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Each year since 2008, Laphroaig, the Islay maker of archetypal, peat-filled, single-malt Scotch whiskies, has hosted 45-minute live video streams on the Internet with the opportunity for fans to taste along with a group of experts that has included the master distiller John Campbell. This year, viewing it from home, we took the event as a chance not only to sip along, but to smoke in tandem.
The video, recorded on the Hudson River Barge in Brooklyn, New York, in September, can still be viewed at laphroaig.com/live. No video record was made of the Cigar Aficionado pairing. Past Laphroaig Live recordings have been made from London, the Scottish island of Islay, Kentucky, Jerez in Spain, Sydney and Nuremberg. As well as Campbell, this year's event included Maker's Mark Bourbon ambassador Adam Harris and mixologist Michael J. Neff, the founder of Ward III, in New York City's Tribeca district.
The whisky choices, which vary from year to year, included Laphroaig Quarter Cask, QA and Cáirdeas Port Wood Edition. Maker's 46, a product of Maker's Mark, which is owned by the same company that imports Laphroaig, was also represented, but did not participate in our cigar pairing. (For more on Maker's 46, click here.)
The Quarter Cask harks to the early days of Laphroaig, when smaller vessels were used for aging. Whisky that has been aged in standard Bourbon barrels is transferred into casks one-fourth the size. The use of diminutive wood is not only getting a resurgence with Laphroaig, but is popular in the craft distilling trend in America as the stronger surface-area-to-wood ratio hurries maturation.
The QA Cask also started in former Bourbon barrels, but was finished in charred American white oak casks, much as Bourbon itself would be. The second maturation is meant to intensify the vanilla flavors found in Bourbon. The Latinized term for white oak is quercus alba, or QA, hence the name.
Cáirdeas, released this summer, is Laphroaig's unique expression for 2013 and uses a finish of 15 months in a half-size Port cask after eight years in a former Bourbon barrel. The name comes from the Gaelic for friendship.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask Double Cask Matured, Non-chill Filtered (96 proof, or 48 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $54.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep yellow color with a hint of copper. Slow, medium-width legs.
NOSE: Opens with a sharp puff of peat then shifts in a moment into a toasty confection of honey, lemon and pear.
PALATE: Just as on the nose, the whisky again opens up with smoke before transforming into much more. It's as if the peat splays out the on palate and readies it for the sweetness, spice and tang to come. Through it all there is always toast. Dried fruit supply the sweetness. The spice is that of a rye bread. The tang is the pine flavor of eucalyptus.
FINISH: The toast is insistent and colors the finish throughout, while the flavors of the palate make revolving visits.
CIGAR PAIRING: Don Carlos No. 2 (6 inches by 55 ring gauge; $12.60; 92 points; June 25, 2013, Cigar Insider) This reddish-colored torpedo burns and draws superbly, balancing nut and cocoa flavor with a touch of red pepper spice and sweet cedar. So often Islay whiskies run the risk of clashing smoke with smoke with a cigar. Not at all here. The nut and cocoa of the Don Carlos reveals similar qualities in the cigar. The whisky sends the cigar to new heights, lending it a good bit of sweetness.
Laphroaig QA Cask (80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $83.65 a one-liter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Amber with a tint of greenish brass. Big globular legs.
NOSE: Toasty and savory aroma of barrel notes of toffee and caramel.
PALATE: A big chewy, whisky with a backbone of toast and layers of vanilla, caramel, nougat and honey.
FINISH: Effervescent finish laced with pears and lemons.
CIGAR PAIRING: Don Carlos No. 2 (see above) Again, everything falls together nicely. Flavors intertwine so gracefully that it's hard to determine where one is helping the other or being braced by it. The end result is unmistakable, however: a chewy candy of nuts, cream, cocoa, fruits and spices.
Laphroaig Cáirdeas Port Wood Edition (102.6 proof, or 51.3 percent alcohol by volume; aged nine years plus; $74.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: A remarkable color of copper saturated with magenta. Chunky fat legs saunter down the glass.
NOSE: Cherry and citrus fruit follow a toasty beginning and usher in some complex rancio notes with almonds and grapes.
PALATE: A veritable syrup of fruit and flowers—cherry, oranges, raisins, roses—with spicy nuances—licorice, cinnamon and rye. Yes, the toast is always there, yet kept in abeyance and never allowed to become too peaty.
FINISH: And then arrives the toast with a salty, nuttiness. But, the savoriness allows the fruits and flowers to play on for a while.
CIGAR PAIRING: Don Carlos No. 2 (see above), Add the Port character of the whisky and this pairing becomes Forest Gump's box of chocolates. And while you mightn't know what you're going to get next, you can bet that it will be delicious. The fruits on the Laphroaig pop on a steady basis and the Don Carlos gives back its now solid chocolaty notes making for a bonbon of a marriage.