure Islay – unfettered by modern tinkering and completely honest with its composition. Long-time readers will know that I’m not a fan of contemporary heavy-handed oak – and yet here, I find the substantial wood influence to be quite integral to the overall experience. Whilst the standard 10 year old is a classic Scotch, this higher strength ‘unadulterated’ edition has genuine integrity - and real character development.