Thursday, November 05, 2009
Scotch Whisky Review: Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Per Laphroaig's propaganda, they mature all their scotch whisky in first-fill bourbon casks and don't go in for a lot of long-term aging; their "standard" bottling is 10 years old. The 10-year, though, is chill-filtered, which purists claim removes some of the flavor. The quarter cask bottling is an attempt to get back to a Laphroaig as it might have tasted a hundred years ago, when smaller casks were used to transport the whisky on the backs of mules or pack-horses, and maturation times were not standardized. It is also bottled at 48%, which is 20% stronger than the Laphroaig 10.
The Quarter Cask is a ruddy gold color, coating the glass well, with long, rippling legs. On the nose is a substantial peat smoke blast, and the phenol (Listerine) flavor, but interestingly, it does not give a a big hit of rubbing-alcohol burn on the nose like some other whiskies do. Even so, that peat is acrid enough to make my eyes water. It's hard to get much more out of the nose when the peat is so strong, but there is a bit of orange and vanilla there to entice me to take a sip. As the glass warms up in my hand the sweetness on the nose becomes much more pronounced.
On the tongue it's smoke and peat and seaweed, like a campfire on the beach. It's warming but not burning, and the finish is enormously long. The candied oranges are definitely there, with some dark chocolate and marzipan, and maybe some toasted marshmallows; I'm reminded of chocolate-covered marshmallow puff cookies, or even Oreos. Strangely, I don't get any of the promised saltiness. There's some of that toasted coconut that I enjoy. Interestingly, it is the wood that provides the whisky with its vanilla notes. The Laphroaig propaganda says "The finish is very long and alternates between the wood sweetness and the classic phenolic 'peat reek' like waves on our shore." Long is an understatement -- like the Lagavulin, I'll still be tasting this whisky when I wake up tomorrow morning!
Grace decided that one sip was all she needed, and while she was impressed by the pungent flavors, and reports enjoying hints of the medicinal flavors, she does not enjoy their "full frontal assault." She noted licorice as one of the sweeter notes, but I don't taste it; that doesn't mean it isn't there, as I've certainly detected this in other whiskies. She says she believes it would be "an oustanding tonic for anyone with a respiratory illness." (When you consider the cool and damp climate of Islay and the likely ailments of the people who live there, the style of the whisky, as it was developed historically, begins to make a lot of sense!) She declines to give it a numeric rating, saying that it would be unfairly low because she dislikes this heavily peated style of whisky, and thus would not acknowledge its strengths.
I tasted it with a little water. It immediately becomes less syrupy, and hotter, the peaty flavors broadening out to creep down the throat and across the back of the mouth. It actually seems to damp down some of the sweet notes a bit, except for a vanilla malted-milkshake flavor on the finish that seems to intensify a bit, but the dried orange and lemon zest notes remain. If you like the peat a whole lot, try it with a little water; it won't kill the flavor. In fact, you might even like to try it with a little more water than you would normally add to a scotch whisky, keeping in mind that this one is considerably stronger than the Laphroaig 10 (96 proof!)
The Laphroaig 10-year at cask strength has been named "the best scotch whisky in the world" by Whisky magazine, and Laphroaig been granted a Royal Warrant by Prince Charles. Their whisky certainly has a lot of character; I'm pretty sure I could pick it out of a blind tasting, even against Caol Ila and Lagavulin. So, now comes the part where I admit that I'm going to have to go against the consensus of the reviews that I've read, and say that while I appreciate the character of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, like the Lagavulin, it is not entirely to my taste. I have to be in the right mood for all that smoke and peat; I don't gravitate to those flavors naturally, as some folks evidently do. But then again, I don't like only sweet flavors in a whisky; it's possible for a whisky to be too sweet and light for my taste. See my review of Scapa 14 for an example.
I like the smokey Islay whiskies more than I used to, but I doubt this style will ever be my favorite. I do have to compliment the Laphroaig people for making a whisky that I find to be more palatable if, still a bit challenging. It's interesting to me that in trying to create something that more accurately reflects their older whiskies, they're also (perhaps unintentionally) conceding a bit to my tastes. Perhaps it isn't just me, and they're finding the market for all-peat, all-the-time whiskies is not growing? Or maybe they've realized that in going for the peat explosion in recent years, they've unintentionally lost some of the other excellent qualities that used to make their whiskies more balanced? It's been some time since I've tasted the "standard" Laphroaig 10, and I probably won't be buying myself a bottle, but it would be interesting to compare it with the Quarter Cask.
I give the Laphroaig Quarter Cask an 8 out of 10, a half-point higher than the Lagavulin 16 since it is a little kinder to the palate. I'm told that the peaty whiskies are an acquired taste, and since I purchased a bottle, I'll definitely be tasting this one again, and sharing it with any adventurous friends who would like to try it. I may ultimately wind up with bottles of the Lagavulin 16 and Caol Ila 12 too, because of the intriguing similarities and differences between them, and my desire to share those two as well. But of these three peaty Islay whiskies the Caol Ila, which I gave an 8.0, remains my preference, and my favorite Islay malt of islay is still the Bunnahabhain 12, which I gave an 8.5, and which has no peat to speak of.
So, there you have it; it must be the Libra in me, that always strives for balance. I'm sorry this review came out a bit wishy-washy. I was hoping to either love it or bury it, but as it turns out, I merely drank it, and I'd drink it again, although perhaps not for a good long while. Maybe the next time I feel a sinus infection coming on...
This research, sadly, was not funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and the author has not yet received a MacArthur Genius Award.