Although I’ve developed quite an appreciation for high-quality Scottish single malt whiskies in the last few years, writing about the segment for Paste with more and more frequency, there’s still a region I avoid more often than not—Islay. And if you know anything about scotch at all, you can almost certainly assume the reason why—the peaty, briny, smoke-fueled malts of this region simply don’t tend to be my cup of tea.
That’s a big generalization, of course—although Islay is home to some of the most famously peat and smoke-forward single malts in the world, from the likes of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Caol Ila, there are also distilleries on the Scottish island making unpeated malts, just as there are some distilleries on the Scottish mainland making peat-forward ones. But Islay is most definitely the home of peat, and the intensely smoky, vegetal, maritime and medicinal flavors it can bring to a malt tend to inherently be of the “love it or hate it” variety. Given that I seem to have a palate that is particularly sensitive to smoke flavors in the first place, this often means that Islay single malts come off as overwhelming to me.
One thing I haven’t tasted much of in the past, though, are Islay malts with secondary maturations in other casks, such as sherry or port. Given that these secondary maturations can often infuse greater sweetness, richness and fruity flavors into a spirit, they might be just the thing for someone like me who occasionally finds this level of peatiness to be overwhelming. And as luck would have it, that’s just what I found with Laphroaig’s new release of its 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish.
Simply looking at the name, you’d likely conclude that this is simply a new version of the distillery’s 10-year-old flagship malt, which sees additional aging in Oloroso sherry casks. There’s a bit more going on under the hood here, though—this expression is technically cask strength as well, although it’s a low cask strength of 48% ABV (96 proof) rather than the near 120 proof that is often reached by the regular Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Cask Strength. This particular proof point is equal to Laphroaig Quarter Cask, which is also bottled at 96 proof. It’s a limited release, available stateside now, with an MSRP around $90.
So let’s get to tasting, and see how the classic Laphroaig profile holds up to that sherry cask influence.
On first blush, the nose is of course full of campfire smoke—this is, after all, Laphroaig. The smoke has a sweet rather than sour dimension, which I appreciate, with elements of earthy peat and some mild medicinal notes, but sweeter and richer impressions follow quickly. Unexpectedly, I find myself getting something like a juicy grilled pineapple fruit note, along with darker dried fruit notes of raisin or prune. There’s oiled leather, cloves, vanilla bean and some very dark chocolate as well. All in all, it’s actually fairly gentle, even with the somewhat higher proof point. At least after sitting for a little while (I let it rest a few minutes first), I find the smokiness here to be less one-dimensional and overwhelming on the nose than I often find in many of these Islay flagships. For my own taste, this nose has been markedly improved, but once again I’m stressing that this is a matter of personal taste.
On the palate, this one definitely leads off sweet, with loads of dark sugars (thinking treacle/molasses/maple), which also give the dark fruit flavors a syrupy edge, like something one might put on pancakes. There are waves of smoke, a bit of salinity and earthiness, but the enhanced sweetness helps to balance out some of the bitterness that is sometimes present in this type of highly peated malt. It’s moderately meaty in its smoke flavors, but with a trailing dark chocolate that is quite nice. Interestingly, I don’t get a ton of what I specifically think of as “oloroso”-type notes, especially not the oxidized sort of nuttiness, but I suspect this is because of the big, assertive flavors of the malt itself. Rather, the sweetness and fruity impressions here have worked to smooth out the edges of this peaty dram, making it ideal for those whose palates are more easily overwhelmed by peat and smoke. In short, it works nicely for me.
Islay purists may reject this sort of thing for tempering the sheer chutzpah of the spirit they enjoy, but I appreciate the balance brought to this dram of Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish. This will likely never be my personal favorite corner of the whiskey world, but this expression is giving me a lot to like.
Distillery: Laphroaig (Beam Suntory)
City: Port Ellen, Scotland
Style: Single malt scotch whisky
ABV: 48% (96 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $90 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.