Updated: Feb 9
I should start out with a disclosure: I'm not a fan of Laphroaig's whiskies. The current output anyway.
My first encounter with the Islay monster was about 6 years back, when a friend of mine uncorked a new bottle of Laphroaig 10 Year Old, the one you'll find in the core range, and sat a glass of the stuff in front of me, with a big grin on his face and an almost devilish "Try it!", I had little choice but to confront the Islay monster.
No, Rachel, I did not test positive... I just had a dram of Laphroaig ok?
Choked and croaked, I managed a whimpering "Oh my god!" as I proceeded to do something more taboo in today's 2022 context - cough, and violently I might add. Thankfully the diagnosis was the Laphroaig and not something else.
It was simply too smoky and peat-driven, with a smashing herbaceous punch to the face and an assault of salt water, iodine and seaweed. Far too medicinal for my liking. But my friend simply loved it. Couldn't get enough of the stuff.
For something that is often described as "bandaids and bonfire", or "a hospital on fire", I never understood how someone could conceivably like something that sounds designed to be hated. When asked what whisky I did not like, which if you're learning how to speak the whisky lingo, is a far better question to ask than the converse "what whiskies do you like?", I would readily exclaim "Laphroaig". I knew my distaste of the stuff like the back of my hand; it was second nature since that first encounter. Call it Laphroaig PTSD if you will.
This is what you think tastes nice? Really? (Image Source: ZME Science)
But then, couple of years rolled around, and as time does its magic, you get alittle more complacent and sometimes foolish enough to give leeway to old, bad experiences. Something of a Thanatos complex, I suppose. That was how I found myself with a dram of 1988 Laphroaig, a 16 Year Old, bottled by Douglas Laing's Old Malt Cask for The Whisky Fair.
Folly! It simply had to be, as something came over me that possessed me to ask for a dram of the Islay beast. But to be fair, I had sneaked a taste of @CharSiuCharlie's Thompson Bros 31 Year Old Islay that was born just a year later than this, albeit aged long enough to lay the groundwork for a midlife crisis. It was simply phenomenal. There was little smoky peat on the nose, elegant, well integrated sweet smoke on the palate, with a lovely bouquet of fruits and florals. Not a medicinal note in sight to rain on my parade. What in the world was this?
Came for the artwork, stayed for the juice. The Thompson Bros 31 Year Old Islay.
Obviously there's much to be said about the bottles of the 60's. At the time the concept of mass production was both a boon and bane to the industry. Production standards were the lack thereof and there was less concern for expediency as there was for simply the desire to make a mark - distilleries, and the consortiums behind them, were in an epic feudal battle to distinguish themselves.
Not to give credit where it is undue, distilleries then were very much figuring out how to make great whiskies with the remnants of World War II. With great experimentation comes great results, I say. Everything from floor maltings, to even the use of a greater variety of more exotic yeasts, and then there was the use of top class Sherry casks due to the boom in popularity of the spirit in the UK - there was a plethora of reasons to point towards in explaining the inexplicable quality of whiskies from the era.
But we're here to focus on why I can't stand Laphroaigs of today and why I am a massive fan of Laphroaigs of yesteryear, and also why you should be as well. Call it coming to terms with my cognitive dissonance, or closure, if you will.
Much has changed at the Islay distillery over the last half century. With a change of hands comes a change of ways of doing things, and as does my favor with the distillery. (Image Source: Trip Advisor)
Given their strong brand equity, it's easy to sometimes forget that Laphroaig, as does their brethren Bowmore, are owned by the Japanese consortium Suntory, via its American subsidiary, Beam Suntory. And as with owners of a new house, the first thing you do is strip everything and refurnish it in your image. A God complex of sorts. With the change of hands, much to do with how Laphroaig produced its whiskies have changes as much. From full to partial floor maltings, direct coal fired pot stills and worm tubs to steam heating and condensers, shortened fermentation times, higher throughputs, even the yeast was changed. As did my favor with the distillery.
So back to the monumental task at hand, confronting the beast nestling in a svelte glass in front of me, the 1988 Laphroaig, matured in a refilled butt. Here we go.
FRUITY AND SPICY
Color: An almost soft yet simultaneously shiny gold, that of golden apple juice.
Sparkling golden apple juice was its color. (Image Source: Waters)
Nose: Peat...where? There is virtually no smoke on the nose whatsoever. Instead I get soft fruity notes, of apples, soursop, dragon fruit, mangosteens. Quite the tropical fruit haul. It's immediately noticeable how soft and gentle the nose is, very mellow yet distinctive. Don't mistake this for mildness, it is not. Instead I find it alluring and approachable, drawing you to take deeper whiffs.
Soft tropical fruits fill the nose, no peat in sight (or nostril). (Image Source: Spot PH)
The sweetness is that of freshly sliced fruit, oozing gorgeous esters, fragrant and perfumery. But never gets cloying. There's vanilins here and I'm reminded of scoops of vanilla ice cream, banana cream pies and the slice of cream you find wedged between two insufferable Oreo biscuits.
Perfumery esters, so fragrant, creamy and rich. (Image Source: Taste of Home)
There is a slight, ever so slight, oak to it that gives it a light woody note that is just that bit of bitter, drying twang that gives some teeth to the otherwise rich and round nose.
Palate: Ah, the missing peat can be found here. But surprise, surprise, this is no soloist, it nowhere front and center, but instead intertwines with the sweet fruits that continues from the nose to the palate. The smoke is sweet and gentle,... and delightful.
Sweet, cool, apple wood chips smoke, instead of the usual medicinal Islay varietal. (image Source: Grill Baby Grill)
If I were tasting this blind, I would've thought this was some sort of Highland peated whisky. The difference being the composition of the peat, which gives the Highland varietal a sweeter, more umami and herbal candy flavor, while that of the Islay varietal is much more salty, medicinal and vegetal. The smokiness here is really much more sweet apple wood chips cold-smoked meats than it is medicinal bandaids, or God forbid, "hospital on fire".
Sweet orchard fruits galore. (Image Source: Trip Advisor)
The sweet fruitiness here features a different fruit basket as what I found on the nose. Here it's less tropical and more orchard fruits - apples still, grapes, oranges, honeydews. Honey laces the palate from start to finish, heather honey, with a light herbal touch. There's also bits of lemon zest and hints of chalk and minerality as well.
The smoke and sweet fruits are superbly integrated on what is otherwise a very flavor heavy yet light and silky whisky. Texture here is amazing as well, exceptionally rounded with no rough edges to be found.
The classic Islay citric zest and chalky minerality peeks out from time to time. But otherwise, I would never have guessed that this was an Islay whisky. Sipping it blind, I would have guessed a Highlander instead. (Image Source: World of Fine Wines)
Finish: Mid-length, the finish retains its heat despite its vintage and ends on a refreshingly sweet note.
This was wonderful to a fault, from start to finish. You must remember, I don't have great affinity with the distillery at hand, and yet, this would easily rank as one of my favorite drams I've had thus far.
Even at the offset, its color was simply striking, the shiny, golden hue almost made it seem like liquid gold. The soft, mellow tropical fruits on the nose made it incredibly enticing, even if fairly one dimensional. But sometimes simple is good. No one asks for a complex life right? Then on the palate, wonderful integration and harmony between a trifecta of sweet cold smoke, orchard fruits, zest and flint. Again, not the most complex, but its integration and balance, alongside its silky texture, made it splendidly well-rounded. The finish was probably the least stunning of the whisky, nothing to write home about, but certainly it at the least did no damage either.
This was as if the Goddess of Wind herself gently blew magical gusts of smoke onto a fruit salad. It was a complete star. I am completely floored.
Bottles like this are what confounds me. You think you know your palate and then this happens. How does one bridge that schism? Taking a second sip wouldn't hurt. Of all its wonderful qualities, ultimately it was the balance on the palate that truly did it for me, no one note was louder than the other and you wouldn't begin to point our where one ended and the next began. It was seamless as the silky texture it came in. This is what dreams are made of.