By Franz Scheurer
When we hear ‘peat monster’, ‘Islay’, ‘challenging’ many a Single Malt drinker will immediately think of Laphroaig. The whiskies from Laphroaig can certainly never be accused of being the quiet ones; they’re in your face, grab your attention, take hold of your taste-buds, get them in a headlock, strangle them, assault them and kick them, then gradually soothe them and caress them until you start the process all over again. The most extraordinary terms have been used trying to describe the taste of Laphroaig: disinfectant, diesel fuel, tar, seaweed, forest floor, barnyard and heaven knows what else. One thing is for sure: you’ll either love it or hate it.
The distillery, situated on the remote south coast of Islay, was supposedly founded in 1815, but is first documented in 1826 when its founder, Donald Johnston, drowned in a barrel of half-finished whisky. An auspicious beginning, indeed.
One of the few distilleries whose malting floors are still in operation, they also cut their own peat. Seven battered, old copper stills run with water from Kilbride Dam. Laphroaig, pronounced “La-Froyg”, is Gaelic for ‘The Beautiful Hollow by the Sea (or ‘by the Broad Bay’ depending on the translation)’, and the whiskies are aged in Bourbon barrels.
Bottled as a 10 y/o and a 15 y/o, these expressions are relatively easy to get and great value for money. The Douglas Laing & Co 16 y/o bottling is harder to find and quite expensive and the Laphroaig 30 y/o is called ‘extremely rare’ and it is indeed very hard to find and costs $740 a bottle. Is it worth it? Let’s find out with a comparative tasting of these four expressions.
Laphroaig 10 Years Old, 43% vol
Colour: light straw with a very light, but distinctive milkiness
Nose: strong salt-sea air, biltong, hospital waiting rooms and iodine with a fruity sweetness
Palate: You just swallowed an entire working harbour with all of its flavours from diesel to sewerage, from salt to seaweed. As your taste buds recover you notice lots of sweet marshmallows, citrus and marmalade.
Finish: long, strong, bold and moreish.
Laphroaig 15 Years Old, 43% vol
Colour: light straw with a tinge of green
Nose: floral at first then very quickly overpowered by seaweed, soy sauce, squid and tar. This is a much drier dram, with hints of white pepper and spicy fruit.
Palate: Gloriously layered and textured, without losing any of its youthful punch but with the wisdom of its years. A little mellower, a little more sophisticated, but unmistakably Laphroaig. Dark marmalade and seaweed persist.
Finish: very long and sweet ending in memories of Cuban cigars
David Laing Laphroaig 16 Years Old, Cask Strength 50% vol
Colour: young sauvignon blanc with a paler rim
Nose: surprisingly gentle and quite dry with tobacco, cigar-box, cedar and leather, ending with a whiff of salt cod
Palate: Very peaty and dry smoke with overtones of bacon, seaweed, iodine, leaving your palate coated with a herring, roll-mopsy, anchovy roller-coaster ride.
Finish: Dry, alcoholic and reminiscent of orange pith
Laphroaig 30 Years Old, 43% vol
Colour: Heather honey, strong and clear
Nose: Much flatter with roast meat and demi-glace like aromas, tempered by a little heather honey and maltose, white chocolate and a bouquet of freshly cut meadow flowers… all sitting in an apothecary
Palate: Wood, wood and more wood. Cigar-box, tobacco leaf, salt and sea. Fruit is almost all gone what remains is earthy, woody, salty flavours with a lingering mellow soothing sweetness akin to Demerara sugar.
Finish: long, soft but persistent, at one with all your senses and as familiar as an old friend.
Seems to me that the 15 y/o represents the best value for money and the 10 y/o the most kicks for your buck. If you’re after the ‘full experience’ you can’t go past the 10 y/o. The 30 y/o is a great drink, however not a great dram. If you think ‘brandy’ and put it up against a great Cognac or Armagnac it will fare very well. In the company of Single Malts it has lost too much of its fruit and ‘Single Malt characters’ and integrated too much wood.