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.
Cask quality will inherently affect the % angel’s share – leaky casks won’t just seep liquid - flaws, or a lack of tightness in the barrel hoops will expose more of the liquid to external conditions. Similarly, the greater the airflow within any warehouse, the lower the ambient level of alcohol within the circulating air. Nature abhors a vacuum – so in these conditions greater evaporation till take place. There’s a reason why warehouses are usually dark and without open windows.
And of course, there’s temperature – which will increase or decrease the evaporation of both alcohol and water. Though with all other things begin equal, it’ll affect the booze before the H20. Those interested more in temp and humidity should check out an interesting post over on More Drams, Less Drama with digs into the topic in more detail.
Higher ABVs, particularly those unaltered by potable water are perennially popular with enthusiasts. Sometimes to a point where there’s disdain for anything that’s been manually reduced. The allure of cask strength is strong – but it’s important to note that just because a whisky is delivered at its natural ABV, that does not necessarily equate to it automatically presenting you with its peak characteristics. Least of all because of the inherent differences between our palates, but fundamentally, some liquids simply offer up more expressiveness or superior compositions at lower alcoholic strengths. Nevertheless, higher ABVs do present you with more options. You can either ignore dilution altogether, or experiment to find your own ideal level. Options are good.
Batch 011 of Laphroaig’s popular Cask Strength series was released back in 2019. The higher strength cousin of the known-the-world-over 10 year old is described as being matured in seasoned, charred oak barrels (which doesn’t say all that much by itself) and with just barrier filtration – thus letting you know that the 40% version comes chill-filtered. In a totally unimportantly, but visually noteworthy change - the labelling and tube for the 2019 edition comes with the older (early 2000s) ‘green stripe’ design – as opposed to the red stripe design, which had been in place since 2009’s original 001 batch. Nothing wrong with changing things up.
Batch 011 is delivered at 58.6% ABV. It’s worth noting that the price for these CS releases is increasing. And if you buy directly from the Laphroaig website, you’re now bizarrely paying in Euros – irrespective of where you live – so that might well compound your shopping basket further. Currently if you want to order this directly from Laphroaig you’ll have to purchase it in a bundle (the marketing dept looks like they’re trying to shift an abundance of hats, backpacks and whisky stones). Or, you can go via the Whisky Exchange for £73.95 and nab yourself a branded tumbler. Either way, this is notably more than the £55 that Laphroaig Cask Strength used to cost. Such is life.
Nose: A particularly sooty opening with fire hearths, charcoal and ashtrays. This is tempered by underlying sweetness – apple peels, banana skins and a hint of reduced berry fruit. The usual coastal queues are present and correct – seaweed, salinity, machine oil and antiseptic cream – but the overall medicinalness is somewhat subsumed by the wall of ash. In the background, smoked meats and cold cuts together with vanilla. The addition of water is not as counterintuitive as some might think – sticking plasters and cold cream alongside putty and sealants – livened by pine needles.
Taste: Whoomp there it is. Coal, barbeque briquettes and mineral dust with bitumen, iodine and medicinal wipes. A wave of full-powered flavour – but enveloping rather than hostile. Kelp and sea herbs are joined by liquorice and chocolate shavings, whilst pangs of citrus sit with pepperiness and camphor. Reduction diminishing the ashiness, adding a more cask-forward oaky dimension – dried planks, old parchment and wallpaper paste. Much better at full-force.
Finish: Long with drying pepperiness and floor cleaners alongside continued sootiness. A shorter finish when diluted.
The latest batch of Laphroaig Cask Strength is very good indeed – it’s both characterful and impactful. The intense ashiness is quite welcome over and above straight medicinalness (though that’s still certainly in the mix here) – and it offers some welcome nuance. There’s more to this than just fire and fury. This said, the profile seems much more focussed at its natural ABV – reduction, whilst interesting on the nose, reveals some youthful ‘paperiness’ on the palate (which may, or may not be your thing). Nevertheless, highly enjoyable stuff - just leave the pipette at home.