I’m a huge fan of Islay style scotch whisky. I think the power and the richness of the flavors make it one of (if not the) most interesting spirits in the world, and something that really evokes an image of a specific time and place. My usual go-to bottle is the Lagavulin 16, but that’s a big price tag for something I want to be sipping every day. Thankfully, the folks at Laphroaig are offering something very similar — made right next door and for half the price.
Most Scottish distilleries (and most distilleries in general, for that matter) start as farm distilleries, using leftover grains that would otherwise go to waste to produce a more durable and desirable whiskey instead. Laphroaig (pronounced like “leap frog” but if you are Scottish and half a bottle of whiskey into the day) actually starts a little differently, with a pair of brothers named Donald and Alexander Johnston. They leased 1,000 acres to raise cattle on Islay in 1810 — but rather than buying their feed for their cattle, the brothers decided to grow their own barley, and the leftover surplus of barley after the cows were fed gave them the inspiration to start distilling it into whiskey.
Donald bought his brother out of the whiskey business in 1836, becoming the sole owner and distiller of Laphroaig for a mere eleven years before his untimely death in 1847 (reportedly by drowning in a vat of unfinished whiskey). His son Dugald inherited the distillery but, at only eleven years old, was too young to run the operation and relied on his uncle and another local farmer to run the distillery for him until he took over in 1857.
The distillery would continue to see success, primarily as a source of whiskey for blending but increasingly as a standalone name and single malt scotch producer. That rising popularity ruffled the feathers at the nearby Lagavulin distillery, who became increasingly jealous of Laphroaig’s success and effectively went to war. In 1907, the Lagavulin distillery tried to kill off Laphroaig by diverting their water source and choking it off, effectively shuttering the distillery until the courts intervened and made Lagavulin restore the original flow of water. That didn’t end things though, as Lagavulin then went to the trouble of exactly replicating Laphroaig’s still house to try and replicate their whiskey… but that didn’t result in the success they expected and the replica still was shuttered in 1962 to be turned into the new visitor’s center for Lagavulin.
Despite the unpleasantness with their neighbors, the Laphroaig distillery continued to see success and growth, especially under the watchful eye of Bessie Williamson, who led the distillery from 1954 to 1990. In 1994, the distillery was granted a Royal Warrant by Prince Charles, an honor that they continue to reflect by placing his coat of arms on the label of their bottle.
During this time, the distillery’s ownership transferred to a procession of Scottish distilling conglomerates, first to Long John International, then Allied Domecq, finally being sold in April 2014 to Beam Suntory as part of an acquisition deal of the parent company by Pernod Ricard. The Japan-based Beam Suntory remains the current owner of the distillery.
- Learn More: What Is Scotch Whisky?
Laphroaig is one of only a handful of Scottish distilleries that still has their own malting floor. The distillery ships in barley from other sources and soaks it in water, which allows the seeds in the barley to start to germinate. This releases enzymes that will be important later, but also creates a distinct and delicious flavor. Those sprouting seeds are then stopped by a process called “kilning”, in which heated air is pumped into the room and the barley is slightly roasted.
At Laphroaig, the heat for that kilning is created using peat fired ovens — a traditional heat source that uses moss from Scottish bogs, hand-cut by distillery workers and burned to create an oily and smoky fire. That smoke is allowed to interact with the barley and leaves behind some of that smoky characteristic on the grains for the next steps.
The malted barley is then cooked using water from their local creek to convert all of the carbohydrates in the barley into sugar, and then the sugary liquid is siphoned off to large vats where yeast is added and it is allowed to ferment for a minimum of 55 hours (longer than usual). This process is slightly different from the normal practice of fermenting the cooked malted barley with the solid chunks still in the liquid, and it supposedly creates a more fruity flavor.
That newly fermented liquid is then distilled twice in two of Laphroaig’s seven copper pot stills, with the distillery trying to selectively capture the right alcohol and flavors coming out of the stills. This process of selecting the right portion of the distillation run to save (referred to as “making cuts”) has a huge impact on the resulting flavor of the spirit. Laphroaig makes the conscious decision to ignore most of the fruity and lighter “heads”, instead focusing more on the richer “tails” in their selection.
Their whiskey is then diluted to about 63.5% ABV and placed into previously used American bourbon barrels to age, a common practice that Laphroaig was one of the first Scottish distilleries to embrace. For this version, that spirit sits in the barrel for a minimum of 10 years before being blended with other similar barrels to create just the right flavor profile.
I’ll be frank, this bottle looks like it came straight out of the 1960’s. In some ways that’s good… but there are definitely some drawbacks to that choice.
The construction of the bottle is that of a standard scotch whiskey bottle: cylindrical body, slight indentation for the label around the belly of the bottle, gently rounded shoulder, and a medium length neck with a bulge for easy pouring. The bottle is made out of a green colored glass which mostly obscures the color of the spirit inside — back in the day this was primarily to ensure that the spirit wasn’t ruined by sunlight degrading the contents, but these days that seems less important than seeing the actual liquid.
The label is a big white sheet of paper with some writing on it. Boring, standard, and without much style. Something that I would fully expect in the 1960’s, and while I appreciate the vintage throwback look, but it feels very outdated in today’s market.
The liquid is a deep golden color and as soon as you pour it into your glass you’ll instantly recognize the smoky aroma of a peat fired stove. It’s clear and strong, but without being overpowering to the senses. Hiding well in the background is a little bit of honey and sourdough bread, some good typical malted barley notes.
As soon as you take a sip, you’ll find the unmistakable flavor of a good Islay single malt scotch whisky — and one that’s done properly. It tastes almost exactly how I’d imagine it smells to step into a stone cottage on the water’s edge, with a smoking peat fired stove, holding a bunch of seaweed. That peat smoke is front and center, strong enough to make an impression and linger on throughout the experience but not too strong that it overpowers everything else. After this, I get a bit of slate minerality, something very close to sea salt but with more of an umami characteristic. That develops a bit and seems to coalesce into this briny seaweed flavor, which combined with that peat smoke is damn delicious.
On the finish, that peat smoke is going to stay with you a while.
What I’m not getting very much of are the more traditional malted barley components or much of the raw materials at all. With the exception of the peat smoke (which was added directly to the barley), that is. There’s an impression of sweetness that I think might be attributed to the honey typical in a malted barley based whiskey, but it isn’t clear enough to properly identify. That’s typical for this style of whiskey and not necessarily a derogatory mark, but something I noticed.
Some people might say that the peat smoke is a little too much for them to handle taken neat. Which is fine — not everyone has so thoroughly abused their taste buds as I have. And for them, this is one of those spirits where taking it on ice will tone down the volume without actually losing any of the flavor components.
Everything still comes through clear as a bell, from the peat smoke to the slate component and even that umami kick. It isn’t as loud as before and not quite as well saturated, but the overall flavor hasn’t changed. You’ll still be able to enjoy everything about this whiskey, just without the power.
One thing that does change is that there’s almost this dark chocolate note on the finish now, which adds an interesting twist to that umami and smoke interaction. It doesn’t last very long, but it is there long enough to be interesting.
What we have here is a perfectly executed Islay single malt scotch whisky. You’ve got something that is very peat-smoke-forward, but with all of the interesting mineral and umami characteristics to back it up. It isn’t just a one trick pony but instead has an entire cast of characters which paint a very clear picture of a specific time and place in your mind.
This is a whiskey with a clear terroir, and one that transports you to that location instantly.
If I had to level a complaint, it’s that this is a very standard expression of that profile. There isn’t much off the beaten path with this specific bottling. But then again, for the price they are asking, that’s not quite something I would expect.
|Laphroaig 10 Year Old|
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: 10 Years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $49.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
A whiskey that tastes like Islay — peat smoke, salty air, seaside umami, and all done with a delicious balance.