Laphroaig 25 Year Old

A quarter century certainly softens the dram

I’ll state my bias loud and clear: Laphroaig is my favourite distillery. They were my first foray into serious whisky-drinker’s whisky and what piqued my interest in Islay. I’ll admit that when I first started drinking whisky I did get a bit of a self-satisfied pleasure from liking Laphroaig as they consistently produce some of the most challenging drams: typically characterised by full-blown peat smoke, a salty savouriness and strange, medicinal notes. As a lady, the fact that I was ordering a neat whisky has sometimes been enough to raise an eyebrow in a bar, and I have found that the effect has been even more noticeable when it was a supposedly ‘manly’ dram like Laphroaig— something that will certainly put hairs on your chest.

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Another sunny Scottish day

Laphroaig plays on this distinctive character with their ‘Opinions Welcome’ project. This project encourages drinkers to let the distiller know exactly what they think about their whiskies and the most creative entries often make Laphroaig sound distinctly unappetizing. Descriptions such as: ‘like being slapped with a mermaid’s tail’, ‘like licking a fireplace’, and ‘like barbeque after a dentist visit’, might not sound appealing to everyone but they certainly are accurate! The old adage ‘love it or hate it’ definitely applies to Laphroaig, and I am firmly in the ‘love it’ camp.

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I am certainly not alone in my high estimation of Laphroaig. They are the best-selling Islay whisky, and their three wash stills and four spirit stills produce around 3.3 million litres a year. 70% of this output goes into their single malt and the rest into various blends. They have a big range of core expressions: the 10yo, Select, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood and (as of 2016) Lore are all available, with the Quarter Cask a definite highlight.

This review will be of the Laphroaig 25yo, which is a much older addition to their core range. The version I tried was bottled at 45.1% (there is another version out of there at 40%) and was made up of a mix of whisky matured in Oloroso sherry casks and American ex-bourbon barrels.

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Thanks to the awesome guys at Mane Liquor for doing bottle splits!

Whilst I may have talked up the challenging nature of Laphroaig whisky above, the effect of the lengthy ageing process has been to temper Laphroaig’s typically strong peat, iodine and seawater notes and to allow the sweeter characteristics of the sherry influence to come through a lot more. This is a very approachable and nuanced dram, and the proof is just about perfect— giving enough body and bite to the whisky without being overpowering.

Nose: Restrained, taking some time to open up with a hint of sherry sweetness.

Palate: A surprisingly strong burst of peat given the age (a quarter of a century!) but which quickly softens nicely into apricot, sultana, followed by spiced apple (nutmeg and anise) drizzled in treacle.

Finish: Light and a little bit oily, with lingering peat smoke and (finally) the signature maritime notes of Laphroaig at the end.

17/20

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Highland Park Ice & Fire Editions

ASOIAF: A Sip of Ice and Fire

I couldn’t resist reviewing two very special drams to celebrate today’s premiere of the 7th season of Game of Thrones. Ever since reading the first book, I’ve been firmly in the camp of the Stark family and have been enchanted by the entire world of the North of Westeros: the ever-changing ‘King in the North’, the weird wildlings, the giants and other beasties who live Beyond the Wall, and the Greyjoys who plunder up and down the coast. So, naturally, my thoughts turn to the distillery that best captures and reflects this northern and wild spirit … Highland Park.

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Highland Park has recently rebranded itself as the ‘Orkney single malt with Viking soul’. Their new tagline is:

“Our whisky, like our island home, is shaped by a wild climate and stormy seas, and by the Vikings who settled here over 1,000 years ago, leaving their mark on our people and our culture.”

This is far from a cynical marketing ploy and truly reflects the unique history and character of the Orkney islands, which are located some 16 kilometres (but an entire world away) from the north coast of the Scottish mainland. Orkney has been inhabited for some 8500 years, first by Neolithic tribes whose houses, standing stones and burial cairns remain on the island to this day, and then by the Picts who brought their own traditions and culture. In 875AD the islands were annexed by Norway and settled by the Norse. Even though the Scottish Parliament annexed the earldom to the Scottish Crown in 1472, Orkney still retains many Norse/Viking traditions to this day and they say that one third of Orcadians have Viking DNA.

Highland Park distillery itself is located in the Orcadian town of Kirkwall and was founded in 1798. It still fundamentally operates today in much the same way it always has: the distillery maintains a traditional floor maltings where the barley is turned by hand, the peat is still cut from nearby Hobbister moor, and maturation still occurs in warehouses on Orkney.

Given the history of Orkney and the proud traditions of Highland Park, it is only natural for the distillery to integrate the local Viking history into their branding. I fondly recall the Valhalla Collection, which was a series of four limited-edition annual releases named after the Norse gods Thor, Loki, Freya and Odin. Following on from the Valhalla Collection, Fire and Ice were released in 2016 and were the next two Nordic-themed bottlings, inspired by the great sagas of the Viking age recorded in the oldest Norse poems, the Poetic Edda.

 Highland Park Ice Edition 17 Year Old

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This release was inspired by Niflheim, the Norse realm of fog, frost and darkness and home to the ice giants. It was matured in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at a respectable 53.9% ABV.

Nose: A fascinating and complex mixture of tropical fruits, milk chocolate, and milky arrowroot biscuits.

Palate: Phwoar! A cacophony of flavours vying for attention –  distinctive and fresh notes of pineapple and mango, mellowing into coconut, a hint of cherry cola, sherbet, and at the end definitely some maritime influences, a little peat, lingering smoke and baked apple.

Finish: Rich and viscous, lingering spices, dry woodiness.

Highland Park Fire Edition 15 Year Old

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This release was inspired by Muspelheim, the Norse realm of fire, the crucible of the suns and stars, and home to the fire giants. It was matured exclusively in refill port-seasoned casks and bottled at 45.2% ABV.

Nose: Comforting aromas of warm spices, coffee, mixed peel, smoke.

Palate: Opens with dark chocolate and lightly roasted coffee (absolutely no bitterness), then come the red fruits (sweetened cranberry, plum), a hint of vanilla pods, and maple roasted pecans.

Finish: Spicy and smoky.

Both releases are imposingly (and somewhat ostentatiously) packaged in their own wooden case, which is reminiscent of a jagged mountain (for the Ice Edition) and volcano (for the Fire Edition). There are also beautifully illustrated mini-books of Nordic tales included alongside the whisky.

If you can manage it, it is fascinating to trying these whiskies side-by-side because of their many contrasts. On my initial tasting I preferred the Fire Edition because of its big, rich flavours of chocolate and red fruit— something I expect and love from a port-influenced dram. However, on subsequent tastings I preferred the Ice Edition because of its incredible complexity. Coquettishly, the Ice Edition refused to give up all its secrets at once, and every time I went back to it I changed my tasting notes as I discovered that something else was coming to the fore. However, I can finally and definitively say that, for me, the lingering notes of pineapple and coconut on the palate of the Ice Edition make it the ultimate winner in this battle of ice and fire.

Ice: 17.5/20

Fire: 16.5/20

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Bruichladdich Classic Laddie

Terroir matters.

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Bruichladdich is perched on the north shore of Islay’s Loch Indaal, a place where the waves gently lap at the shore and sheep roam contentedly (and also freely as there are no fences to stop them wandering onto the winding road that passes right by the distillery). In recent years, Bruichladdich has demonstrated their dedication to locality within their innovative approach to whisky-making. ‘Terroir matters’ has become their catch-cry and it is hard not to feel the special nature of location when you stand at the entry to the distillery, the wide-open sky above you, the gentle murmur of Loch Indaal behind you and the damp grass beneath your feet. Bruichladdich use various different kinds of barley in their whiskies– including some barley grown on Islay itself and the rare ‘bere’ barley varietal from Orkney— but it all 100% Scottish and their casks are all matured exclusively on site. Bruichladdich are also striving to achieve the highest level of phenol parts per million and thus the peatiest whisky ever, with the Octomore expressions being the fruits of this particularly daring and delicious experiment. Their ambition, however, belies their size: just two wash stills and 2 spirit stills, which do manage to output some 1.5 million litres a year.

When visiting the distillery in 2015, we were told the origins of the beautiful aquamarine color associated with the Bruichladdich brand and so prominently featured on the packaging of the Classic Laddie bottle. Apparently this color is the exact hue of

the sunlight glinting off the brilliant blue waves of Loch Indaal on a beautiful warm day.

Now I doubt that I’ve ever seen water quite that blue even in sunny Australia, let alone in frequently gloomy-weathered Scotland. But it does make a nice story. Personally, I quite like the aquamarine and the opaque bottling of the Classic Laddie, though I suspect this might be a love it or hate it kind of a deal more generally. A lot of people would probably rather be able to see the whisky within the bottle (to check the color, fill level, etc).

 

 

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In addition to being champions of terroir, Bruichladdich have also recently been at the forefront of transparency. You can find out a lot of information about your Bruichladdich whisky if you know where to look. If you are lucky enough to have a Bruichladdich bottle to hand, go grab it. See the five digit number in tiny print near the barcode on the back? Jump on the Bruichladdich website and plug it in. Voila! You now have the ‘recipe’ for that particular batch- all is revealed! The information that Bruichladdich is legally not allowed to put on the bottle (thanks to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 and Regulation (EC) No 110/2008), such as the various ages of each the different casks that made up this particular vatting, is all there to see. It is absolutely fascinating.

I followed this process with the particular bottle of Classic Laddie that I am reviewing and here’s what I found. It was made with barley from the Scottish mainland, including some organic barley. It contains a vatting of whiskies aged in six different types of casks – bourbon barrel first fill, French Bandol red hogshead second fill, French Rhone Cote Rotie red hogshead second fill, Rivesaltes sweet red & white hogshead second fill, Bordeaux Pauillac red hogshead first fill  and Burgundy red hogshead first fill. The oldest was distilled in 2005 and the youngest was distilled in 2008, all eventually bottled in 2016. I understand that not every whisky-drinker is going to want to know this much detail about their whisky, but some people (myself included) surely do. The ins and outs of whisky labelling laws and (the lack of) transparency is a post for another day. Let me just note in passing, however, that by making this kind of information available I believe Bruichladdich is demonstrating their respect for the consumer. Every distillery knows exactly what goes into every one of their bottles, but as consumers we only get to know what the distillery chooses to share with us. And Bruichladdich shares a lot.

 

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The Classic Laddie is what you would call the signature Bruichladdich: the entry-level, core whisky in their range. It has no age statement and effectively replaced the Laddie Ten when it was introduced (now no longer available except at the distillery). Somewhat confusingly the Bruichladdich distillery produces three distinct lines of whisky: the Bruichladdich (unpeated) line, Port Charlotte (peated) line and Octomore (heavily peated) line. As a whisky from Bruichladdich line, the Classic Laddie is unpeated. It is also bottled at 50%. I really appreciate this little jump up in ABV from the more typical 40%, 43% or 46% from other distilleries’ core whiskies, as I find it makes a positive difference to the intensity of flavor and length of finish.

Nose: A delicate honey note opening up into stonefruit (stewed ripe peaches) and spring pears. These initial aromas are followed by citrus (mandarin) and floral notes (apple blossom). Finally, on revisiting it a second time, a buttery aroma bursts through which complements the honey and peach nicely.

Palate: The first thing to come through baked green apples, followed by bold and assertive citrus notes. A little bit of spice heat like a fresh ginger biscuit. Finally a sea saltiness washes through, a nod to the island terroir.

Finish: A long lingering finish. A citric tartness at first then a little maritime astringency at the sides of the tongue.

Overall, this is a good introduction to the Bruichladdich range. It is flavor-packed and more complex than you might originally expect. As it is unpeated it is a bit different from other Islay whiskies, it also doesn’t have the same ‘smack you in the face with a tarred fish’ quality of Laphroaig (I say that from a place of love) nor the resinous pine of Ardbeg. But it is still bold and interesting in its own way. Revisit it or visit it anew.

14.5/20

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