The Laphroaig Tasting - an afternoon well spent
Here we are; where my whisky journey began. It is only fitting that this is the first comparison tasting on the site. Before I started The Cask Blog, I was interested in the idea of tastings. Any whisk(e)y lover will delight in the notion of an afternoon spent with bottles of fine malt, but peat heads will lose their minds at the thought of this line up!
I have visited the Laphroaig distillery twice and both visits were different, special and memorable. The first time was on the trip currently being related in On the Road in Scotland: me and a friend on a trip to his hallowed land. A pilgrimage of sorts and the first time I was convinced that Laphroaig was a dram for me! The night before we sat outside the hotel bar with a cigar (because Islay) and I was in need of some convincing. This was in the days that Speyside was my zone and I wouldn't have thanked you for taking me outside of it! That evening I specifically didn't try an Islay because I knew there would be plenty the next day. This started my love affair with peat!
The Laphroaig was our first stop on Islay. It is certainly up there with the friendliest places on earth. Every person that we met had a smile and a kind word for us. We did the tour, which I will keep for another post, ended with a tasting in the Friends of Laphroaig lounge. This turned the 1-hour tour into a 3 1/2 hour experience! We met a brilliant group who took part in the guided tasting and were all minded to hang about afterwards! We got more whisky at the table when the kindest human action imaginable occurred. One of our group who had bought a 21-year-old Laphroaig to take home decided that this was the time that it should be opened - and shared! This is what whisk(e)y is: an ability to meet a group of people and quickly form a bond strong enough to share something so precious. Indeed, to form a bond strong enough that an invitation was forwarded to yours truly to visit our kind benefactor in Canada!
We then all marauded to the peat field to locate our plots. The distillery and visitor center were closed long ago by this point (in fact they had kept the visitor center open for us) but they allowed us to take wellie boots, if we promised to leave them back in the shed at the top of the lane! An amazing experience!
The second trip was with a group of three other chaps. We decided to do the tour finishing in a guided, paired tasting. Our tour guide was called Barry and was nothing short of an absolute King among men. Iodine, salt and peat pumped through his veins and he was not shy about giving his opinions. He told us that he had to be convinced about the pairings, because he felt that Laphroaig adulterated was Laphroaig wasted. I have to say the pairings worked well but they are not for every day. A nice experience? Definitely! One for the nightly dram? I think not! When the tasting was done there may have been an additional dram or two that were brought along much to our delight! Barry, when I come back I can only hope you are my guide! The bottle of 18 used for this tasting was purchased by one of the group on this trip and I am eternally thankful for being allowed to use it!
Now, on to this tasting. I have had close friends express their jealousy over this one and I understand. When I poured each glass I felt acutely guilty at the afternoon I was about to enjoy. This was quickly forgotten as the first sniff hit my nose. I am going to do notes on each in turn and compare when appropriate with a more robust comparison below.
Appearance: Rich Burnished Copper
Nose: There is literally nothing new to say about the 10. An iconic whisky, and rightly so, that has captured the minds and noses of many! Peat smoke straight away with a medicinal iodine coming through. Sea salt punches through with notes of dark wood
Taste: Peat smoke is dominant with the medicinal iodine peeking through with hints of sea salt. Jim Murray says that nothing evokes Islay better than the 10-year-old Laphroaig and I agree with him. However, for me, this will always take me back to my first dram. While I love it now, the smell and taste whisk me back to that first sniff. I can always pick out a sweet note in the 10, but have never been able to pin it down further than that.
Finish: A long and dry finish with the saltiness of seaweed towards the back of the palate.
Appearance: Rich Burnished Copper (Get used to this; there's little difference in the bottles tasted)
Nose: Fruity sweet notes are prominent - much sweeter then the 10. I got sharp green grapes. Peat smoke is there but much more muted than you would expect in a Laphroaig. The medicinal quality is there but this time it is more TCP than iodine. The sea salt eventually shows itself when the fruit recedes.
Taste: Much sweeter than the 10, but by no means a sweet dram. The smoke is less pronounced but does not suffer for the sweetness - the two flavours interplay reminding of mango on the BBQ. The exotic fruit sweetness makes this dram more reminiscent of a cook-out on a tropical beach than an Islay cottage.
Finish: Long and sweet with smoke lingering towards the back.
Note: This was not favoured by Jim Murray, but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it! It is by no means a traditional Laphroaig but as a stand-alone malt it performs very well.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Appearance: Rich Burnished Copper
Nose: Peat comes through in the best way - like smoldering peat embers with a citric sharpness.
Taste: The peat smoke comes through but recedes to a caramel sweetness. The signature Laphroaig medicinal mouthfeel is still there in heaping measure. Sea salt is detectable but not as prevalent as other expressions.
Finish: A long marriage of smoke and spice that is very pleasing!
Appearance: (No prizes for guessing) Rich Burnished Copper
Nose: The peat is there but takes a back seat to a Demerara sweetness. The peat smells freshly cut; more like a clod of peat than of peat smoke. The salt notes add an astringent sharpness that balances the sugary sweetness beautifully.
Taste: The smoke is more notable on the palate than on the nose. Antiseptic is back, as is the salt, but both are softer than in the other 3.
Finish: A very long finish. The lingering sugary sweetness slowly fades to intense smoke with hints of peppery spice.
I got a non-whisky drinker to nose these and we broadly concurred. The 10 was the most notably smoky; the 15 and 18 were fruitier; the quarter cask was sharper than the rest. I had the glasses mixed up so I could try to work out which was which blindly. I correctly guessed the 10 and the Quarter Cask but got the 18 and 15 mixed up. This doesn't surprise me as many of the notes in each are similar. The sweetness may be different in each (fruit for the 15, sugar for the 18) but there are marked similarities.
My favourite is a difficult call. If I want a dram to wrestle with, it has to be the 10 every time. It is a classic for a reason: I love it and it deserves the praise it gets. However, if I want an enjoyable and complex dram that I can sip on while having a conversation it has to be the 15 or 18. Gun to my head, I'd tilt towards the 15. There is something about the exotic notes that grabbed me. The Quarter Cask is an exceptional bottle in its own right.
There isn't a glass in this tasting I would refuse or be unhappy to receive. Laphroaig as a distillery goes from strength to strength. John Campbell is the Master Distiller and I suggest the next time you pour a dram you raise it to him for the exceptional job he does!
Apparently Laphroaig is a favourite of Prince Charles - to quote Jim Murray "he will make a wise King".