A Journey To The Isle Of Scotch


A review of Hagafen Cuvee de Noirs 2007 and the Laphroaig 10 year old Single-Malt Scotch.


By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon


Washington Jewish Week  December  28, 2011


Sparkling wines are ideal for festivities. Their bright flavors and acidity make them perfect pairing partners for numerous cuisines including sushi, cheese, chicken, fish and dessert. In fact, they are so versatile that it seems a shame to relegate them only to celebrations.


Sparkling wines are created by adding sugar and yeast to a base wine to induce a secondary fermentation. One of the by-products of winemaking is carbon dioxide gas. During the subsequent fermentation this gas is trapped and dissolves in the wine. Traditionally this occurs within the bottle, a very expensive and time-consuming process. An alternative is the less expensive Charmat method that utilizes large tanks to create the bubbles before bottling.


Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are the most common grapes utilized, but nearly any varietal can be made into a “sparkler” and almost every wine-producing region makes one. California’s Hagafen Cellars creates an excellent kosher mevushal sparkler, the orange-hued Hagafen Cuvee de Noirs 2007 ($36) an 80/20 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Strawberry, peach and raspberry flavors dance lightly on a citrus frame with hints of melon and white chocolate. Serve this beauty when your guests arrive and watch their eyes glimmer with appreciation.


On the spirits side, all through Chanukah we were in a smoky, peaty, Islay single-malt Scotch mood. As Scotch whisky regions go, Islay (pronounced EYE-lah, Gaelic for island)) is widely considered the most identifiable, and the easiest to generalize about as a type, with common characteristics and flavors. This is all part and parcel of an enticing, romantic idealization about the island of Islay and its whiskies.


Islay is the windswept, rain soaked, southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. The island is relatively flat and covered in peat bogs. Peat is a Celtic term for the compact, decayed vegetation, decomposed over thousands of years by water, and partially carbonized by chemical change. Historically, peat was the fuel of choice for making Scotch whisky. The smoke generated by peat is robustly aromatic and tarry, transferring and imbuing these compounds (phenols) to the whisky itself. The pungency is determined by how heavily peat is used in the kilning of the malt. Think of peat as an earthy, smelly, poor-man’s coal. The use of peat in producing whisky is, typically, more assertively and robustly identifiable in the Islay whiskies than anywhere else in Scotland. This suggests a distinct “taste” of Islay.


True enough, most of the eight distilleries on the island – more distilleries than schools, as one of the industry insiders likes to remind folks about the priorities of the locals – share some basic characteristics in that they tend to be challenging and strongly flavored: very smoky, with iodine/medicinal notes, and give one the impression of distinct salty, sea weedy influences, and most tend to have a dry finish and often these have some bite.


There is, indeed, something to this commonality – but less than folks suppose. As wine and whisky writer Andrew Jefford once put it: “In wine, the impact of place on flavor is clear, even if the tracery of mechanisms by which this unfolds is complex. In whisky, the matter is less straightforward. … Indeed it seems that the fundamental elements of flavor in malt whisky are not related to place. … ‘The taste of Islay’ as popularly conceived is in fact the taste of a traditional island approach to malt whisky distilling. This approach, though, can be substantially duplicated elsewhere, as will become increasingly evident when the new, peaty whiskies produced at malt distilleries all over Scotland eventually mature and reach the market.”


Hard to argue with Jefford, the author of the brilliantly evocative, lyrical, and incomparable (if slightly wordy), Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and its Whiskies. This is the very best book, by far, on Islay whisky, and Jefford has done much to further the captivating, romantic image of Islay.


Still, Islay whiskies remain hugely enjoyable and utterly enchanting – facts and logic be damned. So during Chanukah, we enjoyed sampling the ranges of Bowmore, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Kilchoman, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich (brook-LAD-dy), and Bunnahabhain (BUN-na-hah-ven). These are all fine, excellent whiskies, each in its own way. Yet the one that has held our overall allegiance this holiday season, the one that most calls to mind the enjoyably poetic if fallacious notions of the island of Islay, the one that has pride of place in our imagination is Laphroaig. Among Laphroaig whiskies, the choice that is perhaps the most seductive is the Laphroaig 10 year old($45). Thankfully, it is also the best value.


For one of us at least, this was the very first smoky, peaty, Islay whisky that we ever tasted. So it holds a special and evocative place in our continued sensorial love affair with whisky. We even used it as the base of our Chanukiah!


The Laphroaig 10-year-old single-malt Scotch whisky always delivers. It is, in turn, soothing and stupendous; familiar and reliable, yet complex, deep and dreamy. It enraptures with its heady yet nuanced mix of iodine, smoke, sea-brine, and sweet malt; with its oaky backdrop, and whispers of vanilla, and with its rounded, oily, subtle and ever so slightly drying finish. Yet it is a dram with enough of a medicinal, fish oil, seaweedy presence to keep one grounded and alert, like a good natured thump from an older brother or an old school chum. This is serious whisky!


If one is willing to spend a bit more, an awesome comparative experience can be had with the Laphroaig 18 year old ($75). Think of it as a gentler, less assertive, creamier Laphroaig – which is to say it still packs a lovely wallop. The nose presents with a rich, salty, vanilla cream, along with buttered toast, and, of course, peat smoke, iodine, charcoal, and tar. The whisky follows with rich, round and thick notes of sweet malt, honey, vanilla, salty toffee, peat, subtle brine, ripe banana, ginger, almonds and a lemony citrus quality. The finish is long and savory, with additional notes of marmalade and something reminiscent of kippers. The smoke is more of a backdrop or undercurrent here, creating a showcase for the rest of the flavors. This is another lovely, delicious whisky. L’chaim!