Before becoming professional whisky writers, Neil and I both worked in the music industry at different major record labels, doing A&R.
A&R is the department within a record company that is responsible for discovering new music, signing artists, making records and managing the artist as a product, through the record company system.
In my time as an A&R Manager at Island Records, I worked with some very inspiring people, from incredibly talented artists, songwriters, record producers, photographers and other creatives. But also people who taught me a lot about the industry of fashion, of tastes, and how to market creativity and artistry, to turn it from an etherial ideal into a tradable commodity, and to build brands which emotionally engage with consumers and take people on a journey.
Occasionally, very occasionally, this involved trying to hoodwink the general public with some artist or another whose talent maybe didn't match the size of the marketing budget allocated to them, and the phrase 'you can't shine a $hite' was a mantra for avoiding those types of deals. But mostly, it was the job of a record company to take the acorn of talent and help grow the oak tree of success from it; to be a magnifying glass over the artists' works.
I remember well a discussion with a very experienced Senior A&R Executive, Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, about the debut album from Keane. The record had been a huge success off the back of three fantastic singles, Everybody's Changing, This Is The Last Time and Somewhere Only We Know and a fourth single was due to be released, with the obvious choice being the Keane-sounding Bend and Break.
By this time, the band were enormous, with a huge amount of radio play, sell out shows and a record which had sold well into the multiple of millions and Unger-Hamilton's choice for single release number four was the slightly left-field 'Bedshaped'. I remember well his reasoning:
"Millions of people know what Keane sound like, so we should put out something from the album that is a little different; it might attract a new fan to the band."
And it did, with the album going on to be awarded 9x Platinum status in the UK.
There has been a lot of digital noise in the last few weeks about the new Laphroaig Select, the latest release from the iconic Islay distillery. The noise has not been all positive, it has to be said. Partly due to the copy attributed to this release (spelling Oloroso, 'Olorosso', Hogshead 'Hogs Head' and describing first fill as 'First Filled') and partly due to the liquid, with Serge over at the consistently excellent describing the liquid as "...totally un-Laphroaig I’m afraid, the coastal/medicinal/smoky side is there but it’s just whispering".
But here's the thing: maybe that's the point. Maybe, if you like Laphroaig 10, you've already got a bottle of Laphroaig in your cabinet. Or, like us, more than one expression of this peated beast.
Laphroaig - Select - NAS - 40% abv - RRP £34.99
Nose: Lemon grass, citracal, white peaches, pear drops, icing and a hit of cherry drops. The smoke sits behind all of these, and doesn't give the classic Laphroaig TCP that we are used to, but a more subtle smoky tone which you'd expect to find somewhere in the North of the Island. The whole lot is wrapped in sweet vanilla.
Palate: This is a sweet and subtle dram (not something you'd often say about a Laphroaig), with very light smoke on the palate, gooseberry fool, green tea, dream toppig and fresh lemon juice. Think about eating a lemon and sugar pancake with the dying embers of a summer bonfire in distance.
Finish: A slight bitterness and more of that lemon juice and delicate smoke. Chamois leather.
Overall: Indeed, this is not a 'Laphroaig' as we know it. If it has a distant relative, perhaps Caol Ila Moch (which is almost £10 more expensive) would be the closest thing to it. In its price bracket sits the No Age Statement offering Laphroaig Quarter Cask (a touch more expensive) and the big and bold famous brother, the 10 Years Old (almost exactly the same price), both of which appeal to a certain type of palate; the classic Laphroaig drinker. But this offers up something very different to either of those, something more akin to a Bunnahabhain, Highland Park 12 yo or, moving away from Scotland, the Hakushu Distiller's Reserve giving a different side of smoky whisky making which might appeal to those whose nose and palate don't agree with so much medicinal peat smoke.
If you are one of those whisky drinkers who bought a bottle of Laphroaig 10 five years ago and still haven't got past the first sip, yet you are on your fourth bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label already this year, then this might just be the Laphroaig for you... it might just be the bottle that widens the appeal of Laphroaig to a different drinker. And that can only be a good thing, so welcome to the (lightly) peated party.
However, if you're looking for the classic Laphroaig DNA, you might want to look elsewhere.