Side by Side Single Malt Tasting – Episode #1: Laphroaig Triple Wood + Scapa 16 + Bowmore 12

scapaSometimes it’s fun to take a wee nip from several bottles of single malt one after the other to accentuate the differences between them. I’ve done it many times and it often reveals something new in a single malt I’ve tasted many times before but on its own. Today I’ve chosen randomly from my cupboard: Bowmore 12, Scapa 16 (both at 40% alcohol) and Laphroaig Triple Wood (at 48%). I thoroughly enjoyed the burt wood peatiness of the Laphroaig. I have it decanted down to a 100ml bottle now and it doesn’t pack the same peaty punch it did earlier in the bottle, but it’s still a respectable dram. The Scapa 16 has been a disappointment. I tried it at a whisky show a few years ago and couldn’t get over its smooth honey and heathery flavour, a highly unusual and delightful dram. Since I got my own bottle, though, it doesn’t seem like anything exceptional, not at all other-worldly like it did at the whisky show. I picked up the Bowmore 12 a while back because I tried it at a friend’s place one night and found it pleasantly sweet and smooth. But it too seems unremarkable now that I have my own bottle of it. I’m not sure what’s happening there, but regardless, that’s a quick summation of my take on these single malts at this moment in time. So here goes. I’ll end with the Laphroaig because I know the peat will overpower everything else.

Bowmore 12 — A little burn. A bit of malt sweetness. Short finish. No complexity. Here and gone in no time. Nothing special.

Scapa 16 — Better. Heathery. Freshly cut hay. Pleasant. Not much burn. Stays a while. Not much sweetness or complexity, but not bad.

Laphroaig Triple Wood — Burnt sulfur like someone just blew out a match. (I think some people refer to this as medicinal.) Warm. Woody. Woodstove. Full of smoke. Not a big punch of peat but the peat is there.

First impressions: The Scapa has benefited the most from the quick side by side tasting. I had some water between them to cleanse my palate. Interesting how the Scapa still doesn’t have the honey flavour I tasted at the whisky show. It’s possible a previous scotch influenced my perception of it at the time. Okay, now let’s add a bit of water to each of them and try them again in a different order.

Okay, first off, I can’t help but notice the aromas. The Laphroaig has the wood stove smokey thing happening. The Scapa smells like sweet green apples. I stick my nose deep in the glass and it’s pleasant. Holy god, the sweetness is like freshly peeled green apples, but not over ripe. I think that’s what it is. That could be it. It’s evocative. I can’t stop smelling it. Oh man, what is that? It’s more than just apples — it something distinctive. Maybe mint jelly candy? I don’t know. Whatever is happening, it’s fun. Very nice. I didn’t see this coming. Okay, I’ll put it down for a second. Sniffing the Bowmore and… Hmm. That’s interesting. It’s different too. Neither the Scapa or the Bowmore had much of a nose when I did the quick taste test. (The Laphroaig was full of smoke as usual.) Alright, what the hell is this I’m smelling? Sweet rotten fruit of some kind. Wet leather. That’s about it, but still, interesting.

Let’s sip the Scapa first. Boy, that nose is something else. It’s the tiniest bit of a dram and I only added a few drops of water, but it’s not bad. On a full 50ml dram, I’d say half a teaspoon would be a safe guess. I’m afraid to taste it. The nose with a touch of water is such an improvement. My god, it’s really something. I think it’s freshly peeled green apples. Here goes the taste… It’s different. Okay, yeah, this is much better. Any honey sweetness eludes me, but this is really quite interesting. It’s dryer. And that’s it — all gone. The nose may be green apples but the taste is not. It’s more like dusty hay. And salt. Which sounds ridiculous but it’s not. I’m starting to experience that other-worldliness aspect of it that I noticed during the whisky show. The first third of the bottle didn’t excite me, but this tiny little dram, with just a touch of water, has changed all that. That, I have to say, was a really interesting dram. It’s exactly the way a single malt should be appreciated. Slowly, delicately, thoughtfully and, if you’re lucky, engaging. I have to put that in my Top 10 of dram experiences. Moments like that are the reason I got into single malt scotch. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was very, very good. Well done, Scapa.

Let’s try the Bowmore now. It’s had plenty of time to open up… Umm, that nose. What a difference a bit of water makes. Normally I wouldn’t add much water to a 40% scotch, but um, yeah, chocolatey. Oh yeah, this nose is only getting better. Note that it’s been sitting in the glass with a touch of water for at least ten minutes now. Man, this is the way to drink single malt. I was thinking this Bowmore isn’t going to go anywhere, but it is. Again, not way up there like Lagavulin 16 was back when it was great, but I’ll say this: Give a middle of the road single malt some time to open up and it can put up a pretty good fight. I could sit here sticking my nose in the glass for the next five minutes and enjoy it as much as drinking it. Anyway, let’s taste it… Again, it feels different. Tastes like the sweaty insole of an old leather shoe. Similar to the Scapa in that the flavour isn’t overpowering, yet it’s present. It’s not as complex as the Scapa. Not as much going on. It opens up a little more with water but not as vivid as the Scapa. The Scapa has delicate but distinctive flavours and aromas. The Scapa 16, at $100, sells for twice as much as the Bowmore 12 and I can see why. It opens up more dramatically than the Bowmore, maybe not twice the cost as dramatically, but it’s definitely more complex, more gentle but more going on.

All we have left is the Laphroaig Triple Wood… Oddly sweeter on the nose with a bit of water, reminiscent of a fire doused out with water. Yup, that’s almost exactly what that is (now that I’ve put the idea in my head). The taste is almost like burnt fuel or creosote. I’m not sure what to think of that. At 48% alcohol, perhaps it needs more water. Anyway, that’s it. It’s all gone.

The clear winner from this typing-as-it-happens, side by side tasting experiment is the Scapa 16.

Anyway, that ends my side by side tasting. See how revealing it can be?

P.S. (Sept. 03/14): I couldn’t identify the distinctive aroma of the Scapa 16, but now I’ve got it: Apple cider. That is precisely it.

Here’s Ralfy’s review of Scapa 14 to give a hint of what Scapa is all about (the review starts around 2:50, sort of, but the first nosing of the scotch starts at the 5 minutes mark):

About Phillip

Phillip Cairns is a beekeeper in St. John's, Newfoundland, who writes about beekeeping at mudsongs.org.

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