Signatory Laphroaig bottled for La Maison du Whisky in Paris. It was one of the best new single malts I'd had in years with bold peat and sherry and an oily mouthfeel. It tasted like the good old days. That was cask 700356 distilled on Sept. 22, 1998. Then, at the end of last year, Whisky Advocate gave its Islay Single Malt of the Year award to a 1998 Signatory Laphroaig bottled for The Whisky Exchange. That one was Cask 700393 distilled on the same day. Well, The Whisky Exchange recently released another cask, 700389, from what must have been a magical day in the fall of 1998. This one has another year of age on it.
Given all of these Laphroaigs from the same day, I thought I would do a side by side. These are all aged in refill sherry casks; prices have varied from $150 to $250, mostly because of currency fluctuations.
Laphroaig 15 (Signatory), Cask 700393, Distilled September 22, 1998, Bottled Sept. 23, 2013 for The Whisky Exchange, 60.8%
The nose is fabulous, smoky and oily with BBQ brisket but also gobs of fruit. The palate is a great balance of smoke and sherry, but in the end, the smoke wins out and the finish is heavily peated.
Laphroaig 16 (Signatory), Cask 700389, Distilled September 22, 1998, Bottled Feb. 6, 2015 for The Whisky Exchange, 59.9% (£120)
The nose just explodes in peat, smoke and bacon, then you get the fruit, like an orchard buried in peat. Pretty soon your nose has gotten used to the peat explosion and you're getting pears, plums and grapes, maybe even some floral notes. The palate is softer than you would expect from the nose. The peat is thick and sharp and comes on first. Once you acclimate to it, the sherry notes are sweet, but not too intense and without any trace of sulfur. Despite the proof, it doesn't feel too strong. The finish is well balanced between the strong peat notes and the sweetness of the sherry.
Between the two bottles from The Whisky Exchange, the 2013 bottling is heavier on the peat while the 2015 bottling is heavier on the sherry. Both are great, it's just a matter of where the balance falls.
Next, I did a side by side tasting of these two with the sister cask from La Maison du Whisky that I reviewed here. The La Maison du Whisky bottling blows the other two away. It's a powerhouse of oily peat with dry sherry giving it texture. The Whisky Exchange bottlings, which are great whiskeys, fold in the presence of this old-fashioned peat monster.
All three of these are great bottles, and there are a lot more Laphroaigs from the same date, but some have a very different character, particularly those bottled as part of Signatory's Un-Chill Filtered Collection (regular shaped bottles) as opposed to the Cask Strength Collection (wide bottles). For instance, the K&L Laphroaig I reviewed a few weeks ago was a Signatory Un-Chill Filtered Collection bottling from that date aged in a sherry cask, but while it was good, it had very little sherry influence and was a very different character of malt than the more sherry-heavy bottlings I tasted today. The same can be said of Cask 700388, an American bottling from the same date bottled as part of the Un-Chill Filtered Collection which had little in the way of sherry character, so it seems like the bigger sherry numbers are going into the Cask Strength Collection.
Whatever was going on at Laphroaig 17 years ago this month was something special. I would keep your eyes open over the next few years for more 9/22/98 Laphroaig, particularly those bottled by Signatory as part of their Cask Strength Collection.
UPDATE: Some have speculated that the bottlings from this day were made from barley malted in-house by Laphroaig, as opposed to barley from Port Ellen Maltings. I'm following up and will post another update if I find out anything definitive.
Thanks to PZ, SB and Daniel Laurence for samples of these whiskeys.