Thursday, October 31, 2013

Laphroaig, 18 Year vs. Cask Strength 10 Year

18 Year, Single Malt Scotch, Islay, 48%, $80
Cask Strength 10 Year, Single Malt Scotch, Islay, 55.7%, $65 (typical 750ml price)

I found myself laughing at the width of the roads here in the U.S. every time I drove for the first week or two after returning from Scotland. I had become so accustomed to the narrow roadways of the U.K. that when I got behind the wheel for the first time back home, it felt as if I was sailing along an ocean of asphalt.

When the trip was still in its planning stages, I consulted about driving over there with a good friend who had lived in England during the early years of his childhood and went back occasionally to visit relatives. He recounted the story of renting a car with an automatic transmission, as that was all his wife could drive. Since the vast majority of cars in Europe are standards (the complete opposite of how it is in the States), getting an automatic limits your choice to larger, luxury models. To emphasize how undesirable such a car would be, he mentioned something about driving down a road so narrow that both of the side mirrors were dragging along the hedgerows lining the street at the same time. He also allayed my fears that the layout of the pedals might be in the reverse order of what we drive here.

So, small and manual it would be. No concerns there; that describes what I’d been driving for the previous five years. I knew that shifting with my left hand would be a challenge, but at least I’m left-handed, so there is a little more coordination on that side. Aside from that, I just needed to remember to stay on the left side of the road.

Long before the trip began, it was decided that I would do all of the driving and my father would serve as co-pilot. “Keep dad against the curb, keep dad against the curb” was the mantra that I continuously repeated in my head as we drove along, ensuring that I stayed on the proper side of the road.

Not long after leaving the airport in Glasgow, you’re bound to encounter a roundabout. I’m no stranger to such road features, but driving around one in a clockwise direction for the first time proved quite unnerving. And with less than a foot of extra space on each side of the car in most places, the driver’s undivided attention is required at all times. In practice that’s probably safer than the ridiculously wide roads I’m used to driving on, which allow for all manner of distraction. Once I settled in, I truly did enjoy driving in Scotland, especially on the single track roads that snaked around the Isle of Mull.

I was surprised by a number of unexpected little differences though. I nearly grabbed the door handle more times than I’d care to admit while trying to shift. Every time I wanted to look in the rear view mirror I found myself gazing off to the right at…..well, nothing. My right hand also spent a good deal of time waving around in the center of the car in search of my seatbelt. And more often than not, leading up to a departure either my father or I would approach the wrong side of the car. This turned into somewhat of a Laurel & Hardy-esque routine; “tired of driving Mike? Ready to be the passenger?” or “Oh, did you feel like driving this time around, dad?” would come from one of us each time the other made the mistake.

As you can clearly see in the picture above, I’m standing next to the passenger side of the car, proudly displaying my newly acquired miniature of Cask Strength Laphroaig 10 Year. Just after that photo was taken was the only time that I actually got in the car, closed the door, and then came to the realization that there was no steering wheel in front of me. That picture will always bring a smile to my face.

Prior to the 2004 introduction of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, the Cask Strength 10 Year was the only non-chill filtered whisky in Laphroaig’s standard lineup. In 2009 they phased out the 15 Year and replaced it with the 18 Year which is non-chill filtered, leaving the flagship 10 Year (bottled at 40% or 43% abv, depending on where it’s being sold) as the only Laphroaig bottling to undergo that process. It’s nice to see a whisky company moving in the right direction.

The Cask Strength miniature that I picked up at the distillery is a bottling that was produced from 2004 through 2008, at 55.7% abv. Earlier bottlings were at 57.3% abv and had a green strip across the label rather than the red stripe seen on version I have. From 2009 onward the Cask Strength Laphroaig has been released in annual, numbered batches, where the proof changes from batch to batch (there is some inconsistency in the system, but that’s the topic of another post).

I thought it would be interesting to compare the Cask Strength 10 Year and the 18 Year since they are basically the opposite ends of the spectrum of the standard Laphroaig lineup. I do have some Quarter Cask on hand for reference as well.

18 Year:
It is light-to-medium golden amber in color.Pungent peat smoke with iodine and a hint of sea spray come through on the nose but with a relatively refined manner.
As expected, the body is thick and oily. The medicinal peat, slightly sweet vanilla and brine notes are all beautifully woven together. The well-integrated, complex flavors move seamlessly into the wonderfully long finish. Eighteen years in cask has barely tamed the beast; this is still very much a robust, masculine whisky.

Cask Strength 10 Year:
The color is notable darker than the 18, more of a medium amber.
On the nose, the pungent peat smoke is accompanied by a vegetal earthiness in this case. The aromas are a little more concentrated than the 18 Year, but not as unruly as I was expecting them to be.It’s even more viscous on the tongue than the 18, and it has more intensity across the board on the palate. But the flavor profile is quite different too; it has more of a nutty / woody character (rather than the luscious vanilla) joining the pungent, fiery peat notes. The vigorous intensity pulls through to the finish, carrying it along noticeably further than that of the 18 Year, which is by no means short of length.

I originally wrote about Laphroaig Quarter Cask in April of 2007 (the 2011 date is when I moved the older posts to the current format). As odd as my early writings seem to me now, I still feel essentially the same way about the Quarter Cask. I’m truly enjoying all three of these Laphroaig expressions; the 18 Year has a wonderful elegance and the Cask Strength shows its unbridled vigor, but the Quarter Cask is still my favorite. It’s beautifully balanced and wonderfully complex, with bold waves of flavor that keep crashing down on the palate, one after another.

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