Many single malts these days seem to have one thing in common: they undergo a kind of cask finishing, a period of secondary maturation in a cask that once held wine, sherry, or another spirit. It’s not like it’s just a gimmick, though; on the contrary, it is a proven practice that exists not only in Scotch but also in American, Irish and other whiskey categories. That’s all well and good, but sometimes the best ultra-aged versions are the most basic – just a few decades spent inside bourbon barrels, not cuvée or cognac or French wine. This is the case of volume 3 of the Ian Hunter series by Laphroaig. The whisky, the third of five versions that will eventually make up this collection, was aged for 33 years in ex-bourbon casks, a key part of the maturation process at this Islay distillery.
If you know Laphroaig – and most whiskey drinkers are – you know that the single malts produced at this distillery are known to be pretty damn smoky. And it’s not just a campfire, because the distillery loves to boast about the iodized, seaweed and medicinal notes that define whisky. Love it or hate it, peat is central to the flavor profile of all liquids that come out of Laphroaig, but it plays a different role depending on the expression. Generally, I find that a long aging in sherry cask will sweeten the smokiness, while a long aging in bourbon might also do it but less pronounced.
This new whisky, distilled in 1987, is still surprisingly smoky, at least on the palate. The nose has minimal peat, with notes of vanilla, citrus and spicy pear in the top. The palate opens with papaya, clementine, vanilla custard, burnt caramel and a touch of iodine and menthol, all backed by a layer of mellow but still predominant smoke. The tropical fruit notes that often rise to the fore in such an old whiskey remain in the background, and this is a welcome change. At just under 50% ABV there is a bit of heat here and the whiskey is not chill filtered to retain maximum flavor.
The subtitle to the name of this new version of the Ian Hunter series is “Source Protector”. This is a reference to the Kilbride Stream, Laphroaig’s water source so loved by Hunter, the last member of the distillery’s founding family to run the operation. It’s an important marker in the distillery’s history, but an expensive whiskey like this must make its impact known first and foremost through flavor, not history. In this regard, Book 3 is very good, but it is also quite similar to Book 1, a 30-year-old single malt that has also spent its entire maturation period in bourbon barrels. This new whiskey is three years older and a completely different vintage, so if you get the chance to try the two back to back, it should be interesting to see how they compare. But even on its own, this new luxury release from Laphroaig is a delicious dram without the gimmicks – just a vigorously peated single malt classically aged in bourbon casks for a third of a century.
What our score means
- 100: It’s worth exchanging your firstborn for
- 95 – 99 At the Pantheon: A trophy for the firm
- 90 – 94 Great: An enthusiastic wink from friends when you pour them a drink
- 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not special enough to seek aftermarket
- 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, strong and reliable
- Below 80, it goes: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this.
Every week, Jonah Flicker tastes the hottest and most interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back every Friday for its latest review.