Peated scotch can be a polarizing category, with as many detractors as there are enthusiasts. Laphroaig is known in particular for embracing the arguably divisive tasting notes that people come away with after taking a sip of this Islay single malt. If flavors like tar, iodine, seaweed and wet bog are appealing to you (and they are indeed to many people), this is the whisky for you. If not, best to move on to a smoke-free Speyside or Highlands malt, which are of course delicious in their own right. There is a wide range of peated Islay whiskies to try, but Laphroaig, owned by drinks giant Beam Suntory, remains one of the best known and widely available of the bunch. Fans of the core 10-year-old expression are well advised to seek out this new sherry cask-finished version, which opens up an entirely new world of flavors that build upon its familiar character.
Of course, this isn’t the first time sherry wood has been used to age Laphroaig, but this new limited-edition bottle earns its place in the lineup by putting a new spin on a classic. The whisky is initially matured in both bourbon and refill Oloroso sherry casks, followed by a secondary maturation period of 12 to 18 months in European oak sherry barrels. The bourbon barrel background that defines so many Laphroaig expressions plays the starring role here. But the sherry oak brings a strong, Oscar-worthy supporting character performance to the whisky, like a fortified wine Brad Pitt playing second fiddle to a charred oak Leo DiCaprio, all the while subtly stealing the show.
There have been some truly excellent new Laphroaig releases over the past few years, particularly the annual Càirdeas expression, and this stands with the best of them. The palate explodes with beautiful dried fruits that casually mingle with the core tar and smoke flavors, along with pops of vanilla and honey that are followed by some fresh orange and grapefruit on the finish. It’s bottled at cask strength of 48 percent ABV, bringing a nice bit of heat to the nose and palate that lets you know you’re in for a full-flavored experience. A few drops of water expand the various tasting notes a bit, but by no means is this necessary to enjoy the whisky.
The key factor is that this whisky is recognizably 10-year-old Laphroaig, but with enough new character to separate it from the original. There’s nothing more boring than when a distillery puts out a new bottling with some hyped minor change that leaves you wondering what the point was. But that is not the case here. Sure, cask finishing has been around for decades, and it can go either way—either overpowering the whisky or not even registering. Clearly, attention to detail has been paid here, as this whisky strikes a nice balance between the two.