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The Road To Laphroaig: Part 4

Recently, editor Jay, better known as t8ke, traveled to Scotland to select one of Laphroaig’s first single casks for the US market and his single barrel program. This is a multi part series outlining his travels and the images and content he took along the way. If you’re just catching up now, here’s the segments so far:


Welcome back, let’s get tasting.

Simon and Barry let us know that they were setting out casks for tasting, and while the team worked back in his office and the meeting space, we’d check out two different structures. We first wandered over to a small building, large barn doors wide open, that contained a scale, 40-50 empty casks and a large assembly of hoses. They were preparing to fill some barrels that afternoon.

The weather had been, for lack of a better descriptor, horrific from the moment we arrived. Horrific if you were a ferry driver, a pilot, or a tanker operator, that is. For the most part, it was sunny, at least partly, and wasn’t too cold during our time there. What really impacted things, though, was the wind. A relentless, gusting, piercing wind. A quiet day during our stay was gusting around 30 miles per hour. The bad days were in the high 40’s and often low 50’s. The ferry and airline were canceling trips for the entirety of our time on the island, and this meant that with no ferry, there was no tanker truck line coming to the distillery.

As a result, barrels would need to be filled there so they did not have to stop production. We stared down a line of Jim Beam whiskey barrels awaiting filling. Interestingly enough, they weigh each barrel as its filled to properly note how much spirit is going in, and to guide when to start slowing the fill. Seeing a bunch of Beam barrels awaiting filling gave us an idea, and we’ll hit on that later.

From here, we finished sipping new make, and took a short walk to Warehouse 1. This is right on the water, Laphroaig’s on premise storage facility. Dank, dark, musty – barrels can only live here up to 9 or so years old. After 10 years old, the salinity in the air is so great that the hoops have nearly rusted off of the barrels. We’d return to Warehouse 1 later in the trip, but it was a cool sight to see. Outside and next door we went, because it was time to drink (more) Laphroaig.

Gathering upstairs, we were informed that the day’s goal was cask exploration. There were 6 types of casks in the docket, and we’d be tasting each of them to get an idea of what direction we might want to go. Laphroaig has an enormous stock of barrels in their possession, there’s quite a bit of diversity, but what consumers most likely know of their bottlings typically feature ex-bourbon forward releases. There are other wine releases, the infamous PX I Love You, the recent PX Cairdeas, and other Cairdeas editions featuring Amontillado, Fino, Madeira etc. That said, every wine experiment is not new. For instance, the Laphroaig 32yr in my possession was filled into Oloroso sherry wine in the 1980’s. As a result, we weren’t terribly surprised to see a variety of cask types laid out before us.

Starting with a pour of the 10yr Cask Strength for palate warming, we got to know each other a little more and discuss our favorite expressions of the past. I’m a Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013 Portwood kinda guy, which was a sentiment echoed by one or two others in the room. Barry seemed surprised, although a bit warmed as well, that someone knew their Cairdeas line back as far as I did. Some people know sports figures, others know politicians or historical leaders. I’m not nearly interesting enough to specialize in things like that, so Cairdeas catch em all is what I stuck with.

Let’s get tasting. Each of the casks we’d be selecting from over the next 48 hours were filled and exclusively matured in their respective casks. Ages would vary, proofs would vary, but there would be no dilution. All casks were to be bottled in the 700ml format, save for one. We’ll talk about that later.

The 6 casks before us were:

  • Ex-Bourbon (Freshly Dumped)
  • Refill ex-bourbon (Second Fill)
  • Oloroso Sherry (Freshly Dumped, No Wet Casking / Charging)
  • PX Sherry (Freshly Dumped, No West Casking / Charging)
  • Virgin Oak (Medium Toast)
  • Virgin Oak (Heavy Toast)

This is clearly a very wide berth of barrels! We were surprised, but delighted to get going. While the group wanted to really stop, slow down, walk through every cask individually and discuss, Nick and I were admittedly a bit quicker on the draw. I’m thankful to spend a lot of time selecting with Nick – we work well together, we communicate in similar ways and at the very least: practice makes perfect. The team provided us droppers to dilute and test with as well, which was insightful, even though we knew we’d need to select something that shone as it was, right at cask strength.

Each sample was a blend of 12 barrels. This was to give folks an idea of the general proof, and the general characteristics. The finish type we liked best that day would be our focus for the selection itself the following day – narrowing down 12 barrels of the same finish to isolate the pick we liked best. Certainly the first way I’d picked a barrel in this manner, but it was a cool concept and we got to tasting.

The ex-bourbon blend was bright, spritely, fruity and raw, just like the original Laphroaig 10yr Cask Strength. As one of my favorite “off the shelf” bottlings, containing spirit that’s 10-13yrs old, there’s no surprise that it shines. The ex-bourbon blend was very reminiscent of this, and it immediately stuck out. Rich, fruity, powerful ash and Dole fruit syrup defined the blend on this release and it stuck in my mind.

Moving to the refill-bourbon cask, there was a notable difference. Far ashier, much less bright, fruity, this cask blend was dominant to the base spirit. A little flatter, more muted in diversity, it was a raw, ashy bomb of Laphroaig. The more neutral oak was clear here, with the base malt dominating all day long. While I enjoyed the more raw, the more aggressive aspects here, it was a bit out of balance, with ash completely taking over.

Entering into wine cask territory brought us the Oloroso sample. You’ll note that above I mentioned these casks are freshly dumped but not charged. This means that they haven’t been stored dry for a long period, but they are not re-filled with Oloroso wine and dumped again right before filling with Laphroaig. If you’ve ever wondered how wet some sherry barrels are, or how much charging a barrel can impact the spirit, you only need to look to Edradour bottlings, or other brands that release dark-as-night 9yr sherry barrel offerings that are nearly opaque. Laphroaig is much more traditional, choosing instead to not charge barrels. This way, maturation is much more natural, and bottlings that may age in cask for 20 or more years aren’t just overcome by the wine by the time they are dumped.

The Oloroso was lovely. Dry, fruity, packed with spice bread, orange peel, ginger, absolutely aggressive ash and maritime peat, a touch of pepper and a great balance of tannin. The finish on this cask was very spicy, peppery, ginger-y spice from tip to tail. Pulling from 250L hogsheads for the Oloroso would also yield a few more bottles – never a bad thing.

The PX was a different side of a similar coin to the Oloroso. Syrupy, date fruits, toffee, fresh raisin bread, tobacco and then toasted vanilla, creme brulee, dense oak and a magnificent, peppery, iodine-y finish. Absolutely captivating. I was amazed that for how little the PX color was reflecting in the spirit, the character was already showing beautifully. With the amount of peat and chemical smell in the air on Islay, it’s interesting to see how your senses reflect, and yet this sample drank the least ash-y so far. Nick and I shared a nod, this one was special, and we dove back in.

Virgin Oak is an interesting beast. Featuring various toast levels and larger barrels yet again, it’s a cask type that’s not well represented in Laphroaig’s day to day portfolio. That’s cool in its own right, but it immediately meant that I didn’t have a mental rolodex of past expressions to draw on, consider, and compare it to. While I quite like Virgin Oak expressions – for instance the venerable Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 and a Glenallachie sitting on my desk fresh from the photo studio here in my office prepping for an unreleased review – my experience with it is not as far reaching given the newer trend of using it.

Starting with the medium toast, it’s impressive just how much flavor the toast was drawing out of the base spirit. In American whiskey, toasting has become immediately attractive, but it’s a risky procedure. Already sweet corn distillate can sweeten too quickly, occasionally turning medicinal, metallic or bitter in taste. Not so here – the brash, peated character of the Laphroaig and the toast worked extremely nicely. Favoring the base spirit here, it complimented nicely, drawing out a butter cream, honey, creme brulee character that paired really competently with the ashy, iodine-y, brine-y character of the base malt. We had another contender.

Last but not least was an expression that wasn’t even supposed to be in the program. I’ll post a picture in Part 5 of the tasting mat, but each cask type had a place except for the Heavy Toast. That one was bolted on to the end – a last minute addition suggested by Barry after doing some tasting to set the program. This featured a heavily toasted barrique, and demonstrated a near 50/50 balance between cask and malt. Ashy on the nose, full of roasted coffee, toffee, caramels, salt, maritime air and lemon curd, it was a real rollercoaster. It balanced tannin really nicely, a great complement of sweetness, oak, unmistakeable Laphroaig ferocity and more.

Nick and I spent the next hour or so tasting back and forth, forth and back, and as we got the call that it was time for lunch, I was pretty sure I knew which intrigued me.

A lunch of hours old seafood, straight from the shores and waters of Islay and surrounding areas was brought in, and it was time for us to discuss and get some ideas on paper.

Chapter 4 will publish Monday, April 11th.

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Jay West, better known as t8ke across the internet and beyond, is a multi-disciplined spirits writer, media personality and above all else, drinks enthusiast. From tastings to conventions and events, you can always expect to find Jay wherever fine drinks are being served.