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.
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.
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.