When I looked at the outurn list this month I was relieved. It looked like a straightforward list that wouldn’t leave me bankrupt – maybe a Bowmore and a Caol Ila for the Islay mountain at home? I should have known – every time I think that the opposite happens. A great list this month, lots of fantastic drinking and tasting whisky* in the £40-50s, and some righteous older stuff too. 100% bourbon cask. Prevailing flowers, fags and citrus fruit this month, very summery.
And some bottles that are good but not showing much of their distillery character. Which is of course (as John reminded me) the whole point of the society and the reason for the “obfuscation” of the producer. Of course by now I practically count in SMWS distillery codes (Glenfarclas, Glenlivet, Bowmore, Highland Park, etc) and when I see a clock reading 5:45 I just think “Auchentoshan”! So the distillery number doesn’t really hide anything on any level now for me (and many others). Even so I shouldn’t let the number cloud my judgement of a bottling, but when it comes to Laphroaig – well Laphroaig is special. More on that later…
SMWS G1.13, Summer Fete and flower shows, North British, 36 years old, 56.2% A⊕
31st August 1978, 188 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - Cut flower stems, dew soaked grass, tomato leaf and Werther’s Original. Very herbal. An edge of toasted, planed oak. Quite dark and structured on the nose – restrained but powerful. This is exactly the type of nose I love on a grain. Lovely. After tasting, some toasted bread and liquorice torpedoes. With water, elegant and musky cask.
Body - Quite intensely wooded, a little spice, some marker pen at the front of the mouth and intensely sweet on the tip of the tongue. With water, pink grapefruit and lots of floral chocolate.
Finish - Long, spicy wood. Almost petrolic in its development. Balanced but intense - and extremely long. This lingered deep into the Linkwood (next).
I really like this - a grain with real balls and very interesting to drink. I'm not sure when I'd pour a glass at home but it's a fascinating start to the session. Great stuff.
SMWS 39.110, Linkwood, Builders at breaktime, 14 years old, 58% A⊕
1st June 2000, 287 bottles, refill bourbon.
Nose - Light, breezy and bright, with blonde cereal and strawberry. Quite feminine given the name, with dried citrus peel and waxy wood. Bright, fruity and delicious with marzipan and tinned peach tart. Very good.
Body - Initially sweet, then sharp and spicy with tobacco and more grapefruit. Quite a big, young bruiser in a very competent way. Water calms the intensity nicely bringing out the citrus fruit and a hubba bubba note right at the back. This really comes into its own with water.
Finish - Long, more big grapefruit tartness and lots of black pepper.
This is another "apparently harsh" whisky that develops and rewards patience. A cracker, highly recommended, but take your time.
SMWS 36.88, Benrinnes, Fruitilicious!, 15 years old, 54.7% A+
14th September 1999, 176 bottles, 1st fill bourbon
Nose - Boiled sweet fake fruit sweetness, bubble-gum and that posh lemonade with the peel off lid. Raspberry jam on lemon drizzle cake. Underneath you have that dusty cask and toasty wood, backing up the fake fruit nicely -but it's lacking a bit of midrange. With water, again, really lovely, with the balance really coming together and becoming more gentle and cask driven.
Body - Sweet, bright and refreshing, fruity and backed up by tannins and dried chilli. With water, great cask musk and some cashew nuts. Beautiful, really.
Finish - Quite short, fruit toffee and refreshers. Lots of cream at the end. Good tropical burps.
I'm always looking for good cask in whisky and this has it. Another smasher.
SMWS 9.102, Glen Grant, Gun cabinets and flying saucers, 19 years old, 59.7% A+
23rd April 1996, 244 bottles, refill bourbon
Body - Bright, intense, sweet and fruity, with lovely toffee and cut flower stems. Quite grain like on the delivery, lots of wood. Works really well with water again, a little spicier with dried mango.
Finish - Angelica, toffee, rice paper and the membrane on a walnut. Long with lots of herbal notes and chewed flowers. More tropical burps, maybe that's left over from the previous drams though! With water, weirdly, pickled onion Monster Munch?
A complex and serious Glen Grant with lots of fruit and interesting earthy, herbal notes.
BUY, but it's reasonably hard work.
SMWS 58.15, Gravitas in a glass, Strathisla, 25 years old, 56.1% A⊕+
5th June 1989, 170 bottles, refill bourbon. Biggest whisky here IMHO.
Nose - Initially restrained, but there's some deep toffee fruit in here trying to get out. There's almost a bourbon in here too - dark vanilla, Vimto, cigar tobacco. Now; rose tea, icy winter mud and just a hint of TCP. Now; tomato sauce and oregano, and ice, like a bloody mary. And a touch of natural gas. This is hard work and really restrained but keeping diggin and there's loads in here. After tasting, coconut ice? Complicated. Definitely more coconut ice with water.
Body - Bright, wood shavings, massively sweet and a little winey. Arancello? Really drinkable, and very sweet.
Finish - Long, spicy deeply sweet with lots of orange. Lovely citrus zest. With water, juicier and even orangier.
What a big, bright, zesty, orangey whisky. But big, complex, rewarding and chaseable. Wonderful, creamy, delicious orange booze.
SMWS 37.84, A real charmer, Cragganmore, 30 years old, 51.3% A+
24th April 1985, 188 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - Quite tannic and astringent on the nose, like a red wine is (not that it smells of red wine). Sawdust, flaked almonds, iced buns, cut red cherry, lemon meringue pie. Very fresh and young, particularly for 30.
Body - Icing, sweet almonds, red fruit and a big dusty, spicy backing of grist, toast and honey. The nose makes more sense now with good wood and cereal. An extremely delicious delivery, lots of proper "I'm in a distillery" going on here with malt mills, spirit in the air and cut wood..
Finish - Medium, a little watery, but balanced and fresh. Chocolate covered marshmallow.
Initially a bit ordinary but the delivery is just lovely - lots of fresh British fruit (more plum and cherry than apple and pear) and clean wood. But not much to show for a 30 year old.
SMWS 121.81, Intense, lively and delicious, Arran, 15 years old, 55.2% A⊕
2nd December 1999, 286 bottles, refill bourbon. Arrans are still coming! And I’m liking these newer ones they distilled with a few years under their belt.
Nose - Chocolate brazil nuts. Nutty, sweet, fresh linen and a little bit winey with some deodorant and soft toffee. Lots of pastry on the nose when you come back after tasting. A little more chocolate and Sauvignon blanc with water.
Body - Sweet, syrupy with licked joss sticks (dusty, numbing, perfumed), and red apple. More Sauvignon Blanc on the delivery with water - that really works.
Finish - Medium long, intensely numbing (Sichuan peppercorns) with more toast and burnt wood. Water really rounds out the finish - absolutely fresh, tart and delicious.
Another cracking Arran.
SMWS 4.209, The Cinderella cottage, Highland Park, 19 years old, 54.5% A+
30th November 1995, 251 bottles, refill bourbon.
Nose - John says "a peach covered in moss – what…? I can talk bollocks just as well as the rest of you". Window putty in an old shed, AGAIN! Deep, ordinary (in a good way) bourbon cask, acrylic paint, but quite young and restrained. There's a hint of fresh peach and mango behind a lot of paint and some beeswax.
Body - Toasty, acrylic and shaved wood. Glace cherries and rosemary. Cigar tobacco (but a bit dry). Ripe peach.
Finish - Peat seasoning, musky oak, long structural sulphur, cakey with peach stones.
I had really high hopes for this but honestly, it's a bit ordinary (if extremely competent). It's good value though and objectively (even ignoring the distillery) it's probably still a BUY at that price.
SMWS 66.71, An apothecary on a motorcycle, Ardmore, 12 years old, 53.8% A⊕
17th July 2002, 217 bottles, refill bourbon.
Nose - Deep, winey and savoury - charred pork, mussels, and a deep, painty note I would have called out as refill sherry if I hadn't just written "refill bourbon". Sour cherry, mothballs and something to do with photocopiers or printing. Gloss paint on wood.
Body - Light, sweet and charred wood, BBQed shellfish. Quite tame, peat wise but it has good depth, sweetness and lots of midrange. Lovely to drink although it does have that kind of "catch at the back of the throat" peat character I don't usually really appreciate in Ardmores (which comes out more with water).
Finish - Long, fruity and peaty, quite cakey but dry. Spicy but balanced.
This is a good whisky. It might not be a representative Ardmore (although the peat character, rather than intensity, is right) but it's a great thing to drink.
SMWS 93.64, Holidays at the beach, Glen Scotia, 13 years old, 57.4% A⊕
30th April 2002, 222 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - Sweet and fresh, clean. Ozone and lightly smoked haddock. Quite ripe pears, whipped cream and Pritt Stick. It's a fresh, fruity nose rather than beachy and smoky, but all the same rather satisfying.
Body - Lovely and rich cereal, balanced sweetness, toasted and ripe peat. Cheap ice cream and wafers, catches again a little in the throat but has a bright sweetness on the tip of the tongue to sooth. Refreshers on the tip of the tongue with water, like a big old dirty Islay might have.
Finish - Medium, good wine notes, balanced numbing peat. Another delicious whisky.
SMWS 3.244, Film Noir, Bowmore, 19 years old, 58.8% A+
7th May 1996, 211 bottles, refill bourbon
Body - More red fruit, juicy with dark burnt wood and lots of cereal. Fruity and sweet - burnt brown sugar, caramelised peaches and chewed Marlboro Lights.
Finish - Numbing, like very hoppy beer. Long burnt oak and lingering Sichuan peppercorns. Eventually, liquorice allsorts.
Not a very society Bowmore and it lacks complexity but nonetheless, a very drinkable whisky. I'd happily settle into this in front of a film all evening - maybe this is what I should be buying instead of the challengers? Maybe you should too!
SMWS 53.225, Comfortably smoky, Caol Ila, 23 years old, 53.1% A⊕
29th January 1992, 254 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - This is a very comfortable whisky. In a deep, leather sofa, complex and correct way. Deep toffee and wine, cranberry glaze, Chinese wok steamed fish, chocolate malt and fried paprika. This is just what I wanted from a 23 year old Caol Ila. Wine - almost Sauternes with water.
Body - Massive. Retronasally floral and dusty, but deeply, darkly sweet and oaken. Clean and bright too, with fresh apple juice on the side of the tongue. And just sweet, refreshing and fruity. Glorious. With water, even more delicious.
Finish - Medium, dark, rich and ripe with black cherry and burnt wood. In the end you're left with sweet, beautiful black fruit.
Wonderful. I could drink and drink this all day and night. I'm tempted to put it next to 53.210 “Fantastic stuff” here but it's more gluggable than that. While this might be £100, and I might have given it "only" an A⊕, it's so flipping drinkable it's a strong buy, go for it.
SMWS 29.166, 'Elementary, my dear Watson', Laphroaig, 15 years old, 51.5% A+
1st July 1999, 246 bottles, refill bourbon
Body - Sweet icing sugar, dusty and lightly peated, fried cashew nuts. Hundreds and thousands.
Finish - Numbing peat comes through, like a ghost of Laphroaigs past. Citrus. It's perfectly lovely and drinkable it's just not what I wanted from a Laphroaig.
Now there are a number of factors at play with the review of this month’s Laphroaig.
First, as mentioned at the start, I shouldn’t be thinking of this as a Laphroaig, it’s just another cask from distillery 29. That’s true but unfortunately I can’t unlearn the number and expectations have been set. And as I’m painfully aware when doing blind tastings, expectations make a massive difference (as does environmental context, what I had for lunch, what I drank prior to what I’m tasting, my mood, my state of health, and whether I’ve toured the distillery or have some other kind of emotional attachment to the whisky).
Second, and like many whisky enthusiasts, I have a special place for Laphroaig in my heart. It was “my first” (the first I really got) and I’m always looking for that hit. So when it doesn’t deliver what I’m expecting, and when it doesn’t make me think of TCP and hospitals and beaches I become disappointed. Furthermore, recently I’ve been being disappointed more regularly – the Douglas Laing Feis Ile 2015 bottling, 29.164, Laphroaig PX, Select Cask… I was fairly philosophical about Select at first but it’s becoming worrying now.
Third, and this might explain number two, it seems Laphroaig is a love you can lose. Once you ratchet up to the TWE 15 year old you’re left wondering where the next big hit of TCP is going to come from. Where’s all the TCP GONE!
In summary, I can’t recommend this one. But your mileage may vary. I recommend the Caol Ila this month for your own personal Islay lake… but don’t forget the unpeated stuff!
* Drinking whisky = something I want to enjoy while talking or watching a film. Tasting whisky = something I want to enjoy sat alone and contemplate or write about. I tend to have too much of the latter open, when I want to drink the former.