Scotch: A Taste of Smoke and Fire

Categories: Bar Beat, Booze

laphroaig_lineup.jpg
Chuck Cook Photography
Simon Brooking, Master Ambassador for Laphroaig®, recently visited Houston to inspire, educate and spread word about the brand. I had an opportunity to go to a tasting of four varieties of the scotch whisky at Down House, as well as one from their Ardmore brand.
 
The nature of Scotch changes depending on where it comes from: Lowland, Speyside, Highland, Campbeltown or Islay (pronounced eye-la). Laphroaig is from Islay, an island just off the western coast of Scotland, and Ardmore is from the Highland.
 
Our tasting actually started with the Ardmore, and it was a relatively easy beginning. Simon is obviously well-practiced with this presentation and welcomed us with a drinking song. A well-practiced toast was spoken before each new draught.
 
Laphroaig is dangerously smoky stuff. In fact, the brochure we received during the seminar is entitled "The Complete Guide to Sipping without Wincing," and the slogan at the bottom says "You'll get there.™" For those who don't like strong flavors, it may indeed take some time to "get there." I was glad there were only five samples, because by the end, my palate was close to worn out.

I have at home a bottle of Compass Box Peat Monster, a blend of Speyside and Islay malts. Laphroaig 10 Year Old makes that taste like the easy stuff. It is no-holds-barred and comes on with some serious smoke. There is a bit of a salty undertone due to the constant influx of ocean air that blows through Islay.

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Chuck Cook Photography
Simon Brooking lights a corner of peat during his seminar
Simon brought two hunks of peat with him and was, with some effort, able to use a lighter on one to get it to smolder a bit. Thus, we got to smell first-hand the peat that gives Scotch its smoky flavor. Otherwise, as Simon explained, it really wouldn't be much different from a beer without the hops, since malted barley and water are the base ingredients.

In the case of Scotch, though, the barley is malted and then dried above smoldering peat, which gives the whiskey its distinctive flavor. Another huge contributing factor is that Laphroaig is aged in former Maker's Mark bourbon barrels. Before Prohibition, sherry casks were used, and they are in fact still used for Laphroaig 25 Year Old.

Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask strength is taken directly from the barrel, and unlike the regular 10 Year, it's not chill-filtered. The amber-colored whiskey is very big and bold in the mouth. It's still a smoke-bomb, but a much more well-rounded one.

The Laphroaig Quarter Cask is a throwback to the days when bootlegging was at its height. The smaller casks were easier to transport by horse. Using the smaller casks gives 30 percent more contact of whiskey to wood. Upon tasting, the scotch is very hot up front, but when it rounds down it seems to dance on the tongue.

Simon suggested that a smoky Martinez cocktail variant could be created with a glass rinse of the quarter cask, and I agree that it sounds like an excellent idea. Jeremy Olivia of Down House also used the quarter cask for a slightly smoky yet delicate cocktail that employed chamomile tea, honey, lemon and Peychaud's bitters. It was stunning, and I hope it ends up on the menu.

Our favorite, hands down, was the Laphroaig 18 Year Old. Unlike the headstrong 10 Year Olds, the 18 Year was surprisingly sweet on the tongue. The smoke accepts a companion role instead of taking over, and it finishes quite roundly.

How does a Highland scotch compare to all of these Islays? Quite favorably. More of an easy-drinker, the Ardmore proved to be more floral and not quite as smoky. If I were to introduce someone to scotch for the first time, I might go with a Highland style like this one.
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Chuck Cook Photography
Out of all of the choices, Laphroaig's Quarter Cask and the 18 Year Old are the ones most likely to end up in my liquor cabinet. The 18 Year Old would be reserved to sip neat, while the Quarter Cask would find a home as a cocktail enhancement. It is to bourbon what mescal is to tequila; a smoky cousin.

Laphroaig was actually licensed as a medicine in the United States which allowed it to continue to be imported during Prohibition. That's ironically appropriate for a concoction for which "Band Aids®" is a common, even appealing (!), tasting note. Still, getting a good bottle of scotch is like buying a little piece of Scotland for your home, and it's a flavor worth trying to understand.

Want to learn more? Check out this video with Simon Brooking and Laphroaig's Master Distiller John Campbell to get a little taste of the seminar we attended. You'll have to bring your own scotch, though.



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Down House

1801 Yale, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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18 comments
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phaedracook
phaedracook

Thank you for all of the comments on this article! It's always inspiring to know when people are reading my and Chuck's work.

A scotch like Laphroaig is polarizing indeed, but I am fond of smoky spirits. I'm looking forward to a mescal infusion tomorrow in honor of Cinco de Mayo.

jeezuie
jeezuie

Impressive palate you have, Ms. Cook.

I bought my first bottle of Scotch ever, last year--Laphroaig Cask Strength.  It was like using an F-16 to get a pilot's license.

phaedracook
phaedracook

 That is a wonderful analogy. I'm stealing it. ;)

Megan
Megan

My husband loves Scotch (appropriate for a future lawyer, I think).  I, however, cannot stand the smokiness of it; I do try it every time he orders a glass, though.  (My usual statement: "Lovely, but I still don't like it.")  He adores Islay Scotch and Laphroaig in particular.  I think we're about due to buy a new bottle, and this gives me some good ideas.  Thanks, Phaedra!

MadMac
MadMac

I get that Scotch is an aquired taste--so's olives, strong coffee and cigars, all of which I love. But Scotch, tastes burnt. The "You'll get there.™" is cute and all but if it takes all that it don't want to be food. I'll stick with Jameson's.

sonicboom
sonicboom

Perhaps you have just tried the wrong whiskys.  Try The Macallan or the Balvenie Doublewood.  

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I don't bother with bourbon anymore, really. I'll have the occasional bourbon cocktail when it's on the menu at a party or event, but I'd never mix one or order one for myself. Eventually you have to accept there are things you don't like. Especially if you only drink in airports and on amateur holidays--stick with what you know.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I'll pass on it, right along with you. Dirty vodka martinis for me, pleeze.

MadMac
MadMac

No harm, no foul, no hurt feelings. My Creole inlaws insist I'm a non-drinker since I don't touch the stuff the rest of the year and literally have ONE drink on the day/flight in question. So, I'm about as amature as it gets. I toast Ireland and the New Year and then watch the floor show, (all puns intended) as the self-delusional amatures get 5hitfaced.

Thanks, (I think) for the offer of the gin, but I'd rather suffer with the toothache. And, I swear to Oprah, I thought that said Advil cocktails but that would be a different kind of party, I'm sure.

Smedley
Smedley

 You say "gin martinis" as if there is another kind...

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

In bartender terms, St. Patty's, NYE, Thanksgiving Eve, Cinco, et al. are all amateur nights, because everyone drinks like they do it that way every night and make a holy mess of themselves. I meant no offense--by your own admission it's one of the rare nights you tipple, which is the inherent meaning of "amateur night." [To be clear, it was the night itself I was calling amateur, not you.] And I'll take your scotch, AND I'll pass on the gin right along with you. (Though Anvil makes some yummy cocktails with gin that I adore, G'n'Ts & gin martinis are not on my menu, ever.)

MadMac
MadMac

Exactly. Somethings I take one pass at--gin, to quote Robert B. Parker, tastes like toothache remedy. Other things I tried to get, like Scotch, squid and sushi. All to no avail.

In our family, we enjoyed the good stuff, (Guinness and Jameson's) twice a year, (St Paddy's day isn't an amature holiday for us Wicklow fugees). The rest of the year it was Schlitz and JD. I LOATHE sour mash.

The article almost, almost made me say, "what the hell," I can afford to try it. Which I think is testament to the aficianado's approach and good writing. Especially when I remember how long a pricy bottle of Brora sat in our buffet until Uncle McRummy came to town.

Good article, but you can have my share of the sauce, Ms. Uticone.

MadMac
MadMac

Dunno, SB, I've had blended to single malt to single cask. I very rarely drink, (read: St Paddy's day/getting on a plane) but when I do, I don't care to work that hard.

Smedley
Smedley

Absolutely love Laphroaig. After I'd tried the Quarter Cask for the first time, I joked that if Laphroaig "puts hair on your chest", the Quarter Cask, "puts it everywhere else".

Great stuff, and it tastes better when wearing a kilt.

Gaspar_Ramsey
Gaspar_Ramsey

I am a member of the "Friends of LaPhroiag" and as such, hold title to one square inch of the Isle of Islay. If I should ever visit, I will receive the loan of a pair of Wellies (rubber boots), a map to locate my holdings, and a gill of liquor on my return. A tempting offer, to be sure.

sonicboom
sonicboom

I believe Ardbeg does the same thing.  I really need to keep all this stuff in a safety deposit box along with all my other cherished items.

Smedley
Smedley

 I'm well on my way to claiming the Crown of Scotland.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

This was a great read. I have been drinking scotch for years, and have always found bourbon far too sweet for my tastes. My husband bought me a 26 y.o. Islay (Caol Ila) for my 35th birthday--it's my special occasion spirit. I have a 10 y.o. Highland for "everyday". I need a bottle of Laphroaig for the bar--it's what we used to drink around the campfire!

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