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!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Beginner's Cabinet

Following an interesting article on Connosr, I decided to run with their basic idea: given a limited budget, what four bottles would you advise a beginner to purchase to set up his or her whisky cabinet? They set a budget of 100 pounds (U.K.) Whisky prices vary enormously from state to state in the U.S., and from store to store within some states, so I'm not going to try all that hard to hit the 100 pound mark. I'll give what I think are the approximate Michigan, U.S.A. prices for the whiskies on my list. And I'm going to recommend five, not four.

My goal is to allow the taster to survey a couple of regions, without sinking a huge amount of money into individual bottles. I also wanted to pick whiskies that, while lower on the cost scale, none of these choices should be lower on the quality scale -- in other words, they shouldn't be "beginner" whiskies in quality. I've really enjoyed all of them, and still think these choices to hold their own with some considerably more expensive choices. I also wanted to recommend an "upgrade path" -- if the taster really likes this particular whisky, what would be a good next step?

My choices are somewhat different than the Connosr panelists -- but that's the joy of having so many intriguing choices, isn't it?

1. Glenfiddich 15 -- approximately $35. (Here is a link to an old review of mine). In my opinion, the 15 is the most well-rounded of this distillery's 3 basic age-statement whiskies. It's a Speyside whisky, somewhat middle-of-the-road, somewhat sweet, but this doesn't make it bland; it has a lot of intriguing fruit and wood notes. Upgrade path: Glenmorangie 10, The Balvenie Single Barrel 15.

2. The Tyrconnell, a single malt Irish whiskey -- approximately $35. Single malt Irish whiskies are uncommon compared to Scottish whiskies. (Here is a link to an old review of mine). This is a very nice and smooth, not-too-expensive dram, with an absolutely lovely mouth feel. Upgrade path: I haven't really tasted enough Irish whiskies to be able to confidently recommend one. I haven't tasted Redbreast 12, a blend that is reportedly very good, but that might make a good upgrade, or at least a side-grade.

3. Laphroaig Quarter Cask -- approximately $50. There are a lot of good basic Islay whiskies, and a lot of good extra-aged Islay whiskies. This one is a wonderful and relatively inexpensive mix of those two general types (it isn't really extra-aged, but the extra wood contact has largely the same effect). It has the marvelous dry Laphroaig peat and smoke notes, but they are moderated by some fantastic oak vanilla, orange, and dark chocolate notes. In that way I see it as a good introduction to the peaty Islay whiskies, while those sweeter flavors keep it from being too much of a shock to the system. It's also at a slightly higher ABV (48%) than the 10 (at 43%), so it's a good introduction to slightly stronger whisky, without being too much of a shock to the system like recent Ardbegs, that are upwards of, or even over, 60% ABV. If cost is critical, consider the basic Laphroaig 10, which is a damned fine Islay whisky in its own right, although a little drier and more uncompromising in flavor. Upgrades: Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Laphroaig 15.

4. Aberlour 12 Double Cask Matured -- approximately $35. A great introduction to the huge variety of whiskies that are aged in the combination of bourbon and sherry casks. Has some great and slightly unusual bittersweet notes including coffee flavors. If the taster particularly loves this one, I'd recommend as possible upgrades the Glenfarclas 17, the Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX, Springbank 15, or the amazing crossover with peat, Ardbeg Uigeadail.

5. Jim Beam Black (8 year old bourbon) -- approximately $20. This one is interesting in that it is a really delicious and complex bourbon, that ranks up there with some very expensive bourbons, but it is itself quite inexpensive. Upgrade path: Buffalo Trace.

Total price: approximately (very approximately) $175. At tonight's exchange rate, $175 is equivalent to about 117 pounds sterling, so I went a little over budget -- but not by much! If you substitute the Laphroaig 10, at about $35, for the Quarter Cask, you'll be very close.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Apotheosis of Ardbeg

Ardbeg these days is regarded by some reviewers as a distillery hitting its stride and producing some of the finest whisky in the world. In particular, Jim Murray's 2010 Whisky Bible rates the whole current peated lineup quite highly. (Note that he had not yet reviewed the Rollercoaster, and I have not yet tasted the Blasda, a very lightly peated whisky, and so will say nothing else about it today).

Jim says of the 10 that it "...goes down so beautifully with such a nimble touch and disarming allure..." That's the ten, their least expensive bottling. The 10 rates a 97 in Murray's estimation, the same rating he gives the Supernova. The Corryvreckan, at 96.5, he calls "...slumping-in-the-chair stuff... simply brilliant." The Uigeadail, which he gives a 97.5, he calls "quite simple: perfect."

The distinction between these scores may start to seem like an administrative detail, but it highlights a truth some readers may find a bit uncomfortable, and an important point that I will make once and then come back to in several different ways: the differences between these bottlings are of much less importance than their similarities. What I'm really saying here is that Ardbeg, with these bottlings, has mostly released an excellent whisky in such a way that they have also activated every whisky geek's inner Pokemon Master. The theme music is playing: you wanna be (or taste) the very best? You've gotta catch 'em all!

People who pick one to taste will simply not go wrong (assuming they have a basic taste for peated Islay whisky, of course). Nerds who, like me, make a near-fetish of flavors will be in nerd heaven blissfully, and slightly drunkenly, cataloging their differences and similarities and promoting their favorite and dismissing their least favorite in a frenzied expression of the narcissism of small differences. Ardbeg's marketing here is clearly brilliant in every respect, including their packaging and even their label design and typography, which is both classy and extremely clever, full of visual puns (like the way the "beast" has charged right through the border, and the Corryvreckan name is being sucked into a vortex, and the way the flavor "stars" form a "constellation" on the stellar Supernoval label). The only down side I can see: they may lose a potential Ardbeg fan who looks at the lineup and can't be bothered to decide, and choses instead to go with a distillery whose offerings are more clearly differentiated.

OK, still with me? Are you in violent disagreement, or nodding your head so far? All that said, let's quickly review these bottlings. You can read longer reviews elsewhere; you can read my own long review of the Rollercoaster on this blog. For now let's try to get quickly to the point.

Ardbeg 10 (46.0% ABV) is the best bang-for-the-buck of the lot. It is very roughly comparable to another young Islay whisky, the Laphroaig 10, which it somewhat resembles. Where Laphroaig's citrus note tends towards a bitter-ish orange, Ardbeg's tends towards lime. I have no idea why this would be so -- Arran's citrus note, by the way, is more lemony -- but it probably has something to do with the shape of the still. The 10 is very fine stuff, with rich, saliva-inducing, "chewy" barley notes, that fine clean lime, and of course a healthy dose of smoke. It has a little bit of the salt and smoked fish that shows up in pretty much the whole lineup. If you like Islay whisky, you can't really go wrong with this bottling. I rate it an A.

If you haven't tasted a peaty Islay whisky before, but feel like you want to try, the Ardbeg 10 would be a great starting point. Just remember to taste it on at least 3 or 4 separate evenings before you decide if you really like Islay whisky or not. It seems to take people a few tries to really ones taste buds "calibrated" and capable of tasting the other flavors in the presence of the peaty notes. (But you may find that once you've gone through that "calibration," Islay flavors really grow on you!)

Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist (46% ABV) (it's pronounced just like it is spelled -- that's a little joke, son) is a limited edition 16-year-old whisky, bottled in 1990, and now may be a bit hard to find. I reviewed it some time ago, before spinning my beverage reviews off to this blog. It is, perhaps, very roughly comparable to the Lagavulin 16, although given that the house styles are quite different, that isn't truly a fair comparison. It is a bit "meatier" than the 10, with more smoked bacon notes, and the extra aging has imparted a little more vanilla and oaky spices (maybe a touch of cloves, maybe a touch of ginger). I rate it an A-. If you come across a bottle on the shelf it is worth picking up, but I wouldn't pay collector's prices for it or go out of your way to track it down.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan (57.1% ABV) seems to replace, at least indirectly, the Beist in the Ardbeg lineup; it started out as a limited edition Committee bottling, but now seems to have become a standard. It is similar, but younger, and so slightly fruitier, with a huge array of flavor notes, among them malty flavors (fudge, shortbread), that "tarry ropes" note, and, I kid you not, hot chili sauce. It has some of the toasted-nut flavors that I love in the Rollercoaster -- in particular, I get a nice flavor of slightly burnt toasted pecans. The difference between the 10 and the Corryvreckan is kinda-sorta like the difference between the Laphroaig 10 and the Quarter Cask: the Quarter Cask simply has more wood character and more depth of flavor. Complex and pungent. A+.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2% ABV) is a whisky that includes some sherry cask influence. Jim Murray calls this one a little more "cerebral" than the other members of the Ardbeg lineup, and he's right. The flavors aren't quite as in-your-face -- but that's not to say there isn't a lot of flavor to study here, particularly juniper, smoked kippers, caraway, butter, candied ginger, and pine needles. It has a fantastic oily texture. It is very roughly comparable, perhaps, to the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition, which also has a fantastically complex nose. This one really is for quiet, possibly solo, contemplation. I wrote a more extensive review over at Connosr, condensed from a longer original version, and much of the flavor notes I pointed out in the Uigeadail would apply to other Ardbeg bottlings as well. A+ as well.

The Ardbeg Rollercoaster (57.3% ABV) I've also already reviewed. I've been going on about how these whiskies are variations on a theme, and not so very different, and so perhaps it is not truly worth your hard-earned money to buy them all -- but with the Rollercoaster I have to break down and say that, yes, this one is a little different. Some of the young-ish flavors in it are very roughly comparable to the Caol Ila "unpeated style" 10, but only very roughly. Among the notes I get from it are hazelnut, almond, bubble gum, apple, fried green tomatoes, and spearmint. A limited release, unbelievably complex in flavor, and, interestingly, containing some extremely young whisky, some of it just three years old. Jim Murray applies phrases like "your whisky-drinking experience is not complete until you taste this one" to a number of different whiskies, but in this case I must say that, yes, I really think that if you like Islay whisky, you, you personally, should get a bottle of the Rollercoaster with all due haste, if you can still find one, and taste it. Slowly. It really is one of those taste experiences that is likely to be imprinted on your brain; you will look back, years from now and remember where you were and what you were doing when you first tasted Ardbeg Rollercoaster. A+.

Ardbeg Supernova (58.9% ABV) is billed as one of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world. This is slightly deceptive, and, I fear, might be off-putting. It put me off -- in fact, I put off trying it for some time because I was expecting an enormously phenolic, explosively peaty flavor. But while the phenol numbers are laughably high, it would be a mistake to think of this whisky as some kind of exotic outlier in the Ardbeg family. Five times the peat doesn't result in whisky that is five times "stronger," or it would probably eat through the bottle. Ones ability to detect levels of flavors probably follows a logarithmic, rather than linear, progression. After tasting all these Ardbegs, I've become pretty confident that Ardbeg would likely not risk the reputation for quality they've established by using their marketing materials to sell "stunt whisky" that was actually mediocre. So, it is quality whisky -- but will it appeal to you?

It seems to be closer to the Rollercoaster than the Corryvreckan, and it must have some very young casks in it. But the peat flavors, and the ABV, are both more intense. It's not all about smoke, though; it's oily, and actually somewhat sweet and nutty, under those thick waves of hickory smoke. It reminds me strongly of hickory-smoked almonds, or even mackerel grilled on a hickory plank, with a barley sweetness that is almost like the sweet and salty miso- and maple-infused sauce you might find on such a dish.

I still can't decide exactly how much I like this whisky. It's a bit enigmatic. It certainly invites further study, although after tasting small drams on three separate nights it still remains a somewhat inscrutable. It's probably not for everyone. It's almost 120 proof. There is more going on in the nose and palate, but at full strength, has an effect on the palate not entirely unlike Listerine -- a numbing heat that can leave me fearing that it might actually be burning holes in my tongue.

Adding a bit of water seems to make it easier to actually taste the flavors, but I still find it hard to separate them them from all that peat. I get bitter licorice, of the salty style, and asparagus-like vegetal flavors, and the black pepper that the official tasting notes mention -- but the floral and herbal and fruity notes are all packed too tightly together for me to distinguish under all that smoke. I'll try again next time, but I find myself thinking that whisky shouldn't be this hard to enjoy, and perhaps the peating level and ABV are actually dimishing, rather than intensify, the availability on the palate of the usual complex of intriguing Ardbeg flavors.

Whether you're happy with the intense flavors that are there, or feel cheated by the lost complexity, is probably very much a matter of individual taste, and reviews I've seen tend to follow a strongly bimodal distribution (either quite positive or quite negative), which is not something I tended to see at all in reviews of a less controversial whisky like the 10 or the Uigeadail.

Keeping all this in mind, I'm going to give the Supernova a somewhat provisional letter grade of A- for now. And the 2010 Supernova, even peatier and, at 60.1% ABV, even higher in alcohol, I have not purchased and tasted yet -- and may not.

So, let's say you haven't tried any of these. What would I advise?

If you're on a budget -- and do some serious soul-searching here, folks; it's whisky, not food or housing; don't punish your future self by going into debt for it -- save up for the 10 and enjoy the hell out of it. It's really good whisky. Some of the best in the world, in fact.

If you want something a little more complex and you'd like to taste what is, in my opinion, pretty much the best example of the peated Ardbeg style, and one of the absolute best Islay whiskies, pick up the Corryvreckan.

If my description of the Rollercoaster sounds appealing, and you're up for a younger whisky with a very high alcohol content and a hugely complex flavor profile, track down a bottle the Rollercoaster immediately. I don't know whether the Rollercoaster is going to become an annual release, or whether there might be future editions, but by design it is quite distinctive, and so I can only speak for this one bottling -- which may be pretty much gone by now. And so far, I've never tasted anything quite this complex -- like a maze of flavors that you can get lost in.

If you like sherry cask influence and Islay, and really like to study a whisky, the Uigeadail is absolutely the way to go. It's the best example out there of a "marriage" between wine cask flavors and Islay flavors -- all the other bottlings I've tasted that attempt to achieve this mix, such as Caol Ila and Lagavulin Distiller's Editions, don't succeed as well.

I'd call the Uigeadail a very "serious" whisky, a little restrained and sophisticated, designed to be appreciated by slightly older folks who no longer want to attend hot sauce tastings, who may no longer be flavor "thrill-seekers," as it were, and who have trained their palates a bit on dry wines, basic but flavorful food such as game braised with herbs, and appreciate a good sherry. It may seem silly to talk about the "world's best whisky," as if there were any possibility that tasters the world over could agree on a style, much less a bottling, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Uigeadail is on that top shelf, on that slightly other-worldy, rarefied plane, and is one of the very finest bottlings of whisky of any region or style, period.

The Supernova can be considered, I think, mostly an especially costly and extra-pungent variant of the Rollercoaster; or perhaps you might think of the Rollercoaster as a limited-edition "Supernova Light." I may wind up changing my opinion when I've tasted it a few more times, but I have not convinced myself that the Supernova is worth the extra money. (Here in Michigan, it's a lot more money -- the Corry runs in the $80 range, and the Supernova, if you can still find a bottle, runs in the $130 range). Some folks will not buy it at all on because of the price, either because they really can't afford it, or as a sort of protest against Ardbeg's pricing, an I can certainly respect either of those positions.

The Airigh Nam Beist is quite good -- in fact, some Ardbeg fans are unhappy to see it run out. If you come across a bottle, and you have the money on hand, it is certainly worth buying -- however, I wouldn't recommend paying collector prices or bending over backwards to get a bottle. It's nice to taste an older Ardbeg. I think the particular flavor qualities of this 16-year-old whisky suggests strongly that there is still room for an older Ardbeg in their regular lineup, perhaps in the 14-17 year range, especially given that their 25-year-old Lord of the Isles is very expensive and scarce.

Even though Ardbeg has spent the last several years proving that whiskies without age statements can be blockbusters, I expect to see one arrive eventually. I've never tasted it, but I've heard that their late and much-lamented 17 was quite good. I think the distillery has very handily turned what to some would seem a liability -- a lack of middle-aged casks in the warehouse -- and instead, with a combination of great blending and very clever marketing, turned it into gold. But there still is room for a whisky that is hitting what I consider to be the aging "sweet spot" of about 15 years. So far, I have not been convinced that whiskies older than that are, in general, worth the usual price premium they command -- although I have tasted a few exceptions.

I should caution you that it is fairly pointless to try to taste more than one or possibly two of these in any one tasting session: the high ABV and high peat levels will generally tend to confound and even nearly disable your taste buds, to the point where you can no longer distinguish delicate notes. If you decide to taste them all I recommend that you taste them on multiple evenings and take notes. Give yourself a quiet hour each night, and sip very slowly. To get the most out of a bottling, you will want to taste it multiple times, perhaps at least three! And take a day or two off to let your taste buds (and your liver) recover from the alcohol, and from some of those slightly numbing phenols.

I welcome your comments.