I’ve never been much of a morning person. Combine that with the fact that I work nights and you can see why I’m rarely awake before 10 AM. Then an email came through my inbox a few weeks ago with the phrase “free Scotch tasting”; that certainly got my attention. But it was a two hour drive from home and it started at 9:45…..in the morning. I had my doubts.
The tasting was hosted by Laphroaig and upon rereading the email I noticed that it would include the flagship 10 year, the new Select bottling, the 2014 release of the Cairdeas series, and a “surprise special treat from the Laphroaig Vault”. I was starting to think I shouldn’t pass this one up. It only took a few days of contemplation before I decided that I’d just have to suck it up and break out the old alarm clock.
The invitation came to me by way of the Friends of Laphroaig, a club that can be joined by anyone upon purchasing a bottle of Laphroaig. I signed up shortly before heading to Scotland two and a half years ago, enticed by the fact that a complimentary miniature when visiting the distillery is one of several member benefits. The tasting was only open to Friends of Laphroaig, but it was held in conjunction with the New Hampshire Highland Games and Festival, an event which is in its 40th year and one of which I was somehow previously unaware.
Fortunately, most of the drive was on less travelled roads through sparsely populated areas of Vermont and New Hampshire. The narrow, twisting section of route 112 that runs along the Wild Ammonoosuc River brought back fond memories of driving in the Scottish countryside. Cool temperatures, low cloud cover and even a scenic, high-elevation pond all conspired to set a perfectly appropriate tone for the event I was heading to.
As I closed in on my destination, I began to realize the magnitude of the event. Hundreds of people were milling about and lining up for entry, and nearly everyone was outfitted with traditional Scottish attire. Even the police officers directing traffic and providing crowd control were wearing kilts. It was quite a sight to see. Regrettably, I had to get home by mid afternoon for work; I would have liked to have lingered for a bit and enjoyed the festivities after the tasting.
By the time I found a place to park and figured out where exactly I was supposed to go, I had managed to settle in just a few minutes before things got under way. The first three whiskies had been pre poured and a cup was set out for the fourth. About 30 people were in attendance, but the room had tables set up for many more, as several larger tastings were being held in the same location throughout the weekend. I really prefer to sample whisky out of glass rather than plastic, but I understand that the logistics of large tastings dictate otherwise.
Our host was Simon Brooking, the Scotch Whiskies Brand Ambassador for Beam Suntory, Laphroaig’s parent company. Simon is a master of his craft and did a wonderful job. With a fine repertoire of toasts and literary quotes, plenty of insightful information and the ability to not get too far off topic, he was able to keep the group engaged and keep the tasting moving at an appropriate pace.
The elusive fourth whiskey was Laphroaig Highgrove, an exclusive bottling produced one barrel at a time and sold only in London’s Highgrove Shop. Profits from the sale of Highgrove products are donated to the Prince of Whales Charitable Foundation, and Laphroaig has been the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Whales. The distillery has held that honor since 1994.
With a little time left at the end, Simon produced a fifth bottle for us to sample. He had brought one of his personal favorites, the 1989 Vintage 17 year Laphroaig which was bottled for the 2007 Feis Ile festival. His original intention had been to use it to toast Scottish independence, which had been voted on two days prior. In light of his plan being scuttled by the vote going the other way; he chose to generously share the bottle with us instead.
As for the whiskies, I’ll start of with some production details, tasting notes and general impressions of each first, then follow up with some more philosophical thoughts on them. And just a quick side note, picking out specific flavors and aromas is somewhat of a slow, contemplative process for me. As a result, my tasting notes made in a setting such as this tend to be more rudimentary than what I put together when I’m home alone.
Laphroaig 10 year – 43%, $50, chill filtered, aged exclusively in first fill bourbon barrels. Dense, weighty peat smoke with iodine and sea spray on the nose. It starts off with big bold peat smoke up front, which gently and gracefully fades. There is some vanilla sweetness up front, but its finish is fairly dry. It has moderate complexity, but doesn’t evolve dramatically from start to finish. I think it’s a good idea to start a Laphroaig tasting with the flagship 10 year, as it gives a nice frame of reference for the other expressions being tasted.
Laphroaig Select – 40%, $55, chill filtered, aged in a combination first fill bourbon barrels, quarter casks, Oloroso Sherry buts and PX seasoned hogsheads, all of which are vatted and entered into straight American white oak for one year. Most people assume these are new barrels, but the Laphroaig web site does not use the word “new”. I suspect they might be re-using the barrels from Laphroaig’s QA Cask offering, which starts in first fill bourbon barrels and is finished in new charred American white oak. Peat smoke is still the dominant aroma, but it is less dense than the 10 year. It starts of with a hint of sweetness and seems light up front, but a wave of peat comes up quickly. The peat smoke lingers but isn’t too intense as other flavors build and evolve, primarily dark sherry fruit and sweet vanilla notes. It gets a little weird on the mid palate to early finish, where some bitterness comes into play (overly tannic perhaps?) and it seems not so well-integrated. It does come around late on the finish and redeems itself a little as it slowly fades.
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 – 51.4%, $75, non-chill filtered, aged in first fill bourbon barrels and finished for one year in Amontillado hogsheads (there is no age statement, but we were told it spent 8 years in the bourbon barrels). The nose has sharp, focused peat aromas with brine and medicinal notes. It has a weighty character from the start. There’s a hint of vanilla driven sweetness up front, but that is quickly rolled over by an iodine laden wave of peat smoke. The intense peaty character echoes on for a while before the nutty sherry character emerges late and it gets quite dry on the finish. It has a fascinating interplay of peat smoke and dry nuttiness as it moves through the finish.
Laphroaig Highgrove – 46%, £60, non-chill filtered, 12 year, aged first fill bourbon barrels (the bottle at the tasting had no label, and some research shows that prior to 2008 the Highgrove bottlings were chill filtered and at 43%, but I’m assuming this was a more recent bottle). The aromas show a lot of subtle complexity, with peat smoke that has great depth but not in a sharp, aggressive way. It is very elegant and well composed on the palate with fishing nets and slowly smoldering peat being the dominant aspects.
Laphroaig 1989 Vintage 17 year, 50.3%, £50, non-chill filtered. I was unable to find any cask-type information, so I’m assuming is all from first fill bourbon barrels. The price listed is the original offering price; current auction prices go considerably higher. It has lots of brine and sea spray on the nose, with very subtle peat aromas. On the palate it is big and fiery (but not overly hot), with a peaty intensity that one would not expect after nosing it. A bit of a rollercoaster ride, but it manages to stay in balance.
One of the other interesting aspects of spending an hour with someone like Simon Brooking is that you can catch a lot of inside information if you pay attention. Here are a few of the interesting bits that I picked up.
Currently Laphroaig 10 year accounts for 75% of their sales volume and Quarter Cask is at 15%. That leaves just 10% for all of their other bottlings combined.
Simon also mentioned that there were plans to phase out the 18 year and bring back the 15 year that it replaced in 2009. The 15 year had been chill filtered and the 18 year is not, hopefully they don’t bring back that aspect of the younger version. This realignment could be the result of increased demand, but I’m curious to see if they are making way for another release that will fill the price gap to the $400 25 year; perhaps a $200 21 year?
Laphroaig, as well as Maker’s Mark, has had a common ownership with Jim Beam for many years. Laphroaig uses Maker’s Mark barrels almost exclusively.
The Laphroaig distillery is pretty much running at capacity and they are considering adding a second still house to increase production. One idea being considered is to build it on the narrow strip of land between the ocean and the existing buildings. That doesn’t seem like much space, but a still house which looks out over the water, like that of Caol Ila, could be quite stunning.
The distillery will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. Festivities are still being planned, but they likely occur in November. Big crowds are expected and one idea they are looking at is a floating hotel, on a barge right in front of the distillery. I imagine they have been planning a special bottling to mark the occasion for some time.
As I mentioned above, I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts about the whiskies we tasted. I don’t dislike the 10 year per se, but tasting most other Laphroaig expressions shows how much more the distillery has to offer. I, like many other purists, wish the 10 year was bottled non-chill filtered at 46%. Interestingly, the Highgrove bottling should give the closest glimpse of what that would be like. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until after the tasting. If I’m ever passing through London I will definitely pick up a bottle of Highgrove for a proper side-by-side with the 10 year.
Of the obtainable bottles we tasted, the 2014 Cairdeas was the standout to me. It impressed me enough that I stopped by the local liquor store and picked up a bottle before heading home. I’ll add some background details on the series.
The Feis Ile, Islay’s festival of whisky and music, was started by residents of the island in 1984. By 2000, the distilleries on Islay finally started to get behind the festival, many of them offering special tours and tastings and putting out limited bottlings for the event. Laphroaig’s first Feis Ile bottling was in 2003. They bottled just one barrel (a few hundred bottles) for the festival that year and for each of the next two or three years. In 2007 they expanded it to 4000 bottles (this was the one tasted above) and also made it an exclusive online offering to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. That bottling also marked the occasion of the opening of their new Friends Lounge at the distillery. In 2008 they started to use the word Cairdeas (Gaelic for friendship) on all of the Feis Ile bottlings, as they were now made available to the Friends of Laphroaig as well as at the festival. Laphroaig has been distributing the Cairdeas bottlings more widely since at least 2012, and the production numbers reflect that: 5000 bottles in 2010, 20,000 bottles in 2012 and 28,000 bottles in 2014. Confusingly, they have put “Cairdeas” on the label of at least on non-Feis Ile bottling; a 30 year expression that I tasted at the distillery a few years ago.
As for the Laphroaig Select, that was my only disappointment for the day. Some of the marketing material says it is composed of casks which represent their 10 year, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood and PX cask. Many reviewers have mistakenly said it is an actual combination of those four whiskies, which it is not. I hope this is an unfortunate coincidence and not something that was done intentionally. As for the whisky itself, I had seen a few unenthusiastic reviews beforehand, but tried to go in with an open mind and judge it fairly. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly didn’t make me swoon. The stated goal of this bottling is to be an approachable introductory whisky. It actually kind of fails on two fronts; it alienates Laphroaig loyalists by tempering the expected big peaty character, and I don’t think it will entice newcomers on price point or flavor profile. Even though the peat is restrained and a healthy does of sweetness is added, it just isn’t that well composed overall.
After a good deal of consideration, I’ve come up with a strategy that I thing could have worked better for them. In my opinion, they’re goals would have been better served by the introduction of a “lightly peated” Laphroaig, age stated at 8 years and bottled at 40% with chill filtration. At the same time, they could have moved the 10 year to 46% and non-chill filtration.
As for Laphroaig devotees, I think the majority of them would welcome such a change to the 10 year, even if it came with a modest price increase. They would also have realistic expectations of a Laphroaig carrying the “lightly peated” moniker, and would either view it as a new facet of Laphroaig that they’d like to experience, or as something they simply weren’t interested in. With the Select, many Laphroaig drinkers try it just because it is the newest bottling and then end up being disappointed.
A lightly peated 8 year aged primarily in first fill bourbon barrels (maybe with a little new charred oak and/or sherry wood if some additional sweetness was desired) could come in at a lower price point ($40 to $45) that would entice new consumers and could act as a perfect gateway to the more robust, fully peated Laphroaig bottlings.