Somewhere Between Gorgeous and Car Chase: The Laphroaig “Cairdeas” Series
Editor’s note: For the first review in our newly launched blog, Molotov Cocktail, Jarret Brachman gives his thoughts on the Laphroaig “Cairdeas” series. Check back often for more reviews, cocktail recipes, and all things booze. Bottoms up!
Laphroaig’s flagship 10-year-old scotch is a mouth masochist’s dream in a dram. Quite literally firewater, the family recipe “10” (in original or peat packed cask strength) lays waste to your face. Thundering burnt newspaper left hooks. Punishing medicinal peat jabs. Rapid-fire body blows of malted nuttiness and burnt sugar. Huge seaweed uppercuts. Laphroaig 10 makes no illusions about its raw power and youthful brashness. But for those special nights when you’re craving something slightly more nuanced than a freight train, consider pouring a dram of Laphroaig’s Fleet Admiral, the Cairdeas.
Pronounced somewhere between “gorgeous” and “car chase,” Cairdeas means “friendship” in Scottish Gaelic. Even if you can’t say it, you should still drink it. Each year’s unique Cairdeas expression is a blend of, well, whatever Laphroaig’s master distiller damn well pleases. First unveiled at the 2008 Feis Ila Festival of Malt and Music, the Cairdeas series has evolved from a curious novelty into a near religious experience for Islay whisky extremists such as myself.
The 2008 inaugural Cairdeas expression, named simply, “Cairdeas,” is near impossible to find today (this will become a recurring theme in the review) as only 3,600 bottles were produced. Even if you spot one while reconnoitering European whisky online auctions, it’s going to be a pricey target to acquire — trust me on this. At a robust 55 percent alcohol by volume, the 2008 expression vatted (scotch talk for “blended”) young smackdown cask strength liquid with older, more refined liquid aged in sherry butts. The result was an exciting reimagining of Laphroaig. Huge charcoaled peat and medicinal sea spray with hints of pepper and vanilla, citrus notes throughout, but a tad too much toffee sweetness for my taste. Overall, a big win for the Cairdeas debut.
The 2009 expression, aptly named, “Feis Ila,” for the annual Islay celebration, was an even bigger 57.5 percent ABV slamdunk. The 2009’s nose hits you with the signature Laphroaig campfire, but then claymores your mouth with notes of fresh cut wood, black licorice, marzipan, coffee grounds and loads of lemon. Unlike the 2008, the 2009 expression assumes command of the nutty sweetness making it a beautiful compliment to this scotch’s raging peat inferno. Finding a reasonably priced bottle these days is tough.
The 2010 Cairdeas “Master Edition” expression makes an about face from the 2009’s sweet complexity; instead, tactically nuking your tongue with monster peat, oily seaweed and band-aids. At 57.3 percent ABV, it’s spicy with traces of black pepper, black licorice and bold citrus. This scotch double taps all your senses. Once again, good luck finding any.
2011’s Cairdeas is the “Ileach” (pronounced “I lock”), which is Gaelic for “native of Islay” and a reference to the fact that Laphroaig’s master distiller, John Campbell, is the first Ileach to take the helm in almost 200 years. The expression is an introspective ode to Laphroaig’s oft-forgotten floral side at a fragrant 50.5 percent ABV. It’s got a light and playful nose with orange and herbal notes shining through. On taste, Campbell dials way back on the usual seaweed-smoke bomb and instead pumps up the floral, clove and citrus. I thought this was a great year for Cairdeas, but bottles curiously lingered on shelves well into 2013 (they’re all gone now).
2012’s Cairdeas release, “Origin,” brought Friends of Laphroaig (FoL) back to where the Cairdeas all started. Crafted by vatting liquid from casks used in the 2008 original Cairdeas that had been left to mature another four years with the molten magma coming out of seven-year young quarter casks, Origin is the warrior poet of the Cairdeas expressions to date. The nose is velvety sweet, like tangy caramel smoked in a charcoal barbeque. At 51.2 percent ABV, the Origin and every subsequent Cairdeas ABV will now match the last two numbers of the year in which it’s produced: 51.2 percent for 2012, 51.3 percent for 2013, etc. The taste is a well-governed melee of coal-fired peat, black-peppered ash, tangy apple barbeque and bright, sweet lemon. It’s a beautiful, sophisticated bottling that raised the collective hopes of Laphroaig lovers for what Cairdeas could become.
Laphroaig’s 2013 Cairdeas expression, known as the “Port Wood Edition,” decisively smoked the high hopes of Islay fanboys like myself. In fact, I’d say it is as close to a scotch masterpiece as one can find under $100. First shocker is that it’s pink. Yes, this alluring blushed coloring comes from a double maturation process in which Campbell takes liquid from 8-year-old first fill ex-bourbon barrels and then ages it another 16 months in half-port pipes. The Port Wood is nothing short of a single malt coup d’état, torpedoing the foolish belief that age translates into quality. In my opinion, it’s more often the reverse.
This peat packed pink Port Wood purrs as it pours. Luxurious notes of buttery vanilla, pine needles and the briny sea air are the opening olfactory shots across the bow. Draw the glass closer and Laphroaig’s distinct scent of a napalmed peat bog reminds you that you’re still playing with fire despite the adorable pink hue.
The taste — well, the taste is like charcoal smoke dancing an intimate tango with lush, jammy fruit. Think of stewed rhubarb infused with smoked bacon. It assaults your mouth with waves of port sweetness, kippers (Scottish herring) and medicinal peat. You simply can’t drink a dram of the Port Wood without being transported to the rocky, storm-battered cliffs of Islay. Oily with a long, luscious iodine smoke finish, for me, this expression is the standard for what Islay scotch can and should be.
Depending on where you shop, the Cairdeas expression should run you between $75-$90. But the price is more or less irrelevant. In an age of uncertainty, this year’s Port Wood is a fleeting moment of clarity about all that is good and true in this world. It embodies the ebbing and flowing tides of life; the passionate dance of unexpectedly compatible opposites. Take it from this colonel of Cairdeas, you should seize as many bottles of Port Wood that you can still find, pour some drams and rediscover the meaning (and pronunciation) of friendship.
Slainte Mhath (Good health)!
Jarret Brachman manages the global threat intelligence program for a major international bank. He previously directed a law enforcement training program at North Dakota State University and before that served as the first Director of Research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. Brachman’s pastimes include drinking whisky, thinking about drinking whisky and now writing about drinking whisky.
Photo credit: Mikael Leppä