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What We’re Drinking: A Laphroaig Appreciation Post
The distillery’s new Càirdeas 2021 Edition is so good you don’t even have to be a COOL SCOTCH GUY to enjoy it.
First, a Quick Note From Management
I owe you all a quick mea culpa. Our publishing consistency has left something to be desired over these past few weeks. I have no real excuse, outside of “everyone needs a break once in awhile.” I personally needed a “break” so I could finish purchasing, renovating, and moving into a new home. This wasn’t really a break at all, but more like a second full-time job for which I did not get paid (quite the opposite, in fact). Anyhow, apologies for taking an unannounced hiatus from Ab Ovo. In our view, it’s better to miss a week of AO here and there than to send out something of dubious quality written under duress.
Despite the gap in publishing, we did in fact manage to make progress on some ongoing behind-the-scenes projects over these past few weeks. We’re working on some aesthetic changes to the newsletter. We’re working toward bringing some new voices aboard. And we’re always working on new ways to strike the right balance between content that’s educational, practical, and entertaining.
Stopping to catch our breath — even if only briefly — gave us a moment to work on all of these things and more, and we appreciate your patience. You’ll see some of these improvements begin to manifest themselves right here in your inbox in coming weeks. In the meantime, consider this a return to our regularly scheduled weekly programming. And as always, thanks for reading.—CD
Ab Ovo is a weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and friends. If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
What We’re Drinking: Laphroaig Càirdeas 2021 Pedro Ximénez Casks Edition
Peated scotch whiskies can prove polarizing, particularly when you’re talking about a whisky like Laphroaig whose tasting notes can read like the contents of a first aid kit — “medicinal,” “iodine,” “band aid,” etc. Many, many peated Scotch enthusiasts live for these kinds of aromas and flavors (along with other appetizing notes like “pine tar” and “pencil shavings”), and Laphroaig is in fact the best-selling whisky from the island of Islay, ground zero for this style of heavily peated whisky production. But for many drinkers — even for devoted fans of unpeated Scotch — whiskies that place peat front and center can be a high hill to climb.
Laphroaig certainly fits that category; Its flagship 10-year-old whisky is aged solely in ex-bourbon barrels (the standard for modern scotch whisky) in part to leave its full, peated character intact and undiluted. For lovers of that smoky, slightly briny, full-bodied style, we’re pleased to report that the seas will boil and the sun will collapse in on itself in an apocalyptic supernova before Laphroaig will change the way it produces its core liquid. For everyone else, there’s Càirdeas.
Named for the Gaelic word for “friendship” (and pronounced more like “care-chis”), Laphroaig releases a new iteration of this series in limited quantities annually. Each year’s expression provides Distillery Manager John Campbell and his team an opportunity to experiment with Laphroaig’s signature flavor profile, typically by changing up the types of casks the liquid rests in before bottling. Early iterations of Càirdeas (going back to the late aughts) typically comprised a blend of Laphroaig whiskies of varying ages matured in different types and sizes of casks, almost all of which were uniformly ex-bourbon casks. And, unsurprisingly, they were great.
Over the past several releases of Càirdeas, however, Campbell and company have regularly opted to finish these whiskies in various wine casks — Amontillado sherry, Fino sherry, Madeira wine, Port wine, Oloroso sherry, etc. — with some truly stunning results. I’m not suggesting this is novel; sherry cask maturation in particular has a long tradition in Scotch whisky production (at one point used sherry casks were the cheap and plentiful maturation vessels for the industry that ex-bourbon casks are today). What I am saying is that Laphroaig is really hitting on all cylinders where its cask finishing experiments are concerned, and the Càirdeas series is where you go to experience that.
Càirdeas 2021 Edition — which is rolling out on US retail shelves this month — spent time in barrels that previously held bourbon before moving into smaller, more flavor-imparting quarter casks (also ex-bourbon). They then enjoyed a final rest in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks before bottling. And like each of its recent predecessors, this whisky builds something unique atop Laphroaig’s familiar foundation, in this case a well-integrated layer of cooked fruit, honey, and nuttiness that might win over even those who typically turn up their noses at peated single malts.
That’s not to say Laphroaig’s DNA is absent, as that telltale dose of medicinal smoke and briny sea spray is still very much there. But rather than being front and center, those notes are swimming in a much larger pool alongside aromas of marzipan, cooked apples, praline, almond, and toffee. On the palate, there’s plenty of barbecue smoke, honey, caramel, and toasted oak — pretty standard Laphroaig fare — but also candied bacon, stewed fruits, Manuka honey, and a pronounced, downright seductive dried red cherry note that sets this particular expression of Càirdeas apart (for me, anyhow).
When we’re talking about stewed apples, marzipan, and seductive dried cherry we’ve come quite a ways from speaking of iodine and pine tar. I would never go so far as to say Laphroaig is actively trying to make its whiskies more approachable. The distillery takes its very long whisky-making tradition quite seriously, and anyhow it has so many devoted fans that it hardly has a problem selling literal boatloads of whisky all over the world.
But sherry influence can soften a lot of peated whisky’s more abrasive (to some) aspects. Intentional or not, a byproduct of Laphroaig’s increased experimentation with various cask finishes and maturation regimens of late is a collection of Scotches that are not only beautifully integrated, but a bit more accessible to the non-peated-whisky drinker as well.
That consumers are loving its sherry-finished whiskies does not seem lost on Laphroaig. Earlier this year it introduced to its core range an expression of its flagship 10-year-old Scotch whisky finished in Oloroso sherry casks. Showing less berry fruit and a bit drier than the 2021 Càirdeas, it’s nonetheless a beautiful twist on Laphroaig’s flagship 10-year-old, with aromas that evoke a warm, nutty dessert more than a medicine cabinet. Moreover, it’s one that will join Laphroaig’s permanent lineup, albeit with a limited number of bottles produced each year.
As for the Càirdeas 2021 Edition, once it’s gone it’s gone. Given its precise balance of everything that makes Laphroaig great (peat, salinity, honey), all those decadent Pedro Ximénez sherry notes (cooked fruit, nuts, dried berry fruit), and warming alcohol (it’s bottled at a plenty-hot 58.9% ABV), expect this bottle to grow scarce sooner rather than later. Priced at a relatively affordable $100, you’ll want to make room on your shelf for this one.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2021 Pedro Ximénez Casks Edition ($100)
Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Sherry Oak Finish ($90)
**Note: Càirdeas 2021 is just now hitting US shelves, so it may be hard to find at the moment. Patience and persistence pays off. The 10-year-old sherry oak likewise could be a bit supply constrained at your local bottle shop right now, as it’s currently being rolled out in yearly batches and quantities are limited. Just keep an eye out at your local store and online. You’ll find a bottle.