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Scotch as Medicine

November 12, 2010

It’s time.  I have put off answering this question for long enough.  It’s almost winter.  We’ve had over an inch of snow, and almost all of the leaves are off the trees.  I’m well into putting on my winter weight, and the lingering smokiness of new barbecue joints Rubbin’ Butts and Dinosaur is still fresh in my memory.

Plus, I’ve recently gone off my actual medication, and now I can enjoy an evening cocktail without the risk of grave consequences.

All of which make me think about a scotch that I enjoy, as do a small handful of enthusiasts, but that most do not.  In fact, it was considered so unpalatable that during Prohibition it was legally imported to the U.S. as medicine.  But to those who love it, its intense smokiness is perfect for the cold winter nights that will so soon be blowing on our doors.

That means Ellen Whitby’s question from March will finally be answered:
You said “recommending Laphroaig without a disclaimer that most human beings can’t stand the stuff is irresponsible”  Could you say more about that? I tried it recently and didn’t like it much at all. The person who served it to me thought it was the bees knees.

It would be better to answer the question with a dram of the spirit in front of me.  But given the space constraints of my current bar and the number of whiskies that dominate it already, I will have to do without.

Which is fine.  Because there could be no finer disclaimer for this idiosyncratic Scotch whisky than the review by F. Paul Pacult in the first Kindred Spirits:

Laphroaig 10-Year Old Islay Single Malt 43% Alcohol
This to me is the most immediately identifiable nose in the realm of Scotch whisky—beast-like, phenolic, wheelbarrels of iodine, sea salt, nonstop peat and kippers—and as if the medicinal tidal waves aren’t enough, beneath them lies a thin layer of fino sherry—is this loutish nose too much? why am I reaching for a rifle?—on palate, the peat reek is so thick I have to scrape it off my tongue with a spatula; the three-alarm smokiness leaves scant room for anything else—I wonder if there is
anything else in terms of flavor—maybe it’s just peat, smoke, peat, smoke; I appreciate the damn-the-torpedoes character of this burly brat, but if I were stranded on that proverbial island with only one single malt, Laphroaig 10 most definitely would not be my choice; make sure you have a whip and a chair handy after you open this beastie; my biggest objection to this malt is, what does a newcomer to malts think if they happen to try this five-alarm malt before tasting other, tamer, more elegant malts? Do you lose that person forever?
Rating 1*

His description of the bottle is pretty fair and accurate. But to me, the whisky he’s talking about sounds pretty good.

In the spirit of full disclosure, F. Paul did soften his review of the spirit in his later iWhiskey App, when he elevated the 10-Year bottling to three stars.  Although even back at the time he was writing Kindred Spirits, Mr. Pacult thought highly of the more aged versions of this whisky.

I think part of what is at play here has to do with an arc of taste preferences that occurs on a journey of culinary discovery.

There is something about the early stages of connoisseurship that seems to bring out the desire for big flavors.  Many people who are into wine want big cabernet sauvignons.  Cheese lovers are famous for suggesting that the stinkier the cheese, the better.  Food lovers may swoon over an impossibly well marbled dry-aged grassfed bone-in rib eye charred to a perfect medium rare under an 1800 degree broiler.

I think this stage is about the excitement of discovery.  When one turns on to the fact that there is a deeper world of flavor just beyond the realm of one’s experience, there is a certain hunger.  And that hunger must be fed.

For some people it begins and ends here.  For others it evolves.  Wine lovers find the trials and triumphs of more delicate Burgundies.  Cheese lovers may find themselves haunted by the grassiness of a Saint Nectaire.  Food lovers may find themselves in heaven at the simple thought of one perfect peach.  

Laphroaig was a Scotch I was introduced to at the beginning of my awareness of single malt whiskies.  And its two-fisted approach of hammering the palate with flavors of smoke and the sea was inspiring.  Clearly F. Paul was coming to this bottle from a different place, although it is reassuring to read of his appreciation for its character.

So there is your warning.

If you are a crusty old sailor who smokes a pipe and loves the sea, this is the whisky for you.  In some deep dark recesses of my imagination, the fantasy of a life on the sea still exists.  And surely it is that part of me that will continue to love Laphroaig regardless of the path of my whisky journey.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    November 12, 2010 11:24 am

    Laphroiag is without a doubt my favorite single malt.

  2. James permalink
    November 12, 2010 12:09 pm

    Although the standard 10 year old Laphroaig is very good, in my opinion, the cask strength 10 year old is an even better option for the modest price increase. The smokiness and peatiness are even more pronounced, you can add just a touch of water to enhance the nose without really diluting the flavors, and the higher proof adds some nice heat to the finish.

  3. November 12, 2010 12:19 pm

    Yo Dan!

    As I’ve said countless times on the blogosphere, Laphroiag 10 is one uber-polarizing whisky. There is no middle ground on this one. Love it or hate it. Period. Personally, I love it! Laphroiag makes a damn fine whisky. For the less brave, there’s their Quarter Cask, which is very very good. For the stinking rich, there’s the 30, which is amazing! They make me proud to be a “Friend of Islay”. :)

    Great post!


  4. Raf permalink
    November 12, 2010 2:31 pm

    You wouldn’t think you could mix with it, but the good folks at bourbon and branch came up with an awesome laphroaig cocktail. Works with Bowmore, Lagavulin and other Islay whiskys too.

    The Laphroaig Project:
    1oz Green Chartreuse
    .5oz Laphroaig Quarter Cask
    .5oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
    .25oz Yellow Chartreuse
    1oz Fresh Lemon Juice
    2 Dashes Fee Peach Bitters

  5. mr. dave permalink
    November 12, 2010 8:22 pm

    My only opinion on Scotch is that you should have one (an opinion that is).

    Off topic, I believe I had my first sighting of the Fussy clan in the wild. Me thinks I spied Mr. Fussy and his minions perusing the fine frozen goods at the venerable Slingerlands outpost of the Price Chopper dynasty today. I might have said hi, but the Giblet-meister was in the throws of a fearsome cranky spell and me and the missus were a little frazzled. Also, it might not have been you, only a close facsimile of the Mr. Fussy and young un’s that I have see pictured on Albany Jane’s blog.

  6. November 13, 2010 10:00 pm

    I am a big fan of Islay single malts and I find the Laphroaig a bit mild for my tastes. Though it’s great to find such a rambunctious quaff so widely available. I loved the Kindred Description of Laphroaig and was expecting to see a 10 rating until the end. YMMV as they say.

    I have a couple of bottles of a 25 year old Bowmore that I treasure and don’t really expect to finish in my lifetime. And it’s kind of a hoot that more generic bottlers have started selling a “discount” Islay for $15-20 which has a whiff of the peat mixed with who knows what.

    Profussor, your post neatly sidestepped telling us what you actually drink/recommend in a single malt. You owe us one. Aar.

  7. Ellen Whitby permalink
    November 15, 2010 2:38 pm

    I am honored that you dedicated a full post to my question. Thank you. I have a few follow ups for you.

    1) What does you mean “actual” medication? Are you also taking “imaginary” medication? I presume that is compatible with alcohol.

    2) It sounds like you are describing Laphroig as a drink for seasoned scotch drinkers and it would be hard for a non-scotch drinker to appreciate. If one wanted to try to appreciate Laphroig, it would seem to me that you would start with milder or more gentle scotches…not necessarily less flavorful but flavorful but with less intensity.

    If you agree, could you suggest a few to get started? If you’d like, I’d be happy to have you join me as my “scotch coach”. Especially if you are only taking imaginary medication.

    Thank you again for your answer.

  8. November 17, 2010 6:36 pm

    Love Laphroaig (love Lagavulin more), but I’ve found a softer alternative in the same profile is the Talisker from Skye. I’ll take the first two over the latter, but the Talisker makes for a nice step in the right direction.

  9. September 23, 2011 9:34 pm

    Nearly a year later, I don’t believe that the Profussor has answered the challenge to name his own favorite Islay. Aar, and ye talk like a pirate day has passed once again. If I pose this is a question will ye answer? Profusser, what is ye favorite Islay?


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