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Not long after I discovered my enjoyment of Scotch whisky, I found myself drawn to Islay. I was 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 in a bay on the south coast of the island and has for many people, come to rather define the style of heavily peated whisky. Due to its extreme nature, however, it is also a dram that 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 is 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, the 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 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 claim to be the most richly flavoured of them all doesn’t seem like an empty boast.
Thoughts: For a very reasonable £35 you get a bottle of remarkable flavour. Laphroaig is one of the most distinctive single malts produced anywhere in the world and this version dials up the intensity a bit, with that higher bottling strength. Sure, it’s no-age-statement and probably full of young whisky but who cares? Peated whisky often works best at a young age in any case and the action of this quarter casks has given plenty of wood influence here too. Laphroaig’s ten year old is their flagship brand but this is the one I go for, more often than not.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.