Reviews of interesting whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…
A midwinter night’s dram
I love peated whisky so much that I can sip it in any season but there’s no denying that it seems especially suited to the dreich winter months. When my mood shifts towards the smokier end of the Scotch whisky spectrum, there are some brands that tend to come to mind ahead of others and when you’re talking about smoke, the whiskies of Islay are always given some consideration. Of all the Islay brands, the one that perhaps best defines the island’s style is Laphroaig. In this review, I’ll be checking out Batch 13 of the 10-year-old Laphroaig Cask Strength expression.
Laphroaig’s 10-year-old single malt is one of the most famous Scotch whiskies in the world. This intensely peated dram has probably introduced more people to Islay than any other. So unique is its flavour profile, watching people take their first sip has almost become a hobby in itself. Once you’ve been enjoying whisky for a while, however, you tend to move away from the entry-level offerings and look for something a little bolder and ideally, cask strength. Fortunately, Laphroaig has got that covered with regular batches of a cask-strength edition. Back in 1997, an ad in the Illustrated News described it thus…
The ultimate challenge for the serious whisky connoisseur. Bottled straight from oak barrels, in which the whisky has matured for 10 years on the island of Islay, its peaty and uncompromising taste has earned Laphroaig the reputation as one of the world’s most distinctive drinks.
Laphroaig is one of Islay’s oldest distilleries. It was established in 1815 by the Johnson brothers and remained in their family until the last descendant, Ian Hunter, died without an heir. The distillery was passed to Hunter’s closest colleague, Bessie Williamson. Bessie came to Laphroaig for a summer job and ended up staying for the rest of her life. She became Distillery Manager and Owner before later selling to Allied Distillers. Today, the distillery is owned by Beam Suntory.
Back in September, I was in Islay to attend the Islay Whisky Academy Residential Diploma. We were very fortunate to have as a lecturer, John McDougall, a veteran of the Scotch industry of nearly 60 years. John served as Distillery Manager at Laphroaig in the 1960s, working under Bessie Williamson herself. John spoke to the class at length, sharing some of his incredible experiences with us. That afternoon, he accompanied us to the distillery and joined us on the tour. It was a lovely moment. It’s not every day you get to tour a distillery with the person that ran it 50 years ago. John was able to highlight some of the things that were done differently in his time and, outside, he pointed out which windows were Bessie’s office and which were his. It was strange yet lovely to meet someone who worked closely with Bessie, a woman I’ve read about for many years.
Anyone who’s been inside the Laphroaig still-house will know that it’s a little unusual as one of the spirit stills is significantly larger than the others. John McDougall was in charge of Laphroaig when the new, larger spirit still was installed. It was done by the owners to increase production but John argued against it, fearing it would change the flavour profile. He was, of course, correct. Since then, Laphroaig minimises the effect of that change by blending it with the output of the other stills.
I’m very grateful for being able to spend a day in John’s company. He is a font of knowledge with great stories and has first-hand experience of the last 60 years in whisky. Being able to tour Laphroaig with him was once-in-a-lifetime stuff. Such is the magic of the Islay Whisky Academy, I suppose.
For more information on the Islay Whisky Academy, visit: https://islaywhiskyacademy.scot/
Laphroaig Cask Strength 10-year-old
The Laphroaig Cask Strength 10-year-old is released in batches. Rather than simply being a stronger version of the standard expression, each batch varies slightly, depending on the casks available in the warehouse at the time. Batch 13 was released in 2021. It’s bottled at 57.9% and retailed for around £70.
Smell: Smoke and ash and charcoal. Well, what did you expect? There’s also some bourbon character there though with lots of vanilla, honey and cinnamon. Touch of liquorice. Black pepper. A blast of briney sea breeze. Wee touch of Germolene (antiseptic cream). Surprisingly fruity. Orange. Lemon. Stewed fruits and pastries. Rhubarb crumble.
Taste: Fruity arrival with orange, apricot, lemon and plum. That leads to some toffee, burnt caramel and cinnamon before some peppery heat takes over mid-palate. Sea salt tang before a big burst of smoke towards the finish. Wee lingering dry woody spice too.
Thoughts: Perhaps not as pungent as some other Laphroaig offerings but no less enjoyable. It’s very peaty of course but the smoke starts slowly and only really takes a full hold at the finish and those lovely fruit notes add a counterpoint to all the fire and brimstone. Laphroaig isn’t the most full-bodied spirit in the world but there’s nevertheless a nice, natural oiliness on the palate that helps to coat the whole mouth.
There’s always a bit of batch variation with the 10-year-old Cask Strength bottlings so it really does depend on the batch you buy but personally, I like it that way. I don’t buy every single batch that’s released but I like that I can revisit it every couple of years and discover new facets of a whisky I know fairly well. Naturally, I prefer some batches over others but it’s always an enjoyable experience.
Price: £70. Not everyone can afford to spend that kind of money on a bottle of whisky in the current climate. However, this is a release I trust to offer up quality, time after time. I know that if I want to spend a wee bit more on a bottle, there’s a very good chance the 10-year-old Laphroaig will deliver exactly what I’m looking for. In this instance, I wasn’t wrong.
For more on Laphroaig visit https://www.laphroaig.com/