By Richard Thomas
Laphroaig’s 10 Year Old might be the entry-level expression of that Islay distillery, but it’s the Quarter Cask Single Malt that I hear the most buzz about when it comes to the affordable end of their range. The expression has been around for more than a decade now, and has quite the following.
The irony of that is so much of the Quarter Cask’s flavor is due to its finishing in something that was popularly maligned by American croaker-bloggers just a few years ago, namely small barrels. Some of the same people who excoriated the use of small barrels by American micro-distillers praised the practice to high heaven when it’s used in Islay.
This whisky was matured, reportedly for five or six years on average, in ex-bourbon barrels. Laphroaig then transfers the liquid to quarter casks, which as the name implies are much smaller, for several months of finishing in a warehouse that sits right next to the sea. It is then bottled at a muscular 48% abv.
The whisky looks like liquid gold in the glass, a fine appearance for any Scotch, while the nosing is gloriously oily and ashy, indicative of a total peat bomb. The initial tasting follows up on that promise, delivering flavors that are smoky almost to the extreme, but not so much so as to become overpowering. The wall of smoke leaves room for dashes of cinnamon and other spices, a bit of oakiness, and a spoonful of silky sweetness.
What I found as I continued to sip on the Quarter Cask is these latter characteristics of the whisky came to the forward as my experience went on, washing the smoke almost entirely out of the glass by the end, and making for a very pleasant progression. The finish, however, brings the smokiness back while leaving a long, lingering glow.
It’s easy to see why Laphroaig Quarter Cask has attracted so many fans. For a youngish single malt, it is remarkably complex, and packed with bold flavors to boot. However, it starts out and ends as a big peat bomb, so whisky-drinkers who dislike smoke (and there are plenty of them out there) won’t like it. For diehard peat lovers, however, this expression is an A- rather than a B+.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask is widely available, and prices are fairly stable. In the U.S., you should usually expect to pay $45 to $50, although officially this should be marked at $55. In the UK, £38 is the rough norm, but in Europe the price is a good deal lower at €32 to €35, presumably due to lower taxes.