Holiday buying guide for the Scotch lover, 2020

If you have someone who is a fan of Scotch (and that’s all you know) this is the guide for you.  You want to offer a nice present that is appreciated, and not pushed to the back of the cabinet or mixed with Coke (unless that’s their thing). You want a smile on that day. You have come to the right place.

Buying Scotch can be intimidating because of the multiple styles, regions (which do not always coincide!) and sometimes strong flavor profiles. Scotch drinkers vary from those appreciating a subtle array of delicate aromas and those who like a pugilistic nose like the air in a WW2 battleship’s boiler room.

Note: I am US-based and this guide refers in the main to whiskies you can buy in the US.

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Whisky and Words Number 68: Laphroaig Lore

They have swapped the usual Laphroaig label color profile for a darker look, to match the richly colored spirit.

I gave Laphroaig’s Triple Wood a positive review a couple weeks back. Essentially their Quarter Cask whisky using Oloroso butts for a third stage, the ‘3Wood’ brought a punchy midrange of fruit and spice notes to the classic Laphroaig style. According to the carton notes, the Lore reads like a super 3Wood, as the spirit is “drawn from a selection of aged casks including first-fill sherry casks, smaller quarter casks and our most precious stock,” presumably of ex-Bourbon casks. The carton notes tell us the intent was to crate the “richest ever Laphroaig.” Like the 3Wood, the Lore is not chill filtered and is also bottled at 48% ABV. Frankly, using the Triple Wood as a starting point sounds like a good strategy to me. I assume they are taking the same recipe, but being more selective with casks. So I’ll use the 3Wood as a comparison for this review.

On the UK website, they state they use five different casks, aged 7 to 21 years. They also state Jim Murray listed Lore as the best NAS whisky in his 2019 bible. Promising! We won’t get much more info from Laphroaig’s website as they have terrible coverage of their range, just a shopfront. And their ‘contacts us’ page will not load if you have even the minimum protections on with your browser. Sorry Laphroaig, I’m not pulling my knickers down for you. Get with modern security! Anyway, the five types would be first-and-second fill Bourbon, same for Sherry, plus the quarter casks, there’s your five.

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Whisky and Words Number 65: Laphroaig Triple Wood

Laphroaig quarter cask (l) and American ex-bourbon barrel (r)

Laphroaig embraced the use of different types of casks with the Quarter Cask release of 2004. A NAS spirit, the Quarter Cask starts aging in the typical ex-bourbon barrels, then transferred to smaller “19th century-style quarter casks” as described on the the carton. The theory is that, with more surface-to-volume area of the smaller cask, the flavors from the oak are more quickly absorbed into the spirit. While that may be so, there is a noticeable mellowness seen only in older whiskies, so I would hold that aging has more to it than surface area. Who knows, maybe you could get a good whisky by dumping the spirit into a vat full of toothpicks for a couple months, but Scotland has that 3-year aging rule for whisky.

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Distillery Tour: Laphroaig (technical)

I cannot believe I forgot to write this up three years ago. Luckily, I have lots of photos and strong memories.  It is a lovely walk from Port Ellen along the bike path past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It was a typically grey Scottish morning, as you can see, but the weather mild.

The path from Port Ellen towards Laphroaig

Our walk was quiet, with little traffic. We were passed once by bicyclists, and reached Laphroaig in about half an hour if that. It’s an impressive place, especially after the businesslike Caol Isla and fungal-discolored Bunnahabhain distilleries. After a wood, you come across large brick warehouses stuccoed grey, and turn into a bustling and busy entrance surrounded by tidy white buildings.

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Whisky and Words Number 24: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Laphroaig's Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).
Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).

We’re still on Island expressions, and time to address a No Age Statement offering from Laphroaig: the Quarter Cask. A quarter cask is a cask one quarter the capacity of a hogshead. More specifically, a sherry butt (500 liters). The Laphroaig folks use a 125 liter cask, which gives, compared the their normal casks, a 30% greater cask (interior) surface area for a given volume of whisky. A higher whisky-to-oak ratio.

That ratio, it is presumed, allows the goodness of the charred oak to infuse more quickly with the spirit, rendering a quicker maturation. They also point out that the surface-to-spirit ratio also increases the ‘Angel’s share’ of alcohol which evaporates out of the oak. True enough, and that evaporation is displaced with good sea air, of which Laphroaig distillery has plenty. In the end, this is a gambit to allow the whisky master to create a whisky with the balance and sophistication of a fully (e.g., 10 or 12-year) matured whisky with spirit what hasn’t aged as long. Alchemy, I say! Can you get gold from lead (well, without a nuclear reactor)?

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