Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ardbeg Perpetuum vs. 2015 Laphroaig Cairdeas

Perpetuum: single malt Scotch, Islay, 47.4%, $100
2015 Cairdeas: single malt Scotch, Islay, 51.5%, $75

A 200 year anniversary is a big deal, especially when you’re talking about the survival of a distillery on the rain battered, wind lashed shores of Islay. It’s even more impressive when one considers the challenges imposed on whisky producers by the geopolitical turmoil of the first half of the 20th century. The fact that Ardbeg and Laphroaig are both celebrating such a momentous occasion this year is quite noteworthy.

With the current state of the industry, no popular Scottish single malt distillery can really let a significant anniversary slip by without issuing a special bottling to commemorate the milestone. Such an event can certainly be capitalized upon by a distillery to help drive sales. More importantly though, devotees of the brand will be expecting the opportunity to experience a distinctive expression of the whisky they adore while toasting the affair.

Such a bottling should be special and somewhat unique, but it’s also important to keep its price in a range that won’t be off-putting to the average consumer. Along the same lines, a large enough quantity of said bottling needs to be produced so that it is readily available. Frustrated enthusiasts don’t make for a cheerful celebration. So, let’s see what Ardbeg and Laphroaig have come up with.

Both distilleries (as well as most of the others on the island) long ago started producing limited, annual Feis Ile bottlings for Islay’s music and whisky festival, which is held in May each year. These started off in very small quantities and could only be purchased at the distillery shops during or shortly after the festival. Eventually these bottlings from Laphroaig and Ardbeg grew in size and were also made available for online sales. In 2012, both distilleries further expanded production of their festival bottlings. They were still limited releases, but they could now be purchased from retailers around the world.

Rather than putting out two competing special editions for 2015, both Ardbeg and Laphroaig chose to make the festival bottling and the anniversary bottling one in the same. Both distilleries kept the pricing for these bottlings at the same levels as the festival bottlings that have come before them for the past three years.

Laphroaig also released two other limited bottlings this year. The first is a 21 year old which was billed as celebrating the 21st anniversary of the Friends of Laphroaig (the distillery’s official fan club). It was only available in 35cl bottles at £99, and could only be bought online, initially through a ballot system. The second is a 32 year old which was aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry hogsheads. 5880 were produced and they are retailing for $1200.

As for the festival/bicentennial bottlings, Ardbeg and Laphroaig took pretty different approaches. Perpetuum is supposed to pay homage to the different styles of whisky that Ardbeg has made over the last two centuries and represent the distillery’s past, present and future. Unfortunately the official description of this whisky is long on vagaries and short on specifics. The most detail that they give only reveals that this is a mix of old and young Ardbeg and a mix of Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels. They also mention that a tiny amount of the oldest stocks left in the warehouses went into the vatting.

You may remember from one of my previous Ardbeg posts that the since the current owners took control of the distillery in 1997, they’ve had three styles of Ardbeg made during three distinct periods of production to work with. I’d like to think that Perpetuum is a vatting of whiskies from all three phases, but I haven’t seen anything specifically indicating that to be the case. I’ve also seen rumors that Perpetuum was overproduced and its quality was compromised in order to meet quantity targets (I intend to taste with an open mind nonetheless). I decided to look for some numbers and found that there were 6660 bottled of Ardbeg Auriverdes (2014 Feis Ile) made and 72,000 bottles of Perpetuum made, plus another 12,000 bottles of Perpetuum at a slightly higher proof that were only available at the distillery.

Laphroaig, on the other hand, has told us very specifically how the 2015 Cairdeas was made. This whisky was distilled in 2003 and was an early project of John Campbell, the current distillery manager. Most significantly it is made entirely from barley malted on Laphroaig’s traditional floor malting. The distillery normally uses a mix of 85% commercially produced malted barley and 15% which is malted in-house. The latter is distinctive because it is dried by burning peat hand harvested by distillery workers, and that peat is composed primarily of lichens and mosses that grew in an area heavy with sea spray. Also, Laphroaig uses a cold smoking process in the malt kiln, where they start with a low temperature fire which produces a lot of smoke but doesn’t serve to dry the barley until the temperature is eventually brought up. Even just 15% of the malt being treated this way is enough to give Laphroaig its signature iodine-like medicinal character.

This whisky was also produced only using the small stills at Laphroaig. A fourth spirit still which is twice the size of the other three spirit stills was added in 1974. Distillate from all four is usually blended together, but not in this case. Furthermore, the 2015 Cairdeas was aged in first-fill Bourbon barrels in Laphroaig’s No. 1 Warehouse, which sits right on the edge of the sea. This whisky is John’s interpretation of what Laphroaig from 200 years ago would have tasted like. Laphroaig did make 28,500 bottles of 2015 Cairdeas (or 30,000, I’ve seen both numbers), which was barely up from the 28,000 bottles of 2014 Cairdeas that were produced.

The nose shows pleasant peat notes, but they’re different than expected; somewhat restrained and a little one-dimensional. The peat smoke aromas have a dry, earthy character, and if there are any fruit notes, they are very subtle.
The palate starts off going in one direction, and then makes an abrupt turn. It has a lush, sweet, malty character right up front, but that suddenly gives way to iodine and somewhat abrasive smoke notes.
It then goes out of balance while moving into the finish, with burnt toast notes coming to dominate.
Overall, the whisky is poorly integrated and has transitions that are less than graceful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a bad whisky, but it certainly isn’t worthy of the occasion it was earmarked to celebrate.

2015 Cairdeas:
The nose is defined by sharp peat notes, brine and iodine. A touch of vanilla adds depth. The lack of sherry fruit and maltiness makes it seem oddly lithe, in spite of the assertive aromas.
Exceptionally full bodied right up front, it follows with peat smoke that is dense but not sharp or biting. I was expecting a punch in the face, but got more of a giant bear hug; my palate gradually but forcefully enveloped. Laphroaig’s signature medicinal character is certainly present, but surprisingly doesn’t seem particularly amplified relative to their other bottlings.
Warming spice notes, mint and eucalyptus all come into play, mingling with a peaty campfire as it moves into the finish.
Depth and weight define this whisky, but it stays in balance and evolves gracefully.

I love the concept and truly enjoyed this whisky, but I’d like to see Laphroaig take this idea to the next level. Sure, using worm tubs and direct fired stills would be too big of a challenge logistically. But starting with a watered-down, lower original gravity wort to emulate the lower yielding barleys of yesteryear (as Springbank does) along with running an exceptionally long fermentation time wouldn’t be too hard to do for a limited edition whisky.

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