Could this be the promised whisky?
First, let’s get it out of the way: this whisky is nominally from an “Undisclosed Islay Distillery.” However, I struggle to recall an instance in which the source of an independently bottled whisky was less hawkishly guarded. Dubbed “Laughing Frog” by the fine folks at Single Cask Nation, only the most thick-skulled cretins have yet to suss out that this is obviously Laphroaig. I’ll abandon the pretense henceforth and just refer to this as Laphroaig.
The mere mention of this distillery conjures, for me, a pair of flavor associations: smoke, and the bitter taste of disappointment. The first requires no explanation; to many, Laphroaig remains a byword for the heavily peated Islay style for which there is no substitute. When the sensory overload of full-bore phenols is required, nothing but an Islay dram will do, and plenty of folks reach for Laphroaig to scratch that itch.
The second, less pleasant “flavor” is the result of the woeful quality of originally bottled Laphroaig in recent years. I have been personally let down by revisiting the core 10 year old expression, which I found to be a weak and wan shade of a whisky. Current owners Beam Suntory have carried on churning out some below-average tasting whisky, which typically suffers from dilution down to the minimum legally permissible strength.
This wouldn’t be a tragedy if Laphroaig were just a workaday distillery in the manner of Allt-a-Bhainne or Dufftown, capable of producing only serviceable malt destined for blending. However, it’s not; Laphroaig can be so much more than the worst of its originally bottled expressions permit. As Greg’s survey of Laphroaigs past and present illustrated, it’s a distillery that has given us magnificent whisky, particularly in days gone by. This is the reason for all the hand wringing – here as elsewhere – about the state of Laphroaig’s modern lineup.
As with other distilleries that seem to sell off their most inspired stock, whisky lovers are mostly left to search out independently bottled Laphroaig if we seek to understand the regard in which the distillery is still held, despite ample evidence to the contrary. These are the promised Laphroaigs to which I alluded in the introduction: the ones to justify the distillery’s legacy and redeem its name. When those bottlings come from the years before the current regime they are doubly compelling, for reasons to be explained in short order.
Turning to the whisky at hand: this was distilled in 1993, four years after Laphroaig’s prior owner Whitbread’s sale to Allied Distillers, and a year before a royal warrant was bestowed on Laphroaig by His Royal Highness The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Chester, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Merioneth, Baron of Renfrew, Baron Greenwich, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, KG, KT, GCB, OM, AK, QSO, CC, PC, ADC.
Why is this relevant? As Greg mentioned, a shift in production processes at Laphroaig (as at so many other distilleries during the past several decades) resulted in a meaningful change to the flavor profile of the resultant whisky. Laphroaig from the distant past is prized for its distillate-forward nature, and particularly for the abundantly fruity notes that resulted from a fermentation more focused on flavor creation than efficiency and economics. By way of contrast, contemporary Laphroaig is (again, as noted by Greg) more dependent on peat and cask for its character, resulting in a more smoke-and-wood-forward style of whisky. My hope in acquiring this bottle was to be able to reach back into history to experience that now inaccessible style of Laphroaig.
This is the third in Single Cask Nation’s Wood Cut Series; I was previously treated to a sample of the 28 year old Bowmore, the first of the three Wood Cut whiskies released thus far. This Laphroaig is from cask #406858 (ex-bourbon barrel); as mentioned above, it was distilled in June 1993, bottled September 2021, at an age of 28 years. This is one of 244 bottles, coming to us at cask strength of 51.3% ABV.
Retail price for a 750 ml bottle was $395, which seemed fair considering local prices for comparably aged Laphroaig. For example, the 2018 Limited Release (28 years old, 44.4% ABV) currently retails for $800 in my area, while the 2017 Limited Release (28 years old, 41.7% ABV) is offered for $750. The 25 year old Cask Strength releases from 2018 and 2020 ($600 and $700, respectively) also fetch a hefty premium, compared to this bottle. I wasn’t the only one who thought this might be a compelling value; unsurprisingly, the entirety of the outturn sold out in a manner of minutes.
Single Cask Nation Laughing Frog 28 Years Old – Taylor’s Review
Color: Medium-pale gold.
On the nose: The first impression is of a marriage between two distinct sets of elements. On the one hand, there are all the expected coastal, maritime, and peat-derived aromas one expects from Islay whisky: saline, iodine, creosote, and a whiff of ash. However, these are balanced by a remarkably forceful fruitiness, incorporating scents of Granny Smith apples, ripe pineapple, and Chardonnay grapes. Besides these two categories, there are ample other assorted notes of toasted brioche, freshly grated ginger root, creamy and oaky vanilla, and a touch of lemongrass.
In the mouth: An initial kiss of gentle citrus fruit is married to more of that creamy vanilla, albeit more in textural form than as an expression of flavor. This blooms with a drily ashy taste and texture as it moves toward the midpalate, which transitions to an herbal bouquet of dried thyme and rosemary. Making a stony shift, those aforementioned classically Islay notes reemerge as this finishes long, with a sustained saline note and some resurgent peat smoke nuances. As an added surprise, the final swallow reveals a momentarily flavorful burst of ripe fruitiness around the gums.
Mission accomplished. Especially on the nose, this offers the aforementioned exuberant fruitiness that is the reason to seek out (and pay up for) Laphroaigs of the past. The balance between those fruit notes and the darker aspects of the Islay flavor spectrum is remarkably deft and would, by itself, be enough to keep me entranced as I spent a prolonged period sniffing this whisky. The addition of other nuances is a pleasant bonus, and it’s safe to say that this very excellent nose is the highlight of the experience for me.
The palate doesn’t quite soar to the same heights as the nose, which isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with it. On the contrary: this is very yummy whisky, again scratching that peat itch without pushing those flavors to an uncomfortable extreme. I like that this reveals itself slowly in the mouth; it doesn’t give up all its secrets at once, making the last sip as compelling as the first.
In total, this is a remarkable malt that should serve to convince any Laphroaig skeptics out there. Ignore the supermarket shelf, walk right past the travel retail bottles at the duty free shop, and go hunting for Laphroaigs of yore. You won’t be sorry.
Because she’s our resident Laphroaig “phanatic,” I shared a sample of this with Kat. Her notes are included here:
Single Cask Nation Laughing Frog 28 Years Old – Kat’s Review
On the nose: Faint white peach, carob, and chlorine. Comforting wet grass and chlorine; like a barn, it smells thick yet fresh and healthy.
In the mouth: The grain part of the palate taste is like a corn chip. Usually I get some kind of cereal grain or bread but this is a corn chip. Fritos? Bitter lemon rind finish. In classic Laphroaig fashion always some petroleum products; in this case, the nose/taste/finish of struggling to blow up a balloon.
Always cool to see Laphroaig spread its wings. The comfort of the familiar with curious surprises. The perpetually medicinal/hospital nose makes the faint findings like chocolate covered strawberries and ginger chews feel more like discoveries.