Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Just in Time for Fall: Three Drams of Laphroaig

I first read about Laphroaig back when I was perhaps fourteen or so, in what I recall was an essay by Harlan Ellison, who I'm told has announced that he is dying. I'm unable to recollect which essay this was, and Google isn't much of a help, but I'd like to take just a few words to thank him -- his essays and stories never failed to inspire me. I probably will never get to meet him, but -- Harlan, a toast to your amazing life and career. Three, in fact.


Laphroaig might be called the most iconic of the Islay distilleries; the distillery holds the Royal Warrant of Prince Charles, and right on some of the bottles, it says "The world's most richly flavored Scotch whisky." I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is literal truth or marketing-speak these days. I have no doubt that Laphroaig produces quality whisky. The playing field has definitely tilted, though, especially with the success of Ardbeg. So, is Laphroaig still relevant and competitive in the world with Ardbeg getting such raves?

To find out, I lined up three drams of Laphroaig: the Cask Strength 10, the 18, and the Quarter Cask. I'm sure I've tasted their standard 10 Year Old bottling at some point, but I don't have any on hand --  I've made it a general policy to taste whiskies at cask strength, or close to it, if possible, so it was a no-brainer for me to buy the Cask Strength version instead. Since Laphroaig sells most of its whisky in these 18-and-under expressions, older Laphroaig is relatively rare and quite expensive. I wouldn't turn down samples of their older bottlings, the 25, 27, 30, or even the 40, but I'm probably not going to pick any of these up myself, at least not this fiscal year.

The Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength (in Michigan, about $60) weighs in at 57.8% ABV, and it claims to come "straight from the wood" -- with no chill-filtering or caramel coloring added. I had long read about whiskies that would become cloudy in cold weather, but this cool, humid fall day, with this glass of Laphroaig, is the first time I've ever seen it in action, so I believe them! The color is a slightly greenish bronze.

Warm it in the hand a moment to try to bring out the nose: of course there is smoke, right off the bat: smoldering grass, maybe, and mesquite charcoal -- not fruitwood -- burning paper and lighter fluid. There's a not-entirely-pleasant note of an isopropyl alcohol prep pad, which takes me back to the days when, as a child, I got weekly allergy shots. There's a sweeter, vanilla note on the nose, but the smoke tends to dominate it. There's a little hint of Nabisco Pinwheels (dark chocolate-covered marshmallow-topped cookies), which makes me smile at another childhood memory.

The first sip is pungently bittersweet and smokey: a slick mouth feel, with a light burn on the lips and roof of the mouth. It reminds me of beef jerky and smoked mackerel. A little orange marmalade comes trickling through. It's just a little bit buttery, and is that ginger, cinnamon, and clove? The finish is long, and there is a lingering butterscotch and candied orange peel note, while the ashy smoke continues to drift for several minutes, and the slightly numbing phenolic afterburn lasts much longer.

This is very fine whisky -- it gets an A. It is competitive with the Ardbeg 10, and which of the two you prefer may come down to more a matter of your specific tastes than of quality.

The Laphroaig 18 Year Old is fairly expensive -- here in Michigan, it runs over $100. One could complain, but this is a fairly reasonable and competitive price given the age and scarcity of the whisky. I am unable to see much difference between their colors -- if anything, the 18 is lighter than the 10 -- which was constantly confusing me while I tried to keep the glasses straight. It is bottled at 48% ABV, so there is no big distinction in alcohol content when comparing it with the Cask Strength 10.

Right off the bat, the peat on the nose is a little milder; the antiseptic is not present. However, the nose actually seems a little closed when compared to the 10. I'm finding it hard to nose any sweet notes at all.

On the palate, there is much less "kick" and less "burn" -- it does warm the back of the throat on the swallow, but it doesn't burn my lips or the roof of my mouth. There's a wonderful seaweed and brine saltiness, like eating orange marmalade on a saltine. A reviewer notes "Sauvignon Blanc," and that's apt -- an off-dry white wine, with notes of tart apple and lemon instead of orange. The oak notes are less vanilla and toffee and more salted licorice -- very reminiscent of Good and Plenty licorice candy -- and that's a note I really love in a whisky. I've also tasted it in The Balvenie Single Barrel 15, but here it blends beautifully with the salty notes.

The finish is long and that slightly puckering wine oak lasts, with just a breath of cigarette ash.

This one is also very fine, paticularly for the gorgeous salt, licorice, and wine cask notes on the palate and finish, but it loses a half-grade for the slightly disappointing nose. A-.

The Laphroaig Quarter Cask (in Michigan, about $50) is an attempt to re-create an older style of whisky that was matured in smaller barrels -- there is no age statement. In Michigan it is a bit less expensive than even the Cask Strength 10. Jim Murray calls this expression closer to the Laphroaig of old. The color is slightly lighter than the 10 -- or is it just the light? The nose is remarkable: it has the smokiness of the 10, with a buttery toffee and dark chocolate sheen.

In the mouth, it is warming, with a wonderful texture, but not burning. There's a distinct flavor of coconut, even a little Pina Colada. The smoke has taken on the character of a fine cigar and leather armchair. There is that cinnamon note again! This one is considerably sweeter than the 10.

The finish has the interesting quality of alternating -- quite literally -- between sweet notes and smoke notes. I thought it was just marketing hyperbole, but the two are so well-balanced that they behave like a "figure and ground" optical illusion in which the two keep switching places while you try to concentate on them. It's a remarkable finish.

There's no question that the whisky itself is very fine; the only question is "how does it compare to the others?" I wanted to give it an A+, but felt that I had to knock off a half-point because, personally, I've lot a bit of my taste for sweeter whisky, and the palate is a little unsubtle and young. I will say, though that this is one of the few bottles I've come close to emptying over the past year of occasional evening drams, so this one definitely gets my personal seal of approval along with a grade of A.

So, the 18 has more subtlety; the Cask Strength 10 is more aggressive; the Quarter Cask is a little more "candied" and youthful. That said, the differences between them are not major. If price is an issue, I suspect that the standard 10 is quite fine as well -- here in Michigan, it is priced at about $30, and there is a reason it is a big seller.

Which is my personal favorite? I'm going to have to vote to the 18 -- despite the slightly unimpressive nose, that winey and licorice-infused palate is just amazing and it has several of the flavor notes I personally like best in whiskies. But it's a fairly close race, and I reserve the right to change my mind at a later date!

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