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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Single Malt Report: Laphroaig 18 year (with guest reporter!)

Going a little higher shelf than usual today, but for good reason: Laphroaig makes a damn good malt.

I've previously reported on the 10year and the Quarter Cask bottlings.  Both are strong, medicinal, phenolic, unapologetically-Islay single malts.  The 10year and I have gone from enemies to allies, from "gross" to "that's really good".  The Quarter Cask was love at first nose.  In fact, if I can find a good price on it, I'll be obtaining a bottle this year.

When you order any young Laphroaig at a bar, you do so already anticipating the peat-reek, salt, menthol, band-aids, and Islay air.  It's a reliable muscular industrial wallop, even at lower ABV levels.

As previously mentioned, I'm a newer convert to the Laphroaig palate.  My friend and fellow whiskey fanatic, Bernardo, is about five years ahead of me on that front.  In fact, he's a few years ahead of me on the whisky journey in general, though I've been drinking doing my best to catch up.  So who better to share a Laphroaig report with?

We separately sampled drams of Laphroaig 18, sharing a sip with the wives, Kristen (mine) and Suburban Food Nerd (his), in order to get a complete picture of this older single malt.

Age: minimum 18 years
Maturation: bourbon barrels
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 48%

This 18-year release began in 2009, replacing their 15-year-old malt.  Laphroaig has said that this one gets a limited release every year, though they don't slap a cask or bottle count onto the label, so no one except Laphroaig Ltd. knows the release numbers.

Like the Quarter Cask, the 18 year is not chillfiltered and I'm pretty sure there's no added coloring since it has a pale-ish tone.  Without the filtering, the whisky clouds up at colder temperatures or with added water, but it retains a large amount of the palate complexity it gains from the oak casks.  

It is bottled at a good strong 48% ABV, but thanks to its age, the rougher alcohol corners have been smoothed out.

Enough with the facts!  Okay, maybe one more.

When I called Bernardo about his tasting session, this is how the phone conversation began...

Bernardo:  "Hello?"
Me: "So did you pound that eighteen year old yet?"
Me: (laughing like I was in junior high)
Bernardo: Yes.

To the pounding tasting!

First, Bernardo's notes:

Color - Light Gold / Straw
Nose - Soft Peat, Mint, Moss, Sweet
Palate - Slow Developing, Lightly Smoky, Vanilla
Body - Light, Oak
Finish - Lingering, Candied orange

Damn, how professional and straightforward.

Now for my flowery, overwritten notes:

The color is a lovely light gold, but darker than the 10 year old (rhyme!).
The nose shows the malt mellowing with age.  Very subtle peat.  A sugary bourbon vanilla up front and maybe some dried apricots in the back.  A little bit of oak.  No band-aids.  No plastic.
The palate has some dusty peat, wood smoke, malt, and a little vanilla.  Gentle compared to the 10yr.
A graceful finish of sweet cream sneaks up then sticks around.

This brings out the sweets in the nose.  Big vanilla and brown sugar.  Peat has almost vanished.
The palate gets sweeter too.  Same vanilla and brown sugar.  Subtle smoke.  Caramel sauce.  And something mossy.
The finish is still nice and warm.  More vanilla and brown sugar.

First, the good news.  It is very very smooth.  Kristen didn't even make the whisky face.  (I think she only likes the expensive stuff.)  The sweetness is a very nice surprise.

The other news.  It comes down to palate preference.  Amongst all of the subtlety and grace, the Laphroaig character has gone into a slumber.  It was kind of surprising.  There is no doubt that this a lovely luxurious whisky, but...

I still enjoy the Quarter Cask more, with its delicious complex craziness.  And I think Bernardo (please correct me if I'm wrong) may prefer the 10year for its grand capital 'L' Laphroaigness.

Though neither of us would ever turn a glass ($25-35 in a bar) of this away, were it offered.

This malt is priced similarly to other well known singles in its age group, so I have no qualms with its relative price.  So ultimately, if finances aren't a barrier, then this a lovely gentle Islay malt that comes highly recommended.

Pricing - Good at $100, Bad at $150 (saw it going for $72 in a Arizona Costco!)
Rating - 86


  1. This is my #2 scotch overall after the corry. I think you need to try again. Though it seems you trend a *bit* more toward the sweet side than me. e.g. Oogy (at least the bottle I had) was a bit too sweet for me, just tasted like a corry or lap18 mixed with a bit of macallan (yuck). Two in one and not really balanced. (Corry is obviously a bit of a mutt too, but I think it's a very balanced peet with a tad of sweet versus oogy's "mixeet"). I usually like the corry's more subtle hint of sweet to counterbalance things, but the rest of the time if I'm not wanting any sweet at all there's nothing better than the Laphroaig 18. And vs the QC, while the QC is way above par for the dollar-for-dollar experience, I think this has all the QC flavor and punch *without* the QC did-I-just-lick-an-ash-tray experience. 86 is way underrating this malt. To me, definitely #2 after corry, and sometimes when I don't want grapes, #1.

    1. The new Oogys are much sweeter than the old ones. Ardbeg is using very young whisky in them right now and it seems like they're trying to cover that over with big sherry notes. As you mentioned, Corry has a little bit of sweetness too but it doesn't smother the aggression held in the rest of the whisky.

      I will say this, in the 2+ years since this review, I have lost my sweet tooth. Instead, I've been more biased towards nearly oak-free whiskies. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) older whiskies inevitably take on more oak with time and only very rarely do the old peaters hold onto their peat notes. In this case with the Laphroaig 18 drams that my friend and I had sampled, the peat was so mellowed that it had almost vanished. Since Beam says that the 18yo has a limited release each year, that might mean there are distinctly different batches. This could account for variation over the years. Still, I'd take this over Mac 18 any day.