Simon Brooking, Master Ambassador for Laphroaig®, recently visited Houston to inspire, educate and spread word about the brand. I had an opportunity to go to a tasting of four varieties of the scotch whisky at Down House, as well as one from their Ardmore brand. The nature of Scotch changes depending on where it comes from: Lowland, Speyside, Highland, Campbeltown or Islay (pronounced eye-la). Laphroaig is from Islay, an island just off the western coast of Scotland, and Ardmore is from the Highland. Our tasting actually started with the Ardmore, and it was a relatively easy beginning. Simon is obviously well-practiced with this presentation and welcomed us with a drinking song. A well-practiced toast was spoken before each new draught. Laphroaig is dangerously smoky stuff. In fact, the brochure we received during the seminar is entitled "The Complete Guide to Sipping without Wincing," and the slogan at the bottom says "You'll get there.™" For those who don't like strong flavors, it may indeed take some time to "get there." I was glad there were only five samples, because by the end, my palate was close to worn out.
I have at home a bottle of Compass Box Peat Monster, a blend of Speyside and Islay malts. Laphroaig 10 Year Old makes that taste like the easy stuff. It is no-holds-barred and comes on with some serious smoke. There is a bit of a salty undertone due to the constant influx of ocean air that blows through Islay.
Simon brought two hunks of peat with him and was, with some effort, able to use a lighter on one to get it to smolder a bit. Thus, we got to smell first-hand the peat that gives Scotch its smoky flavor. Otherwise, as Simon explained, it really wouldn't be much different from a beer without the hops, since malted barley and water are the base ingredients.
In the case of Scotch, though, the barley is malted and then dried above smoldering peat, which gives the whiskey its distinctive flavor. Another huge contributing factor is that Laphroaig is aged in former Maker's Mark bourbon barrels. Before Prohibition, sherry casks were used, and they are in fact still used for Laphroaig 25 Year Old.
Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask strength is taken directly from the barrel, and unlike the regular 10 Year, it's not chill-filtered. The amber-colored whiskey is very big and bold in the mouth. It's still a smoke-bomb, but a much more well-rounded one.
The Laphroaig Quarter Cask is a throwback to the days when bootlegging was at its height. The smaller casks were easier to transport by horse. Using the smaller casks gives 30 percent more contact of whiskey to wood. Upon tasting, the scotch is very hot up front, but when it rounds down it seems to dance on the tongue.
Simon suggested that a smoky Martinez cocktail variant could be created with a glass rinse of the quarter cask, and I agree that it sounds like an excellent idea. Jeremy Olivia of Down House also used the quarter cask for a slightly smoky yet delicate cocktail that employed chamomile tea, honey, lemon and Peychaud's bitters. It was stunning, and I hope it ends up on the menu.
Our favorite, hands down, was the Laphroaig 18 Year Old. Unlike the headstrong 10 Year Olds, the 18 Year was surprisingly sweet on the tongue. The smoke accepts a companion role instead of taking over, and it finishes quite roundly.
How does a Highland scotch compare to all of these Islays? Quite favorably. More of an easy-drinker, the Ardmore proved to be more floral and not quite as smoky. If I were to introduce someone to scotch for the first time, I might go with a Highland style like this one.
Out of all of the choices, Laphroaig's Quarter Cask and the 18 Year Old are the ones most likely to end up in my liquor cabinet. The 18 Year Old would be reserved to sip neat, while the Quarter Cask would find a home as a cocktail enhancement. It is to bourbon what mescal is to tequila; a smoky cousin.
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Laphroaig was actually licensed as a medicine in the United States which allowed it to continue to be imported during Prohibition. That's ironically appropriate for a concoction for which "Band Aids®" is a common, even appealing (!), tasting note. Still, getting a good bottle of scotch is like buying a little piece of Scotland for your home, and it's a flavor worth trying to understand.
Want to learn more? Check out this video with Simon Brooking and Laphroaig's Master Distiller John Campbell to get a little taste of the seminar we attended. You'll have to bring your own scotch, though.