10 Of My Favorite Smoky Whiskies

I’ve been an absolutely distracted sonofabitch of late. Every time I would sit down with pen and paper in hand something else would grab my attention and off I would go looking into that.

I think I was subconsciously telling my self to take a break from writing and simply enjoy the whiskies instead. So that’s what I did. Drank for the sake of enjoying my self. No notes. No discussions. Just a good dollop of my favourite poison in the midst of good company (dog included).

But I think I’ve had enough of a break. Plus I’m off to my favourite part of the world in less than two weeks time and I need to start getting into the groove of reporting. Which favourite part, you ask? Well, if you don’t know me by now I guess you never will.

And so, with that in mind and, as a tip of my hat to this remote South Western part of Scotland here are 10 of my favourite smoky whiskies. Spoiler alert, there’s a couple plus one more not from there but you know what I mean.

Also, in no particular order.

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01 Ardbeg UigeadailLet’s just start with my once all-time favourite. The disgustingly excellent Oogy. I had heard many a whisky drinker / writer mention their Eureka moment – that moment when a certain special whisky hits your palate and you lean back with your eyes closes and say what the actual fuck is going on here? Like it or not that’s an actual quote. I had it with this whisky one evening many moons ago. It was an earlier bottling (around 2007, I think), hence, not marred by the ugly taint of hurried production to meet demand. Just the right combination of thick and chewy smoky peat countered by the perfectly balanced sherry. Still my go to dram to finish off a long session of whisky drinking. Alas, later batches are losing their edge, I feel. Still a mighty fine whisky if you ask me.

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02 Laphroaig CSThe first distillery I visited. The most generous distillery I’ve visited. Staffed by some of the loveliest people I have ever met (though on Islay that’s not very surprising). One of the best tours on the island (if you haven’t then you must check out Water to Whisky). And, in my opinion, quite possibly the most consistently above average spirit produced at these quantities on the island. And the jewel in their peaty crown is their Cask Strength series. Bottled at 10 years old, matured in first-fill bourbon and served at cask strength this series has captured the imagination of even the most hardened of whisky drinkers. There is not a soul who has told me they don’t love this whisky. How can you? It’s just good old fashioned whisky making. My favourite of the lot (they’re up to Batch 008 by now) is Batch 003. Quite possibly the most balanced of them all. Sweeter than most. Though not as smoky as some of the batches (like the 006) but brilliantly preserves it’s Islay heritage of peat, seaweed, iodine and that lovely charred ashy smoke that wafts in and out of your palate as you indulge. The most affordable, as well as tastiest, of all the whiskies you can lay your hands on.

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03 Lagavulin 16Bruce Lee once famously said “I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once but the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee could not only punch you from an inch away and hurl you back 10 feet he was also a sage. And if I didn’t know any better I would have thought he was referring to Lagavulin 16. This is the right way of doing things. Perfect a formula. Never let it go. Keep at it till it becomes your second skin. That’s what the Lagavulin 16 is. It has defined the essence of the distillery. Lagavulin, thanks to this 16 year old, can do no wrong. The 16 is the Barack Obama of the distillery. The right balance of fun and seriousness. The swag. Universally loved. Easy to fall in love with. In fact that’s what I have in my glass right now. A buttery sweetness held together by it’s own unique dance of smoke and peat. Flawlessly balanced. Readily available. Relatively well priced. What more could you ask for? Maybe a Warehouse session with Iain Macarthur, perhaps?

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04 Kilchoman MachirBaySeldom does a distillery suddenly spring up out of no where (the first distillery on Islay in over a 100 years) and capture the hearts of so many whisky lovers. Kilchoman did just that. Hardly 10 years old it has brought back the forgotten art of hand-crafted whiskies. This minuscule operation churns out just enough whisky to keep us barely satiated. But what it does produce it produces with the sternest of eyes on quality. Top quality ingredients and a firm grip on the production process have resulted in some of the tastiest liquid to emerge from Scotland in recent memory. Proud to tell people how young yet incredibly tasty it is it has thrown the gauntlet down in front of brands that hide behind non-age statement whiskies scared to divulge any information on age. Yes, the Machir Bay is a non-age statement but all of Kilchoman’s literature will tell you there is four to six year old spirit inside that bottle. They don’t hide anything. Proving once and for all that age is truly a number. Good whisky, if made with care and passion, will yield stunning results in even five years. The Machir Bay is a shining example of that passion. Matured in first-fill bourbons and then finished off in sherry casks it captures the essence of the island with it’s hint of sherry sweetness and a lot of barley grist and lime shrouded in the most delicate of smoke. Later batches have older whiskies and are just as good as their younger cousins. If anyone wishes for a masterclass in whisky making head on down there.

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05 Port CharlotteSurprisingly the only distillery on Islay that doesn’t peat it’s whiskies is Bruichladdich. In fact they claim to be a ‘peat-free zone’ as per their website. However, Jim McEwan has turned producing peated whiskies into an art form. And this art he presents in the form of Port Charlotte whiskies. Born as a special project the PC series uses heavily peated barley (40ppm) and is served at cask strength. Of the lot (PC5 to PC12) my favourite is the PC6. Alas, now discontinued, this six year old whisky is a joy to behold (and imbibe). Served at a blazing 61.6% it promises to take no prisoners. The delivery is surprisingly fruity with citrus and green apple but it’s the strength and the perfectly balanced smoke that takes you places you’ve never been. This one is scarce on the ground and now only available to punters scouring auction sites only to be had at silly prices. Nevertheless, this is history in a bottle.

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06 OctomoreNo list of smoky whiskies is complete without the powerhouse that is the Octomore. Once again Jim McEwan has created a monster that will live long in the hearts of the brave for many many years to come. Peated at unfathomable levels of up to 258ppm the Octomore series is a kick in the teeth for the uninitiated. Served at cask strength it is like making snow angels in the dying embers of a once raging fire all the while being comforted by the perfectly balanced sweetness of vanilla and citrus. This is the by far the smokiest and most powerful whisky on this list. It is a testament to the genius of Sir Jim McEwan (he doesn’t have an MBE but I’ve given him one). It’s OK to be a little scared of this whisky. But once you get over your terror believe me it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

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07 Longrow 11Now peat and smoke are not the sole property of Islay. It is known for it, yes. But that doesn’t mean non-Islay whiskies are barred from peating their barley. And that brings us to this Longrow 11 R&K. Two hours from Islay (by ferry, that is) is the town of Campbeltown. Once a prolific whisky producing region it now has just three distilleries to its’ name. One of those distilleries is Springbank and this distillery is genius. It uses the same stills to produce three different types of whisky. The un-peated Hazelburn, the mildly peated Springbank and finally Longrow, the heavily peated nectar of the Gods (and my favourite of the lot). With an earthiness unique to this area Longrow creates some of the most lip-smacking whiskies I have ever come across. This particular spirit is 11 years old and matured in tiny casks known as Runlets & Kilderkins. These casks are barely 75 litres and were previously used to store beer. The small size means massive contact between wood and spirit, thus, imparting some seriously intense flavours. Ground coffee beans, tiramisu and it’s own version of Campbeltown smoky peat make this expression startlingly good. If you’re not afraid to venture out of your comfort zone then get your hands on this bottle.

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08 Balcones BrimstoneThe first time I tasted the Balcones Brimstone I pretty much fell off my chair. I mean there was no way a whisky was supposed to taste like this. Made by, then owner, Chip Tate at the Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas it broke all conventional rules. First of all it was made by burnt blue corn (yes, you read that right) and once distilled it was subject to some seriously severe smoking using sun baked Texas scrub oak. That’s right. Smoked after being distilled. This was followed by three years in a virgin oak under the blazing Texas sun and you had the makings of a monster. Imagine sitting next to a bonfire. No wait. Imagine sitting inside the bonfire. Actually, no wait. Imagine you are the fucking bonfire. This is what this whisky is. Peppery, hard-hitting and insanely smoky this one should come with a warning. And it’s own fireman. One of the most unique whisky tasting experiences of my life.

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09 Talisker 57NorthClose to Islay is the small island of Skye. And on it is one distillery. Talisker. That’s it. Maybe an inn, a B&B and some deer. But that’s pretty much it. The entire island depends on the distillery for it’s sustenance. Which is fine because it produces spirit like the classic ten year old and the one that stole my heart – the 57 North. Named because the distillery is located at 57 degrees Longitude the spirit is bottled at (and no prizes for guessing) at a lovely 57%. If you haven’t figured it out by now I am a sucker for high strength whiskies. And this one is no exception. Once again, as with all on my list, it’s the balance that reigns supreme. Sweet vanilla and the deftest of smoke. That combination of sweet and smoky is my melting point.

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10 Highland PArk 18Now you might raise an eyebrow or two when reading this but allow me to explain. When I said I was going to do a list of smoky whiskies I didn’t just mean those that force you to put on a gas mask. If you recall I said smoky and not smokiest. Subtle difference in words but a huge gap in styles. The Highland Park 18 is the epitome of that difference. While drinkers imagine massive puffs of peat smoke every time someone uses the word smoky to describe a whisky the HP 18 takes the most delicate of smokes and weaves it intricately in between layers of sherry sweetness. I remember when I first really noticed it. It came a few seconds after I poured the spirit onto my palate. I was enjoying the sweetness of the sherry when suddenly, out of no where, it emerged. Like a genie. It caressed my taste buds and was present long after I had banished the liquid down into the deep chasm that is my gullet. While most whiskies on this list wear the smoky badge with a swagger this 18 year old reserves it for when you least expect it.
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As with all my lists this too is simply a reflection of my personal experiences. You may agree. Or disagree. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 12

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 57.5% | Colour: Pale Gold
Nose: 8.4 | Palate: 8.6 | Finish: 8.5 | Overall Score: 8.5

Review
Every couple of weeks I wake up with a hankering for Islay and since I don’t have the luxury of being spontaneous I do the next best thing. I go over the hundreds of pictures and videos I have in my collection and try and re-live those moments.

Among the coveted memorabilia from that tiny island is my little notepad with the word NOTES scrawled across the cover. As you might have guessed it contains tasting notes on pretty much every single whisky I tasted while I was there. Thus, whenever I feel nostalgic I riffle through the ones I haven’t shared with you yet and bring them out.

If you know me you know Laphroaig is in my top two distilleries of all time – no mean feat given my overly critical personality and a penchant for theatrics. But they have more solid whiskies than duds and that’s enough to keep me satisfied.

We were in Islay for the Feis (Festival) and had a number of things planned for this day. Started off with a nice tasting at Bowmore after which we made our way to Islay Breweries to soak in the sun and drink some ales. After a couple of lazy hours at the brewery we headed over to Laphroaig to experience their famed Premium Tasting.

The session was conducted by our good friend James and we had a number of excellent whiskies on the menu. We started off with the 10 which was followed by the new 15 and then the softly understated 21 year old. A stunning 16 year old single cask from Warehouse 1 (not for general release) and finally this Cairdeas in question.

Released back in 2009, signalling the appointment of John Campbell as the new distillery manager, this beauty is 12 years old and harvested from a host of first-fill Makers Mark bourbon barrels. My sample is from an open bottle and served at 57.5%

Nose: Brilliantly Laphroaig. Creamy. Buttery. But with a sharp citric quality typical of the distillery. Like a razor sharp lime. Let it breathe and it becomes a more rounded. Now a touch softer. Some minerals. Limestone. Meanders into a nice fruitiness. Cherry liquorice. Now a touch of rock salt. Soft peat. Wisp of smoke. Some wet wood. If you’re a fan of Laphroaig there’s nothing wrong here.

Palate: Crisp. Sharp. Bold. Quite drying. That mineral quality again. Limestone. Quite nutty now. Almond husks. That sharp lime is the dominant force now. Starts off sweet and then moves to a sea-saltiness. Lovely maritime flavours. Once again, as a fan of the distillery, you’d be hard pressed to find a lot wrong.

Finish: Long. Drying. And that lovely limestone again.

Overall Comments: This is my sweet spot for whiskies (as it is for a couple of other friends of mine); twelve years old, first-fill bourbon and bottled at cask strength. Sometimes I wish all whiskies were made like this.

Overall Score: 8.5

Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 008

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 59.2% | Colour: Deep Gold
Nose: 8.8 | Palate: 8.8 | Finish: 8.8 | Overall Score: 8.8

Review
Is this one of the greatest Islay whisky series ever? I’m inclined to think so.

I first came across this series when the Batch 003 caught my eye. I didn’t know much about whiskies back then but I knew I liked cask strength whiskies and I liked Islay whiskies. And at 35GBP this one was a no-brainer.

Of course, once I opened the bottle and had my first sip I knew that I would have to own every single release from this series – past and future. Given the fact that I have mild OCD anything with a numbered batch meant I had to have the entire set.

Thus, began my journey of securing earlier releases and, like a hound, finding new ones and adding them to my collection. I was fortunate enough to grab the last few straight from the distillery. Believe me there’s nothing like drinking this whisky straight from the bottle while sitting on the stone pier in front of Warehouse No. 1

Ah, nostalgia.

The CS series is matured in first-fill bourbon casks and bottled at natural strength. My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at a whopping 59.2%

Nose: Iodine. Lots of it. Red fruits. Moschino cherries. Red grapes. Liquorice. Fishnets. Sea salt flakes. Green tobacco leaf. Mint leaf. Dark cherry chocolate. Cardamom. Betel leaf. Toasted oak. Hint of spice. Very sweet nose which mellows out to a touch of savoury. Fantastic. 8.8

Palate: Boom! Big. Strong. Lots of bite. Strong oak. Jolts the taste buds. Lindt red chilli chocolate. The red grapes again. Fennel. Dries mid-palate. Sea salt. Ceylon black tea. With some water the iodine increases. Becomes even more dry. Prefer it without water, for sure. 8.8

Finish: Long. Oak. Cardamom. Spices. Green tea. 8.8

Overall Comments: Well, what can I say. This one is an absolute corker. Love everything about it. Love it all the more for bringing back memories of Islay.

Overall Score: 8.8

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2016 Feis Ile

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Nose: 7.6 | Palate: 7.8 | Finish: 7.6 | Overall Score: 7.7

Review
I think the picture in this review sums up the perfect whisky drinking experience for me. Sitting outside the visitors centre at Laphroaig, overlooking the cold waters of the North Atlantic as they lazily washed over the grey rocks and, most importantly, two extra glasses for sharing my whisky.

The morning had dawned beautifully and we were all set to experience Laphroaig’s rather popular tour, Water to Whisky. This is where they take you out to the distillery’s water source, visit the peat bogs to cut some peat and then give you the opportunity to hand-fill a bottle down in the legendary Warehouse 1 from a cask of your choosing.

As everyone was prepping and getting their wellies in order I snuck three drams of their latest Cairdeas out for a quiet sip before heading out. (On a side note, let me tell you there is probably no distillery on Islay more generous with their drams than Laphroaig. You can literally drink to your hearts’ content at the bar inside the visitors centre for no charge.)

As my two other friends joined me we toasted to what turned out to be a an absolutely wonderful day of whisky drinking and exploring. But I will talk about that in a later post.

In the mean time we had in front of us a rather unusual Laphroaig. To the best of my knowledge this was the first time Laphroaig had experimented with a Madeira cask so, needless to say, everyone was quite excited.

This particular Cairdeas is a vatting of first-fill bourbons which have then been finished off in a Madeira hogshead. The result is a departure from the traditional Laphroaig flavours. My sample is from an open bottle and served at 51.6%

Nose: The sharp peat jumps out first. Quite spicy. A bit of oak. Becomes sweet and sour after a while. I don’t know if I’m getting influenced by the label but there’s red fruits in here too. Red berries. Raspberries. Liquorice. And finally that familiar Laphroaig iodine and seaweed that I was searching for. Dries with a touch of water. This is a good nose if you ask me. Just short of being fantastic but good in it’s own right. 7.6

Palate: Hmmmmm. This is where the Laphroaig distillate comes through more. Well rounded and crisp. The oak is there and it’s been dry-rubbed by those same red berries. The liquorice is back. And it’s back with some dark chocolate. And, as with the nose, the seaweed and iodine make a last minute appearance. It’s sweet and sour at the same time. Once again, like the nose, it does not blow my mind but I’m happy to drink it. 7.8

Finish: Smoky. Earthy. Hint of those red fruits again. 7.6

Overall Comments: I love Laphroaig. In fact I love pretty much everything about them. Especially the tour & tasting guides who go out of their way to make you feel special. This new Cairdeas is a departure from the typical Laphroaig house style but I think it works even if it doesn’t blow my socks off. I’m more than happy to drink this all evening. Preferably at the distillery’s visitor centre.

Overall Score: 7.7

Laphroaig 11

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 48% | Colour: Bronze
Nose: 20 | Taste: 21 | Finish: 21 | Balance: 21 | Rating: 83

Review
Those who know me know that I have the softest spot in the world for Laphroaig. It was the first distillery that I had ever visited. I have had some of my best drinking experiences with whiskies from this iconic giant. Sure, like any other love affair, there have been low points in our relationship but those have largely been off set by some stunning spirits.

And since there’s very few recent Laphroaigs that I’ve not tasted I’m always jumping at the opportunity to sink my teeth into any latest offering from them and offer my unsolicited two cents. As was the case with this eleven year old travel retail launched exclusively for Amsterdam Airport.

I was at my friends’ house just ploughing through one independent after another when he put this on the table much to my glee. I had been meaning to get my hands on this but trips to Amsterdam are very few and extremely far between so it turned out to be a rather pleasant surprise.

Now I didn’t know much about this particular offering other than it was exclusive to Amsterdam but I swear as soon as I nosed it I blurted out the words ‘Triple Wood’ ! Upon further examination it was revealed that the maturation process of this and the Triple Wood is exactly the same. First-fill bourbon, followed by Quarter Casks and finally in European Oloroso Sherry, thereby, rendering both spirits almost identical.

This forces me to speculate that maybe my favourite distillery is simply coming up with creative ways of flogging the same spirit to different markets simply by using different labels. I can’t say I’ve not heard that before and, to be honest, it’s being done so much nowadays that it’s almost the norm. But it’s a little frustrating when you pay 150 Euros for an eleven year old whisky who’s taste profile is exactly the same as another NAS from the same portfolio and available at less than 40% of the retail price.

I expect something more and something unique if you’re going to name it and package it differently. Bit of a rip off if you ask me.

Oh well.

My sample is from a brand new bottle and served at 48%

Nose: That extremely typical Laphroaig peat. Iodine. Liquorice. Red fruits. Pomegranate. There’s a certain thick sherry sweetness to it as well -like molasses. Nuts. Almonds, actually. Touch of milk chocolate. Malted milk (that’s the Oloroso sherry before it settles down) – like Horlicks. Oaky. Red berries. Black rock salt. Something mineral about it too. Sea washed pebbles. Kelp. And a coastal saltiness. Do I like it? Not really. It’s just so mainstream. 20/25

Palate: The same. Exactly as I imagined it would be. Red fruits. Berries. Tobacco leaf. Quite spicy. Very spicy infact. A red chilie spice – quite sharp. But mixed with milk chocolate. Touch of mint. And a really sharp betel leaf quality to it as well. Again, so expected. 21/25

Finish: Strange finish. Can’t quite put my finger on it. A bit out of balance. Oak. Quite oily. Cinnamon. And that sharp red chilie again. 21/15

Overall Comments: What am I supposed to say? It’s the Three Wood disguised as an eleven year old and sold at more than twice the price. Is that fair? Nope.

Rating: 83

Laphroaig 25 – 2014 Edition

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 45.1% | Colour: Pale Gold
Nose: 23 | Taste: 24 | Finish: 24 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 94

Review

I think I will always remember this day. It was my last day on Islay, having gone there for the Islay Festival, and I was just headed back after a fair amount of festivities at the Ardbeg open day.

As me and my friend headed back around 3PM we figured we’d stop by at Laphroaig for a quick tour or a tasting they might have on. In the car park we saw that there was a Premium Tasting scheduled in half an hour.

Quite excited at the prospect we walked into the visitors’ shop only to be told that the tasting was full and there were no more seats available. I almost pleaded and made the saddest face I possibly could. The gentleman behind the counter couldn’t do anything but maybe if we spoke to David, the Tasting Manager, he might be able to do something.

David, while apologetic, said there wasn’t much he could do since the tasting was limited to 11 people and it was all pre-paid and sold out. Once again I made the most pitiful face that I could.

Now let me tell you something about David. He has a heart of gold. It took me about four seconds of pulling that sad face to break him and so he said ‘Fine! I’ll let you two lads in on the tasting.’

And what a tasting it turned out to be! There were a couple of Cairdeas’, the new 15, a single cask from Warehouse No1 and a couple that David let us taste from behind a locked cupboard (though he made us promise not to tell anyone!). But I was extremely happy to see that this 25 year old, bottled in 2014, was also part of the lineup.

I’ve had the previous 2011 bottling which is quite beautiful so I was anxiously waiting to see how this one would taste.

My sample is from an open bottle and bottled at cask strength of 45.1% – it is a mix of Oloroso and ex-Bourbon casks.

Nose: TCP. Iodine. Seaweed. Hint of peat. Soft. Perfectly balanced. Soft lemon citrus. Lychees. Hint of cherries. Quite fruity. Quite dry. This is such a beautifully restrained nose. Has all the glory of Islay and the finesse of perfect ageing. 23/25

Palate: Hint of char. Sweet. Again beautifully balanced. Soft fruits. Lemon citrus. That oak is just perfect. Cinnamon. Touch of dark chocolate. The perfectly layered flavors work seamlessly and the extra years add to the complexity. Love it. 24/25

Finish: Nice and long. Quite drying. Ashy. Cinnamon rub. Could be a touch of something bitter but a pleasant bitter at that. 24/25

Overall Comments: This particular age statement from Laphroaig will always be a favorite of mine. I think the oak and the spirit really come together beautifully here. Of course near flawless cask selection is key. But more importantly I will remember this whisky for the unexpectedly brilliant tasting we had thanks to kindly David.

I owe you one.

Rating: 94

Laphroaig 14 Years Douglas Laing Feis Ile 2015

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Distillery/Brand: Laphroaig | Region: Islay | ABV: 48.4% | Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: 23 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 92

Review
As part of my trip to the Islay Whisky Festival a couple of weeks I tried to get into as many tastings as I could. One of them happened to be an interesting session with the guys over from Douglas Laing, the independent bottlers.

Douglas Laing are an accomplished whisky bottler claiming to stay as true to the original spirit as possible. The result is some fairly popular expressions.

Big Peat, Double Barrel, Provenance, Directors Cut and Old Particular are some of the names under which they market their wares. However, what I did not know was that they, too, release a festival bottling every year to mark Feis Ile and it is, of course, always something from Islay.

This year they chose to release a single cask Laphroaig aged for 14 years in a Refill Butt (Ref DL10694) under the Old Particular label. Distilled in February 2001 and bottled exactly 14 years later in February 2015 this is one of 636 bottles released.

My sample is from an open bottle and served at 48.4%

Nose: Touch of peat. Lime. Lemon. Walnuts. Hint of oak. Hardboiled lemon sweets. Raisins. Ginger. Warm tangerines. Quite fruity too. Peaches. Then the signature Laphroaig flavors come rolling in. A little medicinal. Seaweed. Cherry licorice. This is a wonderful nose. Adds a bit of restrained fruitiness over the traditional house flavors.

Palate: Citrus. Smoke. Barbecue. Peat. White pepper. Spicy. Iodine. After the initial sting of Islay the spirit mellows out towards the sweeter side. Caramel. Milk chocolate. Raisins. Salt. You know this is a Laphroaig but this one has a gentler side to it.

Finish: Sea salt. Char. Citrus. Touch of oak.

Overall Comments: This is quite a fantastic little dram which I’m sure will simply fly under the radar amongst the masses. Also because there’s only 636 bottles floating around for consumption. Which is a pity because I feel amid all the distillery fanfare where some of the big names are content to churn out whiskies that are barely decent there are little gems thrown in the middle that don’t get the attention they deserve.

Well I hope my millions of followers are listening and pick this lovely little whisky if they have the chance.

Rating: 92