Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Laphroaig Dinner

My critique of Montreal’s whisky bars is a project that’s been on the back burner for longer than I care to admit. I’d occasionally travel north, drink a bunch of whisky, take notes and then fail to follow through. I finally got serious about this undertaking about six months ago and decided to visit each of the relevant establishments for one drink, in a single whirlwind tour, and finally put pen to paper. Well, things don’t always work out as planned and that one trip turned into three for a variety of reasons. With my research compiled the writing can commence, but first a little prelude.

About three years ago I was poking around online and came across an announcement for a Glenfarclas tasting at one of Montreal’s big three whisky bars. Being a big fan of the ‘farclas I should have jumped on that opportunity, but I hesitated and the event was sold out by the time I decided I should attend. While bellied up to said bar this winter, coincidentally sipping on a vintage Glenfarclas, I asked the bartender how to get on the mailing list for their tasting events. She hastily wrote the email address of the manager on my receipt and said a quick note to him would do the trick.

When the announcement for a Laphroaig dinner hit my inbox a few weeks ago I was curious but a little hesitant. Between my personal collection, a tasting at the distillery three years ago and the Laphroaig event I went to in NH last summer, I’ve already tasted through much of what the distillery has to offer. But this dinner was being hosted by the distillery manager. For someone like me, the opportunity to have a conversation with the man who knows better than anyone else how the whisky is made is priceless. Even if I had previously tasted everything poured that night, it would still be well worth the four hour round trip drive and overnight stay. Besides, I still had a few more places to visit to tie up the bigger research project. My hesitation lasted less than 24 hours.

After checking in to my hotel and working through the language barrier to figure out Montreal’s subway system, I arrived at the Burgundy Lion just a few minutes before the 6:00 start time. I was greeted by a well-made Laphroaig Quarter Cask Old Fashioned and told to refrain from drinking the four tasting samples that had been laid out before me until the appropriate time. Other drinks were of course available for purchase.

While this was a whisky dinner, I’d say that the four courses were accompaniments rather than pairings. Of course, it’s pretty tough to pair food with heavily peated single malts, especially four times in a row. But nothing clashed, and that’s all that really matters. As I suspected, each of the four offerings were Laphroaig variants that I was pretty familiar with: Triple Wood, 10 year, 2014 Cairdeas and 18 year. Much to my delight, they brought out one more bottle at the end; the 2009 Cairdeas. Where the first four were roughly 1 ounce pours, the last one was a single bottle split among 50 people, so probably a bit less than ½ an ounce per person.

Events like this aren’t really an ideal setting for taking detailed tasting notes and I’ve previously written pretty extensively about three of the first four tasted, so I’m going to focus more on the information I was able to glean through the evening before posting my thoughts on the 2009 Cairdeas.

I should note that John Campbell first started at Laphroaig in 1994 and also gained experience with brief stints at a handful of other distilleries. He was promoted to distillery manager in 2006 and is the first Ileach to hold that position since Laphroaig was established in 1815. John is a fairly humble and unassuming character who possesses the dry sense of humor that Islay is known for. Discussing the details of whisky production with him was an absolute pleasure and our conversations made me long for a return visit to Islay.

We started off with Laphroaig Triple Wood. One might assume that this is aged in a combination of bourbon barrels and a few different types of sherry casks (as Auchentoshan Three Wood is) or perhaps bourbon barrels, sherry casks and port pipes, since the label on the bottle only mentions that it is “triple matured for peat, oak and subtle sweetness”. But the packaging tube does mention ex-bourbon barrels, quarter casks and European oak.

As John described how this whisky is produced, he told us that it spends 5 to 11 years in first fill bourbon barrels before being transferred to quarter casks for 7 months (these are 125 liter casks made from cut down 200 liter bourbon barrels, being ¼ the size of a 500 liter butt), and finally spending another two years in Oloroso Sherry seasoned hogsheads. What struck me was that the first two thirds of the aging regiment sounded exactly the same as the production of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. When I asked John about this he did confirm that Triple Wood is essentially Quarter Cask with a further two year finishing period in sherry casks. From the standpoint of managing production levels this is a pretty brilliant strategy. Not only does the wide age range used and lack of an age statement give them some flexibility in how much Quarter Cask they can bottle at any given time, they can also shift inventory between Quarter Cask and Triple Wood close to when the whisky reaches maturity rather than hoping they get it right when the spirit is first entered into the casks.

Another interesting bit of information came up about Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. The barley that they malt in-house makes up 15% of the total that is used. I’ve been told (at the distillery I believe) that the local peat that is used to kiln their floor malted barley is composed primarily of lichens and mosses which grew in an environment heavy with sea spray, and this is part of what gives Laphroaig its strong iodine-like medicinal flavors. According to John, of the seven distilleries in Scotland that maintain traditional floor maltings, only Laphroaig cold smokes the drying malt, and that is part of what produces their unique range of flavors. Of course I needed to know more and asked if there was some special equipment or particular kiln design required for cold smoking. John told me that it was simply a matter of maintaining a lower temperature peat fire, which I assume makes the process more time intensive.

Next we moved on the 10 year. John mentioned that this is aged exclusively in first-fill Maker’s Mark barrels and accounts for 70% of Laphroaig’s case sales. At the tasting I went to last summer that figure was 75% and Quarter Cask represented 15%; I assume that some of the 10 year’s sales volume was diverted to Laphroaig Select, which was first introduced about a year ago. John also noted that the 10 year historically contained small amounts of slightly older whisky (I think he said 11 to 12 years old) to round out the flavor profile, but since production can barely match demand these days, pretty much every barrel that goes into the 10 year is aged only slightly more than 10 years.

This is where the technical information got really interesting for me. The conversation moved on to the topic of consistency and how important it is for a flagship whisky like Laphroaig 10 year. In order to keep the flavor profile from deviating, batches of 250 barrels are vatted together and given 3 to 4 days to mingle. Then 80% of it is bottled and 20% is left behind to mix with the next batch.

Someone in the group asked about the process of tasting all of the barrels that will go into a batch to ensure that they will combine into the desired flavor profile. Surprisingly, John informed us that this is a procedure that has largely been done away with. They’ve gotten to the point that they know what sort of different aging effects will happen in the various warehouses. Between good quality control of the barrels before they are filled, along with a few quality checks of the whisky in the early stages of aging, they are able to create the 10 year essentially from a formula of barrel locations from the different warehouses.

Next we moved on to the 2014 Cairdeas, which is aged for 8 years in bourbon barrels plus an additional 16 months in Amontillado Sherry casks, resulting in a Laphroaig that is especially peaty, spicy (clove and nutmeg), salty and dry, with a bit of fruit and nuttiness.

John mentioned the stills here, noting that the spirit stills are not all the same size and mixing the whisky from them builds complexity. I did a bit of follow up research and learned that the original set of stills was supplemented with two more in 1923 and a third pair was added in 1968/1969. The three wash stills have a capacity of 10,400 liters each and the three spirit stills each hold 4700 liters. A fourth spirit still with a capacity of 9400 liters was added in 1974.

I had recently read about the soon to be released 2015 Cairdeas, which is a whisky made solely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor maltings. This is something I’m really excited about and getting my hands on a bottle is a top priority. I took the opportunity to ask John about this and if laying down 100% floor malted whisky was something they were doing annually. He told me that it was a project he had initiated just after becoming the distillery manager in February of 2006 (making it a little over 9 years old), but that it was a one time thing and they haven’t made more since. Then he wistfully declared that he really should push for more experiments like that.

The conversation perfectly segued into me asking if the distillate from the different sized spirit stills was always mixed together before going into barrels. He confirmed that fact and I suggested that it would be interesting to separate some of it and see how the resulting whiskies differed. With an inspired look in his eye, he agreed that it would be interesting (I’ll gladly take credit for this if we see “Big Still / Little Still” Cairdeas releases ten years from now).

By this point we had moved on to dessert and the elegant, well-rounded 18 year. Curious about the current goings on of Islay, I asked about the status of Gartbreck Farm, the proposed ninth distillery on Islay which was announced in September of 2013 and the start of which seems to have been in a perpetual state of delay. John said he believed they had just recently, finally, broken ground on the project. Then he started to talk about the other proposed new distillery which is planned to be located between Laphroaig and the village of Port Ellen. Apparently news of this potential tenth Islay distillery had only broken a week before, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was unaware of it.

With the event winding down, we were treated to the last whisky; 2009 Cairdeas. Laphroaig has been bottling special edition whiskies for the annual Feis Ile festival since 2003. In 2007 they made enough of the festival bottling to also offer it as an online exclusive to members of the Friends of Laphroaig. They decided to make this a tradition, and added the Cairdeas (Gaelic for “friendship”) title to all of the festival bottlings from 2008. Production levels of the Cairdeas releases were later increased further and they have been made more widely available since at least 2012.

2009 Cairdeas is a cask strength 12 year old, aged exclusively in first fill Maker’s Mark barrels and bottled at 57.5% abv. Dry, woody smoke is prominent on the nose. It is big but clean on the palate, showing minimal oak influence and unadulterated peat smoke. It’s dry and fiery, but able to maintain its composure. This is quintessential Laphroaig and really shows what the 10 year is holding back.

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