Laphroaig is unabashedly Islay. Its intense peatiness, maritime character, and (to some) off-putting medicinal bite are hallmarks that are present in every bottle. It was my “first love” in single malt, really in whisky period. That first dram of the 10-year was eye-opening. Smokey, woody, sweet, powerful. I woke up the next day tasting it on my lips and smelling it on my breath. To me, any peated malt must necessarily be compared to Laphroaig.
Today I’m trying the Quarter Cask expression, a younger peated malt (5 years of ex-bourbon maturation, plus an additional 7 months, approximately, in tiny “quarter casks” custom-made for this expression). The “finishing” in quarter casks gives the whisky far more exposure to wood than normally happens in larger standard casks. In addition, this expression is bottled at a higher 48% ABV and without chill-filtering (yay!).
Nose: Classic Laphroaig. Up-front is smoldering seaweed with briny notes of coastal thunderstorms and tidepools. A woody sweetness, like boiling maple syrup, pervades the nose and elevates the peat smoke. Hints of barbecued short-ribs, glazed ham, and applewood-smoked fish. The 48% ABV can be felt in the nose-prickle. Deeper exploration reveals white chocolate chips, freshly-baked sugar cookies, and even deeper in some extinguished campfire (wood char). A few drops of water bring out some faint dark chocolate and toffee.
Palate: Medium bodied – not watery, but also not chewy or oily. Right away there is big peat, in that briny, smoked-fish style. Smokehouse fumes, sugarcane, vanilla extract, and a pervading young woodiness – freshly-hewn green wood, dripping sap. A few drops of water brings an elevated sweetness to the mix, with more maple syrup, vanilla, and raw cane sugar.
Finish: Long. Initially there is lingering peat, salt water, which yields to vanilla and a very drying oak tannin, which fades into bitter spent wood and green sap. The peat doesn’t stay around as long as it does with the 10-year old.
Water brings out the sweet notes and marries them perfectly with the peat. I recommend a few sparse drops. This dram is much more complex than the standard 10-year Laphroaig, and, interestingly, less intensely peaty despite its younger age. There are several layers of oak flavors, ranging from the early sweet vanilla, through the earthy woody midsection, to the bitter sappy finish, which interplay very well with the usual Islay peat – complementing it and taming it slightly. I generally dislike drams that attempt to blend big fruity sweetness with peat, or bone-dry asceticism with peat, and this falls nicely in the middle. It gives you something to ponder, whereas the 10-year just gives you something to drink. It is, however, pricier, and that extra $14 isn’t always going to be worth it, especially if Laphroaig 10 is already part of your daily dram rotation.