For a number of years now, Laphroaig has been releasing their ten year old cask strength whisky in batches, roughly one a year, since 2009. While nominally forced to do so by the SWA, it has had the added benefit of making them even more popular, as whisky geeks try to hunt down every batch in an effort to see how they are different from each other. We're now up to the sixth release in America, but I'm a little behind the times. Thankfully, unlike Europe, batches don't tend to sell out immediately over here.
Nominally, this is roughly the same whisky that goes into the standard 10 Year, but undiluted and un-chill filtered. Batch 005 was bottled at at pretty hefty 57.2% and was released in February 2013.
Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 005
Nose: classic Laphroaig malt character, fresh grain and the earth it was grown in, leafy/mossy peat, vanilla, thick slab of oak, putty, dusty pepper. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes fresher and more prominent, the peat becomes more mossy, some sandalwood incense smoke pops out, and it gains an almost buttery quality.
Taste: thick cask strength caramel sweetness throughout, sharp, heavy oak quickly descends on the palate, almost obscuring the peat. After dilution, the palate becomes almost aggressively sweet, the sugars integrate with the oak, the peat almost disappears until the very end, and some bourbon cask berry/fruit notes emerge in the middle.
Finish: moderately bitter oak tannins, day-old ashes, malt and peat peek around the edges
More than anything else, this feels like an even more amped-up version of Quarter Cask. You have the same basic elements - lots of sweetness, lots of wood, and less peat than you might expect. Laphroaig seems to be shifting towards managing their casks for maximum extraction, which, to me, results in minimal complexity. I will give some points to the nose, but the taste seems like a huge let-down in comparison. After trying the dilutions I made, I also notice that this takes a lot more time to open up at full strength.
Laphroaig Cask Strength at 50%
Nose: noticeably more fruit/berry notes than the other strengths, strong undercurrent of toasted oak, backed up by creamy fresh vanilla malt, peat is very mossy and subdued, dusty soil, honey,
Taste:very oak-driven, with wood and malt sweetness up front flowing into polished wood, fruit/berry esters, black pepper, and oak tannins integrated with peat, to give a somewhat astringent character, with a final puff of mossy peat right at the back
Finish: polished oak, phenolic tannins, a mix of fresh and decaying vegetation, ink
This may be my favorite strength. While the wood is starting to dominate, it hasn't obliterated the Laphroaig character like it does undiluted. Additionally, while the flavors and aromas are at a solid level of intensity, the alcohol doesn't make itself too apparent and it opens up more quickly than at full strength. This makes me wish for an NAS Laphroaig at 50% without any fancy casks. Just give it to me raw.
Nose: mossy Laphroaig peat with a touch of ash is much more evident and rides on top of the other aromas, fresh ground malt and bread dough just underneath, with a touch of seashore air and berries, oak is minimal and well-integrated
Taste: clean sweetness dominates up front, with a brief burst of bourbon barrel berry/fruit esters, becoming someone flat in the middle before fading out with fresh malt and mild mossy peat, while the oak and vanilla sit under everything else - adding a layer of richness
Finish: gentle peat and malt
This brings the spirit more in line with its reduce 10 Year brethren, though I find it interesting that the taste has less intensity than the standard 10Year at 43%. Though this integrated for several weeks, it still seems a bit watery, though not offensively so. Just goes to show that casks that work well at full strength are not necessarily the same ones that work well when they are reduced.
As a side-note, one thing I noticed after making these dilutions was that the one at 45% was obviously cloudy - there's a good reason the cut-off for non-chill filtered whiskies is usually 46%.
Overall, I have to say that this whisky wasn't what I was hoping for. After reading reviews of earlier batches, it sounded like Cask Strength had minimal cask impact, opting instead to let the unique character of Laphroaig's spirit shine. So this more oak-driven release was something of a disappointment. It's not bad whisky, it's just that it feels like they're trying to cover something up, instead of letting the peat shine. Thankfully it sounds like Batch 006 may have returned to their original formula, so I have hopes that this was an aberration rather than the direction in which Laphroaig is taking all of their whiskies.