Let’s confront the elephant in the room straight from the off. Laphroaig is a disappointment. Especially the official range that has been brutalised in recent times by Beam Suntory.
There we’ve said it and getting things out in the open is the best way. When I think of Laphroaig its characteristic flavour is damp cardboard and a general sense of not being ready. The Laphroaig Lore may have improved with subsequent batches but generally, the realm of the No Age Statement Laphroaig is a dangerous environment. Mundane at times even, as confirmed by the rather insipid Laphroaig Select that fails to inspire. Let’s not forget the gloriously inept Laphroaig Four Wood although I’m trying really hard to.
Even the Laphroaig PX cask failed to move us and before you suggest we have a blind spot for this distillery I’ll refer you to the Laphroaig 10 year old Batch 009 or the mysterious Dornoch 2005 Islay Malt and what about the Whisky Barrel’s 10th Anniversary cask. All recent releases without the need to jump back in time when Laphroaig was truly a force to be reckoned with the 12 year old from Bonfanti.
Point made? Good, let’s move on.
Laphroaig has changed for the worst. If you’re fortunate to be able to go back in time then your research will confirm this. However, it is still capable of producing a good whisky. It’s a little similar to what we see at Auchentoshan and Bowmore. Fairly dull and lacking to a certain degree when we discuss the official range. Possessing more filter than a hen party armed with mobile phones. They also contain way too much artificial colouring; much like that hen party again. Something is going fundamentally wrong between maturation and bottling.
Independent bottlings underline the point time and time again. There are some wonderful youthful Bowmore’s out there and Auchentoshan isn’t as bad as you think when its left alone. The same applies to Laphroaig as well; you can sense and taste echoes of the past. Is the problem a master blender one as we’ve touched upon in our Highland Park 2003 15 year old review? No, although their role has been recreated by the corporates in recent years. Originally nothing more than lab rats in white coats and stock controllers, now master blenders are in suits chucking whisky around and all sorts of quotable guff.
They are the face of the distillery to some and assisted by the battalions of brand ambassadors. Yet these are mere foot soldiers as the problem resides further up the corporate chain. I’d love to have a chat off the record with a master blender – current or former – about their role and honest reflection. The code of silence would not be broken I’m sure but nevertheless, it’d be a fascinating chat. Briefs deployed, budgets set and inventory assessed. Then over to the master blender to try and come up with something drinkable within such a confined space. Whilst in full knowledge that this wouldn’t be something they’d enjoy. Recipe set. Profit agreed. Bottles shipped and the blender wheeled out when required whether on the packaging or in personal appearances.
I’m sure Bill Lumsden told me once he received a death threat when he launched Ardbeg Still Young back in 2006. I wonder how that pot of ill-feeling is brewing over a decade later and some of the whiskies we’re seeing not just from LVMH but everyone else? A cascade of molten lava I’d wager heading straight for many offices.
The answer is simply to stop buying the stuff and hopefully they’ll learn. The boom continues meaning when it does deflate it’ll be epic. A recent news story via a Beam Suntory master blender suggested that the Scotch Whisky Industry should relax its laws around finishing. Dangerous talk from a company that on recent form has let its quality slip considerably in pursuit of the dollar, yen or whatever currency you have in your wallet or purse. Relaxing such rules potentially could mean more youthful whiskies covered up with a fashionable finish or band-aid that’ll come at a price. There’s a need for innovation – the buzzword they’re trying to flog – and also restraint whilst showcasing you can still produce a good whisky.
All of this brings us to today’s whisky. An independent bottling of Laphroaig from the reliable hands of Signatory. I have to thank Rose for the sample, which was given to me blind to review and prompted a reaction when the penny dropped about its origins. I should have known. This was the bottle that I helped her pick out thanks to the modern wonders of technology from Scotland, whilst Rose scurried around Santa Rosa in search of something suitable. A bottle for an event in Vegas; no pressure then. It prompted the question about what bottle would you pick to showcase your preferences and style to a room of friends or complete strangers?
My answer in a previous piece was the Talisker 18 year old. The journey around the sun-kissed part of the world also highlighted the cost of whisky Stateside in some cases and the limitations of choice. So kudos to the enthusiasts out with the motherland, who follow whisky passionately; this one is for you.
This Signatory Laphroaig was distilled on 22nd September 1998 before being bottled on 14th October 2014 at 16 years of age. From a refill sherry butt (#700388), this resulted in an outturn of 739 bottles with Rose’s being number 129. As always there is no chill-filtration and the presentation is a natural colour and 46% strength.
Signatory Laphroaig 1998 16 year old – Jason’s review
Colour: Chewed toffee.
On the nose: A spent peat kiln with the last embers of smoke. A coastal emphasis towards the end. Prior to this are eggshells, bacon crisps, roasted coffee, a rich fudge and liquorice. Water is beneficial revealing honey, ripe toffee apples and a mossy character.
In the mouth: A distinctive soggy cardboard. Autumnal Scottish woods – yes I did have a walk there today – spiced dark chocolate, resin with a watery peaty finish and spent fireworks. There’s also a flavour I struggled to identify later it clicked; incense. Water reveals charcoal, treacle and burnt toast. An element of sea salt with brown sugar on the finish.
Jason’s Score: 6/10
Signatory Laphroaig 1998 16 year old – Rose’s review
Colour: Autumn oak leaves.
On the nose: Big wafts of barnyard manure specifically dairy farm, followed by a heavy earthiness and fresh cut pine, old leather and extinguished cigars. More earth, damp soil and wet moss, fig cake topped with honey and apple butter with a big bucket of movie popcorn on the side.
In the mouth: Still being buried in all that’s dirty, earthy and soggy. Tobacco and dusty old leather shoes. Moist and musty wool that got left outside on a damp night. Something medicinal like a Chinese herbal tincture, oil burning off the engine of my dads 1965 Buick Riviera. Finishing warm and dry like the Nevada desert. Heat lingers in the back of the throat then notes of black mechanical grease, zinc and chilli.
Rose’s Score: 7/10
Laphroaig is an easy target to bash if we so felt it was required. Except we’re here for the whisky and several independent releases like this Signatory or the recent Whisky Barrel exclusive Laphroaig. It’s moments like this that remind you not all is lost. Here’s hoping for more such revelations…
My thanks to Rose again aka From Where I Dram for the sample and photographs.