The Laphroaig distillery is located on the island of Islay, 25 miles off the Irish coast. The island has been described as wind-swept, and the term is probably accurate as well as poetic. It is the southernmost point in the Inner Hebrides, and became part of Scotland in the 18th century. It has 3000 inhabitants and two industries: agriculture and whisky.
Laphroaig (pronounced “la-froyg”) bills itself as making “the world’s most richly flavored Scotch whisky,” and contends that “there are 3 main ingredients for making Laphroaig—barley, water and yeast.” They seem to have forgotten about peat. Malted barley is first soaked in the peat-infused Islay water; after it germinates, it is dried by the smoke of a peat fire. This is what gives the whisky its intense, characteristic taste, and the procedure is probably not much different than it was centuries ago.
The distillery was founded in 1815 by Donald and Alexander Johnston, brothers from Clan Donald, who leased 1000 acres for the purpose of raising cattle. The Johnstons and their descendants ran the operation until 1877, and it remained in private hands until the 1960s, when it was sold to a succession of corporate entities. The entry-level whisky is the 10 Year Old; there are also 18 and 25 Year Olds, Cask Strength, Quarter Cask (matured in small barrels), Triple Wood and PX Cask (matured in Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks).
One sip of the Laphroaig 10 Year-Old ($50) assures you that the marketing folks are correct: this is indeed a richly flavored whisky, with a powerful palate imprint and an intriguing sweet/salty flavor in the mouth. The finish is long and intense, with echoes of tangy sea air. Adding a bit of water tames the spirit a bit, and makes it more pleasurable to sip.
The Laphroaig Triple Wood ($60) begins the aging process in used American Oak Bourbon barrels, continues to 19th century style quarter casks, and finishes in barrels that once held Oloroso Sherry. It is less intense on the nose than the 10 year-old, with scents of iodine, peat and smoke rising up from the glass. It enters the mouth smoothly, and offers a remarkably sweet mid palate accented by floral, pine-infused Sherry flavors. The finish is long and mellow, with notable echoes of brine and sweetness. Add a touch of water, and the spirit becomes softer and richer.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to www.iconicspirits.net.