Good whisky ages for years. Great whisky ages over the course of millennia.
At the western edge of the windswept moors of Scotland, over white-tipped ocean waves that froth with every frigid winter’s wind, the island of Islay catches a salted mist cast by the sea. In its lowlands, primordial fields of dark earth have accumulated algae for thousands of years.
This carbon-rich yield is peat moss, which, for two hundred years, has been harvested and burned beneath a floor of barley, infusing its smoke into every scent and sip of Laphroaig. I had never longed so earnestly for a land I have yet to set foot in. That is until I tasted the peat of Islay, and the saltwater crashing over its craggy shores, in the form of amber scotch.
The island is a wilderness cloaked in mystery. It remains a haven for sea eagles and whales.
Winter storms thrash the coast, often isolating residents for weeks or months, leaving them with little more than a bottle of scotch to outwait the icy wind until warmer days shine. As distillery workers scour the land for ideal peat fields, they occasionally uproot ancient Celtic relics: monoliths with twisting runes or bronze crosses from the first missionaries who, by either accident or providence, laid anchor on Islay’s rocky shores.
Unlike mainland Scotland, Isaly’s peat is the result of thousands of years of seaweed accumulating in layers rather than brush and forest matter. This increases the amount of moss and lichen in each harvest. Ocean gales penetrate the aging oak barrels, infusing flavors that many distilleries hide from by separating their products from the elements.
Laphroaig can be divisive: the heavy peat smoke, musty oak, and salt breeze from the sea forge a whiskey that isn’t afraid to stand out from its peers. Some of my friends would instead reach for a more conventional drink, but this is an ideal whiskey for me. It has character and spunk, offering not just flavor, but an experience that seems to encapsulate the millennia of beating waves against Islay’s cliffs and the human cultures who have risen to meet nature’s adversity to carve out a life and even thrive there.
Of the whiskeys that Laphroaig distills, I have two bottles: 10-Year and Quarter Cask. As both are Laphroaig products, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to distinguish between the two scotches. To test my palate, I poured an ounce of each in identical glasses, drinking a sip randomly from each every few minutes as I read through Rare Whiskey. As my taste buds adjusted, the difference between the two drinks became clear.
10-Year tastes of sea salt and musty oak. It’s slightly pungent in the most pleasant way. The Quarter Cask is dominated by fresh oak, less salty, and more caramelly. But both have a strong and endearing suffusion of peat smoke, adding its compliments (and Islay’s signature) with a unique taste and aroma.
I am pleased with my two bottles of Laphroaig, and inspired to continue collecting each of their products.
Anyway, that’s my 2¢. Thanks for reading.