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Laphroaig Aged 10 Years

Who owns Islay?

I do. At least in part, as it turns out. A miniscule part, factually. I was reminded of this by a recent clearing-out of my file cabinets, which produced all manner of ephemera from auld lang syne.

Among the discoveries: a certificate for a lifetime lease on a square foot of Islay (plot number 215398, if you want to cross-check my bona fides). This is a promotional stunt by Laphroaig, free of charge to anyone who has purchased a bottle. The benefits include annual rent of a dram, to be collected in person at the distillery. As far as marketing gimmicks go: it’s not the worst one. It’s certainly better than mailing out empty bottles.

A confession: despite my vast landholdings there, I have never been to Islay. Based on the 2004 date on my certificate, I calculate that I’ve got fifteen years’ worth of drams accrued, though I’d wager that quintessential Scottish parsimony means my pleas for more than one will be unceremoniously rebuffed.

However, I’ve drank quite a bit of Islay whisky, and have my own sense of the place. It’s been imparted to me in osmotic form, absorbed through metabolic processes and – I’m nearly certain – bears only the most cursory resemblance to the actual experience of being on the island.

That’s the funny thing about places, though: they’re more than just masses of earth or names on the map. Some take on a life of their own completely apart from their geographic specifics. There are ardent lovers of Paris who have never set foot in any of the twenty arrondissements. America is chock-full of people who would unselfconsciously describe themselves as “Irish” or “Italian” or “Swedish” but haven’t visited their countries of ancestral origin. In these cases, capital-P-“Place” transcends “place.” I’d argue that, for whisky lovers, Islay is just such a Place.

Mark has previously dissected the transformation of Islay from a place into a brand, with Bruichladdich claiming ultimate authenticity and provenance. Pre-emptive strikes along the same strategic lines are now taking place on Skye, where Talisker seems intent on trademarking every associated appellation, cognomen, and sobriquet. However, once a place has transcended geographic reality and become a Place, it is part of the psychological commons of humanity. No one can own a Place, any more than they can own a feeling or a rainbow or an earthquake.

Laphroaig, specifically its 10-year-old expression, was the first Islay whisky I can remember tasting. As with most first-time drinkers of Laphroaig, it left an indelible impression on me. I remember sputtering something along the lines of “Holy Mary, mother of God, please help me, I’m dying!” as the waves of smoky, oily, and salty flavors overwhelmed my palate. Even subsequent run-ins with Ardbeg expressions on overdrive would never supplant that initial memory of the full-on Islay-ness of Laphroaig.

I’ve now tasted drams from every distillery on the island and have come to appreciate the wide variety of potential styles, even between expressions from the same distillery. I know, intellectually, that Islay whisky can be peaty or fruity, brusque or elegant, salty or sweet, and often all these things at the same time. However, emotionally I will always understand Islay through that first dram of Laphroaig.

That said, I can’t tell you the last time I purchased a bottle of this expression. It was likely at least ten years ago, coincidentally. So, prompted by the offer of a dram from a bottle purchased by Carl, I am now revisiting Islay (synthetically, spiritually, and nostalgically). Those of you familiar with my philosophical musings will understand this to be the preamble to a grave error. However, I promise that I am writing all this before I have sniffed or tasted the dram, Scout’s honor.

Devoted readers of this site will be aware of recent years’ general slippage in quality among official bottlings of Laphroaig, most recently manifest in a foray by Phil that was unfortunate on multiple levels. Forewarned, I am on guard for a dilute mouthfeel with off notes of soggy packaging material. But, also hopeful. This is Islay! It’s my island!

This is a bottle of Laphroaig aged 10 years, bottled at 43%. My local has a going rate of $45 for a 750 ml bottle with a loyalty card (and I am nothing if not loyal to my local purveyors of spirits). It’s widely available and often on special at Amazon, Master of Malt or the Whisky Exchange.

Laphroaig Aged 10 Years – Review

Color: Medium E150a caramel color. Seriously, go find some independently bottled Islay malts at about this age and marvel at their comparative pallor.

On the nose: The smoky caramelized-sugar scent of roasted marshmallows. House paint, ripe grapefruit, shea butter, varnish, and a faint whiff of latex bandages.

In the mouth: Ashy to start, this fades fast into a muddled and dilute midpalate. There’s the hint of damp newsprint, the telltale flaw of late-period Laphroaig. This evaporates entirely on the watery, weak finish that lingers with a residual stale note.

Conclusions

A shade of its former self, this has none of the self-possessed assertiveness of prior generations of Laphroaig Aged 10 Years. Diluted beyond recognition and with some conspicuous off-notes, this represents faded glory and cynical trading on the strength of a brand that has forefeited its association with everything that makes Islay whisky great.

The Place I once visited, at least virtually, is gone. The good news is that place still exists, and it’s full of interesting whisky that truly expresses the essence of that unique environment. Though I’ll strike this expression of Laphroaig from my shopping list, I’ll be ready to take another little journey in a glass to a Place that belongs to me – indeed, to all of us – but mostly me.

Score: 3/10

Lead image from the Whisky Exchange and there are commission paying links within this article if you do want to try a modern version of Islay.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Taylor
Taylor

Taylor's a native of Chicago. After heading to university in Scotland, he graduated from drinking Whyte & Mackay and Coke to neat single malts. He's also a keen fan of Japanese whisky, having visited the country regularly over the last several years, where he was able to assemble a decent collection before prices went batty.

  1. Avatar
    James Allsop says:

    Agreed! I wasn’t impressed by the 10yo either and actually preferred the NAS Quarter Cask which is higher strength and NCF and benefits a lot from being so.

    Enjoyed the article, cheers!

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      James, glad you enjoyed it. As a general rule, whiskies that aren’t diluted and chill-filtered are going to be better than those that are. It’s a shame that the industry is more content with consistent mediocrity than tolerant of variation at a higher level. Cheers!

  2. Avatar
    Whisky Heathen says:

    I can’t disagree with anything written here, Laphroaig is not what it once was. The unfortunate thing about it all however is that it probably could be if the will was there. The two biggest issues are presentation and batch variation. Presentation could be changed almost overnight and would deal with the watery mouthfeel that plagues so many of the 40/43% chill filtered expressions. Given the green bottle and flavour profile there’s also no need for E150. The batch variation may be harder to solve but it’s not insurmountable. At the moment it seems a higher percentage of the good Laphroaigs come from the independents and the distillery should be holding onto those casks. The poor casks that make up the Select, many 10yo batches, the Four Oak etc should either be passed on or left to gain some real age and depth, not marketed away into below average expressions. The 10yo CS, Quarter Cask, An Cuan Mor, 18yo etc all prove there is good distillate still being made, such a shame it’s not being allowed to shine.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Heathen, appreciate your insights here. I actually really enjoyed a bottle of the travel retail QA Cask, despite low strength (40%). The distillery, as in years past, is capable of producing flavorful, interesting whisky. As you point out, presentation doesn’t do them any favors, and the variation risks turning off repeat customers. I’m certainly not rushing out to spend my money on another bottle of this expression just to see if it’s an improvement. Thanks again.

      1. Avatar
        Cole says:

        I can not agree with this article at all. I love this scotch because it is very different from others that are out there. I buy at least 2 bottles a month. Why do we have to get so technical when it comes to drinking you either like it or you dont .

        1. Taylor
          Taylor says:

          Cole, you don’t have to agree. We’re dealing with tastes and preferences, which are inherently subjective. I have not ever, nor do I now, pretend to be the final word on this (or any other) whisky.

          As for your question: “technical” is what we do here at MALT, and the majority of readers seem to like and value our detailed critical dissections of drams. If you’re looking for a simple thumbs-up/down, there are others who will be happy to provide a more, shall we say, “straightforward” assessment.

          Thanks for reading.

  3. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    Why do you suppose that it’s not what it was once? Is it because our taste buds have become more discerning as we tried more things, or do you think they truly lowered the quality standards in favor of cheaper production?

    1. Avatar
      Whisky Heathen says:

      It depends whether you mean has the product fundamentally changed or have we subjectively changed. Both play a part imo. The spirit has fundamentally changed, that’s just a matter of historical record. Over a period from the 50s/60s to modern day there’s been an increase in the use of bought in malt (which at first was very low PPM), changes to the still setup, movement away from brewers yeast, changes to distillery equipment (condensers moved inside etc), changes in supply of casks and so on. With so many changes it takes a little while to make everything run the way you want so even after all the changes there’s a period of experimentation. If you can try distillate from Laphroaig over these periods it’s clear how totally different it is to the new releases. However that’s not to say what is being made now isn’t good, it can still be superb, it’s just a shame the direction doesn’t appear to be be driven by the makers, more the bean counters.

    2. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      PB, thanks as always for your engagement and perceptive questions. I’ve wondered about this before: were the good old days really that good, or does the reverse alchemy of nostalgia turn the past to gold and the present to lead? Certainly, my palate has evolved since the days when I was dipping my toe in the water of life with Glenmorangie 10 years old. However, we’re able to test this empirically. You can get old bottles of this expression at auction and try them alongside a contemporary purchase from the supermarket. I’ve yet to try this but would be keen to hear from those who have? Thanks again and GO BLUE!

      1. Avatar
        Whisky Heathen says:

        Thanks Taylor, totally agree regarding buying old bottles and comparing to modern expressions, very worthwhile. We all know our palates and preferences change over time but it’s impossible to tell whether it’s you or the whisky that’s changed without doing a side by side.

      2. Avatar
        Joel says:

        Interesting discussion. I’d say a side-by-side with an older bottle or two would be interesting, but only if it’s a blind tasting. Our biases are powerful and not easily overcome.

        1. Taylor
          Taylor says:

          Joel, I think that’s the point of a lot of the work we do here at MALT. Rather than pretending that we’re the arbiters of some objective standards of what makes a whisky “good,” we are honest about our biases and thereby allow the readership to make their own calibrations (e.g. you’ll probably like a given bourbon more than Jason did). I agree that a blind tasting would be a fascinating format; I’m happy to assemble the tasting panel and do the logistical work if anyone has dusty old bottles they’d care to donate?

  4. Avatar
    RB says:

    Taylor, did you really mean to write “as a general rule, whiskies that aren’t diluted … are going to be better than those that are”? You are saying that the small minority of whisky that is bottled at cask strength is better and that you should only drink it neat. That would rule out the vast majority of the world’s best whisky.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      RB, allow me to clarify: given the choice between two comparably mature expressions from the same distillery, one of which has been diluted and one of which is bottled at cask strength without chill-filtration, I would typically choose the one which has not been diluted or filtered. The point wasn’t that there aren’t whiskies bottled at 40-43% which are better than ones bottled at cask strength; of course there are! The point was that, in cases like Laphroaig with big corporate owners stretching stocks to increase production, it’s advisable to look for something that hasn’t been monkeyed with. Hope this puts the issue to rest.

      1. Avatar
        RB says:

        That’s clearer, but I would disagree that it’s a general rule. There are plenty of distilleries whose standard bottlings are better than their higher ABV releases; Ardbeg, Ledaig and Talisker come to mind immediately. Dilution and chill-filtering are just two variables and I’d argue that they are less important than the blending that goes into any given batch.

        1. Taylor
          Taylor says:

          Jason is the Talisker expert so I’ll defer to him, but for every 10 or 18 year old in their portfolio they’ve got a Neist Point or Storm, so difficult to hold them up as a paradigm of consistent high quality, at any bottling strength.

          1. Avatar
            Welsh Toro says:

            Talisker 10 used to be a go to whisky of mine but the quality has become variable in recent years. I’ve had very good and completely forgettable in the last couple of years. I rarely go near it now.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Theon, I cannot see anyone standing up for the 10yo in its current guise, but if you enjoy it then fair enough. It’s substandard in my opinion and warrants such a view/score.

  5. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    And you had the 43% not the cruddy 40% we have here in the U.K. My first Islay was Independent Port Ellen (G&M I think) in the late 80s. However, it wasn’t until about 16 years ago when my second phase of whisky interest kicked in and that started with a Laphroaig 10. It was very different and had that unique hospital/band aid element to the peat along with a good dollop of fresh oyster and sea salt. It was a very good whisky even then. Like you I haven’t tried any for a number of years out of protest at its price and miserable abv in the U.K.

    Nevertheless, I have had, and have, a fine collection of independent Laphroaig which have largely been superb. Sadly, the price of independent Laphroaig has shot up in the last few years but those under 10 years old are reasonably priced as young Laphroaig can be excellent, especially at high abv. The distillery offerings are not very good in general but I like the Quarter Cask if the price is right (£30-35).

    Spoiler Alert – I have a hot off the press bottle of Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength (58.6%) Batch 11. I got it for a good price and that is much more like it. It’s still a little vanilla led in the modern Laphroaig style but the old ashtray is there. Laphroaig distillate remains very good but what they are doing with it, in terms of directional concept and barrel selection needs a real shakedown. A number of Islay distilleries are dodgy ground right now – Bowmore have long gone. They are slaying the Golden Goose in pursuit of the dollar. This, the most iconic and special of all the island’s distilleries, needs to stop messing about with fancy finishes and crappy barrels and go back to doing the basics right. Put good whisky in good barrels and leave it alone – that’s it!

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Excellent points all, WT. I wasn’t able to put this in the article, but there’s not really a competitively-priced Laphroaig alternative among independent bottlings, at least where I shop. The Exclusive Malts 11 year old Hogshead is $120 for 750 ml; Single Cask Nation has a $140 bourbon barrel, and Fat Dram will sell you a liter of 16 year old for $200. They rise from there. Even adjusted for strength, you’re still looking at a pricey roll of the dice. I’d much prefer if they were able to adjust concepts and cask selection, as you suggest, to ensure consistent high quality across the officially bottled range. As always, appreciate your thoughts and engagement. Cheers!

  6. Avatar
    John Motzi says:

    I never was a fan of Laphroig 10, but I love your description “…a faint whiff of latex bandages” – totally agree with that!

    Laphroig 18 on the other hand was a big favorite of mine but alas no longer available 🙁

    These days I am hanging out with Lagavulin 16, but I can still wish for that Laphroig 18.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      John, from the comments here the 18 year old seems to be a lot of people’s go to, or was before it was discontinued. Lagavulin 16 does the job, but I’ve been disappointed with the batch-to-batch variation. On the positive side, I had a dram of Ardbeg Uigeadail the other night that was a big improvement from my prior run-in with that expression. At $60, it’s knocking on the door for a go-to Islay dram for me now. Otherwise, there’s always a wide selection of independently-bottled Caol Ila. Cheers!

  7. Avatar
    Spirit of Islay says:

    Interesting Article and Discussion about Laphroaig 10 , just thought i’d throw in my tuppence worth . I’ve been drinking Laphroaig for a very long time (since i started on Malts in 1984) and i’d thought it had picked up in recent years , let me explain…..
    Going back to the early 90’s when i was first going out with my good woman , towards the end of an evening out i’d always have a dram or two and usually if on offer (there wasn’t usually much else decent on offer atthe time….) a Laphroaig 10 , My good woman would always say she could smell it across the bar when i got one , she hated it . Jump forward to the 00’s in the bar of the White Hart in Port Ellen , i hadn’t tried a Laph 10 for a few years after finding the late 90’s bottles decidedly below par , so i went for a dram , when i arrived back at the table the missus asked what i’d bought , i said try it , she did , that’s not bad she said , needless to say she was speechless when i told her what it was , i knew then that the whisky had changed ! Like i said it seemed to improve from the early 2010’s onwards after it’s low in the early 2000’s . Haven’t been impressed with the additions to the normal range but the Festival Specials have been good and the CS batches are good but not a touch on the 80’s CS monsters . Have recently opened a 2013 25yo and that is pretty damn good !

  8. Avatar
    Newckie says:

    It’s sad to see yet another great distillery losing its way as it chases the dollar as you succinctly put it. To compare with other wayward distilleries like a certain Orkney distillery and to a lesser degree the Bowmore, the independent bottlings of these distilleries are damned fine whiskies for the money. Remember the 6 yr old Williamson ( teaspooned Laphroaig) and how good that was.?
    I too cut my tastebuds on Laphroaig 10 and what they were producing back in the early nineties and fell in love with the Place, but alas only CS offerings and occasionally a Cairdeas fill my heart for Laphroaig again.
    Here’s hoping for a change.

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