From time to time the little whisky geek echo chamber that I sit in gets its collective metaphorical panties in virtual bunch. The most recent bunch-incident happened this past weekend with the launch of Laphroaig Select, the latest entry in the distillery’s ongoing line-up. Like a good little whisky geek, I got caught up with the crowd, but have spent the last few days considering my opinion. While I initially tried it within hours of the announcement of its existence was made public, a couple of days of thought have changed my mind considerably about the whisky.
So, what is it? It’s the new entry level Laphroaig, with its RRP of £34.99 coming in just under the 10 year old’s. Combining the information from the press release and Friends of Laphroaig announcement email, it has a core of new American oak matured whisky which has been vatted with a little bit of almost everything else that Laphroaig have in their portfolio – Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, PX and 10 year old. It sounds like a simultaneously pepped up and smoothed out version of the Travel Retail exclusive QA Cask, itself a new oak finished version of Quarter Cask.
While we heard about it at work a little while back, I didn’t get to try it until the Whisky Lounge London Weekender, which happily coincided with the launch. I was working at the show but popped down before my shift to have a taste:
Nose: Punchy medicinal and mineral notes on the nose – muddy peat, rockpools and sea spray. Behind that there is sweetness, with chocolate milk and cornflake touches, as well as sherbert lemons and a gentle touch of wood smoke.
Palate: Soft and surprisingly light on the palate, with gingery spice, vanilla, sour apple and char backed up by nutmeg, cinnamon and a little dried fruit. The peat from the nose is subdued, with a soft and syrupy pine note coming through.
Finish: Spicy new oak, sour apple and a touch of damp wood. As that fades the traditional medicinal notes appear and linger for a short while.
Those tasting notes have gone through several iterations, as when I first tried it I was incredibly disappointed – this was sub-QA level Laphroaig, a dram I described as ‘quaffing whisky’. It was definitely not what I look for in a Laphroaig. Speaking to some of the other geeks present, we all agreed and fell into a self-perpetuating spiral of dislike. On Monday, after some agonising on Facebook on Sunday night, Serge Valentin separately posted his review on WhiskyFun, the whisky geek gospel: 70pts, with a comment that it was “A poor little thing, the kind that could make me want to quit whisky”. Laphroaig Select’s fate was set amongst the little bit of the whisky world that I inhabit.
However, m’colleague Ollie, having heard me rant about the Select, handed me a random glass to try after work the other day, as he often does (being the product development guy), and asked me what I thought. I said that the nose was nice but the body fell down by being too light. It was, of course, the Select, and tasted blind was not worthy of a 70pt drubbing.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I find this whisky worrying. It’s very much Laphroaig-lite, even more so than the QA. My assumption is that they are trying to bring in more new drinkers and as such are trying to tone down some of Laphroaig’s traditional love-it-or-hate-it character to make it more approachable. I hope I’m wrong, as I don’t think it’s worked: the nose is as medicinal as ever, albeit less smoky, which may still put off the potential newbies, while the body is toned down and soft enough that while the newbs might like it, if they can get past the nose, the old skool Laphroaig geeks (as represented by the folks who have posted online about it so far) won’t. It also mixes and matches the geek’s pet peeves and loves: it has no age statement, is 40% and probably chill-filtered (it doesn’t say it isn’t), while also being naturally coloured – the easiest to solve of the four ills of the whisky world without impacting the non-geek market.
However, while I’m not a fan, it’s not an actively bad whisky, it’s just really not for me. It’s a toned down Laphroaig positioned at the entry level of the range. The reaction from the non-geeks has been broadly positive, or at least not negative. It is what it is: a relatively inexpensive new entry into the range.
The only real issue I see, and probably a big reason as to why it exists, is that its price point sits very close to the 10 year old. If the price of that stalwart goes up, then it will push the rest of the range up with it. Whisky is getting more expensive, especially spirit from Islay, so it’s expected, but we don’t have to enjoy it.
Now to sit back and await the launch of the 2014 Cairdeas next week – “double matured Laphroaig from bourbon barrels and Amontillado seasoned traditional hogsheads”. Fortunately I’ll be on Islay for Feis Ile, so will hopefully be able to try before I inevitably buy.
Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 40%. RRP £34.99