Not long after I discovered my enjoyment of scotch whisky, I found myself drawn to Islay, fascinated by this strange little island and the spirit it produced, so seemingly loved and loathed in equal measure. I made it my mission in those early days to track down a dram from each of the island’s eight distilleries and found to my surprise that I loved every one of them. Of particular interest to me however, was Laphroaig, a dram which boldly declared itself ‘the most richly flavoured of all scotch whiskies’…
The distillery lies huddled in a bay on the south coast of the island and has for many people, come to rather define the local style of heavily peated whisky. Due to its extreme nature however, it is also a dram which separates opinion like no other, though today, one can almost sense a shift in its popularity, with more and more drinkers seeking out its bold flavour profile.
The 10 year old distillery bottling has become something of a classic, and sells well right across the world but today I’m looking at another of the core range, the Quarter Cask, named after the smaller quarter-sized casks in which it is finished. Such barrels were used historically for storing and maturing spirit in the heyday of illicit distilling, with their small size and portability making them ideal for transport across the mountains and glens by nightfall. By sheer coincidence however, they also had the handy side effect of maturing the spirit faster than conventional barrels.
In Scotland, spirit must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks before it can legally be called whisky. Clear, new make spirit is poured into an empty cask and soaks into the staves which make up its walls. Over time the high strength alcohol will extract both flavour and colour from the wood, including traces of the casks previous contents, like Bourbon or Sherry or Port. The smaller the cask, the more the liquid interacts with the wood and the quicker it ‘matures’. In the case of the Laphroaig ‘Quarter Cask’ dram, spirit was matured for 5 to 6 years in traditional full-size bourbon barrels before being transferred for a period of ‘finishing’ in quarter casks, allowing for a boost in wood contact before bottling. In theory, this allows the finished whisky to show a maturity and complexity beyond its relatively young age.
Smell: Medicinal Peat Smoke, instantly recognisable as Laphroaig. Smoke, Iodine, Sticking Plasters and Tar, with a little Vanilla and Marzipan. They don’t come much more characterful than this. In fact, in my opinion, there aren’t many whiskies in the world can compare to a good Laphroaig on the nose.
Taste: Vanilla, White Pepper, Ash, Smoke and Liquorice. One sip and the distillers claims to be the most richly flavoured of them all doesn’t seem like an empty boast.
Value: Comes in at a very reasonable £35 – £40 a bottle and I’ve even seen it under £30 in some supermarket sales. If you are looking for character, boldness and a ridiculous mouthful of flavour, there are few options in this price range that can compete with the Laphroaig Quarter Cask.
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