Laphroaig PX Cask – Distiller: Laphroaig. Region: Islay. ABV: 48%. No age statement. Price: $70-80 (1L).
Remember, whisky fans, the thrill of traveling abroad 7-10 years ago, ducking into a duty free and knowing you’d find at least a few stunning deals and special releases?
Times have changed. All too often, duty free whisky aisles are divided between run-of-the-mill releases you’ll find anywhere, discounted blends that don’t appeal even with the discount, and gimmicky “travel retail exclusives” that are both overpriced and forgettable.
Though these sad ranks comes the Laphroaig PX Cask like a conquering hero. I’ve seen this in a few airports over the past year, and when it popped up at the Stockholm Duty Free on sale for $70, I couldn’t resist.
This duty free exclusive is a no-age-statement whisky, like most of Laphroaig’s current lineup. It’s matured first in ex-bourbon barrels, then in quarter casks, then finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. It’s bottled at a healthy 48% ABV.
The nose starts with the classic Laphroaig salty-citrusy-maritime profile, but saltier than usual. Bright. Piney. Lime, grapefruit. Gradually warmer: grilled lemon. Toasted almond. Cinnamon late on.
The palate is strong and savory. It’s a dinner dram—not to have with dinner, but to have as dinner. Salted pork. Aged balsamico. But the brightness emerges from underneath, and with it, the fiery peat. A little wild.
The transition to the finish brings blackberry brandy. The peat goes on and on. Cinnamon again, spicy vanilla bean, candied lemon peel.
Liking the Laphroaig Quarter Cask as I do, this dram–essentially the Quarter Cask with a bit of PX on top–was right up my alley.
It was particularly interesting tasting it side-by-side with the Laphroaig Cairdeas 2017, which is a cask strength Quarter Cask. I usually gravitate toward cask strength whiskies, but if I could only choose one, I think I’d take this PX Finish over the latest Cairdeas.
Little wonder that two weeks after purchase, 1L PX Finish is already gone. (I did have a little help.)
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2017 Quarter Cask – Distiller: Laphroaig. Region: Islay. ABV: 57.2%. No age statement (5+ years). Price: $80.
The Laphroaig Quarter Cask is a justly beloved standard release from the Islay distillery. It’s a great next step for fans of the Laphroaig 10: they age their brash, briny malt for 5+ years in ex-Markers Mark casks, then finished for six months in quarter casks.
Quarter casks hold a mere 21 gallons, considerably less than the standard 53-gallon ex-bourbon cask. That translates to more wood exposure per liter, and theoretically accelerated maturation. In practice, the influence small casks–sometimes overused by microdistillers who are rushing their product to market–can be unpredictable. But Laphroaig knows their stuff, and their quarter cask finish works wonderfully.
Enter the Cairdeas 2017 Quarter Cask. The Cairdeas is an annual limited edition that changes each year. (Last year’s was truly brilliant–see Thane’s review of it here.) This year’s release is a cask strength version of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, dialing the ABV up from the 48% of the standard release to 57.2%.
The potency does great things to an already fine release. The nose is unmistakably Laphroaig–sweet and peaty–but with a twist. Clementines, canned peaches, an enigmatic floral note. White chocolate—flecked with candied ginger.
The palate is salty and spicy, particularly without water. Red pepper flakes. Salted caramel. Dry smoke. With water, the palate gets a good deal sweeter. The peat tips toward mesquite–as opposed to the iodine of the Laphroaig 10–wrapped in a blanket of vanilla.
Ashiness and sweetness intertwine on the very long finish. There’s a hint of maple syrup, then a trail of white smoke that leads you all the way back to Islay.
The 2016 Cairdeas was a tough act to follow, but the 2017 won’t let Laphroaig fans down. Slàinte, friends! – BO
Bruichladdich Head Distiller Adam Hannett brought all of this with him on a recent U.S. tour. Thane, J.T. and I had the great pleasure of catching up with him in Chicago.
It’s hard not to start with the obvious question: How did a man of his tender years reach such lofty heights so soon? (Adam’s in his mid-30s, but could still be mistaken for a university student.)
“To be honest, I worked hard,” he said. “I wanted to be there. I had a passion for it.” That said, “I recognize I’m very fortunate.”
An Islay native, Adam started work at Bruichladdich as a tour guide in 2004 after dropping out of university. He remembers being given a bottle of Murray MacDavid GlenDronach at the end of his first day as part of his single malt education. It was a very good bottle.
“I was hooked,” Adam said.
Then-master distiller Jim McEwan and General Manager Duncan McGillivray became mentors, feeding Adam’s growing hunger to learn every aspect of the craft and the business.
He first voiced his larger ambitions at a Bruichladdich Christmas party “after a couple of drams.” He was several years into his tenure at the time, and working in Bruichladdich’s warehouses. Then-CEO Mark Reynier (who founded Bruichladdich in 2000 and left in 2012) asked Adam about his long-term goals.
“I’d like to be manager,” Adam said. Somewhat to his surprise, Mark replied: “You should do it!”
It was a reflection of Bruichladdich’s ethos of “creating opportunities for young people, for local people. The approach is: Go for it! Give them a chance!” Adam noted Allan Logan as another example: Logan rose from “shoveling shit” as a groundsman in 2001 to being Distillery Manager at age 28–the youngest in Scotland–and is now Production Manager.
Adam is now two years into his time as Head Distiller. What has it been like filling the shoes of Jim McEwan, a 50-year industry veteran and whisky legend?
“The honest answer is: I try not to think about it,” Adam said. “Jim said to me, ‘You’re your own man. You’ll do it your own way.'”
Speaking of which. Adam was eager to share his first four releases while we talked. Fittingly, three of them were 10-year-old bottlings of whisky that came off the stills in 2006, when Adam began distilling: the Laddie 10 Second Edition, Port Charlotte 10, and Octomore 10 Second Edition.
“It’s amazing to see the journey the spirit’s gone on from being a blank slate,” he said. “And it’s quite special because of the journey I’ve been on myself.”
What a way to begin! All three are bottled at a hefty 50% ABV.
The Laddie 10 Second Edition is the comeback of a release so beloved that Bruichladdich couldn’t keep it on the shelves. It was discontinued in 2014. (I’ll confess to doing my small part in contributing to the shortage.)
The new Laddie is every bit a worthy successor, and has a heft and density that set it apart from the no-age-statement Classic Laddie. The unpeated malt was matured in 60% first-fill bourbon, 20% second-fill sherry, and 20% second-fill Syrah casks.
I got banana chips on the nose. Orange saltwater taffy. Vanilla and jasmine. On the palate, lemon custard and creme brulee. Buttery texture. Grape brandy. Very subtle smokiness–from the oak char, not peat–on the finish.
The Port Charlotte 10 is all about “sweet and smoke,” as McEwan would tell Adam. It’s peated at 40 ppm–a healthy level, though sub-Ardbeg and well below Bruichladdich’s Octomore. Matured in a mix of first-fill bourbon, sherry, Tempranillo, and French wine casks.
The nose is quite light at first, with caramelized banana, Meyer lemon, and buttery biscuits. The palate has sweet toasted grain, toffee, and distinct but still subtle peat prickle. The finish is earthy and warming, with the peat taking a turn toward the bonfire.
The Octomore 10Second Edition is one of the oldest of the notorious cask-strength peat monsters. (A previous 10-year-old release came in 2012.) Peated to 167 ppm, matured in first-fill bourbon and second-fill Grenache Blanc casks, bottled at cask strength of 57.3% ABV.
Naturally, any Octomore is going to lead with the peat. But it’s fascinating how much the extra time does to tame the beast. (Other things being equal, the younger a peated whisky is, the brasher is tends to be.) The nose on the Octomore 10 Second Edition leads with creamy, buttery vanilla, followed by morello cherries, and a tickle of the peat that will rush forth on the palate. The palate also has toasted sweetbreads, and the peat twines with cinnamon spice. The very long finish adds sweet barbecue pork.
To my palate, all three 10-year-olds were and are unequivocal successes.
Then Adam brought out the bottle that kept him up at night.
Jim McEwan took special pleasure in brewing up a periodic limited release called Black Art, for which he would disappear into the warehouses and emerge with a very mature, cask strength bottling that no one else at Bruichladdich had the recipe to.
“It was Jim’s creation,” Adam said. “It was his baby.” Naturally, when Adam set out to make his own Black Art, “I approached it with trepidation. To follow Jim, it’s got to be the best thing you can do.”
It was a true passing of the torch when Jim approached Adam one day in 2015, jotted down the secret proportions on a post-it, and handed it over.
And what could’ve been more in the Bruichladdich spirit than Adam’s thanking him, then tossing out the recipe so he could make a Black Art that was truly his own?
The Black Art 5th Edition is unpeated and bottled at 48.4% ABV. It’s a massively complex, coiled, enigmatic dram. Like previous Black Arts, it draws on malt distilled in the pre-Reynier/McEwan era, before the distillery was shuttered in 1993 (to be reopened by Reynier 2000).
Those old stocks have their eccentricities, Adam said. “They were working with old, imperfect casks. The spirit was excellent, but the casks were poor. They needed to be recasked, which Jim set about doing. His approach was to add layers.”
It shows. The nose is dense, with sherry and dry red wine notes predominating. The age is unmistakable, but there’s a freshness to the dark berry scents that’s a welcome surprise. The palate is dark and brooding, with mushrooms, old leather, and decaying parchment. The finish takes you from the library to the wine cellar, with cool wet clay and old-barrel funk. And like the best older malts, it constantly evolved and unfolded in the glass.
Not a beginner’s whisky, but one I loved–and I actually preferred to Jim McEwan’s Black Art 4. The memory of it stayed with me for days.
Back at the start of Adam’s whisky journey, his father encouraged him to take that first tour-guide job with Bruichladdich. “He said, ‘You’ll get a free bottle of whisky every month if nothing else.'”
He’s gotten much more than that. And so have we.
Cheers, friends! – BO
Thanks to Bruichladdich for the opportunity to interview Adam Hannett and sample the four whiskies mentioned above. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.
Happy to be expanding our Kilchoman coverage this sunny Thirsty Thursday with the 6th annual Kilchoman 100% Islay limited edition.
A yearly staple for the distillery since its first releases in 2010, the 100% Islay is true to its name, being a purely Islay-made product from barley to malt to maturation. This release spent six years in a mix of first-fill and refill bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace.
This Kilchoman 100% Islay opens with intriguing sweet notes on the nose: cherry wine, sweet hay, chocolate-covered vanilla meringue, lemony malt. Subtle peat.
The palate’s sweet and punctuated with tart berry flavors. The peat rears up here, but more peppery than smoky. There’s a very welcome sour/umami note late on, like a hit of wasabi. The medium-long finish has raspberry compote, lemon peels, beeriness, and cane sugar.
Kilchoman is only getting better with time, and this 100% Islay is no exception. As a limited edition from a distillery that’s approaching cult status, these usually don’t stay on shelves long. But if you get lucky enough to find one, it won’t disappoint.
Producer: Compass Box. Distiller: various (see below). Region: Islay/Islands/Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement. Price: $55-65.
I have a special weakness with Compass Box whiskies. The Flaming Heart 2015 was my favorite whisky of that year, and I have yet to write a review. I went through an entire Christmas bottle of Compass Box Peat Monster without writing a review. The problem is that they’re so good, and in such a particular way–which I attribute to the blending genius of founder John Glaser–that I get too absorbed in them to take notes. I just want to enjoy.
But revisiting the Peat Monster, I managed to get my act together. This beauty is a blended malt (also known as a pure malt), meaning it’s a mix of single malts, with no grain whisky. The malts come from Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Ardmore, Ledaig, an unnamed Highland distiller.
The peat is intense, but there are many peatier whiskies on the market by far. The priority here is on balance and nuance.
Nose: lively, fresh, grassy, but with the density and richness that only come from a fair proportion of older malt in the mix. Minimal sweetness. Dark vanilla. Almond flour. Mesquite. Lemongrass. Dry vermouth herbaciousness. I could nose it all night.
Three kinds of peat intertwine on the palate: briny, toasty, and savory/BBQ. The Laphroaig brings the ashiness and brine; the Caol Ila light lemony fruits, tilting from lemon to lime to grapefruit. Charred pear and watermelon candy later on. The finish is very long, with grapefruit rind, grenadine, white ash, and salty sea spray.
The Compass Box Peat Monster should be a staple in any peat lover’s cabinet. Sure is in mine.
Distiller: Kilchoman. Region: Islay. ABV: 46%. No age statement (about 4-5 years). Price: $55-70.
Kilchoman is Islay’s youngest distillery. It opened in 2005, and quickly began winning converts with its young but surprisingly rich and supple single malts. The flagship is the excellent Machir Bay, which is mostly first-fill bourbon-matured, with a little sherry finish thrown in at the end.
The Sanaig, a new release in 2016, ups the sherry-matured component to 50%. No age statement, though it’s around 4-5 years old, and it’s bottled at a healthy 46% ABV.
The nose on the Sanaig is a mix of tart, sweet, and salty notes. Sea
breeze. Blackberry crumble. Salted caramel. The peat keeps itself fairly well concealed. The palate is sweet and buttery: blueberry pie filling, burnt butter crust. Blackberry cordial. Very mild clove. Peanut brittle. Mild toasty peat emerges bit by bit. The finish recalls the end of an old fashioned: the echo of the sweet bourbon intertwines with bitter oak and aromatics.
Beautiful compliment to the Machir Bay, and for me, a clear success. If you’re looking for a new Islay, the Sanaig’s a great place to look.