The 1960's is still widely accepted as the greatest period of Scotch whisky production. Many devotees (including Phil and Simon Thompson of the Thomson Bros label) find that vintage Scotches from this era tend to be of a distinctly better quality. Apparently they deliver better flavour, texture and more character.
Take for example the two legendary Samaroli expressions- Laphroaig Sherry Wood 1967 and Bowmore Bouquet 1966. These bottles are said to represent an impeccably balanced style of whisky that no longer exists- with a perfect trio of freshness, fruitiness and gentle smokiness. Unlike modern Islay expressions, you might be surprised to find that these vintage expressions aren't particularly peaty. They tend to contain bigger notes of fresh tropical fruits, accompanied by a more refined and moderate smokiness.
Our bottle today has an intriguing style that- dare I say- harkens back to the old style of Islay Scotches released by Samaroli.
This is a Thompson Bros 31-year-old Islay Single Malt, 52.7% ABV, that was bottled for Singaporean indie bottler M&E Drinks, and Indonesian bar owner, Andrew Soetiono (better known in the circle as Whiskyhobo). A crossover project between whisky enthusiasts from three countries. This was distilled in 1989, then matured entirely in a single bourbon barrel. The total outrun is 264 bottles. The Islay distillery involved is officially undisclosed.
Before we go to the liquid, let's talk a little about the label.
A closer look at the texture of the label (Image Source: Whiskyhobo / M&E Drinks)
Thompson Bros’ bottling are famous for their kaleidoscopic and eye-catching bottle art that makes you want to buy their bottles even if you haven’t tasted the contents (you can learn more about Thompson Bros in this write-up here). This project is no exception, and there’s now a Southeast Asian twist to it.
The label is a beautiful “batik” motif was conceptualised and created by the very talented Whiskyhobo. For those who are less familiar, batik art is an 800-year-old Indonesian textile technique that uses wax and colourful dyes to create vibrant patterns on a piece of fabric.
Air cabin crew of the Singapore Airlines wear a vibrant batik-inspired uniform (Image Source: Singapore Airlines)
While batiks are sometimes similar in appearance to tie-dying, the batik-ing process is a little more complex, and uses hot wax to shield certain areas from being exposed to a certain coloured dye. Batiks therefore tend to be more detailed, intricate and expensive. They are also often used to express unique elements of history and Indonesian ancestral beliefs.
Artist engaged in batik painting.
Back to the present bottle. Whiskyhobo’s batik motif is a mosaic of national icons and flowers of Singapore and Indonesia. There is the Merlion creature (a lion with the tail of a great fish) often used to represent Singapore, and Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim. There’s also a panther-like creature which resembles the Indonesian Barong, and what appears to be Indonesia’s national flower, the giant padma.
This is probably one of my favourite labels on a Thompson Bros bottling! (I am born in Singapore, after all.)
Turning to the liquid inside, a popular whisky database confirms that the undisclosed distillery is in fact a Laphroaig. What do I expect from Laphroaig? The typical Laphroaig today has a full body profile, dominant ashy peat and a sweetness that comes from an ex-bourbon cask maturation. This is a tried-and-true formula for many of the distillery’s modern expressions.
The present bottle appears to follow a similar formula. This was made with peated malt, and matured exclusively in bourbon barrels.
Let’s see how it tastes.
Appearance: Old gold.
Nose: Very bright, aromatic, sweet and estery. The nose opens up with big notes of citrus and sweet apples intertwined with faint notes of light incense smoke and burnt sage. This feels rather less smoky than the typical Laphroiag.
There is a hint of vanilla and light oak in this, but this is really faint. Generally. the nose is surprisingly fresh and bright for its age. It’s relatively sweet, light and rather well-rounded. And despite the lack of any woody notes, there’s almost no alcohol sting or prickliness. The bright estery notes do give a sensation that this is a little younger than 31 years old, but perhaps this is due to the use of a refill barrel that is less active, withholding heavy-duty woody notes.
Adding some water works wonders. The citrus and apples take a step back, while more plumes of aromatic smoke begin to appear. This develops to a gentle tea-like character, kind of like the sensation of smelling oolong tea in a pot.
Palate: This is oily, fruity and smoky with a terrific balance. As the dram touches the tongue, there’s a nice slightly oily texture that comes with it.
Initial notes are very similar to the nose. Very crisp and bright with honey, sweet citrus (perhaps pomelos) and a gentle smokiness.
The viscous texture and mild sweetness really comes together and reminds me of hot Chinese-style lemon barley water (薏米水) with its thick starchy texture and mild sweetness.
As sweetness recedes, more medicinal peaty notes start to really show up. This is mildly floral, mildly bitter and with a hint of smoke. Combined with the bright and fresh character of the spirit, it does feel a little like drinking unsweetened floral tea.
Once again, this is really easy to imbibe despite the cask strength. The spirit is smooth around the edges with only a slight warming feeling. Rather than spiciness, I get a somewhat minty, mentholated sensation on the back palate.
Finish: The finish is long and rather minty and mentholated. Kinda like eating Halls spearmint candy. There is still an enduring note of citrus and very faint smoke that has a more oolong-tea like character, and an unmistakable Sauvignon Blanc-like drying sensation.
What really stands out is the balance here. This is a surprisingly bright, fresh and refined dram with gentle smoke and only a hint of vegetal notes- quite unlike the typical more robust Laphroaig. With its crispness, this style feels much closer to the Speyside region than the typical Islay scotch.
Maturation has been executed very well by the Thompson Bros considering how fresh this is after being in a cask for 31 years. It’s also really nice how easy to drink this dram is.
Dedicated peatheads who really like their heavy, robust smokey Laphroaig would not find the peatmonster they are looking for in this bottle. On the other hand, drinkers who prefer a more balanced, refined Scotch with elements of the Highland style moderated by the complexity of mild incense-like smokiness and mentholated notes would really enjoy this.
We cannot return to the golden era of Scotch production and Samaroli's incredible bottles. Yet to my mind, this bottle holds a compelling suggestion that we can still, today, rediscover a much brighter and refined style of Laphroaigs inspired by those produced in the 60's.
One of the more unusual Laphroaigs I've tried. I particularly like its gentle refined tea-like notes and its brightness that is closer to Highland style Scotch. Given how smooth this is, baby whisky drinkers might actually enjoy this too. That’s if you don’t find it a shame sharing a 31 year old Scotch with new drinkers!
If you’re based in Singapore, this bottle should still be available in the market!
Demand is so hot it seems that it’s already sold out on M&E Drinks’ website! But if this sounds like your dram, this brilliant 31-year-old is probably still available by pour at various partner bars around Singapore. I tried this at The Single Cask.