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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Two incredibly rare Laphroaigs explored & reviewed!

I like to think I know a fair bit about Laphroaig. Seeing as it's my favourite whisky distillery, which by default makes it my favourite alcoholic beverage, I have no trouble rattling off specifications and details that would easily send the non-whisky nerd into a peaceful slumber. But in reality I have barely scratched the surface, and still have much to learn. I was reminded of this recently when Dan Woolley, Australia's national brand ambassador for Laphroaig  (and more), returned from a trip to Islay with a few very special bottlings in tow.

Among this amazing bounty was a bottle of Dan's own hand-selected custom blend of cask strength Laphroaig (aptly named 'sweet peat'), plus two different single cask bottlings, and something I'd never heard of, which carried the name 'Highgrove'. At first glance, you might pigeon-hole this mysterious bottle as a mere independent bottling, but there's more to the story behind this exceedingly rare and exclusive bottling of single malt. Highgrove is the name given to the Royal Gardens of the private residence of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. As some may know, Laphroaig is the only Scotch whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of The Prince of Wales (meaning they are an official supplier to the royal family), and The Prince (known in Scotland as the Duke of Rothesay) reportedly has a particular affinity for the 15-year old expression. The Royal Warrant is proudly displayed on the labels and packaging of Laphroaig's official bottlings, and the distillery building itself wears The Prince's coat of arms.

Located on a 200+ year old estate South of Gloucester, England, the Highgrove organic gardens are a reflection of The Prince's commitment to environmental sustainability, and are opened for public tours in certain months of the year. The estate also includes a physical shop and online store where a number of exclusive products can be purchased, with all profits going to the Prince of Wales' charity foundation. One of these exclusive products is a private bottling of Laphroaig single malt, and there have been a number of different versions over the years, usually aged between 12- and 15-years, and bottled at either 43 or 46%. Something very interesting which I have since learned about these Highgrove bottlings, although the details are a little scarce, is that the current bottlings are made from organic Scottish barley. I would interpret this to also mean that they are made using only the floor-malted barley from the distillery, as the malt sourced from Port Ellen which supplements the distillery's own is not organic, and therefore could not be included. But I'm speculating a little there.

Unfortunately we can't be sure that this applies to the bottling I'm lucky enough to be reviewing here, because it was missing it's label (which is how Dan managed to get his hands on it, and luckily he was generous enough to give me a sample), so we don't know a cask or bottle number, or exactly which expression this was, but we do know that it was bottled at 14 years of age at 43% ABV. I could only find a few references to a Highgrove bottled at 43%, and all were older bottlings that displayed vintages rather than age statements, which are of course rarer than those currently available from the online store, which are hardly a dime-a-dozen anyway! Since there is no label on this particular bottle we cannot be sure, so I've chosen an image that closely reflects the details I have to hand. Being bottled at 43% will mean this bottling was likely chill-filtered, and will have had added colouring, as is the case with the 15-year old official bottling. So, let's have a closer look at this very special Laphroaig, shall we?
Laphroaig 'Highgrove', 14-year old, 43%. Islay, Scotland.
Exclusive bottling for Prince Charles' Highgrove shop, all profits go to HRH's charity foundation. Ex-bourbon cask matured. Assumed chill filtered and added colouring. Photo above for approximate reference only.

Colour: Gold. Added colouring in my opinion. 

Nose: Very soft & quite subtle for a Laphroaig. Sweet, ripe tropical fruit, rich caramel, some citrus & a nice minerality, like wet stone pavers. Hints of seaweed and dry, earthy peat.

Texture: Light-medium weight, warming & rich. No sign of any alcohol whatsoever, very soft. 

Taste: Tropical fruit again, more rich caramel, and some more dry & earthy peat, more prominent here but still quite subtle. A little soft chilli spice in there too. Slightly drier here than it was on the nose.

Finish: Medium. Drying spices, then light fruit and more wet stones, and the peat comes back towards the end. Quite a light finish, but enjoyable. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Not your typical Laphroaig at all, much softer and more gentle than you may expect. Softer even than the standard 15-year old official bottling, and surprisingly different to it as well. In fact I think I prefer this expression, although it's been a while since I tasted the 15yo. The Highgrove is very, very good quality, there are no off notes or harshness, and there's no sign of any alcohol, which could get a little dangerous considering just how drinkable this one is. Very nice! I'd love to try the more recent Highgrove bottlings as well, they seem to be a couple of years younger and have gone up in strength to 46%, so they'd be very interesting!

But wait, the title says 'two incredibly rare Laphroaigs', so we're not done yet! 

This next bottling is essentially even rarer than the previous, because this sample came from a single bottle of a single cask of Laphroaig, which had not even been selected for bottling at the time. So at the moment the only way of getting yourself a dram from this cask would be getting yourself to the distillery, and then trying to bribe your way to disturbing this exact still-sleeping first-fill bourbon cask. And good luck with that! Dan really does have a dream job. Obviously there's no photo of this bottling, but we do have all the juicy details to hand. It was bottled at a cask strength of approximately 57%, at 13 years of age, without chill filtration or added colouring, and was matured in a single first-fill ex-bourbon cask from Maker's Mark. Wowsers!

Laphroaig single cask, 13-year old, 57% approx. Islay, Scotland.
Matured in a first-fill Maker's Mark bourbon cask. Definitely non-chill filtered (not filtered at all I suspect, which is very cool) and natural colour. 

Colour: Paler, lighter gold, and even some charred barrel bits! How awesome is that! 

Nose: Fruity again, but under-ripe this time. A lot of bourbon cask character, with toasted oak, sweet caramel, and even a little leather. Salted butter, a little wet soil, but no sign of any peat or smoke. A little alcoholic nip as well, but only slight.

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, lovely natural spirit. No heat at all, rich & velvety.

Taste: Starts soft & sweet, then a slow-motion explosion of dry, spicy, ashy peat. Then soft & sweet again. Some sweetened grapefruit, a good pinch of black pepper, and some strong mint. 

Finish: Medium length. Peat comes back again, then sweet caramel and oaky vanilla, more pepper and grapefruit, but it's dried now. Then something reminiscent of a mild blue cheese coated in black pepper. Weird I know, but I like it! The ashy, slightly spicy peat comes back again towards the end. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Very good of course, as you'd expect from Laphroaig. A lot of bourbon character on the nose, and certainly a sheep in wolf's clothing between the nose and palate, as is the case with a lot of Laphroaigs. Some unusual notes on the palate too, not in a bad way, but rather in a very interesting way! Very drinkable again, but with more punch and definitely more recognisable Laphroaig-y notes that we all (well, most of us) know & love.

I don't think I could choose between these two very different and very interesting whiskies. One is the perfect everyday drinker, very gentle but still engaging, while the other is softly spoken and inviting, but likes to remind you it's the boss every now and then. So if such a thing were even possible, which of course it isn't, I'd have to get one of each. I'm certainly very lucky to have tried them at all.   

Mr. Dan Woolley, I really cannot thank you enough for sharing these precious Laphroaig's with me (and the others over the years), I think I owe you a dram or two! Thanks very much mate. See you next time!