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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Hide and Seek: Laphroaig Highgrove Single Malt Whisky

Whisky seems to be popping up in the most weird and wonderful of places at the moment. From the odd, unusual bottle in the local corner shop, to pubs now hosting vast arrays of bottles for you to choose from when out drinking, this is always a good indication of the growth in awareness of a product.

It has always been the domain of the malt drinker to seek out bottles which are interesting and unique. I was recently in a liquor shop in a particular part of North London which is home to a large Jewish community. The shop is a treasure trove of unusual whisky, a large portion of it kosher, making the whisky accessible for the local community. This included brands I have never seen before as well as certain expressions of existing bottles, tweaked to meet the needs of the consumer, such as the Glenrothes Alba Reserve.

It is the fleet-of-foot ability of some whisky brands to produce bottles for specific markets or specific customers such as this, which can give them not only an additional competitive advantage, but also a whole new support base of drinkers who will become advocates of the brand.

But finding some of these exotic expressions can be a real chore. Stumbling across things in a shop miles from where you live, is one way, magazines, auction sites and the internet is another way. It’s a little like finding new music you love. I have a list of people who I trust to supply me with top tips. Being an ex-A&R guy, this list includes top music managers and executives, artists themselves, music journalists, close friends and the radio.

Just this morning, I found myself engaged in some spring cleaning around my house and needed a soundtrack to turn to. I wasn’t keen on music I already knew, so Spotify was closed and I threw on, at random, the Don Lett’s show on BBC Radio 6 Music.

For our international readership out there, BBC 6 Music is the station you ‘retire to’ when you no longer want to listen to the latest chart hits by Lady Z or Jay Gaga (or is it Jay Z and Lady Gaga?) and when you’re not quite ready for talk radio about politics. In my house, BBC 6 Music is often known as BBC Smiths Music, due to the frequency of Morrisey-related songs on their playlist.

However, the advantage of the shows such as Letts and that of Craig Charles’ Funk & Soul Show is the fantastic mix of old music you’ve maybe never heard before and new tunes which aren’t quite of the sugary nature to make mainstream pop-radio.

Today alone, I discovered fantastic old tunes from acts such as Unit 4+2 and The Beat and brand new tracks from Austrailian band Last Dinosaurs and the absolutely awesome and brilliantly named Thao & The Get Down StayDown. If it hadn’t been for a bit of random website searching and radio listening, I wouldn’t have come across such a wonderfully aural experience. You can check it out for yourself right here:

One whisky which I can genuinely pinpoint as a real accidental discovery is the single cask Laphroaig which is produced exclusively for Highgrove House, the country estate of Prince Charles.

Basically, it seems, single cask versions of the Quarter Cask, these bottles come not only in the most amazing presentation boxes but, for something which is an official release of only around 250 bottles a time, it carries a price tag which is quite frankly madness: £59.95 (or an extra tenner for the massive presentation box).

A minimum age of 12 years old, this whisky doesn’t just provide exceptional value for the fact it is an official single cask bottling presented in a regal manner, but also for the fact that the whisky is bloody good. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is the best value official limited edition Laphroig on the market. And you can even pick them up at auction for only around £70 - £110. Even more madness.

But maybe this crown has now been stolen? Recently Laphroaig and Highgrove extended their relationship beyond the single cask, limited editions, to a more standard release. Bottled at 48% abv, this ‘ongoing’ release is just £35 a pop. What possible reason could I have not to order one and try it out? So I did...

Laphroaig – Highgrove Single Malt Scotch Whisky – NAS - 48% abv

Nose:  The classic Laphroaig nose of peat smoke, lemons and chamois leather. There is more than a close lineage with some of these good, youngish Laphroaigs and some of the better end of the Port Ellen release, I think. This release has some spiced red apple in it as well as a big hit of vanilla custard and a hint of poached pear.

Palate:  The palate does not disappoint from the nose, giving a full flavour of peat smoke, green apple this time but with the spices and vanillas as prominent as they are on the nose. Giving it some time, the peat really burns strongly across the mouth, but the wood influence gives some green veg depth which balances very nicely with the earlier sweet vanillas.

Finish: Well, more smoke, which isn’t a surprise at all. Behind it is hidden some more juice, freshly steamed veg and some Chinese herbs and spices. Strong green tea.

Overall: A delicious whisky, especially for the money. This is will make a fantastic gift for someone, but doesn’t quite hit the heights of the single cask editions from the same source.

Both of these releases from Laphroaig, and the above mentioned release from Glenrothes, go to show how strange, small releases from established distilleries and bottlers can be a real joy to discover (and a real bargain, too) if you look hard enough. The trouble is, finding them. Best of luck on your own personal search!