If you had asked me before last week what I thought about the Islay single malt, Laphroaig, my response would have been positive, but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic. For pure smoky strength, I would have told you, I prefer Ardbeg; for balance and finesse, Bowmore; and for curiosity, playfulness and sheer skillful variety, Bruichladdich.
But then I went and visited the distillery, toured the grounds in the genial company of Distillery Manager John Campbell and tasted my way through a range of a half-dozen of their whiskies. And I came away with a much greater understanding of the allure of Laphroaig.
I had always thought that Laphroaig possesses a distinctive peatiness, and now I know that it truly does, and why. The whisky is made from 100% peated malt, with roughly 15% of that malted in-house. What makes this important is the process the distillery uses, first peating and then drying the malt, rather than the usual vice versa. It gives the malt a subtlely different kind of smokiness, one easily discernible when you taste the raw malt, and thus affects the character of the whisky, as well. It’s a small change, but I now believe an important one.
Legions of whisky aficionados swear by the Laphroaig 10 Year Old, of course, and now I have a better idea of why that is so. Sampled on its own, the 10 Year is a brawny behemoth, with a surprising fruitiness in the body that becomes only more apparent when you taste its older siblings in order. Which I did, sampling first the 18 Year Old with its sweetly earthy character, rounded fruit and overall flavour that reminded me of the Islay countryside in liquid form, and then the almost tropically fruity 25 Year Old, with its back end peatiness and a finish that brought to mind the flavour of raw cocoa.
After the age-statement whiskies, I turned to the differently casked versions, beginning with the Quarter Cask, a malt composed of 5 year and older whiskies, married and finished for seven months in the distillery’s small quarter casks, which give the spirit increased contact with the wood. The vanilla notes I picked up in the 10 Year are strengthened here, producing an aroma reminiscent for me of Sugar Crisp cereal, which I’m not sure they even make anymore. (“Can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp…”) The peatiness is very dry and appealing, more campfire than smoked meat, with a lovely flavour progression from sweet front to dry and appetizing finish. Thereafter I got to try the Triple Wood, which is Quarter Cask finished in oloroso sherry barrels, which I found unsurprisingly orangy and spicy, with an earthy, briny finish, and the PX, a duty-free-only edition of Quarter Cask finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, which delivers a curious smoked Christmas pudding character and I thought took several sips to even begin to understand.
In the end, I walked away with a new found appreciation of the 10 Year Old, understanding it better thanks to the input of the 18 and 25 Year Olds, and an improved sense of the place Laphroaig occupies in the pantheon of Islay whiskies. I’ll still reach often for its same age neighbour, the Ardbeg 10 Year Old, but the Laphroaig will now get equal time and attention in my liquor cabinet.