Story Time! In 1994, Prince Charles fucked up.
He was piloting the Queen’s Flight passenger jet on a visit to the Isle of Islay. The Queen’s Flight is a four-engine, Bae 146 and can carry up to fifty passengers. Amateur pilots have no business flying an aircraft of this caliber. Prince Charles was an amateur pilot. Allegedly, he approached the runway too fast, did a panic brake, blew some tires, and sent the plane caroming off the landing strip where it smashed through the safety fence and landed nose-first in a muddy ditch. Miraculously, no one was injured.
The plane’s official pilot, RAF Squadron Leader Graham Laurie, took full responsibility for the accident, issuing a statement that he should have taken over the controls. Prince Charles was reported as being nonchalant about the incident, later glibly telling a group of schoolchildren at Bowmore Secondary, “We went off the end of a runway. It’s not something I recommend.” He must have been employing the Royal “We,” or had a mouse in his pocket, because the accident was all his fault.
Now stuck on Islay with time to kill, this is how His Stupid Majesty (pardon the expression) crashed a Laphroaig distillery tour. It was then that he fell in love with Laphroaig. If you can’t tell, I have no tolerance for spoiled brats who have never faced a real consequence, but I must admit the man has exquisite taste. Prince Charles gave Laphroaig a Royal Warrant, the first and only distillery to be endorsed by him. The appointment from the Prince of Wales is stamped on every bottle of Laphroaig to this day.
He gave up his pilot’s license the following year.
I am aware of the recent Laphroaig naysayers. I’ve seen the low Laphroaig scores on this site, and I don’t agree. A personal favorite Malt Review snark described the Quarter Cask as “The Nickelback of Scotch, but more boring.” Notes I’ve seen used to relate its perceived decline are “soggy packing material” and “seagull armpit.” I don’t know about you, but smelling a seagull’s armpit (or wingpit, rather) would be the highlight of my year.
I have sampled recent expressions from otherwise rocksteady brands and found them unpleasant. They are detailed on my Instagram, if you must know. But I have never assumed that a brand was off the rails because of one or two underwhelming expressions. I don’t make whisky, but I know people who make it, and I work for people who make it, and it’s an impossible job. It’s an incantation, a rain dance. It’s art, science, and magic. To assume a master distiller/blender thinks to themselves “You know what? Let’s go home early. Let’s take the cheapest, worst casks we’d otherwise throw in the garbage, slap a pretty label on it, charge through the nose, and rip everybody off!” is audacity.
These expressions are their livelihood and legacy. They have their name on it. Blending rooms and tasting panels are arduous. Let’s show them a little respect, shall we? Laphroaig remains what it has always been to me– the most intense versions of all the elements; earth, sea, air, and fire. Its appeal is its singularity. You wouldn’t complain that your steak is too steaky, would you? You could complain about its temperature, sure, but the very protein of Laphroaig is unmistakable, rare, and my absolute favorite. Laphroaig will always be my filet mignon. You can’t mess it up. I will buy everything the distillery puts out.
Like most of us, the first time I tried Laphroaig I was turned off. I’ll never forget my initial Laphroaig thought circa 2006: “Men just pretend to like this to look tough! There’s no WAY anyone can enjoy this, it’s like licking an ashtray!” Little by little, I learned to love it. I kept revisiting it, and experimenting with other peaty smoky expressions, until one day only the Laphroaig Ten could slake my thirst. Laphroaig 10, blue cheese, and jalapenos are my most memorable touchstones for what An Acquired Taste meant. The palate is a journey.
Besides the signature taste, there are many reasons to stan Laphroaig. The dramatic feud with their neighboring Lagavulin is a riveting story. Their beginnings were vicious, embroiled in legal battles for years. Now they are peaceful neighbors, best friends, every staff member proclaiming professional and brotherly love, when once they were bitter enemies. Inspiring! Laphroaig was legally sold in the US during prohibition for “medicinal purposes” (wink wink). Who doesn’t love a teetering-on-illegality loophole that benefits the whisky drinker?
Now hold onto your hats: The founder of Laphroaig, Donald Johnston, died from falling into a vat of Laphroaig malt. This is literally the stuff of Batman villain origins. Laphroaig was the first distillery to have a woman master distiller, Bessie Williamson. She was crucial to Laphroaig’s growth post WWII, and worked her way up from a typist. Can you even imagine how cool and cask strength she must have been? Feminism before its time! Laphroaig marketing? Brilliant. I loathe most marketing, and generally do not appreciate being marketed to. But I can appreciate that Laphroaig’s marketing doesn’t try to reduce or seduce us. It invites us to be a part of the fun. Rather than separating, which is the goal of most marketing, they include. There has never been a gimmick charm like the Friends of Laphroaig
1994 was a big year for Laphroaig. A bumpy landing, The Royal Warrant, and the beginning of Friends of Laphroaig. The ingenious program designated every interested purchaser a tiny plot of land at Laphroaig. One purchases a bottle, sends in the barcode, and claims their own bit of earth, 1 ft by 1 ft. The new landowner can then visit the distillery, map out the plot and visit it, is gifted a dram of Laphroaig, and the deed is signed by John Campbell himself. Cute! Nowadays, Friends of Laphroaig not only designates you some land, but it is “designed to reward loyal customers with a variety of great benefits. When you join, you’ll be able to collect reward points for Laphroaig purchases that will access exclusive content, sweepstakes, masterclasses and much more.” Boy, if there’s one thing that makes my tail wag, it’s consumer driven exclusive content!
I admit I am not technically a Friend of Laphroaig, but only because the administrative attention it takes to get a barcode in the mail these days feels like the labor equivalent to having a kid. Pass. However, when I visited Islay, Laphroaig was the one distillery where I purchased the VIP tour. You’ve seen one distillery, you’ve seen ‘em all–but Laphroaig was the one I wanted the most out of. No question.
The deluxe tour is the most expensive, the longest, and has the most perks. It’s a full day. I was given wellies and a shovel, and I tried to turn the peat in the bogs myself. As I said, I tried. I tried hard, I couldn’t do it. The ground was frozen solid. I had a Scottish brute assist me. We hiked to the Kilbride Dam, in thick fog, and had lunch with lambs bleating among us. The other participants were all men in their 60s, shocked that I’d traveled to Islay by myself. I learned so much from our guide, with his understated humor, who moonlit as a photographer for the Islay Centre of Tourism.
Another fun fact about my trip? Guess who I saw getting off of the ferry as I was getting on? Mr. John Campbell himself! I tried to be cool. As I said, I tried. I tried hard, I couldn’t do it. Islay truly is a serendipitous island, and Laphroaig is in my category of Soulmate Scotches. I had an Inigo Montoya moment at the end of my tour. I was having my picture taken against the iconic warehouse wall with LAPHROAIG painted in big black lettering, and I had the thought, as if I’d just avenged my father’s death, “I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” I gazed out into the Hebridean Sea and cried like a little bitch.
The Laphroaig 11 Years Old is a special bottling commemorating the 10 year anniversary of The Friends of Laphroaig. It was bottled in 2004 and only 750 bottles were made. The Laphroaig 11 Years Old was selected by Robert Hicks, global brand ambassador and consultant master blender for Teachers and Laphroaig, and Robin Shields, the Laphroaig distillery manager. The label states that it was personally chosen by both Mr. Shields and Mr. Hicks because they believed it to be the finest of that year. It was bottled at 40% abv. I spent 3 hours and sent two emails trying to learn what casks or cask finishes the spirit came to maturity in, and I hit a dead end. Sorry. My guess is ex-bourbon and sherry casks, because that’s what everything is. Every bottle was hand signed by Mr. Shields.
I managed to get my paws on one of these existing 750 bottles thanks to My Man in Studio City, Peter Jarjour, owner of Flask Fine Wines. He only had one, and after two frantic phone calls, it was located and is now mine. It is, by far, the most money I’ve ever spent on a bottle. New record. If you’re curious, Google what it goes for. For those looking to splurge, there are several readily available to buy on the secondary market. I highly recommend it. (This is where you skip down to my scoring, if you haven’t already. If you’re still with me, you are a NERD and I love you).
I took one sip of this and I was verklempt. I don’t want the best sip of Laphroaig I’ve ever had to be the most expensive! Rats! This is, unfortunately, the best dram I’ve ever had. It is subtle and explosive. Goddamn my expensive palate! I’ve had all the Laphroaigs, and this is indisputably the best. The 18, 15, 16, 21, 25, 32, all the NAS releases, not to mention the sips straight from the casks at the distillery tour– out of all of these, my favorite is the 11 year old bottled in 2004. Perfection. Tears of joy.
Let it be known: I prefer Laphroaig 10 to the 25. I like the Triple Wood, and all the Cairdeas bottles more than the 10, of course. But the Laphroaig 25 Year is off to me, and I’ll tell you why. In most Laphroaigs, I get a synthetic peach flavor note. But the 25 tastes way too much like Peach Four Loko for my comfortability. And yes, I have had Peach Four Loko. Its infernal aromas are indelibly inked in my skull. Peach Four Loko is a mixture of alcohol and caffeine for people who possess a mixture of terrible judgement and a tolerance for antifreeze. Just for having tried Peach Four Loko, I deserve to have the Laphroaig 25 ruined for me. I’m working on forgiving myself . (If you have some P4L and L25 laying around, just try them side by side and see. I’m not wrong).
To wrap it up, too much “story” in whisky is obnoxious. Whether it’s pulling from the ancient lore of the land, a zhuzhed up secret family recipe, or vague language like “carefully selected” or “hand crafted” to invoke something Mom ‘n Pop, when you’re talking about a factory that mass produces 1 million cases of whisky a year–it’s an industry pet peeve but also a marketing necessity. Granted, effective marketing requires a good story, but more and more, they are deliberately deceptive, and we all know good and well that the top level marketing bros that create these obtuse tales couldn’t handle a Jack Daniels Honey over ice.
Laphroaig, however, is a brand loaded with rich history in its DNA. As such, their marketing team doesn’t need to manufacture some modern-day simulacrum of the Dead Sea Scrolls to lure in the buyer’s interest. It’s the #1 selling scotch on Islay. Of course the consistency will expand and contract as demand fluctuates! I hear my colleagues talk about how scotch isn’t what it used to be, how they remember the Laphroaig 10 year from the 1980s, how brands have declined in quality, how the prices have become too high– and I think of my favorite lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I will appropriate here with my apologies to Mr. Whitman:
“…I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now”
Whisky has never not been a disaster. From day one. Its chaotic origins are probably why I’m so drawn to it. Whisky has always been the culprit and the cure. Historically, whisky was and always will be a pleasure and a chore, a rebel and a fink, of pure and putrid quality, always rigidly classic yet radically changing. Bought and sold and bought again, spanked by the tax man, rebranded, repackaged, saintly and scandalous, an exploration. There are plenty of things to complain about in the industry. I will clown on the marketing aspect all day. But I’m not interested in complaining about how the actual whisky could be better. I’m interested in imagining where else it can go. I’m interested in learning lessons from the real stories of its past. As I remind myself and my friends when feeling depressed: There once was a distillery on a tiny island that practically no one had ever heard of. Then one day, magically, a prince fell out of the sky and everything changed overnight. Serendipitous miracles can happen to you, too.
Laphroaig 11 Years Old – Review
Color: Pale rose gold! And absolute pinkish tinge to its gold. Nothing rose gold can stay, Ponyboy.
On the nose: delicate vanilla extract, salami, powdered sugar, clove, Miracle Gro. The signature tar, iodine, or chlorine are there, but fainter whisps. It’s much lighter with more sweetness shining through. None of the Pledge cleaner or heavy ethanol notes. This is a pitch perfect nose. With water, faint nuts and stone fruit come through–there is my synthetic peach!
In the mouth: Refreshing garden hose water, Bit O Honey, bergamont, colloidal silver, its metallic, then blue popsicle or blue Jolly Ranchers?–there is no organic equivalent, definitely not blueberry, simply the Flavor Blue. A touch of cocaine on the roof of the mouth, numbing the lips and tongue. (I was young once). On the back end of the palate it could be an Ardbeg Corryvreckan with it’s slimy seaweed chocolate/black pepper/tobacco. Add very tiny drops of water with this one, it is elusive. On the finish: salty pretzels, demanding another sip. A grapefruit rind aftertaste. The finish has the sour/bitter/baby soapy combo of pickled ginger. I taste almost no wood. I cannot emphasize enough the stone fruit. It lingers on the back throat and sides of tongue, but it’s barely there by the time it hits my wind pipes. Its coup de gras is on the back tongue. Then swan dive! Peace, I’m out!
Where is the ashtray punching me in the face? It’s nothing like the current Laphroaig 10. It’s nothing like the old 10s. I recently had a dusty Laph 10. My boss had a bottle just sitting in his office for what he said was, “more than ten years.” The old Ten is fresh in my mind. Regardless of what happened to it with air and storage, I was shocked at how tropical it was compared to the modern day Laphroaig 10. Passionfruit, pineapple, and coconut madness. The 11 from 2004 is nothing like the old Ten or the current Ten. It is definitely it’s own thing. The ashy smoke is there, but it isn’t intoxicating. It’s perfectly balanced with the nose of sugary pastries and delicate stone fruit. The modern Laphroaig 10 tar/ash/iodine/Band-Aid/fresh can of tennis balls–the notes we all know and associate with Laphroaig–will have you taking it easy with the current dram, because they’re so intense. But the 11 Year Anniversary bottle is really a work of art, the classic notes are there, but they don’t hog the stage. The first garden hose water taste is balanced with a faint simple syrup that inspires a thirst that the salty airy finish doesn’t quell, but beckons you to keep sipping more and more, trying to encapsulate its elusive perfection, until you find your civilized Sip and Zoom with your best friend has lasted for 2 hours and the light convo has escalated into impassioned speeches about class privilege vs. white privilege.