Laphroaig…For those of you who don’t speak Scotch, the beverage, here’s how ya say it…
“Laff-royg“, equal emphasis, “royg” pronounced just as it says, “Roy” with a soft, guttural “guh” attached.
That’s the hard part of Laphroaig. The easy and sublimely pleasurable part is sipping a half ounce or so into your munching cave and letting it evolve. You really do not have to “taste” a great whiskey. All you have to do is sip it and the liquid will do the rest. There are beverages that you have to be active about tasting. Wine is like that. Swirl, sip, aerate on the palate, coat the tongue, maybe slosh a bit, swallow almost begrudgingly, as though you’ve just resigned yourself to convention, and then pause to appreciate the finish.
Laphroaig, especially – out of the small but significant universe of “barrel-aged distilled grain beverages made by minimally-civilized barbarians” (that was a joke…sorta) – stands out. Laphroaig, and most of the Islay whiskeys, are active beverages. They’ll do a LOT of the heavy-lifting for you. The alcohol gives off powerful vapors that sorta clears out any other flavors lurking on the tongue and even cleans your palate a bit. The wood and caramel and peat and seaweed and smoke and heather and fat caramel and that big vanilla note from new American oak barrels give this particular version – “expressions” as the different editions of Scotches are called – of Laphroaig a markedly different aura than even the rest of their own range but uses what are undoubtedly familiar elements to cast charms that have a particularly American accent.
If you drink American wine – most whites and almost all reds – you’ll recognize the core flavors in Laphroaig “Select” instantly: oak, wet wood, pencil shavings, vanillin, that elusive “woodsy” tang; the same array of flavors that show up in your favorite big Cabernet or Chardonnay. All of this is like artfully applied cosmetics upon the heart of Select that is Pure Scotland: ocean air, kelp, fresh and smoked peat, malted barley and and that peculiar, alluring melange of grace notes arising from the free-draining, low nutrient, weary old soils of the island kingdom of Islay; acidic-to-neutral dirt that contains History, the centuries of accumulated loam and stones and salt air.
In Select, that name is, for once, perfectly accurate. This is a obsessively crafted blend of whiskeys aged in Oloroso Sherry casks, Don PX casks (the Spanish grape Pedro Ximenez, a white varietal which, after extensive aging, results in a viscous, dark brown elixir that’s impossibly rich and oozing roasted nuts, treacle, molasses, and burnt sugar), and quarter barrels (13 – 15 gallons, versus the 59 gallons in a full cask), with the entire yield finished in new American oak full casks. The final addition of 10 year whiskey before finishing gives it a brightness and vibrant Presence that makes this a legitimately cerebral Scotch that’s also just – for lack of a better term – fun to drink. I taste, first, from a Glencairn glass, (see below, click on image for link to a source) neat, but usually substitute two small shards of ice for the usual quarter ounce of water that is the proper way to enjoy a Scotch, when I sit down to just sip and savor a good whiskey. Select has become a frequent nightcap for me and it is just immensely satisfying for a small pour as the day winds down. As opposed to my usual viscous, almost ponderous whiskeys, Select is lively on the tongue and wildly aromatic.
The term “select” is tossed about waaaay too casually, here in the 00s, and has made us all a tad immune to the almost monastic care and focus devoted to the act of choosing and blending and finishing a great blended whiskey. It is NOT just tossing shit into a barrel and hoping for the best. A surprising number of people I talk with about this really do not know what “blended” fully means. As one loopy buddy of mine once said, “Yeah, but…what does ‘select’ really mean, after all?” Well, Bubba, done properly, selecting is the greatest skill of a master distiller. What’s lost in the romance of whiskey is that it’s a business; one in which BIG chunks of currency get shifted about and assembling your primary product casually, like frat boys experimenting with beer coolers, is begging to be put out of business. The exalted value in the world’s wine community – “non-interventionist winemaking” – doesn’t apply to whiskey. Distilling is all interventionist: how long to malt the grains, what grains to use, water and its sources, choices of barrels and even the types of wood they’re made from, what kind of room for aging, how long, what percentage of which cask to use in the final blend, how to finish the whole…all tied together with Judgment, experience, educated noses and palates and eyes and brains. What do we WANT this to taste like and how do we get there?
As trendy as it is to pretend, especially in our current beer culture, Experience Matters, and in terms of Scotch whiskeys, there is no distillery that exceeds Laphroaig in the sheer depth of knowledge of its environment and materials and methods. So, when Laphroaig decides to hang the label “Select” on one of its expressions, that is the literal Truth.
I sometimes, when it’s warranted, use the word “splendid” to describe certain whiskeys, usually Scotches. It feels pretentious, to me, when I even consider using it on a wine or a beer, so I haven’t. But with particular whiskeys, certain Scotches, “splendid” is just the exact expression of the spirit and atmosphere the liquid evokes.
Laphroaig Select is Splendid, in every aspect, in the immediacy of its flavors and textures and Attitude. You may call it something else but I would bet, if you love Scotch, your term will be a bit awe-struck, too. Splendid whiskey, from a splendid band of gifted and devoted people, working in a splendid corner of the world. THAT is what is in this bottle. 98 Points