Tell most people something is an acquired taste and they’ll immediately dismiss it. Why work to enjoy food and drink when you can stick with tried and true favorites? I completely agree…in theory. For those foolish enough to swallow their reservations, allow me to proselytize about a gem I discovered when I ignored my own, Laphroaig Scotch Whisky.
My took my first sip of single malt Scotch in 2008 at American Bounty Restaurant, one of the Culinary Institute of America restaurants in Hyde Park, NY. Glenlivet 12 poured sinfully into an ice filled tumbler. Until then, liquor sans mixer troubled my palate and my throat. I took a big risk attempting to enjoy a drink potentially beyond my ability to enjoy. But it tasted good. The melting ice cooled and diluted the alcohol, but I could still detect the vanilla, grapefruit, and apples that define the flavor profile. A seasoned whisky drinker might equate it to wading knee deep into a pool. You have to start somewhere.
Shortly after, I procured my own bottle of that very same Glenlivet 12 and worked on improving my burn tolerance. Turns out well-made scotch isn’t nearly as harsh as the off-brand, plastic-bottled whiskey with which I was tempered in college. Timidity turned to triumph. I’d found a new hobby. An expensive new hobby.
With so much information available today, a moment of revelation like the one I experienced is soon deflated by the abundance of knowledge you realize you don’t know. Never underestimate how many enlightened members of a community are available to tell you precisely how pedestrian your tastes are. I started from the bare minimum of acceptability among scotch drinkers and it was time to dive headfirst. So I researched and drank and repeated. All for science.
The name continuing to crop up everywhere was Laphroaig. One of the few Islay distilleries, which are known for smoky peatiness, Laphroaig was widely regarded as the smokiest and peatiest of the bunch. The described flavors were intimidating: Vanilla masked with intense smoke, seaweed, medicinal, including Band-Aids and whiffs of a first aid box, heavy spices like cardamom and black pepper, a finish that’s tarry and iodine. Not exactly like enjoying a vanilla ice cream cone. An “acquired taste” enthusiasts assured, one that would pay off in time.
My first attempt at Laphroaig was like a convict heading to the electric chair. Any enthusiasm as I purchased the bottle waned when I realized I actually had to drink this stuff. My ritual included pouring a small sample into a Glencairn glass, sniffing it, sloshing it around, sniffing again then taking a sip. I did this with all whiskies because that’s what I was told to do. The aroma was medicinal and smoke. Something between roasted cough syrup and charred bandages. As I sat with this green tinted bottle resting on the table, I realized the fruitiness of Glenlivet and Macallan and Glenfiddich and everything else I’d tried to that point wouldn’t save me now. I would experience the consequences of shelling out $50 for a drink I’d never tried before.
Poetry would dictate I took a great swig, slammed the glass on the table and filled it again. Not so. I sipped it like a child eating broccoli. The minimal number of whisky particles in that first taste tested the boundaries of what one can consider an experience. I hated it. Everything in the described flavor profile was there, but in wildly different ratios than expected. The smoke was overwhelming, the vanilla was handcuffed, the Band-Aids made me rather be in a hospital. It wasn’t an ice cream cone or a Vanilla Coke or even pure vanilla dripped directly on my tongue. I was determined to get it. I took a larger sip. The worn off shock diminished the unpleasantness. It was still bad. I drained the glass. Nothing.
Have you ever had a dream where your perception of truth was drastically different than when you’re awake? Like when they upload the Kung Fu program into Neo’s brain in The Matrix. Suddenly, you can’t imagine reality before. Like the information was always with you, even though you can’t recall the arduousness of the journey. I tried Laphroaig twice more before I understood. The whisky’s vices were virtues. The flavors were like nothing else. Taste enough of anything and brands blend. This occupied a seat removed from all others. I actually found myself craving more of it and disregarding all other drinks for weeks.
Laphroaig 10 is now my default whisky. Sometimes I’ll stray to a Lagavulin or Ardbeg, but my original Islay still holds a special place. Over time, I’ve tried others by the distillery. Cask Strength is a wonderful 55% ABV and up (depending on the batch) monster that’s bottled before dilution down to 43%. Laphroaig in its purest form. Quarter Cask (pictured above) is a more refined version that opens up the subtle flavors and adds a few new ones. Laphroaig 18 is another whisky beast with even more complexity, begging to be tamed by the brave.
I wouldn’t recommend Laphroaig to someone new to single malt Scotch. There’s too much foreign for a xenophobic brain to appreciate. But if you’ve enjoyed the Speysides and find yourself looking towards the unknown, try a dram of Laphroaig. Then another. And another. Drink it until you love it or continue to hate it. Then drink some more.