I call this one The Paint Stripper and I mean it as a compliment.
I first tasted one of Laphroaig’s cask strength whiskies when our ex-neighbours brought us back a bottle from a trip to the US. I’d done my research and had asked for something specific and specifically unavailable here at home. When we opened the bottle in their company and poured them a taste they were taken aback… by the smell. Not aroma, not scent, but smell – that unmistakable punch in the face of grain and smoke. Even with “normal” Laphroaigs, it’s inevitable: if I don’t rinse out my glass after drinking it, I can smell the dry residue in the glass the next morning a good fifteen feet away.
It’s not always the case with a cask-strength, but here the smell is sharper, more powerful, that much more condensed. Open up a bottle for the first time and it’s like you can almost see it waft up and out over the mouth of green glass bottle like a ghost who has been trapped too long. If smell is half (or more) of taste, then it explains a lot, because what you smell is definitely what you get: you can taste the grains used, there’s a mouthful of barley, just slightly roasted amongst the wash of in-your-face peat. Somehow, it’s not all too much. It can take you aback if you’re not ready for it, but if you know Laphroaigs, if you’re ready for it, this just amplifies everything you already know and love.
When our neighbours first tasted it and its 55% + alcohol wallop (depending on bottling) – neat – they declared forfeit. A “starter whisky” it is not. (Although I was happy because it meant more for me.)
Cask-strength whiskies need water because as the name “cask strength” implies, the distillery hasn’t added any – and the fun part is discovering how much water you like in it. Personally, I like to vary it, from potent to subtle, and tasting all the changes that occur within the whisky due to the amount added. Generally speaking there’s the oakiness, the almost briney hint of salt to go along with the peat and smoke… no wonder it was Whisky Magazine’s Best Single Malt in 2005. A little water and you’re off.