Whiskey Review: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

I absolutely loved the “standard edition” Laphroaig 10 Year single malt scotch whisky. It was everything I ever wanted in an Islay scotch — like stepping into a stone cottage on the water’s edge, with a smoking peat fired stove, holding a bunch of seaweed. Considering that level of praise for their standard version, I figured I needed to see what other goodness they were turning out, starting small with their “Quarter Cask” edition.


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History

Most Scottish distilleries (and most distilleries in general, for that matter) start as farm distilleries, using leftover grains that would otherwise go to waste to produce a more durable and desirable whiskey instead. Laphroaig (pronounced like “leap frog” but if you are Scottish and half a bottle of whiskey into the day) actually starts a little differently, with a pair of brothers named Donald and Alexander Johnston. They leased 1,000 acres to raise cattle on Islay in 1810 — but rather than buying their feed for their cattle, the brothers decided to grow their own barley, and the leftover surplus of barley after the cows were fed gave them the inspiration to start distilling it into whiskey.

Donald bought his brother out of the whiskey business in 1836, becoming the sole owner and distiller of Laphroaig for a mere eleven years before his untimely death in 1847 (reportedly by drowning in a vat of unfinished whiskey). His son Dugald inherited the distillery but, at only eleven years old, was too young to run the operation and relied on his uncle and another local farmer to run the distillery for him until he took over in 1857.

The distillery would continue to see success, primarily as a source of whiskey for blending but increasingly as a standalone name and single malt scotch producer. That rising popularity ruffled the feathers at the nearby Lagavulin distillery, who became increasingly jealous of Laphroaig’s success and effectively went to war against them. In 1907, the Lagavulin distillery tried to kill off Laphroaig by diverting their water source and choking it off, effectively shuttering the distillery until the courts intervened and made Lagavulin restore the original flow of water. That didn’t end things though, as Lagavulin then went to the trouble of exactly replicating Laphroaig’s still house to try and replicate their whiskey… but that didn’t result in the success they expected and the replica still was shuttered in 1962 to be turned into the new visitor’s center for Lagavulin.

Despite the unpleasantness with their neighbors, the Laphroaig distillery continued to see success and growth, especially under the watchful eye of Bessie Williamson, who led the distillery from 1954 to 1990. In 1994, the distillery was granted a Royal Warrant by Prince Charles, an honor that they continue to reflect by placing his coat of arms on the label of their bottle.

During this time, the distillery’s ownership transferred to a procession of Scottish distilling conglomerates, first to Long John International, then Allied Domecq, finally being sold in April 2014 to Beam Suntory as part of an acquisition deal of the parent company by Pernod Ricard. The Japan-based Beam Suntory remains the current owner of the distillery.

Product

Laphroaig is one of only a handful of Scottish distilleries that still has their own malting floor. The distillery ships in barley from other sources and soaks it in water, which allows the seeds in the barley to start to germinate. This releases enzymes that will be important later, but also creates a distinct and delicious flavor. Those sprouting seeds are then stopped by a process called “kilning”, in which heated air is pumped into the room and the barley is slightly roasted.

At Laphroaig, the heat for that kilning is created using peat fired ovens: a traditional heat source that uses moss from Scottish bogs, hand-cut by distillery workers and burned to create an oily and smoky fire. That smoke is allowed to interact with the barley and leaves behind some of that smoky characteristic on the grains for the next steps.

The malted barley is then cooked using water from their local creek to convert all of the carbohydrates in the barley into sugar, and then the sugary liquid is siphoned off to large vats where yeast is added and it is allowed to ferment for a minimum of 55 hours (longer than usual). This process is slightly different from the normal practice of fermenting the cooked malted barley with the solid chunks still in the liquid, and it supposedly creates a more fruity flavor.

That newly fermented liquid is then distilled twice in two of Laphroaig’s seven copper pot stills, with the distillery trying to selectively capture the right alcohol and flavors coming out of the stills. This process of selecting the right portion of the distillation run to save (referred to as “making cuts”) has a huge impact on the resulting flavor of the spirit. Laphroaig makes the conscious decision to ignore most of the fruity and lighter “heads”, instead focusing more on the richer “tails” in their selection.

Their whiskey is then diluted to about 63.5% ABV and placed into previously used American bourbon barrels to age, a common practice that Laphroaig was one of the first Scottish distilleries to embrace.

For this version, there is no age statement but there are indications that the spirit sits in a standard barrel for around five years before being transferred to a much smaller quarter size cask for a further seven or eight months. The smaller size of the cask means a larger surface-area-to-liquid-volume ratio, meaning there is more interaction with the barrel and a faster maturation of the spirit than with normal sized barrels.

After maturation, the whiskey is directly bottled without any chill filtration, leaving the delicious fatty acids and flavor compounds in tact.

Packaging

I’ll be frank, this bottle looks like it came straight out of the 1960’s. In some ways that’s good… but there are definitely some drawbacks to that choice.

The construction of the bottle is that of a standard scotch whiskey bottle: cylindrical body, slight indentation for the label around the belly of the bottle, gently rounded shoulder, and a medium length neck with a bulge for easy pouring. The bottle is made out of a green colored glass, which mostly obscures the color of the spirit inside. Back in the day, this tinted glass was functionally important to ensure that the spirit wasn’t ruined by sunlight that would degrade the contents — but these days, that seems less important than seeing the actual liquid inside the bottle.

The label is a big white sheet of paper with some writing on it. Boring, standard, and without much style. Something that I would fully expect in the 1960’s but, while I appreciate the vintage throwback vibe, it feels very outdated in today’s market.


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Neat

This is a beautiful deep amber colored liquid, and it smells exactly the way I expect a good scotch to. There’s the unmistakable smoky peat aroma coming off the glass, but it isn’t acerbic or overpowering. I’m definitely getting other aromas in there as well: some malty cereal, a bit of slate or salt, and a rich buttery aspect as well like some Kerry Gold Irish butter.

Taking a sip, there’s an interesting trick going on here. At first, the flavors aren’t nearly as intense as you would expect, mainly focusing around the more traditional scotch notes such as a bread-like maltiness drizzled in honey, floral blossoms, and even a bit of dried apricot. There’s some peat smoke in there, but not nearly as much as you’d expect.

As the flavors develop, that peat smoke continues to build until it reaches a crescendo in the finish, providing this powerful and frankly delicious smoky quality that lingers for quite some time. It isn’t bitter or overpowering — more like the same level of strength and richness that you experience after just having taken a draw on a good rich cigar (except the cigar is made of peat).

On Ice

The biggest difference here is one that I think most casual scotch drinkers will appreciate: the peat smoke is significantly reduced. It’s still a core component and prevalent on the finish, but it lacks the same strength and intensity as we saw before.

When it comes to the other flavors, while the floral blossoms and buttery deliciousness may have disappeared there’s still some good bread-y cereal and drizzled honey in there, as well as a hint of dried fruit. It has some interesting complex components to it that make it more than just a one trick pony.


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Overall Rating

This is delicious, there’s no doubt. I still feel like I’m getting the experience of stepping into a stone cottage on the water’s edge, with a smoking peat fired stove, holding a bunch of seaweed, but there’s a little bit more complexity and character to the spirit here. The floral components and a little buttery goodness make all the difference in the world, and improve on what was already a really great bottle.

In terms of the price point, I don’t think the added flavors are enough to quite justify the price, although its not terribly far off. For that point alone, I’ll dock one star off the final rating, but this scotch is still a notch above the rest of the crowd.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Produced By: Laphroaig
Owned By: Beam Suntory
Production Location: Islay, Scotland
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 48% ABV
Price: $69.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 4/5
If you ever dreamed of being a salty sea captain on a beach in Scotland, this tastes exactly like how I imagine that feels.


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