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.
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.
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.