The advantages of independent bottlings over their official cousins are often that they're matured in a different or unusual cask, or are bottled at a higher strength or a different age, or are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and if you're lucky, they're cheaper than the equivalent official release. In this case, only a couple of those boxes are ticked. This is an 18-year old ex-bourbon hogshead (250-litre cask) matured Laphroaig from Signatory Vintage, bottled at a cask strength of 55.2%, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. If we compare this to the now sadly discontinued (there are still a few around though - for now) 18-year old official bottling, which is ex. bourbon cask matured, and is bottled at 48%, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, the only real advantage of the independent bottling is that it's bottled at cask strength. Unfortunately it's twice the price of the official bottling (for now, at least, since the discontinuation), so is it worth the extra money for that 7% extra alcohol? That's a tough call, but that's also quite a big difference!
Let's also consider that there's basically no other way to get a cask strength 18-year old Laphroaig, and that this being a different size ex. bourbon cask, and more than likely from a different bourbon distillery, to those predominantly used at Laphroaig (which would be Maker's Mark), it promises to be a different take on the make. I've had the pleasure of tasting an ex- Jim Beam cask Laphroaig in the past which was amazing, and markedly different to the norm, so this may be a similar experience. But since this hogshead will be a re-sized cask made from standard barrels, we don't really know what distillery the casks or staves came from, so that's just an assumption.
We also need to take the relative rarity (and subsequent demand) into account, since there were only 243 bottles released from this cask, and as mentioned above, any independent bottling of Laphroaig is already a rare thing, so it's not really fair to compare this one to the closest official bottling when it comes to price. I was / am a big fan of the official 18-year old, and thanks to the age it was definitely from the gentler side of Laphroaig, but the higher strength and larger cask used in this Signatory version may have changed that. Time for a closer look, I think...
Laphroaig 18-year old, Signatory Vintage, 55.2%. Islay, Scotland.
Cask number 3371, single ex-bourbon hogshead, 1997-2015, Signatory cask strength collection. Non-chill filtered, natural colour, 243 bottles.
Nose: Oh Laphroaig, it's been too long! Sweet, fruity and lightly medicinal, with lots of dried grapefruit, and a hint of dusty banana lollies. Some cold wood embers and a little spent gunpowder. Some aniseed as well, and damp rocks on a beach.
Texture: Lovely. Medium weight, no heat at all, and plenty of flavour.
Taste: Crumbly, dry and spicy peat, more wood embers, but they're hot now, and there's some ash as well. Hint of that dried grapefruit from the nose, but it's much more subtle now. A hint of iodine and plasticky rubber as well.
Finish: Medium length, with more fruit & ash, and less peat although it's still there. A little bitterness as well, then some more aniseed and damp rock. Gets subtle and soft quite quickly, but then resurges with more iodine and a gentle coastal peat.
Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: Lovely stuff this! There's definitely more punch than you'll find in the official 18 year old, which is to be expected thanks to the extra strength, and a lot of the subdued or missing notes in the official bottling, such as the peaty and medicinal notes, are amplified here. That bitterness on the finish is unusual, but it passes quickly without stopping the fun. Overall though, it's not massively different from the standard style Laphroaig, if you can call it standard, that is! It's a little pricey, but it's a very enjoyable dram, and as usual from Signatory (and also Laphroaig) it's excellent quality.
If the folks from Signatory are reading, I have a little request that I'm sure many will agree with: please put some more Laphroaig in a sherry cask! Google tells me you've done so a couple of times in special bottlings for The Whisky Exchange and some others, and we know you already do excellent work with these young sherry cask Ledaigs, so if at all possible, please do the same with Laphroaig, we'll all love you for it!
Thanks to Craig from The Whisky Company, Signatory's Australian distributor, for the sample.