...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Single Malt Report: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

How about some whisky?  How about some great f**king whisky?  Let's talk about some Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

Laphroaig (le-froyg) and I have had a checkered past, as documented in my report on the 10 year old.  But we've been on good terms since we were reunited last year.  So I thought I'd explore the range a little further.

A quick recap of the distillery's history:
Sometime around 1815 the Johnston Brothers started distilling whisky from the barley on their property near Loch Laphroaig (the actual meaning and source of the word is disputed).  Ownership was passed down through the Johnston family for a long time.

[The Laphroaig website claims that there was a running dispute between their distillery and their neighbors, Lagavulin, throughout the 1800s.  I hope that's true, because that would be great!  I'd root for both sides.]

Ian Hunter, a relative of the Johnstons, continued running the family business from 1921 until 1954, when he died without any heirs.  So he did the unthinkable.  He left the distillery to his secretary, Bessie Williamson.  A Woman!!!  Bessie ran the place for the next 18 years, almost doubling Laphroaig's capacity and output.

She then sold the business to Long John International (real name), who then sold it to Allied Domecq in 1990.  In 2005, Laphroaig was acquired by its current owners Beam Global.

A few years ago, the distillery started to experiment with recreating the maturation process that they'd used in the 1800s.  That required the whisky to age in smaller traditional barrels called Quarter Casks.  The casks are considerably smaller than the normal casks used for maturation.  Because of their size, the whisky inside makes 30% more contact with the oak, thus changing (and possibly speeding up) the maturation process.

Here's the thing, though.  Quarter Casks weren't always used back in the 19th Century.  Why did some whisky makers choose these smaller barrels back in the day?  Well, it depends on who you ask.

Here are the top four reasons why Quarter Casks were used in the 1800s:
  1. The small size made it easier for a pair of men to lift the product when it needed to be transported.
  2. When whisky was brought to market on a mule, it allowed for two barrels to be strapped to one animal.  One cask on each side.
  3. By transporting via one mule, the seller could take smaller paths, avoid the main roads.  Avoiding the main roads meant avoiding the duty officer.  Avoiding the duty officer meant avoiding taxes.
  4. The cask size (known as "firkin" for the Old English measurement) was much easier to obtain than larger barrels.
I've seen all of these explanations.  I wouldn't be surprised if the real reasoning behind quarter casks was a mix of all of the above:  logistics, supply chain, economics, and smuggling.

No matter what the truth is and was, I'm glad they brought the cask back.

Bottling: Quarter Cask
Age: 5 to 11 years
Maturation: American Oak ex-bourbon barrels then Quarter Casks (see above)
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 48%

I bought a 3cL (30mL) sample of this from Master of Malt a few months back.  A couple Fridays ago, I opened it up, poured the dram and let it sit for about 15 minutes.  Tried it neat.  Let it sit for another 20+ minutes.  Tried it neat again, then with water.

The color is light gold with rosy highlights.  It's that rosiness that differentiates it visually from the 10 year.  The salty Atlantic Ocean hits first on the nosing.  Then an excellent merging of sweet & peat.  Some oak and cheap toy plastic linger in the background.  Palate-wise, up front, it's like drinking a meadow: fresh grass and hay drying in the sun.  Then some notebook paper followed by a wet seaweed peat.  And it is HOT, with the 48% ABV flexing its brawn.  But this dram saves its real thrill for the final act.  My finish notes are all stream of consciousness: "Whole wheat bread, whole grains, digestive biscuits (money!), smoky, cigar smoke, nice & warm, phenolic, dry, it's still going..."

WITH WATER, around 30-32% ABV
Hydrating the whisky slightly shifts its pieces all around.  The nose is now peaty, peaty, peaty.  Like Ardbeg 10 with brown sugar.  Toffee with some of that ocean brine.  The texture stays very creamy.  The palate goes from frapuccino to espresso.  Sweet to bitter.  Heavy on the peat smoke.  The straight coffee grounds linger throughout the finish, and the heat has mellowed out.

A terrific dram.  It was one of those that I knew I liked the moment it came out of the bottle.  And then it got better.  It's definitely in the Top Five of the whiskies that I've reported on (at this point in time), easily in my all-time Top Ten.  [Ed. note: as of 2014 these statements are technically no longer true; top 20 in the first case, top 40 in the second.]

It's not an easy drink, but it is less medicinal than the 10 year.  It's complex, but it's not for all seasons.  It's a colder weather whisky, probably suiting an Islay evening very well.  It would be fun to do a Taste Off between this one and Lagavulin 16.  Someday...

Pricing - Great at $55-$60 (if I ever find it at 50, I'm scooping it up)
Rating - 92


  1. The feud between Laphroaig and Lagavulin led to the birth of one of Scotland's most obscure distilleries, Malt Mill. The owner of Lagavulin had Malt Mill built within Lagavulin to produce whisky similar to Laphroaig (including copying the stills at Laphoaig). Except the water source was different so the replication was never quite right and Malt Mill was closed in 1962.

    By the way, when anyone mentions Malt Mill being a distillery within a distillery, someone else will inevitable make a Malt-ception joke...

    1. The mythical Malt Mill! Also, could someone place make Maltception? Even as a YouTube vid.

  2. I find this (and especially the 18 when in budget--slightly less ash-tray taste) an excellent warm-up shot or two, and then the lagavulin (I slightly prefer the distiller's edition) as a wind down. No matter which Laphroaig I'm tasting, it starts to cloy after 2-3 drams/shots/(finger-width-filled of walmart glasses if you want to be really specific in my actual case). And then the lagavulin (especially the DE with the tiny bit of sweetness) is perfect for toning down the palate a bit but letting that hugely euphoric laphroaig peatiness hang around. In fact, while my favorite single bottle would be the ardbeg corry, if I could have two but no more I'd give up the corry and go for a laphroaig (probably an 18 but a QC would be fine) and a lagavulin (probably a DE but a 16 would be fine), and alternate between them.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I actually went through two of my own bottles of QC in the two years since this review. Whenever I move back to a place with actual winters, I'll get another bottle. You can always go with the QC for as the last drink of the night as well. Sometimes it can overwhelm the tastebuds.