Every year Laphroaig releases a “Cairdeas” limited edition, intended to reward their “Friends of Laphroaig” aka repeat customers. “Cairdeas” is Scots Gaelic for “Friendship”, after all. Each year’s expression is a different take on Laphroaig, and the 2016 edition (which is still available on some store shelves or online if you hurry) is finished in hogsheads that were previously used to age Madeira wine. Madeira is a sweet fortified wine from the Madeira islands, a Portuguese archipelago off the coast of North Africa. The sweet wine itself is similar to sherry and port.
It’s not terribly unusual to age whisky in Madeira casks (Glenmorangie’s Private Edition bottling, Bacalta, uses them), although it’s not all that common to see peated scotch finished in fortified wine casks. Cairdeas 2016 is bottled at a potent 51.6% ABV and retails for around $80, while it’s still available. The whisky is NAS, but it uses “fully-matured Laphroaig” before finishing, which in previous years was code for 8 years old plus maybe a year or two in the wine barrels. As is usual with NAS, you just don’t get to know the exact age. If that bothers you (I’m looking at you, Jeff) then just vote with your wallet.
Nose: Unmistakably Laphroaig, with an aroma evincing seaspray-battered coastlines, boggy with brine and seaweed and sea grasses. As with other Laphroaigs, the peat smoke is heavy on peat and light on smoke, giving a sense of smoldering peat rather than outright fire. Underlying the peat is a thin layer of sweetness, like a bushel of plums tossed into the kiln along with the rest.
Palate: Medium bodied. Sooty peat dominates, while an incredibly gentle tongue burn for 51.6% ABV bakes your tongue. Fresh apple cider, maraschino cherries, and dates balance the herbal, medicinal peatiness.
Finish: Long. Here, the peat becomes ashy and betrays some bitter elements. The fruit is subdued but present, clashing slightly with the bitterness, but conveying a sense of cocktail bitters (sweet, bitter, medicinal, herbal). The cognitive dissonance is familiar to me from other sherry-aged peat monsters, and is something that I’m sure I could learn to love with enough practice…
With Water: A few drops of water dull most of the aroma, revealing instead a sticky dried prune note. The tongue burn is further diminished, but the whole becomes somewhat muddier and indistinct. Only add water if you feel the whisky is too hot when taken neat.
Overall: An unusual, decadent take on the standard Laphroaig brashness. While most of me enjoys the layering of fruit and peat, a small part misses the straightforward intensity, austerity, and rough edges of the Laphroaig 10, which seems to say, “I don’t need any of that fruity nonsense”, and which comes with an age statement to boot. Despite my quirks, I can say that this is an accomplished, well-balanced, and rewarding dram at a perfectly reasonable $80, although Ardbeg Corryvreckan (a peated whisky with a distinctly different style) beats the pants off of this for the same (or similar) price.