Saturday, December 7, 2013

Laphroaig's Younger OBs considered. Cigarette?

Laphroaig is the biggest selling Islay single malt according to Bloomberg (accounting for about 44% of the sales of all the whisky from Islay (!)) and it's not a big mystery why.   It is tremendously smoky and peaty, maritime briney, and yet has beguiling stone fruit flavors and plenty of malty sweetness.  The 10 year old expression is fierce, and yet well balanced, and at around $40 one of the biggest values in the single malt world in the flavor density for the dollar equation.  I encountered it, like a lot of malt whiskey fans, very very early.  In the early 1990s after I had tried Macallan, Glenfiddich, and began tasting the Diageo Classic malts I immediately gravitated towards the compellingly simple and classic label of Laphroaig 10.  You can't begin to explore the world of Scotch Whisky without being either seduced or repelled by Islay - the Hebredian jewel where history, mystery, and peat and sea air come together in a magical array of malt whiskies.  Islay malts all tend to have a maritime influence and most have some peat (even if just by cross contamination) - or a lot of peat.  Laphroaig sets an immediate benchmark and it says it right on the label of the base 10 year old expression:  "The most richly flavored of all spirits".  Older Laphroaigs (the 15, which was the flagship OB until 2009 when it was replaced with the 18) are more estery and have a more elegant and polite peat flavor profile.  The younger ones have a forceful peat that is a polarizing flavor.  Some folks absolutely love it and some folks totally hate it.  The flavors of the peat are less about the smoldering earth, wet hemp, or raging wood fire like you get in other Islay malts.  Instead there's a very special almost spicy aspect to the peat's flavor.   And it was this aspect, I confess, that led me to steer clear of Laphroaigs generally for years.  What the heck is that flavor note?  I tend to describe it as a wet tobacco quality - like a cigarette that the rain put out and which you are now lighting up again.  It's a flavor note that I pretty much only get in young (NAS through 10 year old) Laphroaig.  But that's a whole lot of expressions in their line.

Recently I decided to tour through these expressions to reassess how I feel about the flavors of younger Laphroaig.

If you want to know more about the story of Laphroaig be sure to check out Malt Madness' profile:
http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/laphroaig.html

A more effusive narrative, richly illustrated with period photography and some of the amazing tales - including the tale of the attempted Laphroaig replica Malt Mill is found here:
http://www.laphroaigcollector.com/history.htm

For photographs of the active distillery you can't do better than to visit Ernst Sheiner's  Gateway to Distilleries page for Laphroaig:
http://www.whisky-distillery.net/www.whisky-distilleries.net/Islay_L-P/Seiten/Laphroaig.html

Disclosure of the origin of the samples tasted:  the bottle of Laphroaig Cask Strength 3rd edition, and samples of Triple Wood 2012 and Cairdeas 2012 were generously provided by  Ryan of JSH&A Public Relations in November of 2012 (over a year ago!).  The bottles of Laphroaig 10, and Cairdeas 2013 are my own property, purchased at Park Avenue Liquors.

Laphroaig 10 (in front) and Cairdeas 2013 Port Finish (behind)

Laphroaig 10 43% abv

Color:  gold

Nose:  Putty, clay, lime, hemp.  Far beneath: distant melon, stone fruits, flowers and honey.

Palate entry is sweetness instantly eclipsed by dark oily peat burn with tobacco and tobacco ash.  Spicy heat and some meaty notes (salami) on the expansion and a long slow fade to ash and dirty malt glow on the finish.  Big rich big dark Islay flavor.  You'll either love it or you'll hate it.

With a few drops of water, there's more putty on the nose although the melon and floral notes (distant to start) seem to disappear.  There is more lemon citrus and sunny sweet on the palate.   Mouth feel is a bit richer too.   I'd say a few drops and 10-15 minutes of integration should be considered mandatory.

****  

An absolute landmark for value in an entry level single malt Scotch whisky.  This is an iconic flavor profile.  That said, I'm not in love with it personally.  The peat comes off as dirtier than I'd like.  I find the unadorned Laphroaig flavor profile not as satisfying as the varieties that gussy it up with some sweetness via some kind of wine finish.  I feel almost guilty saying so.  It's like saying you wish Jimmy Durante had a smaller nose.



Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength 55.3% Batch 3 Jan 2011

Color: Light amber with coppery and golden tints.   Looks like a young bourbon.

Nose: Honeyed quince, apricot, roobios herbal tea, and window putty are the dominant notes.  But the aroma is both big and subtle: Creosote and heather, cardboard and floral meadow.  Fresh unlit Virginia tobacco leaf and river clay.  A harmonious tottering of extreme contradictions of loveliness and ugliness.

Explosive on entry and huge on the palate.   Honeyed and stone fruit preserves sugar sweet melded from the first instant with a fierce radiant lit tobacco smoky-bitter peat with a kiss of library paste.   At mid-palate the expansion brings in stone and red fruits under the dusky thick smoke reek with covers all from first sweet piercing sip through the long aching ashy smoky finish.  At the turn there are sub rosa fruity notes yield to tar and ashes.

Adding a few drops of water adds some hints of stone fruit (nectarine) and whisks of floral perfume to the nose.  These meld to clay and putty to form a classic Laphroaig peaty sweet aroma.

The water thins the palate, gentles the sharp sugars of the opening adds a bit of thickness and honey to the mouth feel, and amps up the already generous spicy heat, but it shelves down the tar and ash in the balance.   More citrus tang and ocean air joins the fierce peat reek and yields a more approachable, more harmonious dram.   Slightly.  Water is recommended but it drinks just fine neat too.  This is a seriously fierce and peaty monster.  A flavor packed dram for the money.   I can see why so many people are wild for this one.

*****

A really delicious example of an Islay Peat Monster.  I've had the opportunity to try other batches (the current one is 5).  They are all good - Batch 5 perhaps best of all.

The bottle and samples shown here were provided by
Ryan of JSH&A Public Relations

Laphroaig Cáirdeas 2012 "Origin: 51.2% abv

From the cut sheet that came with the sample - this useful information about this expression:

Each Càirdeas Origin bottling has been crafted with whisky from the very first Laphroaig Càirdeas barrel, ranging in age from 13 to 21 years and boasting notes of white pepper and purple heather.  This full-bodied whisky has been blended with equal parts of exceptionally unique whisky, intensely matured in small quarter casks for seven years.  Laphroaig Càirdeas produces an extraordinary blend of hazelnut and earthy notes befitting of the 18th milestone.

Color:  Pale gold with amber glints

Nose: Gentle tobacco, earth, sweet grassy heather, meaty animal sweat, and a hint of stone fruit.

Sweet with the sharp pointed grassy malt sweet of a young Islay like Octomore, or Ardbeg 10.  The rich earthy tobacco burn of Laphroiag's characteristic peat attack comes on immediately.   There's juicy sweetness in the mid-palate with tastes of Sauternes, white sultanas, and fruit gums mixing among the ashy tobacco smolder meets anthracite peat reek burn.  It's a simple gastronomic trick, but I'm seduced.

A few drops of water increase both the apparent sweetness and the considerable peat heat.   The mouth feel richens a tad too.   It's almost a wash.

****
almost 5 stars.  A delicious peat monster with some elegance and finesse.



Laphroaig Triple Wood 2012 48%

The cut sheet that came with this expression's sample included these useful details:

Laphroaig® Triple Wood (96 proof) is the result of a distinct triple maturation process in American Oak ex-Bourbon barrels, 19th Century style quarter casks and specially selected European Oak Olorso sherry casks.  The finish reveals the perfect marriage of peat, oak and sherry notes.  Roughly 12,000 bottles have been produced for the U.S. market and will be available at participating retail locations beginning in October 2012.

Color: Light amber

Nose: Virginia tobacco, earthy clay, distant stone fruit, a farm animal's haunch, fresh sawn lumber.
The palate entry and bloom are dominated by lumber with some kiln dried "craft whisky" barrel flavors and tobacco and gentle malty sweet.  With some air and time cherry candy notes play underneath.   The interplay of fruity sweet with hot, darkly bitter peat is lovely.

Titanic ashy finish. 

***

borderline four stars.  This was my least favorite of the group.  The wood management's complexity left me tasting some barrels that didn't do it for me.





Laphroaig Cáirdeas 2013 51.3% abv. Port Wood Finish

Color: An extraordinary light amber and rose wine pink.   Salmon.

Nose: Virginia tobacco again, clay, honey malt, raspberry-cherry compote in a sawn oak box.

The palate is raucous and sweet.   It opens with sweet cereal sugars, berry and citrus tartness, honey and red fruits and then explodes into fiery burning tobacco peat and spirit heat.   The finish brings in grapefuit pith tartness and the fading prickly burn of peat redolent of potter's clay, hemp, salt air, and rock mineral.   It's a classic swimmer (at 51.3% abv it fairly cries out for a drop).   Water adds sweetness to the palate and honeyed richness to the mouth feel.  It also amps up the fruit acids and the dynamics of almost every flavor element.  Water and at least a quarter hour of water integration time are necessary for this whisky to open up and strut its stuff.   It's not elegant.   It's not sophisticated.   Heck, it's not even balanced.   It's a raging peat monster with a lovely fruity sheen added by the port cask portion of the double maturation (the remainder being bourbon barrel). 

****
Rich and big and with some lovely fruits.   I slightly preferred the 2012's more floral presentation, but there's little doubt that the port wine finish's zip and tang and extra sweetness take the Laphroaig flavor signature somewhere interesting.

Conclusions: young Laphroaigs are big aggressively peated flavor bombs.  The quality of the peat has a clear tobacco aspect that is polarizing.   I don't want it all the time - but when I do there is no substitute. What's missing in this review? Laphroaig Quarter Cask.   Introduced in 2004, Quarter Cask - a NAS edition that is younger, aged in more aggressively wood infusing quarter sized casks, is the second largest selling Laphroaig expression, accounting for about 15% of total sales.   I didn't taste it here because I'm not sanguine about the small cask shorter aging period idea.  Maybe I'm making a mistake? If I taste it and find it to be so I'll definitely update this review.

So have I come around to liking the tobacco flavor aspects of the peat in younger Laphroaigs?  Yes I have.  I have come to love it.  Just not all the time...

Note: a similar survey was recently performed by Terry Lozoff at Drink Insider: http://drinkinsider.com/2013/02/laphroaig-triple-wood-cairdeas-10-year-cask-strength/

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