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.
Smoke, comprises compounds which have a wide array of flavour traits – bitterness, savouriness, saltiness and also sweetness. Despite peated and sweeter whiskies often being positioned as polar opposites, the two can work together extraordinarily well. They’re not inversely related. The sweetness either tempering the more acerbic aromas and flavours of the smoke, or simply adding additional complexity to the natural sweetness which has already been drawn from the spirit, cask and peated barley itself.
But, we’re not all the same - our individual characteristics and lifestyles have a huge bearing on how much liking we have for sweeter things – some fairly expansive longitudinal studies have explored this. So, whilst smoky sherry cask and fortified wine cask whiskies always seem to draw a large crowd, naturally, not everyone will be predisposed to adding additional sweetness to their peat.
Laphroaig PX Cask was introduced into travel retail back in 2013. Despite broadcasting its sherried credentials fairly loudly, it’s the small print of ‘Triple Matured’ that you should pay some attention to. American oak is utilised first (for an unspecified time period), then quarter casks (again unspecified), and finally a finishing period (you guessed it) in ex-Pedro Ximenez casks. This is entirely different to maturing each of the three casks separately and then marrying together – I’ve seen a variety of websites indicating this mistakenly. The bottling is delivered in Travel Retail sized glassware – at a cost of around £60 if you’re in an airport (or order directly from Laphroaig’s website) – otherwise, an additional tenner is required to purchase this from most UK-based retailers.
Nose: Opens sweetly with a combination of reduced red and black berries, citrus, ham joints, rubber inner tubes and of course smoke. But, it’s a strangely un-Laphroaig-like smoke – almost devoid of medicinalness and ash - quiet, restrained and more focussed on maritime – seaweed, brine, tarred ropes and rock pools alongside a discreet forest fire of moss and bracken. Reduction results in some burnt toffee, ozone, engine oil, Black Jack (liquorice) chews and camphor.
Taste: Rich and sweet rather than deep and impactful - berries, tangerines, orange juice, cherry liqueurs and reduced brown sugars sit with ashes, burnt wood, BBQ’d meats and salinity. The development is progressive and moves through tar and coal dust into leather armchairs, surface cleaners and axle grease, before emerging into slate, granite and damp soils. The addition of water is ill-advised, despite this being delivered at 48% it washes away quickly and the element which takes the biggest hit is the smoke phenols.
Finish: Medium with BBQ and soy sauces, brine, hints of TCP (just hints mind) and an abundance of drying, dusty oakiness.
I find Laphroaig’s PX Cask to be rather the mixed bag. Whilst the nose is entirely pleasant, it is quite barren of aromas I’d typically associate with the distillery’s better OBs. The sherry has added some agreeable sweetness and berry influence, but in doing so has subdued the TCP to such a level that I’d challenge you to pick this out as a Laphroaig if nosed blind. The palate on the other hand has a more archetypal profile, but then delivers with drinkability in mind rather than with impact. 48% ABV has never felt so thin. Unassuming sweetness, quaffability (new word created today) and a relatively affordable price – but at the same time rather underwhelming. There’s no smoke without fire.