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.
I’d posit that we’ve all been there – sampling a dram which has blown us away, only to come back to that same whisky months or even years later and find it strangely wanting. Arguably this could have been the variables of the tasting sessions themselves – temperature, location, mood, previous meals, or even the fill level and ergo oxygenation of the bottles. But it’s also equally possible that the one variable that has actually changed is you. Your memory (including aroma and flavour) can easily become clouded and poorly-defined, and equally the continuation of your whisky journey means you now likely view previously sampled bottlings with an entirely different mind-set. Time can change everything.
When you start your whisky journey it won’t take much to impress you - at first just something more exotic than your local watering hole’s scant offerings. Then, a gradual widening of the palate – until likely a few years later, a deep dive into the absurd by exploring the darkest colours, most heavily peated, most intensely sherried whiskies the world has to offer. After which point you’ll hopefully settle down into a more measured approach to whisky appreciation – biggest, darkest, smokiest is purely a phase that most of us have to go through at some point. But, throughout these early forays your palate, appreciation and memory will consistently change. The more you expose yourself to a topic, the more it will subsequently take to impress you. Its very likely that the more whisky you explore, the harder it becomes for individual expressions to stand out as truly exceptional.
It’s all too easy (and an utterly flawed approach) to be decrying the falling quality of whisky when comparing sample ‘A’ which is in-hand, to sample ‘B’ which is only held in memory. Tasting is not scientific, but it should at least be systematic. I’ve lost count of the amount of times when I’ve been told that distillery X’s whisky is simply not as good as it was 5, 10 or 20 years ago. And when I’ve questioned on what basis this judgement is made, the answer has virtually always been grounded in a vague rose-tinted view of what whisky tasted like back in the day. Or even worse – what whisky used to taste like, because <insert blogger who’s been around a couple of years> said it did.
You see it more and more, young tasters looking to make a mark for themselves criticising the new, whilst at the same time acknowledging that they weren’t even born at the time of the old. “I’ve not tried whisky ‘A’, but because it was made in the 60/70s, it’s obviously going to be far better than this latest release I’m sitting with – which is clearly commercially made crap – now please click here repeatedly”.
Discussions around the changes to production regimes and the modern drive towards standards that are based around yield and not flavour are well worth having. But, pure conjecture, at best supported by a visit to the Old & Rare Show (“hmmm wow, dusty pineapple, soil and dunnage from this old whisky – golly, things were obviously much better 50 years ago”) doesn’t do whisky appreciation any favours. I’m tired of seeing comparisons between well-known rare bottlings and common or garden modern expressions. These are just not reasonable assessments.
One distillery which is often maligned for a fall in quality is Laphroaig. Countless pieces have and will be written whenever Laphroaig releases a new OB. And all of them love to compare the quality of new releases with that of its spirit of yesteryear. Few to my mind are successful. Granted, some recent expressions have been found wanting – or at least were not targeted and marketed specifically to my particular palate. But, the same could be said about every single distillery. Some bottlings excel, others just don’t hit the same combination of notes. You win some, you lose some. But, whilst there is a conversation to be had about the changes to Laphroaig’s production methods (and indeed wider outlook), can we please just cease with the constant prehistoric comparisons. Or at the very least, before you publically grumble, ensure you’ve sampled a bottle of 10 year old pre-Royal warrant. Then we’ll talk.
Change is a factor of life – and at distilleries some turn out for the better, others for the worse. And not just at Laphroaig – look at the alterations to Ardbeg as a distillate since the 70s, or that of the profiles of Mortlach or Macallan. Whisky doesn’t and cannot stand still. Indeed distilleries which try to remain entirely time-locked for decades will invariable go out of business. You don’t have to like change, but at the same time, you need to try to avoid green-grass aspersions and implausible confabulations based on either your memories or worse, the memory of others. Being subjective is not the same as being objective.
Today review of is of last year’s Laphroaig Feis Ile festival bottling – Cairdeas Fino Cask Finish. Unlike the Bowmores of this world, Laphroaig’s Feis offering receives a much wider, less limited release. You don’t need to queue for 12 hours through the night – but equally you’re less likely to feed your family for a week by flipping the bottles on an auction site. Swings and roundabouts as always. Obtaining the annual Cairdeas release is usually as easy as visiting a retailer shortly after distillery’s open day has finished, or if you’re a masochist, attempting to use the distillery’s website - which frankly is, unlike their whisky, completely deserving of all the criticism it receives.
The 2018 Cairdeas (“friendship”) release is an NAS, though widely described as being drawn from a vatting of whiskies between 7 and 11 years of age. These started life in 1st fill ex-bourbon before being finished for an unspecified period in Fino sherry casks. It’s bottled at 51.8% ABV and was released for around £65 ($79.99) back in August of 2018. It’s still available via some retailers, though expect to pay a premium for it given that it’s been superseded by this year’s Cairdeas Triple Wood (which is still widely available and we’ll be reviewing for you in the not too distant future). This said, if you’re based in the US, where these bottlings tend to be released a few months later than in Europe – there’s still a fair few outlets selling the Cairdeas Fino Cask Finish for very close to its original RRP – though with tariffs inbound I’d sadly not expect that situation to last.
Nose: Fruity and filthy. Dried apricot slices, candied orange peels, rhubarb and custard sweets and vanilla cream biscuits. Then highly industrial but with medicinal facets – machine oil, axle grease, rubber inner tubes, Brine, sudocream and iodine. Some interesting and uncommon background aromas also - plaster of Paris, dried parchment paper, fried green onions and white vinegar. Water unleashes sticking plasters and antiseptic creams, whilst also offering doughy bread and almond paste.
Taste: Soft and very putty-like on arrival – epoxy resin, bostik floor adhesive and petroleum jelly. Then sharp and sourer fruits – lemons and berry jams – alongside chopped almonds, and plenty of honey. Running throughout, wood-forward (ply) vanilla and medicinal ashiness together with stone fruits (apricot and peach) and notes of iodine, brine and surf and turf (singed BBQ meats and creamy lobster tails). Reduction highlights some youthfulness (copper) and reaffirms a sense of mad-made chemicals with bromine and ozone set against hospital floor cleaner and playdoh. I much prefer this at full strength it has to be said.
Finish: Medium with drying oak, meatiness and nuts and a fading industrial/medicinal combo.
Laphroaig Cairdeas Fino Cask Finish is a whisky as likely to divide fans of the distillery as well any room. Case in point, I’d happily have a dram, whereas The Dramble’s webmaster Danny is far from enthused – despite repeated tastings over a number of occasions. This is a rather aberrant style from what one might consider the modern character of the distillery, and whilst there are many fans of sherried Laphroaig out there, this bottling doesn’t go to the usual places that you’d expect from sweet + peat.
There are two good reasons for that. The type of sherry and the relative age of the liquid. Fino is a much drier and nuttier style of sherry, as opposed to the sweetness of oloroso and the richness of PX. Here what I believe to be a moderately short Fino finish has been combined with some relatively young spirit. The result is a whisky which still has some rough edges, but which possesses a profile that's more about dirt and grime than it is about sweet peat.