The Road To Laphroaig: Part 6
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:
Liquid IV is not an official sponsor of Whiskey Raiders, but after what I’d just experienced, I might consider reaching out to them. If you work at Liquid IV and want to talk, email me. My inbox is here.
I woke up, honestly feeling pretty good, which I had no right to, and voila. It was cask selection day.
I met Nick in the hallway who also professed that he had weathered the night just fine, just as surprised as I, so we could hit up breakfast. Interestingly enough, we also needed to take our COVID tests to ensure our safe return to the United States the following day. The day’s agenda was packed, we were a touch short on time, so we’d need to multitask. Today we’d taste and select our cask from the lots prepared for us, then we’d fly from Islay to Glasgow, we’d all rally and enjoy a final meal at the esteemed Mother India, probably go out for some last minute drinks, and then we needed to pack and be ready for a 3am departure to Glasgow airport to make our way home. But, there was drinking to be done first, and whiskey to select.
With a COVID swab hanging out of my nose, I ordered breakfast. “Six pieces of toast and a sausage please” I requested, and then reassured the morning waiter that I was serious. It felt a touch like that episode of Parks & Rec in the diner. It was going to be a long day, and I suspected there would be a few drinks as well, so it was good to have a base. The previous night we had golfed for the morning slot – there was another group also on the island to do a selection. Nick’s strong shot off the tee box put us in first, so we selected the earliest slot of the morning. We both collected our COVID results, registered them in the app, and were ready to leave.
Stuart arrived in as great a sport as any and we tossed our luggage in the van, had a pour of Laphroaig to get things going and we were off to the distillery.
Barry’s a saint. I’m pretty sure an actual saint. I felt pretty good that morning. But Barry, the same Barry who was drinking with us 6 hours before, bounded into the warehouses as if he’d just wrapped a dry month and was ready for that first pour. I was impressed.
I hinted at it previously, but Nick and I spoke several times the night before. We were deep in conflict. There were two cask types I was really stuck on. Hung up. Conflicted. Nick had made it clear that the cask type I chose would be the one we ran with, and not even Guinness golf could coin flip it in my mind. The PX was everything I loved in the past, and continued to love about Laphroaig. But, the virgin oak was a new frontier. The heavily toasted Virgin Oak was something I couldn’t get anywhere else. It was raw, complex, new, a true adventure, kind of like a trailblazing expression.
This was a bucket list opportunity for me, something I’ve mentioned to folks before. I thought that if life was good to me, that in my 40’s, or perhaps my 30’s if I was unrelenting, could see me picking a Laphroaig cask. Standing on damp Islay at 29, I couldn’t shake the virgin oak. It was my first time outside the country, it was my first time in Scotland, my first time on Islay, and my first time at Laphroaig. I’d be damned if we selected anything but the most captivating.
We elected for the heavily toasted virgin oak.
Barry had been hard at work that morning with Simon and the rest of the team, and they had 12 casks for us to work through and pick our winner. Each were the same vintage: 2014, and they came in at similar ABV’s. While Simon asked if we knew how a thief worked, Nick and I were halfway through the line pulling samples and getting glasses primed.
It was good to be in our element, and the team was impressed at our system. Thankfully, it’s because Nick and I pick a lot of barrels together. We’d wrapped up over 20 in the couple of days before departure, so taking a whole day of sampling to pick just one felt like a nice, relaxed pace. Kind of like a vacation; a cold, damp, working vacation.
All poured, we got started. After about 20 minutes, we isolated three casks that were shining great, #1, #6 and #11. Barry grinned a little when we pulled #11 into the mix but didn’t say anything. He was a smiley guy, I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
It’s important to note that something really gets into your olfactory when you’re on Islay. This mineral, charcoal, ashy smell starts to stick to you. Not in your sinuses, but to you yourself. It’s not bad, but it’s worth accounting for. I kinda felt like one with Islay at that point, even though it had been a brief trip. We were sampling in the basement of their overlook warehouse, the warehouse that’s separated from the sea by Warehouse 1 – but more on that later. It was absolutely pouring rain outside. It was thunderous inside. The warehouse was damp, it was cold, it smelled like diesel, brine, iodine and tobacco. It felt like home, and it was the perfect environment to pick a cask in. I shivered a little – not an easy feat for someone from Wisconsin – and we dove back in.
Each of these casks had three major characteristics that I loved – a fresh, nougat and brulee viscosity on the palate, a raw and absolutely savage nose that piled on white pepper, ash, salted caramel and lemon curd, and then a long, supple finish that married it all together. The heavy toasting of this barrique really showed, without taking an ounce character of the base malt.
Earlier in the trip, Barry and I were having a drink and I flat out asked him: “Barry, why aren’t there older casks in this program?”. These were all 2014, which meant that they would be 8yr releases. I wanted to know why we weren’t looking at 16 or 20 or 25yr casks for the program. I knew they’d be expensive, but I wanted to know why everything was generally in the 7-9yr range. He was frank with me, and retorted that there are two things he loves. Young Laphroaig under 12 years, and really old Laphroaig, over 25 years. “In the middle of those two ages, Laphroaig is still flavorful, but it loses some identity to the casks. I want your bottling to be unmistakably Laphroaig”.
These three casks snapped me back into the moment. They were unmistakably Laphroaig. No doubt they took time to unearth, I have to lend credit to the curation of candidate casks. They were all special, but the three in front of us were each master classes. Nick and I were quick to agree that the second sample, #6 was great but seemed a little safer. Less interesting, so we tucked it to the side. It left us to 1 hockey stick or 2: cask #1 or cask #11.
This is really where time slowed down. Kind of just thinking back to how much it took to get to this exact scene was a great moment of perspective. A flight to Kentucky, a flight to Detroit, a flight to Glasgow, a drive to Kennecraig, a ferry to Port Charlotte, a drive to the distillery. After 5 days of moving around the country and the globe, there wasn’t anything left to do on our itinerary but pick our cask, and then start to make our way home.
Enough introspection. Cask #1 leaned a touch sweeter, heavy on the buttercream and some creme brulee along with savage ash smoke, burning hickory, light medicinal character, etc. Cask #11 preserved that sweeter, creme brulee character while also holding back the ash a touch more, in favor of more “traditional” Laphroaig peat. Sweet at first, creamy throughout, there was a good deal of char, maritime air, a touch of funk and iodine. Bold, viscous, dessert with some denizen Islay punch.
We waffled between the two for some time independently, not speaking to each other. Nick and I like to sort of wander while we sip, sort of a whistle while you work kinda thing. We came back to the table, each holding what we knew was the winning cask. We looked up, nodded and Barry asked if we knew what we’d like. Nick and I spoke for a second – we both thought that the 11th Cask was the winner – and passed on our judgement. Barry was delighted, and smiled a little bit. He mentioned that Jamie MacKenzie better hurry up and come hang out before we left him behind. I don’t recall if I remarked on it, but Jaime was one of our key golfing partners for the trip. An excellent Guinness caddy. He was also Beam’s Director of Marketing for the United States. Small tidbit. Ultimately he was an awesome, fun, down to earth guy.
Almost on cue, he bust into the warehouse while we were starting to fill take home samples and congratulate each other on one masterful cask coming home with us. Jamie usually greeted us each morning, but he ran into the warehouse and headed straight to the casks.
When Nick and I were selecting casks for tasting, we left the bungs out of the three casks we liked best. Jamie marched into the row of casks, arrived all the way to the end and hollered a big, Scottish, holler at the end. “Tell me you took 11 lads, tell me!” he yelled. Now Barry’s smile made sense.
He galloped over to where we were standing, our small, tartan covered table with tasting glasses and exclaimed that he had been tasting all of the casks the day before every pick. 11 was his favorite, and he’d been keeping it to himself, hoping that a group would take it of those that chose the toasted virgin oak casks. That was about all the confirmation we needed to feel good about our decision.
As a result, we picked the 11th candidate cask, which was barrel #1606, distilled in 2014, to be bottled in December of 2022, currently reading 58.3% ABV, and a full maturation in heavily toasted virgin oak. I drew the first bottle from the cask, a small, 200ml sampler to take home, and we made it official. I present to you: Bottle #1
They were kind enough to bring in a professional photographer who, unlike me, knew how to take pictures. They indulged us with a picture of Nick, myself, Harrison our Beam Rep, and Simon and Barry. How he got a great shot in a damp warehouse still amazes me to this day. Killer photos.
As many of you have pelted my inboxes with emails asking how this will sell, it should be no question now. This cask will retail in the US market, in late 2022 or very early 2023 through Greens Farms, one of our cornerstone retailers for the r/bourbon Single Barrel Program led by myself, t8ke. Why will it take so long? Well, every market in the US who got a cask will bottle in the 700ml format. Due to a labeling law in CT, we will be the only group with a 750ml bottle of Laphroaig Single Cask. So, it’ll take just a touch more time.
There was one final detail to be seen to. How would we name the cask? Well, earlier in the trip, Nick and I had some ideas. But we’d stumbled upon a friendly contest. Something only Guinness Golf could answer. More about the naming of the cask in Bonus Part 7.
We grabbed some pics, had a few more pours, and then Barry asked if we’d like to hang out in the Laphroaig Lounge for a bit while the other group picked. They expected us to take much longer to select, not quite realizing the scale at which Nick and I work. It may have taken 20 hours and several days of travel to get there, but even in a damp warehouse on Islay, he and I got to business selecting like usual. We had our system, we had our process and in about half of the 3 hours they allotted we had our cask. So, that left us with some time to spare. Barry showed us some corners of the distillery not meant for the public, and then asked if we’d drank enough old Laphroaig yet on this trip. The man’s got a great smile. Something good was to come.
The Laphroaig Lounge is a small serving room next to the gift shop. It has the best leather couches I’ve ever laid on. More on that shortly. Barry brought out the latest chapter of the 33yr Ian Hunter series Laphroaig bottling to celebrate the near conclusion of our trip and to thank us for spending time with him on Islay.
There I sat, 33yr Laphroaig within arms reach, listening to the ocean, from a leather couch on Islay. I’ll never forget that moment. In this moment I had the absolute honor and privilege to check something off my bucket list. Those days are rare, and it meant everything to me.
A birds eye view. Here’s the bottle up close.
It was magnificent. Barry let us know he was needed elsewhere mumbling something about Cairdeas, left the Ian Hunter bottle on the table and winked, and left us to enjoy some much needed hang time.
After all, in just a few hours, we’d need to make the trip back to Glasgow, to make our way to Amsterdam, to make our way to Detroit, to finally arrive home in our respective states.
This concludes the main portion of The Road To Laphroaig. A bonus Part 7 with the return journey travel log will be posted shortly.