Whisky and Words Number 65: Laphroaig Triple Wood

Laphroaig quarter cask (l) and American ex-bourbon barrel (r)

Laphroaig embraced the use of different types of casks with the Quarter Cask release of 2004. A NAS spirit, the Quarter Cask starts aging in the typical ex-bourbon barrels, then transferred to smaller “19th century-style quarter casks” as described on the the carton. The theory is that, with more surface-to-volume area of the smaller cask, the flavors from the oak are more quickly absorbed into the spirit. While that may be so, there is a noticeable mellowness seen only in older whiskies, so I would hold that aging has more to it than surface area. Who knows, maybe you could get a good whisky by dumping the spirit into a vat full of toothpicks for a couple months, but Scotland has that 3-year aging rule for whisky.

On our tour, the guide explained the ‘quarters’ are ex-bourbon casks reworked. The photo above, taken at the distillery, illustrates the difference in size. Note at 125 liters, it is a quarter the size of a sherry cask, not a bourbon cask. It’s more than half the volume of a bourbon (200L) cask.

Laphroaig Triple Wood, and the old Friends pamphlet.

Laphroaig introduced Triple Wood in the late 2000s as a travel option, expanding to the US in 2011. This is essentially Quarter Cask whisky with a third stage: European butts “previously used for Oloroso sherry.” They don’t say for how long the whisky stays at each stage, though in my QC review, I had found a source which quoted 5 years in bourbon and half a year in the quarter casks. Of course, the point of NAS whisky is to give the malt master ultimate control in the final blend. Bottom line, this is Quarter Cask with a final finish (a year maybe?) in Oloroso butts. We know from Lagavulin that sherry and peat can work together. Let’s see where this one leads us. I thought Quarter Cask was alright, but not quite as well balanced as the 10-year, being a little harsher and more bitter.

I’ll stand the Triple Wood against the 10 again. It should walk away—the 3W is almost a hundred bucks, to $60 for the 10-year.  That kind of coin puts the expression firmly in the ‘better be damn good’ category against contenders like Ardbeg’s excellent Corryvreckan. You can see in the photo below the 3W is noticeably darker with a slight reddish tint, courtesy of the Oloroso aging. Also, it is offered at 48% ABV (vs. the 10’s 43%) and non-chill filtered for that craft vibe. It looks good and has some medals including ‘to 12 years’ from 2013. Not bad.

TripleWood (l) vs. the 10-year (r). Note deeper color in the Triple, from the Oloroso butts.

The Triple Wood certainly passes the mother-in-law test. Opening the bottle immediately infuses the room with signature Laphroaig goodness (smoke, phenols). But this expression add to that a solid note of sherry as well. Having poured a glass, I find the nose quite gentle. Earthy peat is more noticeable than smoke and the sherry is full, bringing fruit notes along with some toffee: watermelon, apple, plum. In comparison, the 10-year is smoky, woody and crisp but does not promise as much depth.

The 3W’s palate bursts with smoke and honey, and is remarkably smooth for 48% ABV.  This spirit’s mouthfeel is luxurious: caramel and toasted marshmallow with just enough tannins lighting up the side of the tongue. I’m impressed; there is some serious spirit in there.  In comparison, the 10 has a good medium body and perfect balance, but it’s clearly outclassed.

Color does not always mean flavor. This time, it does.

On the (long) finish, that smokiness lingers like a good cigar, more ash than smoke at that point, and accompanied by aromatic sherry to the end. Like the Quarter Cask, the finish is just a bit bitter. With a drop of water I find the it perfectly balanced. The smoke and ash come out from behind the tannins that in the straight spirit are just a touch too forward. In comparison, the 10, at 43%, has a touch of bitter on the end, not as much ash and of course none of that sherry goodness. So, compared to the good ol’ Laphroaig 10, the Triple Wood has some great mojo going. But what about their arch-competitor, Ardbeg?

The Correyvreckan impressed. Comparing to the Triple Wood, you note an almost identical color. The nose is similar but not quite as sherried. On the palate, at 57% ABV, the CorryVee brings an intensity that’s out of this world and it explodes with peppery fireworks. With a bit of water to tame that beast you get a similar marshmallow silkiness and a lot of black-magic complexity; there is more there than sherry. The 3W finishes with ash and sherry, the Correvreckan’s finish is spicy and thick with toffee and phenols. Both are great whiskies, it’s a toss-up based on your preferences.

Laphroaig Triple Wood, Islay Single Malt, 48% ABV

Nose: Aromas of phenol and smoke before you nose the glass. Closer in, earthy peat edges out the smoke, while sherry and toffee bring fullness  to more delicate flavors of watermelon, apple, and plum.
Palate:  More smoke than phenols, luxurious caramel and toasted marshmallow, and just enough tannin at just the right spot for a satisfying sip.
Finish: Quite long and satisfying. Pleasant ash and the aromatic side of sherry. Can be a bit bitter but a drop of water tames that.

Bottom Line: When I shell out $90 for a bottle of Scotch, it’s for a dram I’ll pull out on special occasions or to please my discerning whisky-loving friends. Triple Wood fills the bill here with a rich nose and palate that carry an even more intense smoky peat experience than the good old 10-year. They’ve made this NAS whisky, like its rival Ardbeg’s Corryvreckan, taste as complex and smooth as I’ve come to expect from older whiskies. You’ll probably prefer the Corryvreckan if you like a more phenolic peat experience or like the more esoteric notes in its profile, while the Triple Wood will please those who relish the unabashed ashy flavor Laphroaig does so well, and want it delivered with luxury.

Laphroaig Triple Wood, a luxurious whisky with all the peaty trimmings.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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