If there’s one constant among the elder statesmen scotch whisky distilleries, it’s that they tend to begin with a proud family history. So it was with Islay peat-masters Laphroaig, founded in 1815 by Donald and Alexander Johnston—the family would ultimately shepherd their distillery for almost 130 years before the line was finally broken. Today, Laphroaig has the ownership of a massive international spirits conglomerate behind it in the form of Beam Suntory, but the old familial heritage will always be an important part of the story, especially when it comes to marketing. So it’s little surprise that the company would create a commemorative series of annual special releases in honor of Ian Hunter, the very last member of the Johnston family to lead the distillery between the years of 1908 and 1944. As Laphroaig puts it:
The Ian Hunter Story celebrates the legacy of one man, the last of the Johnston family—Laphroaig’s founding fathers—to own and manage the Laphroaig distillery. A character as unique as our whisky. Laphroaig is born out of the ancient soil of Islay, the art of distillation and the iconic nature of the people of Islay (‘The Ileachs’). It is thanks to Ian Hunter’s management of the Laphroaig distillery from 1908 to 1944 that these characteristics were brought together to create the whisky that you hold in front of you today. Ian Hunter’s story still resonates across so many aspects of Laphroaig. In celebration of that fact, each release in this series will tell the story of his unique character and his inspiring legacy—a legacy that lives on in our liquid.
The Ian Hunter series of single malt whiskies is told in a series of “Books,” and begin in 2019 with Book One. Book Two followed in 2020, and Book Three in mid-2021. Each entry in the series highlights different aspects of the classic Laphroaig flavor profile, although all share the peat-smoked malt that is the company’s most iconic calling card. They’re all extremely well-matured, 30-year-old or more bottles, with price points in the $1,000 range and beyond. Befitting that status, they come literally packed inside a book on the history of Laphroaig.
Recently, we had a chance to taste the three expressions of the series to date, some of each of which are still floating around the web in various stores, although the price tag is unsurprisingly out of reach for many drinkers. Still, it was an invaluable opportunity to taste several pieces of Laphroaig history, and demonstrate how small changes in maturation can elicit unique flavors in each single malt scotch whisky.
Here, then, are the details on all three Laphroaig Ian Hunter releases to date.
MSRP: Roughly $1,000
The first Ian Hunter release is subtitled “Unique Character,” and is a quite traditional expression of Laphroaig’s single malt that spent 30 years in ex-bourbon barrels. Notably, the distillery notes that these were specifically first-fill bourbon barrels, which to the uninitiated means that this was the first time they were being reused, which typically implies a greater degree of bourbon/oak influence. This release was bottled at 46.7% ABV (93.4 proof) after its unusually long (especially for Laphroaig) maturation.
On the nose, this one displays lots of honeyed sweetness and gentle wood smoke, slight meatiness and a fruit quality not unlike poached pears. There’s also vanilla bean and a somewhat darker stone fruit note of plum. This has an autumnal feel, evoking dried fall leaves crunching underfoot. On the palate, I’m getting toffee and vanilla and a bit of fudgy chocolate, along with easygoing campfire smoke (not nearly so brash as younger Laphroaig expressions), some salt and brine. The chocolate has a minty quality to it that works nicely. As I return to this one over time I’m also getting more roastiness, a bittersweet and lovely espresso on the back end that is probably derived from those first-fill bourbon barrels.
MSRP: Roughly $1,000
Book Two of the Ian Hunter series is a very, very different beast from the first, which is obvious just from glancing at the sample vial. Where the first is a pale gold, Book Two is a very dark auburn bronze—anyone who knew anything about single malt whisky would wonder if sherry casks had been involved, and they would be right. Like the first release, this Laphroaig single malt spent 30 years in maturation, but it spent them in Spanish oloroso sherry casks, making this as clear an illustration as you’ll ever find on the differences in color (and flavor) imparted in a similarly aged spirit by two different styles of cask. This is also the only entry of this Ian Hunter bottles that remains available to purchase via Laphroaig’s website, though it will cost you dearly. This one was bottled at 48.2% ABV (96.4 proof).
On the nose, Book Two is unsurprisingly as different as different can be. I’m getting big, sticky impressions of maple syrup and red fruit jam, along with toasted malt, black bread and cocoa powder—but at the same time, there’s also a more delicate undertone that is almost floral. Nevertheless, this smells very rich, redolent in vanilla and dried fruit, and the peat smoke has definitely receded during 30 years in the oloroso casks. On the palate, this starts quite sweet and syrupy, but then pulls a surprising about face into its more recognizably Laphroaig-like elements of far off smoke and significant tannin. I’m getting sweet toffee and plum, dark honey and vanilla, into that surprisingly dramatic transition into a drier and more oaky finish. I find myself enjoying this transformative aspect quite a bit, actually—it’s not what I was expecting.
The most recent release, Book Three is subtitled “Source Protector” and is slightly older than the previous two releases at 33 years. These were spent in re-used bourbon barrels (not first fill), making this a very traditional Laphroaig single malt that has simply had an exceptionally long maturation period. It’s the strongest of the Ian Hunter releases to date, at 49.9% ABV (98.8 proof).
This one strikes me initially as having a more subtle and gentle nose than the previous two, with soft impressions of honey and shortbread biscuits. It has a buttery quality here, and some warm cinnamon, along with stone fruit impressions—peaches and cream. I had thought that the nose might be a bit more peat-forward than the others, but it’s still quite gentle all in all. On the palate, meanwhile, this one turns quite sweet and inviting, with tons of vanilla, creamy toffee and substantial licorice and anise. Complexity is lent through more herbaceous notes that evoke an almost amaro-like quality, while the smoke comes in late with a slight tartness and ashy, roasty finish. The proof presents itself just a bit, with a little more heat in the chest than the previous two expressions. All in all, a display of Laphroaig’s sweet, fruity and herbaceous side, with dashes of peat.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.