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.
I cannot believe I forgot to write this up three years ago. Luckily, I have lots of photos and strong memories. It is a lovely walk from Port Ellen along the bike path past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It was a typically grey Scottish morning, as you can see, but the weather mild.
Our walk was quiet, with little traffic. We were passed once by bicyclists, and reached Laphroaig in about half an hour if that. It’s an impressive place, especially after the businesslike Caol Isla and fungal-discolored Bunnahabhain distilleries. After a wood, you come across large brick warehouses stuccoed grey, and turn into a bustling and busy entrance surrounded by tidy white buildings.
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. More specifically, a sherry butt (500 liters). The Laphroaig folks use a 125 liter 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.
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)?
Ah, Laphroaig. They advertise themselves as “The most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies” on their website and on their bottle (at right). And when they say ‘flavour’ they mean smoke, peat, seaweed and iodine. Oh, there’s malt in there, too. Quite a bit actually.
I think Laphroaig is great for chasing mothers-in-law from the room. Just crack open a bottle, pour a little, and the more delicate souls will run for the hills. If you’ve never had this whisky, this superlative might get the message across. During the U.S. Prohibition, Laphroaig whisky was (famously) still being imported to the U.S., as “Such was the pungent seaweedy nose of Laphroaig that Ian persuaded the officials that the “Iodine” smell surely meant that Laphroaig had medical properties.”
Medicinal is one of the words used to express what folks taste in this whisky, but despite the billows of smoke, peat, iodine and phenolics, Laphroaig 10 is a quite well-balanced whisky. The malt that hits your palate at first is full, sweet and well-rounded, forming a pleasant base for the tar and iodine to expand into your nasal cavities and sinuses. So, too are the medicinal aspects balanced. Medicinal, yes, but there is much more going on than that — I never would compare this to Caol Ila 12, for example (review coming) which I do think of medicinal.
The blog has covered a number of blends, and also eleven unpeated, mostly sherry-finished single-malts (see sidebar for the list and links). They all share similar influences in their flavoring.
It’s the water, and a lot more
Some of those malts, Bunnahabhain* and Glenfarclas, for example, are notable for the taste of what the French would call terroir. Peat bogs, soil and rocks through which their water sources run flavor that water. In addition to the water, the spirit’s flavor is heavily influenced by the ingredients (mostly barley malt) and how they are treated at each step. In the preparation of what will become new make spirit, there is much attention to manipulating temperatures at each stage. The temperature of the wort is chosen to enhance the activities of enzymes converting sugars and later, to encourage fermentation. Variation in stages and their temperatures can affect flavor. One also reads of claims that the shape and composition of tuns, stills and washbacks will influence the flavor of the new-make spirit. Once distilled, the spirit meets the cask, where interaction with the oak (and its preparation, be it lightly toasted or charred) will have the second largest effect on flavor.