Perhaps because they feel that hitting the two-century mark is too special an occasion to celebrate in just one day, the makers of Laphroaig whisky are stretching their 200th birthday celebration into an ongoing series of events and special releases. The first new whisky, which hits store shelves in the United States this month, is a limited-edition revival of a 15-year-old expression that was discontinued six year ago.
A new release in the Cáirdeas series and a 32-year-old version of the Islay whisky are still to come later in the bicentennial year. The company also plans further celebrations of its anniversary, and master distiller John Campbell is touring various places across the globe as the year passes. (Join the Friends of Laphroaig club to receive updates on events via email.)
The first of the new whiskies to arrive is the 15-year-old release. The expression was first created some three decades ago, but was discontinued in 2009. Campbell, who has named it as one of his favorite Laphroaigs, says he created the one-off reissue following exactly the same methodology as the original, including its "export strength" 86 proof (43 percent alcohol).
The expression is notable in that it does not exhibit the overwhelming smokiness of the standard release, a 10-year-old. The signature taste of Islay malts is informed by the use of peat fuel to toast the barley before it is fermented. The island of Islay, which lies off the west coast of Scotland, is covered with peat bogs, so the fuel is plentiful there. Laphroaig is known as one the peatiest whiskies made on Islay.
Campbell says that the dampened peat effect is not due to any difference in the production of the whisky. All Laphroaigs, from 10 to 15 to 25 years and beyond, begin life with the same basic "family recipe," he notes. Campbell says the oxidation that occurs during the lengthened maturation process creates extra flavors that balance with the peat and give the impression of lessened smokiness. "These fruity flavors then tend to dominate. ... That's just the way Laphroaig evolves. It goes through the fusel-oil bit at 10 years and then the fruity bit at 15 and 20. Then it changes again and the fruits become more exotic. ... The main thing is that at some point you always want the DNA of the peat coming through."
The coming 32-year-old release is matured in Oloroso Sherry casks, and Campbell compares it with an earlier 30-year-old release. "It's like that but more varied in flavor," he says. "It's almost like two different flavors and two different journeys." He describes it as having Sherry upfront and peat second.
The other coming release is probably the most Laphroaig-like of the three. Since 2008, Laphroaig has issued an annual special edition called Cáirdeas. Pronounced like "car chase," Cáirdeas is Gaelic for friendship and it changes every year. Campbell chuckles when asked about this year's bicentennial edition, saying, "It's going to be very, very different." He recalls that in 2003, he was given approval to make a whisky that would be a throwback to the way Laphroaig was made 100 years ago. To that end, Campbell used nothing but floor-malted barley for the whisky. While Laphroaig is one of the few distilleries that still performs its own floor maltings, its standard releases all contain a large amount of barley that was smoked in a kiln. The floor maltings, however, create higher levels of a special phenol that offers a stronger tart note.
Laphroaig also typically uses a combination of different sized stills. In this case, however, the whisky was distilled in only the smallest spirit stills for heavier flavors. It was then aged for about 12 years in former Maker's Mark barrels kept in the No. 1 warehouse by the sea's edge. "It's all about peat," Campbell enthuses. "It's a very, very pungent flavor profile that becomes huge in your mouth. The people who like Laphroaig-y-ness are going to absolutely love this."
Laphroaig 15 Year Old (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; 15 years old; $79.99 per 750 milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Light golden color, with a slight lime tint. Medium-wide, slow legs.
NOSE: Toasty, jam-like aroma, not especially peaty. You get past the slight char and then discover a candied mix of berry and apricot as well as vanilla bean.
PALATE: It's like a toasted English muffin topped with a complex marmalade made from grapefruit, orange, peach and honey. At the same time, it offers spice in the form of ginger as well as the emblematic Laphroaig maritime flavors and a subtle peat.
FINISH: Hard candy flavored like all the array fruits from the nose and the palate as well as spicy Christmas cake usher this dram out with a long finish that will linger long after the whisky is gone.
CIGAR PAIRING: Partagás Serie D No. 6 (Cuba; 3 1/2 inches by 50 ring gauge; £13.38; 92 points, August 2015 Cigar Aficionado) Short and squat, this little robusto is full of woody, savory notes layered with earth, sweet gingerbread and notable nutty notes, especially on the finish. With the exception of the like ginger notes, this pairing was an exercise in contrast. The hopes was that the differences would make sparks fly. And fly they did, as the whisky's inherent fruitiness dug straight into the savory aspects of the cigar, giving it pronounced depth and a sweetness that had been lacking. The Partagás came right back by revealing more of the expected peat in the Laphroaig and underscoring the already evident toast. Leather and nougat arose from the mix as well. The missing element is a little more length that would have kept this excellent pairing going longer.
Arturo Fuente Hemingway Best Seller (Dominican Republic; 4 1/2 inches by 55 ring gauge; $6.60; 91 points, August 2015 Cigar Aficionado) This easy-drawing perfecto shows a medium-bodied interplay of rich wood and earthy minerals before a sweet, caramel-like finish. The theory here was to match the sweetness of the cigar with the fruity sugars of the whisky. Interestingly, the Hemingway showcased the smoky character of the whisky more than the first pairing did—and what emerged was an extremely toasty dram. The Laphroaig's insistent fruity notions did come through, however, with pear and berry notes. Furthermore, there was a goodly dose of honey and a bit of spice that showed as a sweet licorice. A synergy between the components elevated caramel/nougat flavors on both, but none of the leather of the earlier pairing was noted. However, the Christmas spices of the whisky were more apparent as was some of the heartiness of the cigar. Another short, but very successful pairing.