Thursday, December 17, 2009

Smoke of the Peat, Nut of the Barley: Laphroaig Tasting

Fascinating tasting at the store last night with Simon Brooking, Laphroaig's Master Ambassador to the States. The whiskies delivered the goods as always with plenty of peat, but beautifully balanced and self-contained. We tasted several expressions of Laphroaig as well as Ardmore, a peated Highland Malt, and Teachers, a blended whisky which features a big dose of Ardmore.

My desk is next to the tasting bar in the store and I was catching up on paperwork while Simon was talking to customers when I noticed a smoky aroma. The smokiness didn't dissipate and grew stronger. My first concern was a fire of some sort, but it didn't have that electrical smell, instead it was perfumed like some strange incense. Ben confirmed my suspicions and said that Simon had a couple of lumps of peat and was heating them. Nice. I quickly abandoned the paperwork and went to investigate.

Sure enough, he had two dark lumps of peat. The larger one was the Islay peat used at Laphroaig to dry the malted barley. The smaller lump was Highland peat and is used at Ardmore, the only 100% peated Highland Malt. Peat being organic material compressed over a long period of time, it is composed of whatever grows in the region it is found. It follows that the flavors of the smoke would be different.

The Highland peat produced a sweeter and slightly resinous smoke. The first impression was rich charcoal. It was sweet and earthy with an overall impression of dense smoke. I imagined I was walking into an old barbeque house in Lockhart where they've been smoking all manner of meats for years and years. Simon attributed the sweet resin notes to the heather which native to the area.

The Islay peat was not as dark and smoky, but was more complex and aromatic and was perfumed like an incense. I was reminded of sandalwood, but much darker, with bitter chocolate undertones. Simon said the peat bogs contained a lot of bog cotton and bog myrtle. Bog myrtle is very aromatic with rich essential oils. It is used for medicines and sometimes as a substitute for hops in making beer.

Both the Ardmore and Laphroaig are 100% peated. According to Simon 15% of Laphroaig's peated malt is produced at the distillery, the rest is sourced from Port Ellen. The Islay produces a much peatier whisky. The Laphroaig contains approximately 40 parts per million peat, while the Ardmore is just 15 ppm.

The peat is used to dry the barley after it has been malted. The peat fires produce hot smoke which impart the peaty flavors into the malt. Simon also had a jar of peated, malted barley from Laphroaig, which we chewed. The small grains were nutty with smoky pipe tobacco flavors and aromas with a myriad of salty minerals and iodine from the ocean air. Addictive and delicious, the flavors just hung around on the palate forever!

Oh, we also tasted some whisky! The Teachers was surprisingly smoky and smooth. The Ardmore Traditional Cask was sweet and smooth with fruit and floral aromas floating over the delicate notes of smoky peat. The youthful Laphroaig 10 Year Old delivers the focused beam of smoky, salty pipe tobacco that is the signature of a young Islay. However the whisky is very finely balanced with hints of honey showing through the dark flavors.  

Laphroaig Quarter Cask sees a second aging in small quarter casks that were traditionally  used to deliver whisky on horseback. The second aging in the smaller casks allows the spirit 30% more contact with the wood. The result is a sweeter whisky with notes of creamy citrus intermingled with the dark flavors of smoky peat. The luxurious viscosity is amazing, encouraging the taster to roll the spirit around in the mouth, turning the kaleidoscope of flavors around and around. The 15 Year Old is a mature version of the 10. The focused beam of youth has matured into more refined whisky with notes of creme brulee, nutmeg and burnt orange riding the waves of smoke and peat.

As we were reflecting, Simon pulled a sample bottle of Ardmore 31 year old from his bag of tricks. The spirit was the same color as the younger Ardmore, but the flavors were much more concentrated. Simon guessed that about 60% of the whisky went to help the angels sing.  Intense floral aromatics of heather and honey dominated both the nose and palate, supported by subtle notions of smoky peat. Definitely a treat!

Simon packed his bags and left for his next tasting. We were left with a lingering smoky perfume in the store and salty nutty flavors of peated barley still hanging on our palates. Those flavors were surely there during our short but sweet tasting. Talk about enhancing perceptions of flavor!

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