The name alone conjures images of crashing waves, blowing wind, rain-lashed warehouses, and the distinct smell of medicinal brine. Or ripened tropical fruits. It depends on the vintage, doesn’t it? Many distilleries have witnessed the character of their distillate shift and morph over the years. Sometimes this is intentional and other times it is not. The most infamous of these transformations arguably being Macallan, closely followed by Bowmore, and third (in my opinion) Laphroaig.
A peek at my cabinets and cellar would indicate this Islay distillery as being my favourite. I lap up the expressions of yesteryear as well as modern releases, so much so that they perhaps take up too much space, much to my father’s chagrin (love you, dad)! I’ve spoken about Laphroaig to the Malt readership before, but this time I aim to outline the differences between the older style of Laphroaig and the modern style.
Judging from the articles on this site, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking the writers here dislike the Laphroaig. Oh contraire, many of us enjoy it very much! However, we are tougher on this distillery because we know how fantastic its product is capable of being. Therefore, we tend to be a little harsher in our judgements. For the record, Laphroaig is not alone in that situation. Not every bottle that a distillery issues will be great, or even good, regardless of the distillery’s prestige. Not Springbank, not Ardbeg, not GlenDronach, not Yamazaki, not Buffalo Trace, not even legendary bottlers such as Velier.
No one has a spotless record, it’s the nature of distilling and aging product for many years in minimally controlled environments with minimally controlled factors. Crazy, right? That’s not even touching the differences and preferences between everyone’s personal tastes. For what it’s worth, I always keep a bottle of the 10-year-old and Quarter Cask on hand, and indulge in most of the Cairdeas lineup as well. So, what’s the deal? What’s so special about Laphroaig in the past?
Generally speaking the production methods across the industry have seen significant alterations over the years and Laphroaig is no exception. Where once the barley was gently peated for many days by burning the peat at low temperatures (the key was that you wanted the peat to smoke and smoulder, but not have an open or detectable flame), the past fermentation times and yeast strains used may have resulted in sweeter flavours, the barley was malted on-site at the distillery’s own malting floors, and the stock was aged in warehouses located on-site.
Nowadays, the peating process is done at high temperatures within several hours while using large industrial fans to quickly blow the smoke over the barley. Only 20% of the barley used is malted on-site, and much of the distillate is aged on the mainland instead of Islay. For a full accounting of this information and its history, I highly recommend a book I saw on whiskyfun.com many years ago: “The Legend of Laphroaig”, by Dutch authors Marcel van Gils and Hans Offringa. This book goes into a great amount of detail regarding the history and production of Laphroaig. It is an absolute must-read for serious fans of the distillery given the wealth of knowledge it contains.
Laphroaig has had a few remarkable events in its history that stand out to me. One that always deserves to be mentioned is the fact that it was helmed by the first female distillery manager in Islay’s history, the great Elisabeth “Bessie” Williamson, from 1954 to 1972. In fact, she is the only woman known to have managed a Scotch whisky distillery in the entire 20th century. Starting from an office job as a secretary typist in 1934, she worked her way up to distillery manager, back when working your way up was still possible (easy Greg, don’t get all political on them now), and eventually owner in 1954.
By 1938 she had proven herself capable of being the office manager until the owner at the time, Ian Hunter (with whom she worked closely), suffered from a stroke. At that point she took over distribution operations to America, eventually becoming the distillery manager at the time World War 2 was thundering across the globe.
Production was mothballed during the war, but Williamson cooperated with the British government and oversaw the storage of 400 tonnes of ammunition at Laphroaig without theft or damage (acts which had taken place at Bushmills). In 1954, Ian Hunter died with no surviving next of kin and Williamson inherited ownership of both the distillery and Hunter’s residence.
Displaying exceptional foresight, she began laying down stock for a perceived increased demand in Islay single malt whisky in America, a demand that ended up materialising. Quite the resume and tenure, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the best vintages of Laphroaig were laid down under Williamson’s care during this time period.
So, what impact does all of this have on the flavour of the bottles we see on store shelves? A whole darn lot! Pre-1990s Laphroaig tends to be especially fruity in the style of tropical fruits. The smoke and medicinal qualities are supporting cast members to the fruitiness.
The early 2000s and onward sees a significant shift into a much smokier, woodier, heavily medicinal spirit that is more “cask driven” than “distillate forward”. Basically, the modern flavours in Laphroaig are more heavily influenced by the peat and the casks than by the yeast or sugars formed during fermentation. The changes in production methods were likely a combination of maximizing efficiency and reducing costs, while simultaneously supplying enough product to meet increasing global demand.
In order to illustrate the difference between these two styles, I have undergone the arduous and grueling task of tasting a variety of modern Laphroaigs paired with their bygone counterparts (or the closest thing I could obtain to a past counterpart), all purely for the benefit of the readership. I swear! No, seriously…
First up: two versions of the 30-year-old.
Laphroaig 30 Year Old Limited Edition (2016 Release) – Review
Bottled at 53.5% ABV natural cask strength. Aged in first-fill and second-fill ex-bourbon casks. Bottled at cask strength. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Lighter side of orange.
On the nose: This is so much closer to the 1980s and pre-Royal Warrant 1990s version of the Laphroaig 10. Not entirely surprising given that this should be distillate made in 1985 or earlier. The smoke is much less aggressive and takes on an earthy, toffee character. Laphroaig’s distillate has always aged gracefully in bourbon casks and this feels like the pinnacle of that style. The smoke is definitely playing second fiddle to a cornucopia of peaches, wild honey, and orange peels. The juice and oil from all of those squeezed and mixed together. Funnily enough, the trademark medicinal character is nearly absent, just the vaguest whiffs of iodine. Bit of fresh squeezed lemon and some tar as well. As it rests the smoke component turns more into an old cigar box smell, with old wood, very old leather, eucalyptus, mint, and sandalwood. The development of sweet smoke to fruits to herbal aromas and back again is stellar.
In the mouth: Honestly, the palate is a slight let-down after how marvelous the nose was. The mouthfeel is stunningly oily, viscous, waxy, and powerful, but the flavours are less diverse and dynamic than on the nose. I’m tasting orange peels, concentrated lemon juice, and waxy honeycomb, accompanied by leather and tobacco leaf on the tongue and back of the throat. The aftertaste brings more of the herbal quality back with mint, tea tree oil, and sea salt lingering in the aftertaste.
An absolutely lovely old Laphroaig, better than the last several releases that were around the same age, and one of my favourites from the distillery in recent years. As far as comparisons to the 1970s/1980s/1990s vintages go, this tastes about as close as you’re going to get to those nowadays, and certainly several notches better than any of their modern offerings. If only the price wasn’t obscene and the palate was a bit more complex like the nose, this could have been among the greatest Laphroaigs. Instead, it’s just fantastic. I would say this is:
Laphroaig 30 Years Old (2004 Release) – Review
Bottled at 43% ABV. Aged in both bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry casks. May Contain added colourant. Should be 1974 distillate or earlier.
Colour: Dark amber.
On the nose: I want a cologne of this exact profile! The aromas are outstanding and it’s almost unbelievable that this was only bottled at 43%. Avalanches of tropical and citrus fruits that are all freshly squeezed. Clear and distinct notes of pineapple, mango, passion fruit, and this distinct sugary grapefruit note. Sweetness that is fruity and citric but with a slight bitter hint to it. The smoke is once again in the background but the earthy, toffee character is cranked up even harder. It’s some sort of smoky, caramel candy that’s been left to cool off by the ocean breeze. The medicinal quality is rather subdued, but it’s more of a camphor sensation (think less iodine or band-aids, and more Vick’s vapour rub or tiger balm). With time it develops a type of old-furniture-with-a-fresh-coat-of-lacquer scent.
In the mouth: Honestly, this palate is also a slight let-down after how marvelous the nose was. The ABV is the culprit here as this feels vaguely thin on the tongue, but it’s certainly quite smooth and outrageously drinkable! You could probably knock back 3 pours of the stuff and never be cognizant of the fact. It’s luscious, juicy, and mouth-watering, the total opposite of a drying spirit. There’s some salt, grilled salmon, sweet lemon and lime juice, the juice of the ripest mangos and guavas, and some kind of smoky hazelnut butter. The aftertaste is in more familiar territory with modern Laphroaig, consisting of iodine, herbal oak, coal, and a rich, sweet smokiness.
The reduction of the ABV on this expression to 43% is borderline criminal. With so much complexity and diversity in its aromas and flavors, I can only imagine what sort of beast this must have been at its original cask strength. It has much more fruitiness than its 2016 counterpart and the smoke is even more candied and well-integrated, feeling less like a separate quality and more like the part of a whole. The thin mouthfeel is seriously holding this back, otherwise it would be the clear winner here. But for now, we’re on equal footing:
Next, how about two different vintages of the always popular 10-year-old cask strength?
Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Cask Strength Batch 11 (2019 Release) – Review
Bottled at 58.6% ABV natural cask strength. Aged in bourbon casks and non-chill filtered.
On the nose: Whoa! Octomore, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg be damned, Laphroaig is the most powerful peat monster on Islay! The smoke just billows out of the glass, you can smell it from a foot or two away. Earthy, burning wood, huge iodine/antiseptic/band-aid aromas (has a hospital been set aflame nearby?), tar, and smouldering charcoal. 4 or 5 drops of water brings out a fresh lemony sensation, raw barley malt, cereal grains, and rich vanilla ice cream. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up with sheer force.
In the mouth: Much the same as the nose, but less medicinal and more sweetness. Boggy peat moss, burning firewood, and heavily salted baccala sensations at first, then the vanilla and lemon zest take over and provide an interesting back-and-forth between sugary sweetness and citric bitter-sweetness. The aftertaste is a mouthful of campfire-ashes-cigar-ashtray-fireplace-soot (you get the idea), ocean brine, and a chili pepper bite. Make that more of a habanero pepper…
In terms of core range products or regular releases, this is one of the best deals coming out of Islay these days. If you’re going to shell out for a scotch, you could certainly do much worse. The lack of diversity or complexity is counterbalanced by the raw power of this single malt. It’s got an oily and viscous mouthfeel, though the finish can get pretty dry at times. Water is definitely needed to tame it and coax out a little bit more sweetness. The price is good but not great, though personally I would buy a glass of this anytime, as well as a bottle for when the mood strikes.
Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Original Cask Strength (1995 1L Duty Free Release) – Review
The very first batch of the Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength, with the label reading “Straight From the Wood”. Affectionately known as the “Green Stripe”. Bottled at 57.3% ABV natural cask strength. Aged in bourbon casks and non-chill filtered. Originally released in duty free shops.
Colour: Light gold.
On the nose: If the modern one knocks you out with an uppercut, this original one could make you faint from euphoria. It is the perfect fusion between the older style and newer style of Laphroaig distillate; simply magnificent! It starts off with a massive wave of ocean brine, salt, minerality (like limestone or flint), and the classic medicinal profile with iodine and isopropyl. Then it continues to get fruitier by the minute! Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed lemons & limes, intense orange zest, all wrapped up in a smoke that is less earthy and more charcoal briquette with burning tires. It’s salty, it’s coastal, it’s so densely fruity with these mangos and grapefruits, all of which have been set on a charcoal grill for just the right amount of time. Who knew that the smell of pineapple and mango with gasoline and sea salt could be so enjoyable?
In the mouth: It’s as oily, viscous, and potent as the 2019 release, but so much more balanced. Everything from the nose is present on the palate, all the fruits, all the salty coastal water, all the smoke. What sets the palate apart is how herbal it becomes. There’s no aftertaste of ash here, it’s rather refreshing and palate cleansing! Some kind of Aveda-flavoured balsam, sandalwood, mint, some kind of liqueur made by Vick’s, all the citrus oils, and lemon embrocations linger in the aftertaste behind all the smoky fruit. To have such a mighty and oily spirit leave your palate feeling so refreshed is unique experience that really pushes this expression into the next level.
I don’t even want to know how much this cost when it was first released, I’d probably weep. A good wager would be that you could buy 2 cases back then for the same price of a single bottle now. The level of balance between the different flavour profiles is superb and a marvel unto itself when considering how strong these different flavours can get individually. The finish is still a touch dry, but make no mistake, this is an all-time champion, right up there with the best Laphroaigs of days gone by.
Speaking of days gone by, what about a comparatively recent Laphroaig paired with an iteration released during the actual glory years?
Laphroaig 15 (2006 Release) – Review
Bottled at 43% ABV. Aged in bourbon casks.
On the nose: Now we’re getting more into familiar territory. This smells like most people would imagine a Laphroaig smells. Full of iodine, bandages, antiseptic ointments, salty grilled fish with a touch of lemon drizzle, and a blast of peat smoke. With a few minutes to rest in the glass the odours shift more towards a sweeter smoke. Toffee candy and ginger snap cookies with a side of medical ashtray.
In the mouth: So, this is where the fruit has been hiding, though less abundant than one would hope. The tropical fruits are gone, this is all citrus fruits. Grapefruits, lemon juice, lime, all with a layer of sea salt and smoke. The aftertaste is smoke and salmon with a bit more of that smoky toffee. About 3 drops of water brings a bit more citrus and antiseptic forward while quelling the smokiness. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied but it definitely lacks a little power at this reduced ABV.
Years ago, I adored this expression and had two bottles on hand. As I have tried more Laphroaigs (and other single malts/spirits), my feelings towards this particular version have evolved. I’m not as enamored with it as I used to be. The fruitiness in the taste is a big plus as it saves the whole thing from being too one-dimensional but there are so many other versions that are even better.
Laphroaig 15 (circa 1980 Release, Regal Brands Import for USA) – Review
Bottled at 45% ABV. The label on this version says “Unblended Islay Malt Scotch Whisky”.
On the nose: The fruitiest one so far, even more than the 30s or the 1995 cask strength. The intensity of flavour and character that this packs in at 45% is astonishing! You don’t have to “hunt” for anything, you can just take a whiff and know “oh yeah, that’s definitely mangos, passion fruits, and pineapple”. It smells so juicy and ripe that it makes you salivate a little. It’s as if all those fruits were picked at the absolute perfect timing in their ripeness and are just bursting with sweet fragrances. There is not a medicinal note to be found whatsoever. The smoke is more along the lines of gasoline or burning oil, with high quality cigar tobacco. Cohiba Behikes comes to mind.
In the mouth: The same as the nose but with the addition of sour citrus fruits. These older vintage Laphroaigs all have this distinct note of grapefruit or pomelo to me. Sugary sweet and luscious on the mouth, this is chewy and viscous without being overly oily or clinging to the palate. It’s one of those mouth cleansers that is super refreshing. Only a hint of propane-fuel-smoke is present, the rest is all these magnificent bushels full of tropical and citrus fruits. Minimal burn in the aftertaste makes it dangerously easy to guzzle. This is another where you could lose track of your pours, it’s just the most stunning mix of smooth and flavorful.
Many of the best Laphroaigs from this era were imports sent to specific markets. Generally speaking, Italy seems to have gotten the very best, followed by the USA, Spain, and certain shops in the UK. This version of the 15-year-old is no exception and you truly can taste the difference. It really does make you wish that the distillery would go back to making this type of style, if such a thing is even possible anymore.
Let’s wrap things up with an obviously unfair comparison, just for fun.
Laphroaig 10 Years Old (2019 Release) – Review
Bottled at 43% ABV. Chill-filtered and colour added.
On the nose: Heavy wood smoke, medicinal ash, iodine, sea spray, medicinal ash, salt, medicinal ash, and a distinct vegetal smell, much like a piece of heavily salted seaweed grilled on a BBQ (did I mention medicinal ash). The fruitiness is almost entirely absent save for some hints of lemon. It’s more like a lemon pledge or lemon-scented cleaning agent as opposed to any juicy or fresh fruit. A touch of cigar smoke or pipe tobacco rounds out the whole thing (props to one of my professors who still smoked tobacco from a pipe up until 2017)
In the mouth: A bit hot and a bit thin with a strong bite of chili peppers and woody peat smoke. The salt, ashes, and antiseptic notes are all present and the flavour on the tongue is very bitter-sweet. It eventually tastes more and more like cooked seaweed with more salt, smoked fish, and some mild lemon-lime aftertastes.
For a shelf staple bottle, I really wish this brought more to the table. If the modern cask strength versions are any indicator, this expression would benefit immensely from being bottled at 48% without filtration or added colour. It’s got power, but less than you would hope, and no finesse. Makes for an excellent smoky penicillin cocktail though!
Laphroaig 10 (circa 1970 Release, Fillipi Import for Italy) – Review
Bottled at 43% ABV. Chill-filtered and colourant added. Matured in sherry casks.
Colour: Medium amber.
On the nose: Among the most unique and highest quality noses Laphroaig has ever produced. The sherry maturation matches beautifully with the old-style distillate. Chocolate isn’t a note you normally associate with the distillery, but it smells of a richly smoked ganache drizzled over cherries. The smoke is lurking between charcoal, engine oil, and tar. Of course, there is massive fruitiness but it smells less fresh and more rendered down and sugary. Think boiling pots of various jams and marmalades with pan seared grapefruit and brown sugar pineapple. It’s all balanced and woven together so well with none of the flavours becoming overly dominate. It just smells resinous, powerful, and sweet. After circa10 minutes it becomes a bit more medicinal and coastal with hints of iodine and shellfish.
In the mouth: The oiliness and complexity are out of this world, and it simply ruins any modern Laphroaig for you. It could ruin most modern whiskies, period. There’s just nothing like this being made today. The peat is dominant but so much sweeter than the nose indicates, very candied and chocolatey, with deeply roasted coffee beans. Ripe, juicy grapefruits, blood oranges, passion fruit, kiwis, and mangos with petroleum or engine oil. It’s all so oily and viscous you can practically chew it. How is this only 43%? It shouldn’t be possible for whisky to be this sophisticated at an ABV so low! The aftertaste is incredibly herbal and refreshing again, with these tea tree oil, eucalyptus, orange oil, and camphor notes, with a little bit of almonds or walnuts. It’s not overly drying but isn’t quite as drinkable because of the sheer power it has. Whereas some of the others were so sweet and easy you could drink multiple glasses, this one has an array of smoky oils and strong herbal qualities interplaying with the intense chocolate-fruit sweetness. Your palate will taste nothing else afterward and be forever spoiled.
There are single malts and single malts. This is the latter.
So, there you have it! We do enjoy (and love) Laphroaig here at Malt, it’s not all doom and gloom. Personally, I am harder on the distillery after having tasted so many expressions and vintages from its past. It gives you a clearer picture of what the distillery character once was and you can see how the differences in flavour profile emerged over its history.
Is older Laphroaig better than newer Laphroaig? I think that’s entirely up to the individual, where they are in their own personal whisky journey, and their taste preferences in general. Some people may enjoy the richly fruit and oily expressions more, some may find the medicinal and smoke laden expressions more to their liking.
Nothing is wrong with liking both, either, or neither! What is certain is that even after more than 2 centuries, Laphroaig still manages to be sought after, polarizing, and conversation-inducing all at once. Have they made good whiskies? Yes. Have they made bad whiskies? Yes. Have they made perfect whiskies? Perhaps I’ll explore that avenue next time. Until then, slainte!
Lead photo courtesy of Laphroaig. Other images courtesy of The Whisky Exchange, Whisky Live, and WhiskyBase.