Before I get on with the review, I would like to tell you a little about myself.
I am a 22-year-old Thai national who has been studying in the UK for more than 5 years and have a keen interest in drinking and collecting spirits. Being brought up in Buddhist household, I found myself being a black sheep of sorts, having a sweet tooth for the more “adult” things in life.
I initially started my deep dive into whisky during a sixth form trip to Edinburgh. I was amazed by the amount and variety of whiskies that were available to me. This was a stark contrast to Thailand, where alcohol customs can reach asinine levels, which limits market selection to a few big brands. With this knowledge in mind, alcohol selection and their retail prices in the UK became somewhat of a privilege to me, as a £200 Macallan here would usually go for an astronomical asking price of £600 pounds in my home country.
Even though I have drunk my fair share of whisky during my time here (to know that there are diminishing returns associated with a whisky’s price and quality) I am still unable to shake off that Black Friday filter that I associate with UK whisky prices, due to my upbringing. As a result: when I give ratings to whiskies, I might come off as being less sensitive when it comes to price. Consuming £200 worth of quality whisky here would leave an £800-sized hole in my wallet if I did the same back in my homeland.
I was initially hard pressed to find a bottle which I felt justified writing up for my first review here on Malt. I decided that wanted to do some investigative research on an independent bottle that I would never come across in my home country. I have always loved the Whisky Sponge for their satirical yet accurate take on the Scotch industry. As a lover of memes myself, I decided to take on the task to puzzle out a mysterious Islay single malt from them as an introduction to my work.
I hope that this research/review will provide you with some interesting facts regarding Islay history as well as a sense of my palate and personality when it comes to whisky. But enough talk; let us get right into it!
The Game is Afoot
It all started when I bought a 28-year-old Islay single malt from the Whisky Sponge. The label on the bottle states that it is a single malt. However, Islay fans would be quick to note that there are nods to a total of three different distilleries within on label, which prompts further speculation. Many would immediately point to Laphroaig, with the most dominant figure on the label being a woman named Bessie Williamson, who was the former distillery manager and owner of Laphroaig during the 20th century).
However, as keen eyes start to hone in on the finer details of the artwork, one could come to the realization that there are clues that link the origins of this juice to two other Islay distilleries, namely Ardbeg and the elusive Port Ellen. With this mind, I decided I was going to get to the bottom of this whisky mystery in search for the truth behind Whisky Sponge Edition No 27 – Marcelect Special.
It is with a heavy heart that I must first address the elephant in the room. NO, this is not a £350, 28-year-old Port Ellen. Even though this statement would come as great disappointment to ears of our flipper overlords, the possibility of this juice being from the lost distillery is nearly zero.
First, the bottle clearly states that this is an Islay single malt that was distilled in 1992. Since, Port Ellen ceased its production of Scotch Whisky in 1983, we can safely assume that at least most of the bottle origins came from elsewhere. Furthermore, a ‘single malt’ assumes that the liquid exclusively came from one distillery, thus, we can scratch the possibility that the bottle is a blend of all three distilleries.
Further digging into other features on the bottle label reveal that the distillery building looks a lot more like Ardbeg than Laphroaig. This is confirmed in a side-by-side comparison shot, as Ardbeg’s unique curved roof top contrasts with Laphroaig’s more rectangular structure.
Another feature that pops out of the grainy collage is the Dutch phrase DE MOOIE INHAM BIJ DE BREDE BAAI 1825, inked onto one side of the distillery building. As I am not a qualified Dutch translator, I decided to make a pact with the always reliable Google translate to get the rough message “The beautiful cove by the wide bay.” After a few hours of internet sleuthing, I concluded that the phrase was attributed to Laphroaig as its name was commonly believed to be derived from the Norse “breid-vick”, meaning broad bay.
However, since there was no connection between the distillery and the Dutch throughout its history, I was convinced that there was more research to be done to reveal the label maker’s motivation behind the codification of the message (Figure 3).
But… what about 1825, says unicorn buyer No XXXX. Ahh, 1825 is indeed the founding date of Port Ellen, which is what many in the whisky investing community have based their wild speculations on. The rationale behind this is that because both Ardbeg and Laphroaig were both founded in 1815, this leaves Port Ellen being the only distillery to be founded on the island in 1825. However – as you will find out – there is more than meets in eye when it comes to Islay during that period.
Other smaller yet notable piece of evidence includes a little sponge character sporting some slick overalls and holding a shovel in his right hand. This seems to be another reference to Laphroaig, as they are one of only a few distilleries that are still using malt floors for whisky production. To the right of the sponge character we see two graves, which further nods to Laphroaig as our mysterious distillery, as Bessie was the third owner of the distillery after the Johnstons, who founded the distillery in 1815.
After all this research I was left dumbfounded. Much of the evidence seems to suggest that the juice originated from Laphroaig, but there were too many loose ends for me to definitively conclude my investigation here. The questions: Why was Laphroaig’s name cryptically written in Dutch? Why the founding date of 1825? Why the Ardbeg building? These haunted me for several days until I stumbled upon a clue in the label that broke the case wide open.
It does not take a genius to spot another figure looming in the background: a mysterious man donning a hard hat with the phrase “I [heart] Select” printed on it. Additionally, he is holding a hardcover book (need to make the important distinction these days) with a photograph that seems to be Laphroaig on its front cover.
My immediate thought was that if I could reveal this man’s identity, it would greatly improve my chances of solving this case for good. So, I sat down in front of my computer, Red Bull in hand, and started to pour hours into finding any information that could lead to his name.
My initial searches were that of Laphroaig’s employees, thinking that he most likely occupies a prominent brand ambassador or managerial position at the distillery. Both assumptions left me empty handed, which dampened my optimism significantly.
Just when I was about to call it a day, I decided to read the short extract at the back of the bottle for some much-needed inspiration. I did not mention the extract until now due to initially not deeming it of high importance to the solution of the bottle’s origins.
The extract, which was written by Wessie Billiamson (a play on Bessie’s name), explains in Sponge fashion the important steps one should follow in whisky making. Even though many of the steps provided consisted of Angus’s typical gobbledegook, a phrase in step 5 reveals an oddly specific mention about some “pervy old Dutch dentists” being into this stuff, which intrigued me.
It seems to me that the Dutch are playing a much larger role in this Sponge release, so I decided to type “Dutch dentist Laphroaig” into Google and hoped for the best. To my shock, the first result that came from this search finally revealed the name of our mystery man. Dear readers, I introduce to you Dr. Marcel Van Gils.
Meeting the Doc
Marcel Van Gils is a Dutch dentist whose love and knowledge of all things Laphroaig spans more than 20 years. He is also the author of 2008’s “The Legend of Laphroaig” (which is the book he is holding) and owner of an extensive collection of Laphroaig bottles and memorabilia that has no equal.
He also conducts independent research on the distillery’s history and records his findings publicly through his website. Within the archives of his findings, we come to learn that many of the nods to the other distilleries were in fact red herrings, and that all the evidence on the bottle definitively points to our secret Islay being a Laphroaig single malt.
Tying Those Loose Ends
Marcel stated at multiple points throughout his article that he believed that Laphroaig was founded in 1825 and that the official established year of 1815 was incorrect. He corroborated this discovery by providing a detailed scan of the distillers list between the years 1790-1825, which confirms that Donald and Alexander Johnston’s name (the founders of Laphroaig) were absent on the form.
Coupled with the fact that if the distillery were indeed established in 1815, the founders’ ages would only be 19 and 12, which is well below the legal age, let alone the age at which they might have mastered distilling. This seems to suggest that even though the Johnstons did lease the land that would become Laphroaig in 1815, production at the distillery did not occur until 1825.
Moreover, the Ardbeg-shaped building could be a subtle acknowledgement of the fact that the McDougalls (the founders of Ardbeg) were the ones who leased their land to the Johnstons in 1815, according to several rent rolls recorded in the mid-1830s. Since the McDougalls were already a reputed distilling family in the early 1800s, they could have already been producing whisky (Ardbeg juice) on the land prior to their lease with the Johnstons.
With the aid of Marcel’s research, we can deduce from all the clues that the Sponge has most likely bottled some Laphroaig distillate into this mystery release. Even though I know that I most likely missed a bunch of details that were present on the bottle label, this research has given me a much deeper appreciation to Islay history and a lot more fun than I ever expected.
A huge credit to Marcel’s extensive research and his undying dedication to discovering the truth behind the distillery’s founding. I hope that I will have the privilege to meet him sometime in my life. If I did indeed miss any key details regarding the bottle, feel free to drop me a message and I would be thrilled to discuss them with you XD.
And now onto the “practical” side of the investigation: seeing whether the seal is even worth cracking in the eyes of any discerning investors drinkers. As always, when it comes to Whisky Sponge bottlings, there are two certainties that we as a community can always count on: Quality and Flippers. Even though most of these 518 bottles will be filling curiosity cabinets with their corks sealed, I am in a celebratory mood with the recent lifting of COVID restrictions and can think of no better time to share this dram with the community.
First, some basic facts: This is named “Islay 1992 Whisky Sponge Edition No.27” It comes to us at 28 Years Old, in a run of 518 Bottles, at an ABV of 52.5%. The cask type is 2x Refill Bourbon Barrels. Retail price is £350.
Islay 1992 Whisky Sponge Edition No.27 – Review
Color: Light Amber
On the nose: An immediate blast of vanilla and toasted oak on the nose, very indicative of old whiskies that have been aging in bourbon casks. There is also a level of freshness and funkiness here, with exotic fruits such as coconut, pineapple, and ripe banana lingering in the backdrop. The maritime peat, Iodine and medicinal notes that are associated with younger Laphroaigs while indeed identifiable, are largely crowded out by the sensory overload that is present in the glass. However, a few drops of water intensify the drink’s more savoury notes, such as seaweed and wild mushrooms. Overall, what you get is a very expressive, yet rounded nose that can only be obtained through long maturation periods. A good smelling whisky to be sure.
In the mouth: A high level of astringency coats the palate, with a leading burst of juicy citrus fruits and vanilla cream. The midpalate gives way to coconut and sugar cane flavours that balances the drink’s fiery heat. The peat on the palate reveals more Laphroaig DNA, with herbal notes such as oregano and thyme weaving in and out over time. The finish is long and lingering, with a hint of cedar smoke and salinity to round-off the experience.
The Whisky Sponge have outdone themselves again! With so many bottlers trying to cash in on the latest whisky gold rush, it is great to see a company that are truly passionate and believe in the products they release over what the market will bear.
While not the most impressive Islay that I have ever drank, it is safe to say that this bottle could be a worthwhile purchase for some that want to create a bench of some well-aged spirits.
In terms of the bottle’s origins, there are indeed some trademark Laphroaig elements present throughout the tasting. However – just like the official 28 Year Old release – it presents itself in a weakened form is left to shimmer around the more dominant flavours imparted by the cask.
A huge thanks to the all the meticulous artists that were responsible for this release’s label. It was an amazing research project. If this was all a wild goose chase that was specifically designed to trick taters like me, then I only have one thing left to say.