The Medicinal Whisky
or “in which I steal the phrase ‘sea salt ice cream’”
A few years ago, on one of the evenings he came to stay with me, I asked my father which whisky he would like to drink. His immediate and unquestioning response was – “the medicinal one you gave me for christmas a few years ago…” This left me in something of a quandary. My immediate thought was towards Laphroaig – long held as the iodine king of whiskies, that peaty sharp tang, reminiscent of TCP or deep heat, as I have heard it described. But my dad never liked peated whiskies, so I was confused… What whisky, what distillery could he mean…? I started through ideas, immediately rejecting all other Islays, even Caol Ila, with its clean sharpness. I thought of Talisker, thinking of the peppery goodness, but again, I wouldn’t have got that for him. i stretched to Brimstone, or aged gins, I thought of almost every option I could run through, until I asked him what about it made him think “medicinal”; apparently I had told him the bottle it came in was based on a victorian medicine bottle – immediately I knew – the A’bunadh.
This brought me to something of a moment of revelation. The way I think of whiskies, the way I categorise them, the way I sort and sift through their smells and flavours, is not the same way everyone, or indeed potentially anyone, else will. I store and arrange all these thoughts based on memories originally, what I associate the smell and taste with; next I formulate a few basic ideas about flavour profiles, but I tend to avoid the ultra-specific – I think it’s very easy to sound knowledgeable if you use references that no one can check – madagascan peaches, or Umbrian Olive paste from the shop down from the villa I once stayed in, they make it by hand, weekly, according to a highly secret recipe, and no, I can’t give you the name of it, that would ruin the fun, and they’d run out too fast… I base my flavour ideas around major concepts, high level details, smoke, leather, honey, floral, grainy cereal or musty dustiness and then I remember the low level details of the whisky, the geeky stuff, the production variables, length of maturation, type of cask, the stuff they wax lyrical about in the promotional material.
This year was Laphraoig’s 200th anniversary, so in time honoured tradition of whisky distilleries of late, they released a whisky which was “inspired by” the original whisky they were likely to have made (the “inspired by” tag allows them to make a whisky which still sits firmly alongside current style). The barley for this whisky has been entirely malted on their own floors, distilled in the smallest stills only, closest to what they would have originally used and aged in warehouse number 1 – all tying in to as “ancient” a style of laphroaig as possible. This has been in planning for about 12 years – the whisky was distilled in August 2003 and some of the details are quite wonderful even down to the bottling strength – 51.5%, the last 2 digits referencing their 1815 founding. (not sure I’d want to try an 81.5% Laphraoig). It was undeniably Laphroaig – the weighty, meaty smoke, (which Ben informs me is bromine, rather than iodine, it has a meatier, more savoury, umami type flavour), the slight ashiness, the sweetness underlying it all and that salinity, cutting through and against the sweetness, all smoothed with a creamy, unctuous edge. It’s Laphraoig, for sure, more similar to the 18 year old, but it’s so much more satisfying, immense and intense.
Nose: subtle smoke, more restrained, with far less TCP than expected. the smoke is clean and fresh, almost floral. very perfumed notes, fruity, apricots in particular.
Palate: Aniseed and liquorice, crispy seaweed, sweet and sour combinations, and a smoothness, creaminess, which i decided to steal Ample Drams tasting note for – “sea salt ice cream”
Finish: more sweet and sour smoke, edging towards burning of fresh leaves, salted caramel with cracked black pepper, drying on the very end.
But my father remembers the stuff I told him when I gave it to him, about the bottle, about the shop I bought it from, who I talked to about it. He’s done this several times since – it’s always “the whisky you got me for christmas that you looked up on the auction site to shock me” (an early Glendronach PX single cask), “the one you said was from near where we used to exit the spey when I canoed” (Tamdhu 10 year old) or “the one from the wool carding mill that Lidl bought out the stock of” (Tamnavulin, rebranded as Ben Bracken). Having talked to people that have been to my tastings, they remember other details, whiskies I’ve talked about as “nautical”, or picked up on my rare, more obscure, pretentious tasting notes; “own brand cheap beeswax furniture polish” or less helpfully “sweet shops” (to my mind, a lot of whiskies smell like sweet shops, so I decided to stop using that as a tasting note. Either that, or I need to stop hanging out in sweet shops).
But as for medicinal whisky, for my first thought, Laphroaig, on the surface, ticks all the boxes. Little Ben (ample dram) and I visited the distillery when we were on Islay last month. We had planned a full program of distillery tours; Laphroaig was one we wanted to see, but we hadn’t planned to tour fully – we were very pleased to find a very lovely tasting lounge, with very generous pourers, who were also very generous with their time, to explain the intricacies of the whisky and the distillery. By this point, we had been on enough tours to understand the complexities of making a porridge in a kettle, draining it into a barrel, making a beer before boiling it in another kettle, placing it into at least one more barrel, before finally bottling and serving; not getting to see more copper and wood wasn’t a major disappointment. (For a more in depth analysis of the whisky making process, Ben has explained it here pretty much perfectly). Instead we got to try, in their true home, the latest 2 releases from Laphroaig – their Feis Ile Cairdeas release, and their 10 year old Cask Strength (batch 7).