It's a tall order to compress 200 hundred years of know-how into a bottle of whisky, but that was the task for Laphroaig master distiller John Campbell as the Islay malt continues its bicentennial celebration with its newest expression, Lore.
The whisky, expected to roll out across the country at the end of May, melds a panorama of cask styles and aging conditions to honor distillers and maltsters of the whisky's illustrious past. Each man—and one formidable woman—contributed much to making the whisky what it is today, according to brand ambassador Simon Brooking. Campbell, he said, felt as though he were standing on the shoulders of distillers of the past in creating the latest expression. The distiller has also said, "Lore is our story bottled."
Among those honored was Ian Hunter, the last member of the founding Johnston family to run the distillery, who took over in 1921. While he is remembered for traveling to promote the whisky and for introducing new casks as well as ex-Bourbon barrels, he was also famously secretive about how the malt was made. Hunter chose chemist Bessie Williamson to take into his confidence in 1930. Upon Hunter's death, in 1954, Williamson became owner and master distiller. In 1967, she sold to Long John International, but stayed on for a few years to ensure a smooth transition.
Also, part of the Lore is Murdo Reed, a subsequent master distiller, who is remembered for having rebuilt the aging facility's roof in 1982 without losing a single day's production. Iain Henderson, who took the reins from 1990 to 2002, developed the Friends of Laphroaig customer appreciation association. He also promoted the Quarter Keg program, which was groundbreaking in bringing along no-age-statement whisky.
Arthur Holyoke, a malt master, is also honored in the Lore release. Malting (converting barley grain into sugar) is especially important in Islay whiskies as a strong peat flavor is conferred when the grain is dried. Laphroaig uses a traditional floor-malting process and harvests peat from nearby fields.
Lore is a melding of malts aged in different cask types for varying lengths of time. At the heart is seven-year-old spirit aged in former Maker's Mark Bourbon barrels (Laphroaig is now owned by Beam Suntory, which also owns Maker's Mark). They are the ideal vessel for conferring the intense, peaty flavors, which are considered the DNA of Laphroaig. A component of whisky aged for 21 years in ex-Bourbon barrels joins them. These are the distillery's most precious stocks.
The Quarter Cask Laphroaig is represented by spirits that were strictly aged in those smaller vessels (the regular Quarter Cask includes time in larger containers). The casks are constructed through rebuilding Bourbon barrels, using 27 of their 42 staves, to make slimmer casks of the same. The shape is a storage consideration. Thus made, they still conform to the warehouse racks. The smaller casks confer creaminess on the Lore, according to Brooking.
Brooking attributes the Lore's dark fruit notes to spirits aged in first-fill Sherry butts for seven to 10 years, an innovation also attributed to Hunter. "It is what gives it its zing."
Laphroaig Lore (96 proof, or 48 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $124.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Sunlight yellow, very slow, chunky legs
NOSE: Peat, toast and bread dough mingle with layers of meaty fruit.
PALATE: A slight maritime hint of salt, seaweed and ship's caulk rises to the top of the palate before a rollercoaster ride of flavors rush through, including toast, peat, graham cracker, citrus, strawberries in cream, walnuts and blackberries.
FINISH: Finishes forever with the above notes coming back in waves. Any tartness disappears to be replaced by hints of sugar. Quite a breadth of flavors for an Islay malt.
CIGAR PAIRING: Padrón 1964 Series Corona (Nicaragua; 6 inches by 42 ring gauge; $10.20, 91 points; June 2016 Cigar Aficionado) A strong, earthy combination of chocolate and charcoal punctuated by meaty, leathery notes and a honey-blossom finish. The draw is superb. This cigar seemed to embrace the few notes that the whisky lacked...so we grabbed it. The Padrón's chocolate gives another sweet element to the Laphroaig, while the whisky's peat and bread dough round out the cigar. Leather from the cigar does much the same for the Lore. The Padrón's signature toastiness becomes a bit more charcoal, which increases the expected Islay rubber notes. Through it all, fruit from the Lore reveals like qualities in the cigar. The pairing hits on all cylinders.