This week I once again look towards Islay for my review, partly because I’m a big fan of Islay whisky but also because this particular dram gives a convenient platform from which to talk about a crucial step in whisky production: maturation.
Perched in a bay on the south coast of Islay is Laphroaig distillery, a giant name in the whisky world and for many, the definitive peaty whisky. However, Laphroaig has long been called a ‘marmite’ whisky, it’s medicinal, smokey character splitting drinkers between those who loved it and those who hated it. Today though, it seems like more and more people are coming over to the peaty side and Laphroaig is well and truly ‘in’.
The distillery produces excellent whisky… The 10 year old is a classic known the world over, then there’s the annual 10 year old ‘cask strength’, which can be exceptional and there’s a very pleasant 18 year old. Then there’s the Quarter Cask…
Quarter Cask refers to smaller casks that were commonly used for storing and maturing whisky in the heyday of illicit distilling. Their size made them very transportable over rough terrain by cart or on horseback. They also had the beneficial side effect of maturing the contents faster than a full size cask would. In order to understand this, we need to look closer at maturation.
A spirit cant be called whisky in Scotland until it has spent three years maturing in oak barrels. Most commonly it is matured in second hand casks that have already been used to age bourbon, sherry or sometimes wine, port or even rum. Barrels are filled with newly distilled spirit and over time this high strength alcohol soaks into the cask walls, pulling both flavour and colour from the wood itself and sometimes even being influenced by traces of the previous contents, still present in the porous oak. For example, from American Oak Bourbon Barrels you can often expect flavours of honey, citrus and vanilla, while European Oak Sherry Casks can give notes of Raisins and Sultanas. The whole process of maturation allows the harsh spirit to mellow while simultaneously picking up new character from the wood itself.
With a smaller cask, there’s greater liquid to wood contact and therefore, quicker maturation. In the case of Laphroaigs Quarter Cask, the spirit was matured in full sized bourbon barrels for 5 or 6 years before being transferred to quarter casks for a period of finishing. This process is particularly effective as the youth of the spirit allows the intense peat smoke to shine while the smaller casks have added a maturity and complexity beyond its years.
On the nose theres a generous hit of Medicinal Peat Smoke that is instantly recognisable as Laphroaig. Smoke, Iodine, Sticking Plasters and Tar, but also 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. Meanwhile on the palate there’s Vanilla, White Pepper, Ash, Smoke and Liquorice.
The Scores: About the Scoring System
Smell: 19 / 20. Laphroaig is not for the faint hearted and the smell can be off-putting at first but, with a little perseverance, the wild landscape it conjures up can start to feel like home.
Taste: 18 / 20. Lovely stuff. The peat smoke is huge and medicinal but doesn’t overpower and there’s even a touch of sweetness to it. Laphroaig claims to be ‘the most richly flavoured scotch whisky’ and to be honest, I’m not sure I would argue.
Value: 9 / 10. Comes in at a very reasonable £35 – £40 a bottle and I’ve 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.
Total: 46 / 50.