Tag Archives: laphroaig

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (+ 4 whiskies)

Sooner or later as a whisky aficionado, you’ll encounter these strange green bottles with numbers and weird names – e.g. “17.29: Handbags And Popcorn”. You’ll eventually find out who bottles these: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

The SMWS (and since I am in the US, I will be referring to the American branch, conveniently SMWSA) is an independent bottler that sells only to current members of the SMWS. Its bottles are single-cask releases, which means the supply is limited to a couple hundred bottles of any one expression. Additionally, they don’t filter or color their whiskies, so you’re getting the ultimate whisky-geek experience – an undiluted single-cask bottle.

What makes the SMWS unlike other bottlers, beyond the members-only policy, is the removal of all distillery names from packaging. Unless you’ve got a reference guide, past experience, or know your distillery trivia, you don’t know what distillery produced the whisky in your bottle. To use the above example, “Handbags and Popcorn”, the identifier is 17.29. That means it’s the 29th cask bottled from distillery 17. What’s distillery 17? Well, all we know is that it’s “Orkney’s lesser known distillery.”

Normal people would then refer to a guide to find out what distillery it’s from, which may influence their purchasing decision. Since I just finished reading a super whisky nerd book, I will save you the time and tell you that Handbags and Popcorn comes from Scapa distillery.

However, that takes some of the fun out of it. I think the truest reactions come from blind tastings and that remains one of the more fun ways to experience whisky – free from any sort of impression other than the drink itself. Short of being part of a whisky club which may conduct them (or having a willing but long-suffering family member aid you in the depths of your obsession), the SMWS provides one of the easiest ways to indulge in blind tasting, if you dare.

I’ll back up a second. I joined the SMWSA recently after seeing a string of fairly well-reviewed and generally interesting bottles. It’d been on my list for a while as something to try so I thought there was no better time than the present. Joining is a snap and takes only a few minutes online.

After a few days you’ll get your membership kit in two parts. First, you get a general info packet – your membership card (mostly useless to those in the US unless you want to tuck it in next to your expired Blockbuster Video card and your wallet-size fraternity membership certificate laminate and prove yourself a mega-nerd), a copy of the society magazine, and a few recent Outturn pamphlets. These pamphlets list the latest casks bottled that the Society has for sale, and publishes their tasting notes. Society tasting notes have a style all their own and it may be hard to develop a picture of the whisky described until your palate has matured a bit. It’s all packaged in a small folder.

The membership packet...

The second package is the more fun one – four 100mL Society bottlings, a membership handbook (OK, maybe less exciting), a blank tasting notes book that also is a combination miniature bible and Russian phrasebook, and a lapel pin. God knows my lapels were shamefully unadorned prior to this – and who doesn’t enjoy that important feeling of belonging that only a lapel pin can offer?

The ultimate sense of belonging...

But remember: this package has whisky. No lapel pin can bring that down.

It HAD whisky, until some idiot blogger DRANK IT ALL!!

My four samples were:

  • 5.31 “Morning Has Broken”
  • 76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock”
  • 29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth”
  • 77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags”

The notes for these four will be posted at the end of this entry. I’d heard that Society bottlings could be variable, so this was my first litmus test. I was impressed that even the 23 year old bottle was still in the high 50% ABV territory. My impression (full notes below) was that these were all good bottles – one was aB+ (5.31, which I really liked a lot); the rest were all Bs.

I’ve since purchased a couple bottles which you will see reviewed here in the months ahead. As for now, I’m pretty impressed by the society’s offerings. The blind element lets you browse and buy what tickles your fancy based on descriptions, rather than determining which whisky is packaged in the most seaworthy container. My plan is to buy without knowledge of the distillery and not find out until after I’ve completed my tasting notes (as I did with this batch.)

SMWS 5.31 “Morning Has Broken” 11y 57% ABV
Fairly spirity; unsurprising at 57%. Nice, solid malty and cereal notes underpinning lighter notes that are slightly lemony and floral notes. Young fruit – a pear, maybe a granny smith apple in there too. Lightly honeyed. A bit of a sugary note that smells like sugar cookies or sugar icing.
Very strong malt presence that also has some cereal and bread with it. Ripe pears, golden delicious apples (and a whisper of Fuji apple), honey, lightly lemony. Nice heat on the palate, warming to a reasonable point but not overwhelming.  
The malty note goes much more towards baked biscuits. The apple notes drop down in favor of pears; slightly honey and lemon notes continue. The heat subsides quickly and after a short while, golden delicious apples come up a bit again. Light wood influence at this point. A bit of cinnamon on the finish.
This has such a nice, full, rich body of malty notes that really ground it. The estery top is held completely in balance and while it’s warm it’s not overpowering. A great mix of malt and fruit. 

SMWS 76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock” 15y 56.7% ABV
Medium malty notes; a bit of green tea and some white wine. Very light white pepper, some hay and some honey. Water opens the nose up a bit but doesn’t bring much more. 
Sweet initially and with a good malty presence; just a quick hint of toffee up front. Quite warm on the palate with pepper and cinnamon. A bit of hay and some damp cut grass. Wood and a slightly musty scent of old books. Rich and full mouthfeel. Strong texture – chewy. Extremely light fruit – a bit of apple; a bit of pear. Light oak influence throughout.
Pepper carries into the finish, with honey and grain beneath it. A little of the mustiness from the palate, some malt as well, and the oak continues.  A hint of mint on the very far end of the finish accompanied by paraffin. 
This is a pretty enjoyable, big, bold malt. Really full-bodied texture. The heat is strong but totally manageable. That said, there’s nothing very distinctive about this that would make me want to own a full bottle – it’s somewhat anonymous. Ultimately though, there’s nothing here keeping me away from future Mortlachs. 

SMWS 29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth” 20y 59.6% ABV
Nose:  Strong sherry influence initially, with a bit of toffee behind it, absolutely dominating a faint wisp of peatiness. Very slight medicinal notes, a hint of band-aids. A suggestion of lemon and honey, a touch of white pepper and the faint scent of biscuits baking. Faintly ashy.
Palate:  Quite massive sherry note to this one, very syrupy mouthfeel. Heat builds slowly. Lightly medicinal and slightly rubbery. A little waxy fruit note early on. A little toffee and some extremely, extremely faint malt. Slightly raisiny.
Finish:  Plenty of heat, drying slightly but still showing a very strong sherry influence. Slightly rubbery; slightly medicinal. Medium waxy apple skins emerge on the finish and a small bit of smoke. Extremely long lasting finish with a strong sherry texture to it.
Comment:  I could hardly fathom Laphroaig being overpowered, but here it is. This malt is good enough, but the sherry is so ridiculously overpowering that it’s just over the line into unbalanced.
Rating: B
Distillery: Laphroaig

SMWS 77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags” 23y 57.2% ABV
Nose:  Nice, a little spirity at first but it’s also slightly floral – almost like a rye at first versus the usual more-flowery floral notes you get in many Scotch whiskies. Substantial white pepper, a bit of toffee. Lightly leathery, slightly grassy. The rye notes fade down after a couple minutes and vanilla comes up.
Palate:  Malty upfront, with nice white pepper. A bit leathery again but not overpowering. Slightly salty, reasonable wood influence. A bit of hay, slightly musty. A little apple tart note – nice integration of the fruit and grain notes. Some pear along there with it, but again more as a tart.
Finish:  The apple and pear notes come to the fore immediately with malt and slightly old, dusty wood behind them that’s never bitter. Sits nicely on the tongue. A bit hot – cinnamon instead of white pepper.
Comment:  Unusually bourbon-influenced nose, but really nice all the way through. Good mix of elements.
Rating: B
Distillery: Glen Ord

The December Bottles, #2: Laphroaig 25y Cask Strength – 2008 (51.2%)

The December bottlings continues with another fun entry: Laphroaig’s 25 year old cask strength bottling from 2008.

Laphroaig’s 25 year old expression is one that isn’t very common on shelves, and it’s currently rather pricey. As a fan of the 10 year old Laphroaig, when I found this at a reasonable price I couldn’t pass it up.

Let’s not talk about price now, though: it’s the holidays and we’re supposed to spend like drunken sailors. At 51%, this will do a lot to help get you into that drunken state (the nautical experience is your responsibility).

This bottle of Laphroaig has much less packaging flourishes than the Glenmorangie Signet did. It comes in a nice and understated wooden box that’s painted a nice dark shade. It’s got a small label on the front and the bottle is nestled inside, cushioned by some raffia. I suppose if you were bored while drinking the Laphroaig, you could weave the raffia into some sort of small demitasse cozy or something along those lines. The bottle itself is a basic Laphroaig bottle – nothing more, nothing less.

After the presentation of the Glenmorangie, I appreciate the relative simplicity of this one. Not that lavish productions aren’t nice, but an elegant and minimal presentation can be refreshing.

At first nosing of the Laphroaig, the trademark medicinal aromas of the 10 are nowhere near as forward. They’ve softened with age and are more of a background note than a dominant part of the character. In fact, the medicinal notes have almost separated into their own area on the palate and there’s a faintly separate earthy note like the peat you get off of many other Islay whiskies. As you’d expect on a whisky this old, there are some slightly waxy fruit notes; there’s also a hint of apple skin. To me, these two are markers of age. There’s some vanilla in the nose, a touch of sherry, and some dry fruits. A bit of brown sugar is balanced by some of the bacony, cured meat notes that you can pick up on the 10.

It’s nowhere near as aggressive as the 10, but it’s recognizable as a member of the family – perhaps one that has settled down a bit. It was a bit surprising to get the sweetness and waxiness so clearly on this whisky. Many older Port Ellens that I’ve had still have a very aggressive peat at 25 years and older, so I expected something similar on the nose of the Laphroaig.

The mouthfeel is full and rich and a hint oily – more so than the 10 year. There’s a bit of wood early on that reminds you this is an older whisky, but it’s not overbearing or unpleasantly bitter. Some of the familiar tastes come up – smoke, some briny notes and cured meat. There’s also some vanilla and a bit of fruitcake. More surprisingly to me were the notes of apples and pears, which I don’t necessarily expect in strength with Laphroaig. This is in familiar territory to other Laphroaigs, but is uniquely its own due to the more pronounced fruit notes.

The finish is as you’d expect: long and lasting, with a very full presence that is no doubt bolstered by the strength of the bottling. The pears from late in the palate come through; the finish is oily and rich and has some light smokiness to it. The medicinal notes are probably most pronounced on the finish and give some dimension to it.

Overall, this is a good, full-flavored, nuanced whisky. The younger Laphroaig’s aggression has been moderated with age and the whisky is carried more by waxy fruit notes and a hint of sherry. The surprise of apples and pears on the palate help keep this feeling somewhat young. It’s very nicely balanced.

All that said, it’s just a step short of the knees buckling, eyes rolling back into the head kind of experience you might want. The waxy notes are just a bit sluggish which makes me wonder if these casks were starting to get a little tired, or if this is just a note that is more common to aged Laphroaig. I guess I’ll find out in the years to come. As it is, this is a solid B+ malt that just needed something more to push it into A territory.

Stepping beyond that, I believe the asking price for the 25 these days is north of $400. I think that’s a bit rich given that you can find some superb Port Ellens and Broras (which have been closed for 30 years) at a lower price that are higher quality. I personally would like to see something that is much bolder overall at that price. I think this would be much more in line with its experience at about half that price. However, it’s worth reiterating that pricing is not part of the ratings here so the B+ rating doesn’t change (nor does it take the current price into account).

At a glance:

Laphroaig 25y (2008) 51.2% ABV
The trademark Laphroaig medicinal aromas have faded into the background, revealing more direct peat – which is also restrained. Waxy fruits, a hint of apple, a whiff of cured meats. A bit of vanilla and some hint of sherry. Light notes of dry fruits. Brown sugar. 
Full mouthfeel, nice and oily; some wood that shows age but isn’t bitter or heavy. Smoke, cured meat, light brine. A bit of vanilla. A bit of fruitcake. A hint of pears. A bit of apple as well. 
Long, lasting, full. The medicinal notes give some dimension; light smoke; oily and rich. A bit of pears. 
Good, full flavor. The aggression of the younger Laphroaigs is moderated by age, as waxy fruit notes dominate. Despite the age, it’s still got notes of youth with the pears and apples. It’s a nicely nuanced and balanced malt. 

Laphroaig 10 Year (43%)

Nose:   Strongly medicinal, a baked and almost biscuity undertone, bacon, hint of wood.
Palate:  Briny, smoky, peat, smooth, gentle on the palate, more medicinal and some bacony flavors.
Finish:   Slow, languid, delightfully medicinal becoming more smoky and peaty, a recurrence of brine.
Comment:  It’s a can’t-miss Islay. You’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.
Don’t be in a rush with this one in the bottle – it develops nicely over a couple months, with the bacon note increasing after a while, and then even later it becomes incredibly creamy and rich.
Rating: B