Notes from a Master Class: Laphroaig Bursts Forth

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The rugged lineup of Laphroaig. Bring it on!

The night was not for the timid palates nor the empty wallets. The night was prime time for those of us who seek out peat and ash and the rare and exquisite in an intimate setting will fellow enthusiasts. The night was buzzing with excitement.

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Nate Shumway. And is that a halo from heaven shining on Joe Howell?

Joe Howell of Federal Wine & Spirits and Nate Shumway of The Olde Mouldy led this private event with humor and historical factoids.  Opening toasts acknowledged Laphroaig’s celebration of 200 years of Islay whisky and for keeping America flush with whisky for “medicinal” purposes during the Great Prohibition.  Hundreds of projected photos of all that is Islay rotated in the background throughout the tasting, causing sighs of longing, memories, and shared plans for upcoming visits. I miss Islay – the blustery wind, the surf on the rugged shores, the fields with cows and sheep, and the distilleries all within easy reach no matter where one sits on the island.

The ubiquitous Laphroaig 10 YO kicked off the tasting as folks settled in and the presenters set the tone for the night. The 10 YO is not the whisky to offer anyone who generally drinks fruity white wine (ouch but true), with its big peat nose, and rough and rumble over the tongue. Put a robust cigar in hand, and there, you have a match. I offer a 2+ out of a possible score of 4.

Some of us have a few bottles of the Laphroaig 15 YO from the early 2000s and were curious as to what the 15 YO expression created for the 200th anniversary would offer.  The color is deeper than the 10 YO and the nose offers more ash and toffee. The taste brings forth a briny, ashy, iodine rush that is smoother and lingers longer with a smoky finish. A 3- score for this release.

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Taking pics, texting notes, tasting awesome whisky, grinning all the way.

After a short break to rest the palate, the much anticipated 30 YO with its Olorosso Sherry, took the tasting to a higher level.  This gem holds a fruity nose compliments of the sherry. The mouth feel is thick and syrupy with a hint of cinnamon; the peaty iodine takes a back seat. The finish brings back the sweet sherry.  When I went back to the dram the nose reminded me of wooden match sticks. Hidden Sulphur peeking? The gem is a 3+.

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Spelling errors don’t count after three whiskies!

The 40 YO, which is lovingly described as a “beautiful juice” by Joe, and is no longer available anywhere, made its grand entrance. Its red carpet reputation did not disappoint.  There is a whiff of springtime and hints of Laphroaig. If the 30 is syrupy then the 40 is lightly spicy. The natural cask strength adds an earthiness at the finish. I saved some of the 30 to compare with the 40 and, for me, the 30 edges out the 40 ever so slightly.  The 40 is beautiful with a score of 3.

And we weren’t done yet! Much has been already written about the 2015 Cairdeas. Word is that this expression was modelled on the 1960s 10 YO. I have and enjoy the 2013 bottling and wasn’t sure what to expect with the 2015. The nose is deceptively mild, the dram is bursting with peat and smoke. Love it and the long lingering finish.  A solid 3 for this baby.

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Look at that deep, rich color of the 1969 10 YO. Significant!

To test the similarities, the 1969 Laphroaig 10 YO was up next. This last dram of the master class, totally puzzled me. I didn’t get the Cairdeas at all.  The color is deep and rich. The nose brings me back to Glasgow and the malting aroma that is often in the air. Boiling potatoes pop into mind. The thick fruit and overripe raisins on the palate are too much for me. I wrote two scores in my notes a 3- and a 2+.  Still can’t decide.

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Ames St. Deli Charcuterie to round out the night.

The master class met all my expectations and then some.  Unexpectedly, Joe announced to the group that my book, Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations, has been published. He then asked me to say a few words of self-promotion, which naturally I jumped at the chance.  A few books were sold and deeper discussions with other participants ensued at the end of the tasting. Pleasures that are total surprises are the best!

Laphroaig

I raise a glass to Joe and Nate and the distinct whiskies of Laphroaig.

I wrote the book as a promise to myself to put pen to paper about my whisky journey and “barrels” of fun! Gotta have some flagrant self-promotion once in a while.

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Whisky Envy Appeased

I was listening to a news broadcast the other day in which millennials were being slammed for being self-absorbed, in need of immediate gratification, impatient, and so on – none of which sounded very good.  Then I realized that is me – though the age difference is substantial – when it comes to my wanting to have all the whisky I read about, hear about, dream about, and taste. Social media has created a monster in me!  I am following a number of whisky enthusiasts, experts, fans who write about their experiences in a manner that would make my 7th grade English teacher proud. Although, she was a Catholic nun and more than likely frowned upon imbibing any spirits, unless it involved the Holy Spirit and mass on Sunday. I digress. This same group of whisky folks seems to always have hard-to-find whisky on hand, or just delivered, or be in the throes of visiting a renowned distillery. Imagine! The next thing I know, low and behold the whisky monster in me begins to rear its envious head.  Poor me. I am alone with my collection of 160 + bottles. I have nothing. See, the broadcast was not really talking about millennials but me.

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Julio’s Liquors has a fantastic tasting room in Westborough, Massachusetts. The room oozes whisk(e)y!

Just when the veil of gloom and doom was about to surround me and pull into the well of despair, Julio’s Liquors Whisk(e)y Roadshow 2015 appeared in my inbox. I can get to the Roadshow! I don’t have to be so dramatic! I scoured the list of participating distilleries/distributers and found at least a dozen that I have been wanting to taste. Two of us jumped into the car Saturday afternoon and took off. Tippling time!

Brenne waiting for her moment\

Brenne was in the house.  A tease before Allison Patel’s appearance on September 30th with the eagerly anticipated Brenne 10.

I scanned the room and  narrowed the must try list down to six, I did have to drive an hour plus to get back home. The pours were small but enough to get a sense of each whisky. I managed to scribble simple, quick tasting notes.

My system goes from 1 – never buy, don’t drink, 2 – fair, 3 very good – buy it, 4 – OMG, must have at any cost (well almost any cost.)

Gordon & MacPhail (GMP) Benromach 15 YO

Although this is a Speyside whisky, revitalized by GMP, I am always inclined to call it a Lowland whisky due to its lighter presentation.  This 15 YO is no different, I think of a light medium keel, middle of the road and safe whisky.  I’m an Islay fan so my opinion always slants in that direction. I give this a 3- because it is a safe whisky to have on hand for those who are new to the spirit.

GMP Benromach Peat Smoke

After my lips regained their feelings, and the punch of peat subsided from blasting the inside of my mouth, I chased the taste with some water and ended up amazed that Benromach could deliver like this. The numbing of my lips tilted me towards awarding a 2+ score.

Glendronach 15 YO Tawny Port

Yes, I did say I am an Islay fan, but the rich, thick seek port eased itself into my heart. The full and fruity finish lingered ever so nicely.  I gave this a 3+ only because I was hoping to find a 4 during the afternoon.

Glendronach 18 YO

Although the 18 YO comes with a bigger price tag – almost twice as much as the Tawny Port, I was disappointed. I felt thinner somehow. I should have tried the Tawny Port first. I give it a 2+ with apologies.

The Maltman Linkwood 18 YO

Not my cup of tea. I got that soapy burn that seems to pop up now and again. Sadly 2-.

The Maltman Ben Nevis 17 YO

The sherry cask presents itself nicely, then fades. Decent with a 3- score.

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Unfortunately, lately Ardbeg only brings the 10 YO, Corryvreckan, and Uigeadail to tastings.  All excellent, and the Corryvreckan is a 4 for me, but I want to try something different from their portfolio. It’s not like they don’t have any other expressions. Geez!

To round out the day, I jumped the figurative ocean and decided to try a few American products. I rarely mix single malt and bourbons at tastings but we had  burgers and fries provided by the Roadshow that acted as buffers between the two styles of whiskies.

Heaven Hill Distillery has been making bourbon for a very long time and is well respected by bourbon drinkers.  Along with four other whiskies, they offered the Henry McKenna 10 Single Barrel Bottled in Bond. Bottled in Bond labelling has begun to hit the labels again. It dates back to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. It’s bottled at 100 proof, aged at least four years in a USA federally bonded warehouse and produced in a single distillery season at a single distillery. I could sip this bourbon and never have to make a cocktail with it to mask its flavor. Show me a 3.

Lastly, I wanted to try a local distillery, somebody just starting out and producing a whisky that is distinct.  I found the New England Distillery, founded in 2011 and producing rye, gin and rum in Portland, Maine.  Gin and rum is big in the New England region – lots of rum runners dating back to pre-Revolutionary days who seem to have inspired a new flock of distillers. Tim Fisher, the head distiller (no lofty title here), offered me a fine pour of his Gunpowder rye. Spicy, fresh, hints of chocolate.  I found my 4.  OK, rye is not single malt but damn it still tasted mighty fine.

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I do love my Swally Shirt. Whisky fans are always commenting on it.

Along the way I met Jeff Robertson, owner of Caledonia Fine Arts Co. Tours, looking dashing in his kilt.  Made me want to sign up for his tour right then and there.

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Between the two of us we bought seven bottles of whiskies. Not too shabby!

My millennial whisky monster had been appeased by a dram good afternoon.  Between the two of us, we walked away with Glendronach 15 YO Tawny Port, Benromach Peat Smoke, The Maltman Ben Nevis 17 YO, Gunposder Rye, Henry McKenna 10 YO Single Barrel BIB, and somehow a High West Bourbon and a very special SMWS 4.198 Pigs in Plaster.

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This description grabbed a hold of me and wouldn’t let go until I bought a bottle. Well done Pigs in Plaster!

Next week I tame the beast again at a Master Class by Joe Howell featuring Laphroaig expressions. I watched the Laphroaig Live this past week which helped ramp up the excitement level about the Master Class. Stay tuned for tasting notes.

I raise a glass to all the folks on Twitter and Instagram whose whisky passion spurs me on to learn more about whisky and to write about my passion.