Whisky and Words Number 24: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Laphroaig's Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).

Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).

We’re still on Island expressions, and time to address a No Age Statement offering from Laphroaig: the Quarter Cask. A quarter cask is a cask one quarter the capacity of a hogshead. Sounds official and specific, doesn’t it? It does, until you start looking at what a hogshead is, which is ‘a large cask or barrel‘ of anywhere from 55 to 63 US gallons. It depends. The Laphroaig folks explain that they use a ‘small‘ cask, which gives, compared the their normal casks, a 30% greater cask (interior) surface area for a given volume of whisky. A higher whisky-to-oak ratio, if you will.

That ratio, it is presumed, allows the goodness of the charred oak to infuse more quickly with the spirit, rendering a quicker maturation. They also point out that the surface-to-spirit ratio also increases the ‘Angel’s share’ of alcohol which evaporates out of the oak. True enough, and that evaporation is displaced with good sea air, of which Laphroaig distillery has plenty. In the end, this is a gambit to allow the whisky master to create a whisky with the balance and sophistication of a fully (e.g., 10 or 12-year) matured whisky with spirit what hasn’t aged as long. Alchemy, I say! Can you get gold from lead (well, without a nuclear reactor)?

Laphroaig’s approach in this expression was to simulate their forebear’s efforts in maturation. The smaller casks were used back when mules smuggled spirit about, and they had their warehouse hard by the ocean. Thus, the malt masters now take a portion of their spirit which has matured in ex-bourbon barrels to decant into the smaller casks, which are then moved into ‘Dunnage warehouse No. 1’ right by the sea. They use a fairly young spirit since, as they explain, early efforts showed the impact of the smaller barrels was intense. (When Laphroaig says intense, one listens. Intense indeed!) Finally, they bottle at a higher ABV (48%) versus their standard 10-year’s 43% and also dispense with chill-filtration.

Cask notes, with too much bokeh. I blame the cloudy day for this, too.

Cask notes, with too much bokeh. I blame the cloudy day for this, too.

The result, according to the canister notes, is ‘a soft and velvety edge to complement Laphroaig’s distinctive peatiness.’ That’s to be seen, isn’t it? As I noted before, the 10-year is a remarkably balanced malt with an incredibly long finish.

There is no age statement on the bottle. So, clearly, the gambit is to sell whisky as good as the regular expression although it’s been maturing for a shorter time. You’ve got spirit at least three years old, by law. But beyond that, it’s at the discretion of the malt master. So what do we know?

Not much! The ScotchNoob reports that the initial maturation is five years, with a further seven months in the smaller casks, but Laphroaig’s website is remarkably terse on the subject. Given the younger whiskies I have tried, I’d be amazed to find the Quarter Cask treatment to approach the balance of the 10.

And, to my palate, it doesn’t. I had the wife go head-to-head as well, as she’s a bit more practical and less pedantic than myself, but she agreed: the Quarter has a harshness to the edge which contradicts the ‘velvety’ aspect claimed by Laphroaig. Also, I detect less of the maritime air in the nose (I smell more earthy peat than sea air in the Quarter cask). Finally, the finish has a noticeable bitterness, which one can assume are the tannins from the oak. Where in the 10-year-old that bitterness is perfectly balanced with sweeter vanilla notes, I found the tannins a touch harsher in the Quarter Cask, so less balance. That was taken neat, however, and given the higher ABV, I tried again with a bit of water.

The water took away some of the edge and brought out some vanilla, but it still did not impress in comparison to the 10-year taken neat. Overall, the 10-year-old brings more maritime flavors to the nose, no alcohol sting, and a more balanced finish (sweeter, with more vanilla) compared to the Quarter Cask. And it’s cheaper. Alchemy again is debunked.

Tasting Notes

Laphroaig Quarter Cask (NAS) Islay single malt, 48% ABV

Nose: Loads of earthy peat, (more so than the 10-year), a bit of alcohol sting, subtle seaside notes.
Palate: Moderate phenolics, a very nice woodiness and a touch of sweetness (vanilla comes out with a little water added); less petrol and caramel while noticeably more bitter than Laphroaig’s 10-year.
Finish: Long! Subtle smoke and moderately heavy (earthy) peat, dries well with tannins and vanilla on the back of the tongue.
Bottom Line: This is certainly a good whisky, but given the price range, where there are some great whiskies, there is a challenge for the malt master. I admire Laphroaig for taking the pains to recapture an olden-style whisky, and furthermore produce it in a ‘craft’ style (higher ABV, no chill filtration and as far as I can see, no e150). However, this whisky has a lot to live up to. Furthermore, it is sold at a significant premium to the 10-year-old: $60 locally for the Quarter Cask versus $48 for the 10-year maturation — yet I find it less balanced and not as complex. To me, the 10 remains one of the greatest values in Scotch whisky, as it is sold at a reasonable price for a fully-matured whisky that delivers a powerful yet sophisticated palate, complexity and balance. A lot of folks like the Quarter cask better — probably because it brings almost no ash, less smoke and phenolics to the palate. That is bought, however, at the cost of a much higher price, less maritime influence, smoothness and overall balance. If you can take the ash, phenols and smoke of the older whisky, I recommend you save some bucks and buy the 10-year old.

Laph_QTR_wdw__Snip_sm

There, I told you it was cloudy!

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New Age Statement Whisky (NAS)

We’re still on Island expressions, and the first No Age Statement release I’ve reviewed is coming Real Soon Now (Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask). But let’s talk NAS first. The lads at Whisky Waffle did an entire week on NAS; they tightened their belts and screwed down their green eyeshades and really went at it with as much seriousness as they can muster (they were pretty tough, actually). Their series is worth a read for getting some background on NAS, so I’m not going to re-fight that campaign. However, before I get to Quarter Cask, I’d like to get a couple facts about the NAS expressions we are seeing out in front.

The odd Supply and Demand Curve for Whisky

I like to know what I'm buying. Such a Luddite, eh?

I like to know what I’m buying. Such a Luddite, eh?

My feeling is that, while these days of rising sales and a limited supply of aged whisky have led to high prices for aged single malt, NAS should be a way for distilleries to produce more volume of good whisky. They can be a bit creative and mix in some newer whisky with the old and bottle more product. NAS should be a way of increasing supply, thus reducing price. I know this, I took a major in Economics, ceteris paribus and all that.

However, the opposite has happened. We’ve got more expressions than ever, and I have to surmise more whisky being shipped, but at higher prices. That’s counter-intuitive, and that got me curious. Here is a short survey of current aged and NAS offerings in my home state, Oregon. (Prices are set by the state, so are not affected by locality or time of year.) I have rounded to the nearest buck.

Highland Park 12-year (43%): $55
Highland Park Dark Origins (NAS, 46%): $80
Laphroaig 10-year (43%): $50
Laphroaig Quarter Cask (NAS, 48%): $60
Old Pulteney 12 year (43%): $47
Old Pulteney Navigator (NAS, 46%): $57
Talisker 10-year (45.8%): $62
Talisker Storm (NAS, 45.8%): $68

There’s a trend:

  • Different aging — port or sherry casks, quarter casks, etc., for all or part of the maturation.
  • Higher ABV.
  • Gussied up presentation: fancy cases, lightning bolts, stories about storm-tossed mariners, etc. The term ‘inspired’ shows up a lot.

Prices are 10 – 45% higher for the NAS expressions. Odd, at first blush, and it makes you ask, why am I paying more for younger whiskies? The distillers say blending different-aged whiskies gives them freedom to pick the right whiskies without having to worry about age. I don’t see the selecting and blending as having a big impact on price — they do that anyway (a ’12-year’ is often a blend of 12 and older whiskies).  There must be a reason, a value-add — either effort or inputs.  We’re got two value-adds that are common to all.

One, ABV is typically 3% higher in the NAS expressions, which is nice. More of the spirit, less dilution. But more of what spirit? If you’re diluting my 12-year with some 6-year aged spirit instead of water, it isn’t necessarily going to taste better. It might taste more, but not better.

The second value-add is also in our trend list: different finishes. The maturation of most of these NAS whiskies is in different casks than the standard expression. The aim is to jam in more flavor in less time. Laphroaig’s approach is using Quarter Cask (smaller casks, more oak-to-whisky ratio) where Highland Park’s Dark Origins uses more first-fill sherry casks than the regular 12.

While the distillers can claim all the unique casking and selecting and mixing is what makes these NS whiskies more pricey, here’s your counterargument.

Glenmorangie 10-year (43%): $37
Glenmorangie LaSanta 12 (10-years bourbon, 2 years sherry, 46%): $50

That’s a hefty upsell (35%) but less than Highland Park’s premium for Dark Origins, and I know what I’m getting. Plainly stated, kudos to Glenmorangie for delivering a clearly-designed and declared product.

In the end, it’s about the taste. The intrepid Wafflers focused on taste, and had mixed results. Over time I’ll get to some NAS expressions, meanwhile there are plenty of other review sites where you can get the lowdown on that Gaelic-named, dramatically-cased, inspired by crusty mariner NAS expression tempting you down at the shop.

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Whisky and Words Number 23: Ardbeg 10

Finally, Ardbeg 10. I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this. I’ve had a bottle for almost a year. I drink it, like most of my single malts, sparingly. It’s in a class I call Damn Fine Whisky. So, what’s it got?

The Ardbeg label. No false modesty here.

The Ardbeg label. No false modesty here. Click for full size crop. We want you to read the small print!

First off, Ardbeg is sort of the snazzy new kid on the block, but he’s got some classic threads to back up his bling. Ardbeg is one of those distilleries that was shuttered for years, only to be resurrected by ‘craft’ style distillers. By craft, we mean a few notable aspects to the whisky production:

  • Non Chill-filtered – proudly declared front and center of the bottle
  • Higher (than typical) alcohol content, in this case 46%
  • Attention to detail in production and presentation
  • Attitude!

Yeah, they have some attitude, declaring right on the label: not only the best Islay malt, but the best whisky in the world. That’s fightin’ words for the folks at Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. So, what’s behind the bluster?

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Whisky and Words Number 22: Highland Park 12

If I remember correctly, I read about Highland Park 12 in Jason Debly’s blog back in early 2014. I was just starting to expand my horizons into single malts, after a long hiatus brought on by the financial strain of an old house, growing children and various stock market crashes. Those challenges behind me, I felt like spoiling myself a little. Jason’s review of Highland Park caught my eye as I was looking for a scotch with a lot of character, a touch of peat and a reasonable price tag.

A fine whisky, but about time to buy more.

A fine whisky, but about time to buy more.

Highland Park is one of the older distilleries, founded in 1798, about half a century before the big boom in distillery foundings in Scotland. Probably the folks up in the Orkneys needed a local supplier. Considering the long winter nights, not a bad idea.

The elegant canister boasts of hand-turned barley maltings, so along with Bowmore and The Balvenie, HP is yet another distiller holding on to the old customs. Given a 2.5M liter/year production, I wonder, how much of their malt is local? I inquired of them and received a helpful answer in a few days from Mark Budge, Visits Co-Ordinator at Highland Park:

We are malting 20% of the total malt we use onsite. We then peat this malt before drying. Our makeup of malt is 20% peated (malted and peated on site) and 80% unpeated (bought from commercial maltsters).

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Whisky and Words Number 21: Talisker 10

Onward with our Islands series. We jump from Islay to Skye, for Talisker 10.

A maritime whisky, smoky and smooth.

A maritime whisky, smoky and smooth.

Like Bunnahabhain, Talisker 10 and I go back a long way. But in the way-back, some twenty years ago, Talisker was a bit much for me. Perhaps they’ve tapered off on the phenols, but who knows, I may have changed too. At any rate, back when I was a Scotch noob, the smokiness and medicinal qualities of this whisky were a bit much for me.

The Talisker distillery is on Skye, an island far to the north of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. It’s the most northern of the inner Hebrides, and like Islay, there aren’t a lot of trees on Skye. Peat is the traditional fuel for malting here, and although Talisker distillery took out their malting floors in 1972, their flavor profile was established by then and Talisker is still produced with a fairly hefty dose of phenols for a “richly flavored maritime malt” (from the label) that flavor is a combination of the smoked malt (from the mainland) and a peaty water source (Hawk Hill).

On the Talisker web site, they don’t say much about their ’10’ — they focus most of the marketing muscle on the NAS offerings that are all the rage these days (newer whisky, more $$, WTF?). The 10 is “smooth, smoky, with a warm afterglow.” I’d agree, with a caveat — since the bottling strength is nearly 46%, a few drops of water are called for.

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Book Review: Charlotte Shane’s N.B.

This is certainly the most challenging review I’ve undertaken. Charlotte Shane’s book is not like any other I’ve read. This was a kickstarter project to publish the collection of her blog of the same name. She says of this effort: “I was lonely and isolated, so I wrote a lot.” But that is not what makes it difficult to review. There are two issues that make this a challenge for this reviewer.

TL:DR

In the first two thirds of the book, Shane presents her early and middle years doing sex work and it is a harrowing tale that would give any father nightmares. She depicts extreme sexual positions, pain, discomfort, and sexual torture with an air of sometimes wounded but defiant bravado. In the last third, she is in more control, yet still occasionally takes johns she shouldn’t — just to prove she can control them. Control is a big theme in this work; for example, she doesn’t like pain, but takes on as a sub in order to test herself.

The writing is episodic and, early on, often very disjointed with few clues as to setting and participants. Later, it is still episodic, but more context is given and becomes more reflective, though there is no overall theme to pull the book together. It does, however, depict in brutal honesty the trade of high-priced escort. Money, sex, saps who fall for her, the clients she falls for, kindness, degradation, glamour and adventure. Other themes are big cocks, sex, shared intimacy, pain, pride in her job, loneliness, depression (never explicit, but implicit in some entries), men who think she’s beautiful, but no, she isn’t. It gets a bit repetitious with certain themes (such as that last one) yet there is no closure; the sturm und drang is open-eneded, a memoir-in-progress. The last bit (Volume II) is a series of vignettes, with more attention to construction, presentation and setting,  yet not related in time or theme.

If the Boltons were real, Shane would be their huckleberry

Paper books, paper notes, no search...annoying!

Paper books, paper notes, no search…annoying!

The first difficulty in review is that this book is so raw. Shane is sometimes compared to Anaïs Nin, but I wouldn’t put this work in the same category. Yes, Nin brought us as close as her hand-mirror; she shared vast ranges of emotion (often contradicting) and deep thinking on art and psychology. She even shared the physical pain of her miscarriage. But Nin heavily edited her Diaries and even applied editorial awareness in the Journal of Love. She knew that at some point, even the unexpurgated diaries would be read, and Nin’s motivation was literary. Although there are some explicit love scenes, they aren’t the focus.  Nin conveyed that her sex was pursued in the context of love and intellectual curiosity, and in that curiosity and investigation, she weaves an overarching story.

Shane is a different animal, and she presents a problem for the reviewer, in that the content is unrelentingly revealing. I have hundreds of quotes I’d love to use (see photo) but it would be patently voyeuristic to use most of them. I feel many are statements that are Shane’s and only Shane’s to share, so I’ll quote the barest few to convey what this book is like.

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Whisky and Words Number 20: Bowmore 12

Bowmore's legacy

Bowmore’s legacy

Up next in our Island series is Bowmore 12. Bowmore certainly talks up its heritage on its packaging — founded in 1779, almost a century before the majority of distilleries on the island. Located on Loch Indaal (in the bight that nearly bisects Islay), the distillery is unique in that it has been in near-constant production since inception.

The Bowmore folks are proud of several key points: the balance of their whisky, the peatiness and smoke, and the use of their own malting floor. Note, however, like other distilleries (the Balvenie for example), modern production volumes outstrip the capacity of the island to produce barley or the old malting floors malt. At 2M liters produced yearly, Bowmore imports some of its malt. Still, the retention of their own floor malting shows a commitment to maintaining the old traditions and skills.

As for the flavors, Bowmore is, to this malt maniac, a fairly subtle introduction to both peat (in the guise of earthy flavors from the water) and smoke. I can’t argue with the packaging — the front side of the box says “Puffs of peat smoke and pools of honey, sharpened by lemon zest.” And I agree it is balanced. But on the whole, the Islay character of this ‘first malt’ is subtly played. Bowmore is no peat monster, and in fact, when I tried a bottle a year ago, I was disappointed. I was in the throes of peat-craziness at the time and Bowmore came across as a bit muted. This year, having tried a number of Highland and Speyside malts in the interim, I can appreciate the more light-handed approach to peated malt. So, if you are a fan of big, brawny smoke-filled drams like Laphroaig, you might give Bowmore a pass. But for the drinker of Highland and Speyside whiskies who is just starting to investigate the Island expressions, Bowmore 12 would be a good start. In fact, if you know someone who is interested in Islay whiskies, and they like Johnny Walker Black, this is a reasonable step up from JWB in complexity and smoke.

Tasting Notes

Bowmore 12-year old Islay single malt, 40% ABV

Bowmore 12 "the most perfectly balanced" in the world. Well, is it just marketing?

Bowmore 12 “the most perfectly balanced” in the world. Well, is it just marketing?

Nose: Very light smoke, subtle earthy peat, citrus, prunes, dry cocoa.
Palate: Earthy peat, honeysuckle, a touch of smoke. Decent complexity, but not much depth. An easy drinker.
Finish: Fairly quick sweetness (sucrose) balanced with a touch of tannic bitterness, light smoke that lingers nicely and fades into just a touch of ash.
Bottom Line: This is not a phenol-boosted monster. The smoke in Bowmore is delicate and not accompanied by oil, iodine or diesel, as are some of the more powerful Islay malts, and thus the finish doesn’t linger quite as long. A lot of folks will think that is a good thing. It’s better suited for a summer evening on the porch than a cold blow huddling indoors. At $52 a bottle in my area, it’s competing with Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg 10 and Highland Park 12. Those expressions have more depth and more character, and I think they reward a more adventurous palate. But for a relaxing dram while chatting with friends or watching the game, the promise of “the most perfectly balanced” single malt is certainly delivered.

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