Famously Prince Charles’ favourite tipple, Laphroaig likes to describe themselves as “the most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies”. For once there might be something to an advertising claim, though you’ll note that their marketing department doesn’t mention the character of the flavour. It seems that as many people will warn you away from a Laphroaig dram as will urge you to try it, such is the divisive effect of the industrial-strength medicinal smokiness they deliver.
Put me in the second camp; I’m a fan. I’ll admit that I don’t typically lunge for the Laphroaig bottle at the beginning of the night, but later, towards the end, it’s often the perfect way to close things out. The magnificent 18-year-old is the most exotic of their expressions that I’ve been lucky enough to try so far, but it’s exceptional; the extra age takes off some of the rougher edges and adds more complexity to the punch-you-in-the-face maritime character of the 10-year-old.
When I first heard that there would be a bottling of a Laphroaig finished in Pedro Ximenez casks, my ears perked up. As a rule, I love an Islay whisky finished in sherry butts; it never did Lagavulin any harm and adds that amazing depth to Ardbeg’s epic Uigeadail. (A side note on Lagavulin – after doing a bit of research I couldn’t find anything that says definitively that the 16-year-old is a blend of bourbon and sherry casks, but it’s what my palate tells me and although it’s frequently and often hilariously wrong, I trust it this time). To me, the fruity, woody influence goes stunningly well with the peat and salt of a good Islay.
And these aren’t just your run of the mill Oloroso sherry butts… these are Pedro Ximenez casks (or PX to give it its trendy acronym), the king of sherries! I’ve read that PX can overwhelm a whisky should it be left in a cask too long, so powerful is its influence. I don’t believe that’s the case here, with this Laphroaig. In fact I think it could have done with more time in the cask… more time in some cask, anyway.
There’s no age label on this bottle, and I’m pretty sure that’s partially because it’s quite young. That’s not in itself a crime, of course. However to me it’s a bit too fresh, a bit too green to carry the depth of flavour I was expecting. The nose is classic Laphroaig, with the antiseptic character you expect, but with a bit of a rich sweetness behind. After some time in the glass I get quite a strong impression of toffee apples. Tasting the whisky, the strength of the alcohol (this is bottled at a stronger-than-usual 48% ABV) is at the forefront, but give it a second to die away and I get smoke (of course), burnt sugar, salt and seaweed, dates, no doubt from the sherry, some cut grass… However it must be said that the overall experience feels a little thin, like there’s not much to discover beyond what is immediately apparent on the surface. The finish is rather bitter, though quite long.
I was expecting something rather special from the PX influence, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t quite get it. It’s not BAD – it’s quite tasty – but when compared to the Lagavulin 16-year-old or something like the Talisker 57 North, it just doesn’t reach that level of greatness. I really wanted to love this one, partly because it was so hard for me to get hold of – but I have to be content with merely liking it.