Laphroaig Càirdeas 2020 Port & Wine Casks

While this year’s Islay Festival of Malt and Music – Fèis Ìle – has been rather different to other years thanks to the joys of the global pandemic, some things have stayed the same – a load of special whiskies have been released. Most distilleries keep their festival releases for visitors of the island, but a couple regularly send theirs a bit further afield. One of those is a whisky that I grab every year and have become an obsessive collector of, despite not always liking the dram: Laphroaig’s release. This year’s is one that wears its ‘Billy won’t like this’ credentials on its sleeve, but as ever, I’ll give it a go – Laphroaig Càirdeas Port & Wine Casks 2020: Port & Wine Casks.

Care Chase?

Back in 2008, Laphroaig decided to fully embrace its fan club – the Friends of Laphroaig – and launched Càirdeas – pronounced a bit like ‘care chase’ – as a yearly bottling to celebrate its existence. Uncoincidentally, its name is gaelic for ‘friendship’ and it’s launched at Fèis Ìle every year, the time when they get more Friends visiting than at any other time of year.

However, bucking the trend of other distilleries on the island, it’s not specifically a festival bottling. It’s the yearly Friends release, and as such it makes its way slowly around the world, available from the Laphroaig webshop as well as popping up in some markets they can’t ship to.

There’s been an array of releases over the years, each showing off the distillery’s focus of the moment. While they started out with more interesting vattings of casks, they have become a little more pedestrian in recent years, focusing on fan favourites and finishes. This year’s release is one of the latter.

A Brief History of Laphroaig Càirdeas

Laphroaig panorama
2008Laphroaig CàirdeasQuarter casks finished in first-fill bourbon plus a pair of sherry butts
2009Laphroaig Càirdeas 12yoEx-Maker’s Mark casks
2010Laphroaig Càirdeas Master Edition50% ex-bourbon hogsheads (11yo), 50% first-fill ex-bourbon (15, 17 and 19yo)
2011Laphroaig Càirdeas Ileach EditionDunnage-matured, first-fill ex-Maker’s Mark casks, 8yo.
2012Laphroaig Càirdeas Origin50% casks of the 2008 Cairdeas left to mature for a further four years, 50% 7yo fully matured in quarter casks
2013Laphroaig Càirdeas Port Wood EditionBourbon matured finished in port casks
2014Laphroaig Càirdeas Bottled 2014First-fill bourbon finished in Amontillado sherry hogsheads
2015Laphroaig Càirdeas 200th Anniversary Edition100% barley floor-malted at Laphroaig, matured in ex-bourbon casks
2016Laphroaig Càirdeas Madeira CaskEx-bourbon finished in Madeira casks
2017Laphroaig Càirdeas Cask Strength Quarter CaskUndiluted bottling of Laphroaig Quarter Cask
2018Laphroaig Càirdeas Fino CaskFirst-fill bourbon finished in Fino sherry casks
2019Laphroaig Càirdeas Cask Strength Triple WoodUndiluted bottling of Laphroaig Triple Wood
2020Laphroaig Càirdeas Port & Wine CasksEx-bourbon and second-refill ruby port casks, married and finished in ex-red wine casks.
2021Laphroaig Càirdeas Pedro Ximénez CasksAmerican oak, then quarter casks then European-oak PX hogsheads
2022Laphroaig Càirdeas Warehouse 1All matured in warehouse #1 by the sea
2023Laphroaig Càirdeas White Port and MadeiraDetails TBC

Ruby port…and red, red wine?

Laphroaig Càirdeas Port & Wine

My general lack of fondness for both port and red-wine casks is well known. They are blunt tools, often not wielded with the finesse they require, creating overly jammy drams packed with over-the-top sponge-cake notes. A whisky combining both of them in a single bottling is one that I am wary of. However, when I do like red-wine- or port-matured whisky, I really like it, so…

Colour: I don’t usually comment on a whisky’s colour, but this one deserves a mention: it’s pink. A distinctively rosy hue showing off its winey provenance.

Nose: Rich and creamy toffee, with a touch of light beery coulis and, of course, a kick of tarry, medicinal Laphroaig smoke: TCP, burning pine, old ropes and bandages. Minty dark chocolate develops. Ashy smoke hides at the back with fudgy sweetness, and a touch of bitter lemon pith and peel.

Palate: Thick and oily in texture with a delay before impact. Slick and syrupy at first without much going on and then: boom. Peat, lemon and sour berries. A big whack of burning pine rolls through the middle, followed by dark chocolate and a touch of singed raisin. The fudge sweetness and tar from the nose sit underneath, with hints of cherries and fruit cake.

Finish: Mint, menthol and anise lead to tar-covered sponge cake.

Give me a little time, let me clear out my mind

Laphroaig Càirdeas Port & Wine is a port- and/or red-wine-matured whisky that I like.

I’m as shocked as you.

For me, this not only works but shows other whisky makers how to use often overly influential casks without swamping the spirit. There are several parts to this:

  • using second-refill port casks, which are going to give less cask influence than a first-fill
  • vatting that whisky with ex-bourbon-matured spirit before finishing
  • careful finishing to add character without overtaking the underlying whisky
  • Laphroaig is a ballsy spirit that can take a punchy cask.

The red-wine cask has added some sweet sponge-cake and fudgy character, along with a touch of berry fruit. The underlying whisky has a core of toffee-forward Laphroaig with some sticky cherry – the thing that I find often gets too much in many port-matured drams – without going too far. In the end, it’s all balanced, with Laphroaig’s distillery character taking centre stage.

It’s a dram that has pleasingly confounded my expectations. It’s a bit sweet and might dip a bit far into the wine-cask cakiness for some, but it works for me. And it’s pink. One day I’ll get enough bottles do a pink whisky tasting…

As I write, Laphroaig Càirdeas Port and Wine is still available from the Laphroaig webshop for Friends of Laphroaig. It’s €102.37 plus delivery.

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