A friend who is considerably more serious about collecting Scotch than me offered to send me an assortment of samples a few weeks ago.
This Laphroaig Highgrove was one of them. I had no idea this existed until I saw the samples. Apparently, Laphroaig has been bottling whisky for Prince Charles, under his Highgrove label, since 1994. Mark has reviewed an earlier bottling of this. If you want to learn more, he talks about it here
Tasting this Laphroaig Highgrove brought me back to better times. This was in 2017. It was my first time at a whisky bar in Singapore called Swan Song. (They moved to a new location due to COVID; they are here now.) They had a bottle of Laphroaig 15 bottled during the ’80s. This has the white label, which looks very similar to the Laphroaig 10, and it was bottled at 40% ABV. It didn’t taste like the contemporary original bottlings of Laphroaig with which I was familiar. There was an abundance of fruit flavors, but the most memorable were guava. The whisky lacked the angry phenolic peat, iodine and barbecue flavors I’ve come to know as trademark Laphroaig.
This made me ask the bar owners, who are all whisky geeks and regularly man the bar, why this was so. First of all, let me say I didn’t think it was due to the whisky’s age. I’ve tasted Laphroaig 18 before, and while the smoke and peat does die down, it was in no way as fruity as the 15 year old. The 18 year old had more confectionary and nutty flavors. They said that this could be due to a number of factors, but just because a brand says that nothing has changed within the distillery ever since it opened, it doesn’t mean that the people working in it don’t. The difference in styles could be due to the distiller and/or blender.
There seems to be some universal alignment with my receiving of this sample. As of late, Jason seems to be poking Laphroaig regarding their claims to be unchanging throughout their history. This kind of marketing may work on the consumers, as most are clueless about what goes on in the process of spirits production. With more people drinking spirits, a lot of brands are coming out with allegedly revived “family recipes.” Something like “Grandpappy X made this recipe,” which a certain descendant found in their family crypt, and now they aim to revive this old family recipe.
Hopefully, readers realized that while the formula of whisky may be, at its core, all similar— yeast plus water plus grain that ends up being distilled, then aged—the intricacies and uniqueness may have been lost for the sake of profit and/or ego. If that’s all it took to make whisky, then almost all would taste very similar to each other…yet they don’t.
If a brand’s original recipe calls for a certain heirloom grain and a specific yeast strain, you should use it. If the owners of the recipe choose to only follow certain aspects of the recipe like number of times distilled or mashbill or age statement, but ignore the other factors, will the finished product stay true to the brand? I don’t think so.
If a distillery that’s been stripped of certain equipment like its original stills and/or mash tuns is suddenly “revived” and given new and different equipment, is it still the same distillery? Or will it be more like Theseus’ distillery?
Cask # 500207. Distilled Nov 8, 2006. Bottled 2019. 46% ABV
Laphroaig Highgrove 12 Year – Review
Color: Chrysanthemum tea
On the nose: An immediate wave of lasting mild peat and intense smoke. After the peat and smoke are light and brief scents of nougat, salinity, nori, lime peel, eucalyptus, guava, salted caramel and toffee. At the end are lingering and light aromas of guava, kaffir lime leaves, smoke, peat, lemon oil and toffee.
In the mouth: Oily and round. The peat and smoke are not as intense as on the nose. It’s more balanced with the fruity flavors. There’s a light mix of light and quickly alternating tastes of guava, dates, lemon-flavored Nerds, toffee, seaweed snacks with almonds, kaffir lime leaves, eucalyptus and nougat. At the end is a flash of sulfur, golden cherries and watermelon rind.
This is more similar to the 1980s Laphroaig 15 and very different from the contemporary Laphroaig bottled by the distillery. What made me fall in love with Laphroaig were their trademark flavors like iodine and barbeque. But I can really dig this style which has less peat and has more balanced flavors. The guava note does subside as the whisky gets to breathe more. This allows peat flavors to come out.
I really wish someone can point out what makes this Highgrove so different from contemporary Laphroaigs. It surely isn’t about the distiller being different. I’ve also had some more recent indie bottlings of Laphroaig and they’re more similar to original bottlings of Laphroaig. Is this just flavors that come from Laphroaig at 15 years old? Did the distillery intentionally make a different batch for Prince Charles? Were the cuts different from usual? Who knows. But I’d certainly enjoy more Laphroaig like this in the future.
Picture of a spare unopened bottle from my friend.