ALMOST as though they were anticipating the five per cent drop in whisky sales in 2012, several high-profile and eye-catching initiatives have emerged in the industry recently.
Highland Park has introduced its 15-year-old limited-edition Loki, while three new colours (ruby, sienna and amber) have been added to the gold in the Macallan 1824 series. In addition, Tamdhu has also released its first single malt under the new owners.
Changes at Laphroaig, however, despite recognising that not everyone loves smoke and peat, have stayed loyal to its traditional and highly distinctive flavours. Almost as a re-affirmation of its dedication to that style, the split between the ‘head’ and the ‘middle cut’ at Laphroaig remains later than in almost any other distillery, making the results smokier and richer.
The successors at Laphroaig to the far-sighted Ian Hunter and Bessie Williamson have made subtle but shrewd changes to how the business works. Slightly different whiskies now take their place behind the original range and the visitor experience has been enhanced – Laphroaig’s was recently declared the best distillery tour in the independent Drammie Awards for the second successive year.
I joined its four-hour Water to Whisky Tour, which takes you to the water source at Kilbride Loch for a picnic lunch and, of course, a dram. The next stop is to cut some peat. This provides a demonstration of why moss and heather components are often reflected in the whisky. Finally, at the distillery, you inspect the malting floor, stoke the fire and select a whisky from three casks that you will put into a 250ml bottle to take home – all for £79.
Tasting the whiskies, it is surprising how quickly your taste buds skip the peatiness and focus on the other flavours. Inevitably, we started with Laphroaig 10 Year Old (£30-35). Its intense ozone flavours jump out straight away but soon give elbow room to a quite gentle sweetness and touches of aniseed that are made significantly smoother when several drops of water are added.
The next step was Laphroaig 18 Year Old (around £70) which is higher in alcohol (at 48 per cent) and has similarly sweetish undertones but these surface earlier, giving honey touches on the nose. It is a powerful whisky with soft butterscotch flavours but, with water, a saltiness also comes through.
Laphroaig 25 Year Old (from £300) brings together whisky from sherry and bourbon casks. Even from the nose, the flavours are quite different. The initial dried fruit yields to intense peat quite quickly before merging into marmalade flavours with a whisper of white pepper.
Variations to customary Laphroaig characteristics have been developed to accommodate a broader range of tastes. Laphroaig Quarter Cask (£35-40), for example, is inspired by the small casks used in the days of horseback. The greater ratio of wood to spirit adds mellowing vanilla, banana and brioche complexity without eliminating the contribution of sweet spices.
Finally, yet further refinements are found in Laphroaig Triple Wood (£45+), where maturation takes place first in American oak, then in quarter casks and ultimately in oloroso sherry casks. Tropical fruit, liquorice and raisin touches emerge first, with creamier elements coming next. When water is added, the peat starts to re-assert itself.
When nature has given your whisky a peaty richness, you celebrate it. However, life on Scottish islands puts resourcefulness into your DNA, and it is great to see that Laphroaig has embraced adaptations.
2012 Seifried Estate Nelson Pinot Grigio South Island, New Zealand, 13.5 per cent
This shows how good pinot grigio can be, offering all the floral influences you expect but with depth (courtesy, I imagine, of its time on lees) and the rounded orange fruit that is given a nice burst of sherbet lemon acidity as a counterbalance. £8.99 (down from £9.99 until 30 June), M&S
2012 Finest Kulapelli Cabernet Sauvignon Carmenere Maipo, Chile, 13.5 per cent
A surprisingly light 70 per cent cabernet blend but attractively soft and very smooth. Enjoy in particular the rich, ripe cherry and plum fruit of this vintage, enhanced by fresh acidity and given a final flourish by its minty undertones. £6.99 (down from £8.99 until 16 June), Tesco