It's easy to ignore new Laphroaig releases, since they seem to put one out every few weeks. The popular and ubiquitous Islay distillery has churned out a 15-year-old, a 27-year-old, and a 32-year-old expression. They've got no-age-statement bottlings, too. They've got Quarter Cask, Triple Wood AND Four Wood. After a while it gets a little ridiculous. I like some of them more than others (that 27-year-old, WOW), but the distillery is a good one, as evidenced by its flagship 10 Year Old. It's a classic Islay malt, smoky and peaty and medicinal with notes of iodine and sea salt, but it's also got undercurrents of sweet cereal, rich chocolate, and even a hint of fruit. It's a terrific entry level whisky for Islay enthusiasts, and the backbone of all the different expressions out there.
Laphroaig's Cairdeas bottling, created for "friends of Laphroaig" (Cairdeas means "friendship" in Gaelic), is an annual limited edition whisky that lets distillery manager John Campbell mess around still further with new variations of his classic whisky. As with the rest of the portfolio, there are those that hit the mark — the initial Cairdeas offering, finished in port pipes and released in 2013, knocked me out at the time — while others are worthy of little more than a "meh." The new Cairdeas Fino Cask (51.8% ABV, $80), is a fascinating dram, each sip begging a followup to help figure it out.
Most sherried single malts employ casks that formerly held Oloroso, which is on the darker and richer side of the sherry spectrum. Fino, the driest and lightest of sherries, is rarely used for whisky purposes, but I prefer its aroma of almonds and clean herbaceous notes to the heavier, fruitier Oloroso. Because Laphroaig is a big, flavorful whisky, it's not hard to imagine it submerging the Fino under layers of peat and smoke. But those almond notes come through loud and clear both on the nose and on the lovely, dry finish. On the finish, It heightens the whisky's medicinal notes while ashy, peaty flavors are toned down a little, but just a little — this is still clearly Laphroaig.
Carideas Fino Cask is a no-age-statement, but I've heard it's been aged about 8 years in ex-bourbon casks, with an undisclosed length of finishing in the sherry casks. I'd love to try this variation in a slightly older whisky, and I wish the Fino casks had been employed for a little longer. But I'm really enjoying it as is. It doesn't taste like your typical sherried malt, and it doesn't taste like your typical Laphroaig — if, at this point, there is such a thing. If John Campbell is thinking about trying an Amontillado cask-finished whisky for next year's Cairdeas, he's got an enthusiastic thumbs-up right here. In the meantime, don't miss out on this year's model. Laphroaig is vague about how limited these "limited editions" are, but when it comes to good whisky, it's always better to be safe than sorry.