In Praise of Laphroaig Scottish Whisky
My father-in-law had a saying that perfectly encapsulated the sense of adventure we unbottled every time we cracked open a new whisky: “It’s single malt. How bad can it be?”
The answer, usually (several rare varieties of “sheep dip” notwithstanding): not half bad at all.
But the best for me, bar none, has to be Laphroaig, (pronounced La-FROYG) distilled for well over 200 gloriously peaty years on the remote, windswept Scottish isle of Islay.
As we welcome in a new year, you may be raising a flute of champagne, or a glass of sparking wine. I’ll say Skol and Prost and Slainte with a generous pour of Laphroaig single malt, and get 2019 off to a properly delicious start.
A proper Scotch primer from a Scottish school
I learned my way around scotch whisky from the school that taught me how to drink in the first place.
Well, Carnegie Mellon University didn’t exactly feature a curriculum devoted to climbing your way up the beer ladder. But during my time there as an undergrad I grew from downing Natty Lite, or whatever the keg spewed forth at the latest frat party, to ordering pitchers of Honey Brown at the Panther Hollow Inn, to choosing as my graduation favorite — among dozens of drafts at The Sharp Edge in Pittsburgh — the cloudy, amber depths of Franziskaner Hefe-Weise.
But enjoying proper single malt scotch was a new education. One begun as I got to know my wife’s family.
The Knutsons on my wife’s dad’s side (otherwise known as the “fun Knutsons;” the Knutsons on my wife’s mom’s side, featuring four pastors, are known as the “good Knutsons) may be “pure blood” Norwegian, but they sure have a thing for Scottish whisky. Accompanied, after a long day of farm work, by a good, “conversation-length” cigar.
I think the first cigar I enjoyed with my father-in-law, and my wife’s uncle, aunt and cousins, was probably while standing on the walk outside their Iowa farmhouse on an unseasonably warm November night over the Thanksgiving holiday. It wasn’t long before “the hooch” came out, and back then, it was more likely than not to include some throat-burners of the sheep dip variety, best enjoyed in the tractor shed with the space heater on high.
My father-in-law, Gary, invited me into a tradition of getting “porched” whenever the holidays rolled around. And porch it we did, solving the world’s problems then forgetting them again — the better to set about that serious task all over again the next evening — over marathon sessions each Easter, Syttende Mai, Memorial Day, Labor Day, kids’ baptisms and birthdays, weddings of family (in-laws and outlaws), Thanksgiving, Christmas and odd October Saturday.
Gary’s dram of choice was usually a Macallan 12-year, and we’d polish off most of a bottle between us each session. Smooth-drinking and honey-colored, The Macallan impressed me so much I named our golden retriever after it. Scottish dog, similar in color. “Hey, Laphroaig, sit Laphroaig” (Laphy for short?) wouldn’t have had quite the same ring to it.
Gary accompanied his beloved scotch with an H. Uppman Vintage Cameroon, Churchill length, definitely a commitment. Great for conversation, but quite the bar to keep clearing over two or three nights.
Eventually, I started bringing my own variety of (mellower) cigars to the proceedings. And what better to kick off a weekend at his Kansas City home and on the legendary porch that he’d built (a porch emulated by at least a half dozen admirers, from Olathe, Kan. to the house his brother Tim built on the family “compound” in Iowa, to Gary’s retirement home in South Dakota) than to bring a new variety of single malt to try?
It became my way of growing into this tradition, of giving a little back. But first, I had to get educated. When my alma mater hosted a Chicago “clan” gathering in November 2010, I signed up and brought my whisky admiring cousin, David, along.
It’s Single Malt – How Bad Could it Be?
Carnegie Mellon hosted its Chicago alumni scotch tasting at the South Loop Binny’s Beverage Depot, known to Windy City denizens as the mecca of all things adult spirits, with a walk-in humidor to boot. We were in good hands.
Coming a few weeks before our holiday get-together, I recorded the proceedings in an email to Gary, which comes in handy now. The seven scotches on the menu that night ranged from an Indian single malt, of all things, to strong offerings from the Speyside and Highlands regions, to the smoky drams that captured my heart, from Islay, pronounced EYE-la, incidentally, like Gary’s mother’s name.
Here’s what we had, presented by Brett Pontoni, the specialty spirits buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot (a dude who has worked in some Scottish distilleries, and was a veritable snifter of knowledge). In order of sampling:
1. Amrut Unchillfiltered Single Malt, India – Original Bottling
These guys have only been at it for about 10 years now. Really light in color. Had banana overtones (smell). Good mild stuff. Topped out in the low 40s APV.
2. Linkwood 1995 – 15 year Cask Strength, Speyside – Signatory
Stronger stuff, low 50s APV. Don’t remember much about it. I was nursing this one since I downed the first one so fast and Brett kept going on. Kind of medicinal, if I remember right. The water knocked it down enough, though.
3. Mortlach 1991 – 18 year Cask Strength, Speyside – Signatory
This is the name Dave and I kept growling at each other the rest of the evening, even over burgers, after. MORTLACH. Sounds like a villain in a Transformers cartoon. But – this is the scotch with the most similarity to The Macallan, according to Brett. We can’t get it in a single malt over here, because it usually goes to other distilleries to mix into blended scotch. In fact, most blended scotches have some Mortlach in them. Now I’m starting to buy the evil villain theory.
4. Glenburgie 1997 12 year cask strength, Speyside – Gordon & Macphail
Memory fades here, too. They were all pretty good. ;-D
5. Clynelish 1999 10 year cask strength, Highland – Gordon & Macphail
The beginning of some peaty, smoky malts. Turned out, the smokier they got, the more I dug them. Flavor! This one runs to about $69 a bottle. And was about 58% APV.
6. Kilchoman Islay Malt – original bottling
Only three years old! And damn good. Smokier than your porch on a holiday weekend. Pronounced Ila (I think you know someone with that name). Comes from that region of Scotland. Runs $65 a bottle. We cut these with water, which Brett said keeps your senses involved in the tasting (ice can numb them). This was probably Dave’s favorite.
7. Laphroaig 1990 19 year Cask Strength – Islay – Signatory
Hey! Another Islay. And $110 a bottle. So smoky, the drop I spilled on my menu, cutting it, made the menu smell smoky through to this morning. Loved this stuff. Maybe I’m a glutton for over-flavor? Strong as hell, smoky as hell (without the flames), it was the only one Dave had had before. As he put it, “If you had a big bucket of water, and dumped in some wood you’d had in a campfire, then shoveled in some peat, then let it sit for about a week, you’d have Laphroaig.” Funny, we both practically licked our glasses clean. $110 scotch will inspire that.
I concluded the message by offering to pick up a couple and bring them down for Xmas in KC. Though, curiously, I insisted I would not be picking up the Laphroaig. That would soon change.
Like Kissing a Mermaid Who Had BBQ
In the years since that CMU-sponsored taste-a-palooza, I’ve picked up a few bottles of Clynelish (from the Highlands), and count among my favorites Lagavulin (another Islay), Highland Park (from Orkney, with Norwegian heritage, hey hey!), and the Balvenie (Speyside); but my go-to and vote for GOAT (greatest of all time) is Laphroaig.
From that first and enduring whiff of smoke, notes of hearty salt spray, and the heavy, medicinal aftertaste, it’s a scotch that isn’t for the faint of heart, and certainly not for shooting, like a common Jack Daniel’s, as my neighbors learned during a post-holiday progressive dinner a few years back. (Woof!) It’s meant for savoring, sip after sip. And then sticking your nose in the glass, after, and breathing in deep.
Some of the more recently-printed cardboard tubes Laphroaig comes in feature a saying on the metal lid that captures a bit of what savoring this whisky is about, credited to fan Marco Villavicencio:
“Like kissing a mermaid that had BBQ for dinner.”
Being a fan of barbecue myself, the smokier the better, and having nothing against mermaids, I can readily agree.
The peat is heavy, and distinctive, and lets me know I’m really drinking something. It packs enough of a kick that I can savor a few fingers and call that a night, instead of getting pulled into glass after glass of the smooth stuff, a swift river that sweeps me away and wallops me on the head the next morning. And it goes great, in fact, with barbecue, or sushi, or some chocolate. Or nothing at all. Or, for example, a good cigar.
Gary took to my full-on Laphroaig obsession, or at least tolerated it very well, joining in whenever the time was right for porching (and the time was rarely wrong). Though he also partook of the milder stuff, when I kept it on hand, including Templeton rye whiskey, and the various bourbons that make their way into my cabinet. My dad has compared Laphroaig to road tar and pool water, though he doesn’t mind keeping a bottle around for me at his house — the same bottle, naturally, I’d begun digging into the last time.
“The Frog” isn’t for everybody.
But it’s definitely for me. Closing out a particularly gnarly day at work, or welcoming the bliss of a weekend. Enjoying time with neighbors and family and friends. Or sipping thoughtfully, in solitude, savoring a good book, or remembering those we don’t get to porch with anymore, at least not in the physical sense.
Laphroaig calls its patrons “friends.” And they have a little saying: to paraphrase: we don’t make friends easily here, but when we do, we make them for life.
With every bottle you buy you gain “ownership” of your own little square foot of hallowed acreage on Islay, uniquely encoded on the pamphlet that comes in every tube. Though I wouldn’t want to embarrass you (yeah, you) with how many of those little pamphlets I have crammed into the back of my liquor cabinet, I will invite you to invest in just one yourself. Pop the top, ease out the squeaky cork, pour it over a single fat cocktail ice cube, or a few. Or try it “neat,” or with a splash of water — whatever your persuasion. I’m certainly not picky. Then take a sip, close your eyes and be transported.
Or a porch in Kansas City, or Iowa.
Or wherever your heart finds rest and your restless self finds friends.
Happy New Year.