The scent of saltwater rode the wind over the freshwater loch, and the dry field-grasses, and there was the memory of peat upon the air: a whisky wind in Islay. – G.M.W. Wemyss
Laphroaig is arguably the most well-known distillery on the tiny island of Islay (eye-la). The malts from this region of Scotland are infamous for their overpowering peaty, smoky notes, and have divided drinkers for as long as they've been in production. Some love the scent of the beach campfire. Nosing a glass of a classic Islay malt can be a transcendental experience. It's like a siren tempting one's senses to the arid coast of Western Scotland, engulfing them in plumes of earthy smoke and cold ocean spray.
And then there are the people that absolutely hate it. They simply can't handle a big glass of torched brine. And that's okay. We like to believe there's a single malt out there for everyone. But Laphroaig appeals to a very particular kind of drinker.
The distillery has been in operation for 198 years (they have their 200th anniversary coming next August) and produces somewhere around 2.5 million liters of single malt per year. It was the only scotch producer that continued to export to the United States during prohibition, as its taste was so odd and medicinal that they argued it was intended to treat various ailments rather than facilitate inebriation. This is arguably a contributing factor to its enduring legacy in the USA.
The particular malt we're looking at today is Laphroaig's Quarter Cask. Its age is unlisted, because it's technically a five-year-old malt. In an industry where age is frequently mistaken for an indicator of quality, the company opts to lead with the barreling technique as opposed to the age of the dram itself.
The "Quarter Cask" simply means that the whisky spent a lengthy period in a 200 liter (42 stave) ex-Maker's Mark cask before being shifted into a 125 liter (27 stave) cask for about eight months. This allows the whisky to be exposed to more surface area on the wood, which imparts more flavors from the barrel over a shorter period of time. It's essentially a means of fast-tracking the aging process. And when your distillery is at maximum production capacity with an accelerating demand, experimenting with barreling techniques is all you can do to maintain quality and increase quantity.
What: Laphroaig, Single Malt Scotch, approx. 5 years old, Quarter Cask Aging, 48% ABV
Where: Islay, Scotland
Who: Laphroaig. Master Distiller John Campbell
Price: $59.99 (BevMo)
We've tasted Islay malts that have way too much to say in the flavor profile, and there was a lingering worry that Laphroaig might have done the same in order to suit the sweeter, corn-fed American palate. But no. Absolutely not. As soon as the cork is popped you get a big dirty peat shovel straight to the face.
The Island seems to burst from the glass like waves against granite. We get peat, smoke, and the sea; yet the oak, vanilla, and caramel seem to slip in underneath, smoothing over rougher flavors with an oily sweetness. Though this dram really comes to life with a little water. The fire is reduced, the bouquet is exposed, and its character is free.
Imagine the accent of a broad tongued Scottish islander who moved to Iowa for a while. His "R's" are on a leash. His rusty, serrated brogue somewhat tamed. But no one can deny that the big man is still an islander.
Aside from the superb taste, the way in which Laphroaig has managed to stretch production a little farther without compromising quality is a testament to its innovation. This malt is more approachable than the classic 10-year, and the score reflects that.
We like to point you in the direction of things we think you'll enjoy, and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask is probably the best route to the big Islay malts.
The distillery operates a program called 'Friends of Laphroaig' in which members receive a lifetime lease on one square foot of Islay, next to the distillery in return for buying a bottle and registering as a Friend. If you purchase a bottle register online to claim your peaty patch of the great Scottish island!