L

Laphroaig 10 and Quarter Cask: One Year Observations

In my last review, it was noted that a comparison of tasting notes for Laphroaig 10 and Laphroaig Quarter Cask had been in the works before my laptop gave out after exactly 11 years of service, literally to the day, and taking my work with it. At last, the time has come to finally redo that piece.

Laphroaig is no stranger to whisky lovers, especially peat heads. It’s practically a shelf-staple these days and is enjoying a surge in popularity. While much of the distillery’s range consists of NAS expressions and questionable wood finishes, occasionally it shows flashes of the old brilliance it once possessed. Today the focus will be on both of the aforementioned standard offerings, but with a twist: tasting notes from the early pours of the bottle compared to tasting notes from a year later when the bottle was less than ¼ full. What does a little oxidation do to Laphroaig?

Excuse me, did I say oxidation? I was mistaken, the process of oxidation does not occur to whisky in a bottle. Now hear me out, that doesn’t mean the liquid doesn’t change, it just means that oxidation specifically doesn’t occur. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that is characterised by a molecule/individual atoms/ions losing one or more of its electrons to another molecule/individual atoms/ions. Basically, something that loses electrons is oxidized and something that gains electrons is reduced. That seems counterintuitive because why would something that acquires matter be labelled “reduced”? It has to do with the fact that an electron has a negative electric charge. The more electrons you have, the more “negative” or “reduced” the overall charge on the molecule becomes.

Oxidation reactions indicate a significant chemical change within a substance. For example, the formation of rust is a common oxidation reaction between iron and oxygen. Whisky in a bottle is not undergoing these sorts of fundamental chemical reactions due to mere air exposure. Whisky is exposed to air constantly throughout most its lifetime, from the grain being harvested, to the mashing process, to slumbering in casks that are not 100% airtight. Yet, there are often clear differences in smell and taste after a bottle has been opened for an extended period of time. So what is going on? The secret is alcohol evaporation.

The liquid in your bottle is composed of some percentage of ethanol (40% minimum for scotch) and some percentage of water, with various oils and phenols making up the remainder. Alcohol, specifically ethanol, evaporates much faster than water. There is no ethanol in the atmosphere so no equilibrium is ever reached between the air and the ethanol in the bottle. It will simply continue to evaporate. The evaporation of water takes place much more slowly. The existence of relative humidity creates an equilibrium point where water will eventually cease evaporating. So, as you pour more libation of choice from your bottle, you create a larger headspace for the ethanol to evaporate into and subsequently escape every time the cork is popped.

The end result is that the water:ethanol ratio in the bottle increases over time, slightly diluting the whisky and causing the oils to separate a little bit more. It’s similar to adding a few drops of water to the whisky in your glass, except instead of increasing the water volume we are decreasing the ethanol volume. Either way, the ratio of water:ethanol has increased. This can reach a critical point where too much ethanol is lost and the contents of the bottle can taste “flat”. Just like some whiskies can take a little water better than others, some can handle ethanol evaporation better than others. Let’s have a look at how well Laphroaig stands up to the process!

For the sake of consistency, both of these bottles were stored in the same cabinet, inside their respective canisters, in the dark, at room temperature of 21 degrees Celsius and relatively low humidity. The corks remained intact and were never removed from the bottles for a period greater than 5 minutes.

Laphroaig 10 Year Old – Fresh Bottle Review

This was a standard size bottle (750mL) at 43% ABV. Purchased June 2019 for $75.00 CAD. Available almost everywhere, expect to pay £36.95 from The Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt will demand £38.95, and SharedPour ask for $77.99, but do shop around locally as it is often discounted. Impressions from the initial 3 pours of the bottle.

Colour: Moderate E150a caramel. Come on Laphroaig! You should follow in the footsteps of Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, and Bunnahabhain. Natural colour is a matter of pride in your product.

On the nose: Not smoky so much as it is ashy. Almost unbearably so, and I would consider myself a peat head. My maternal grandmother used to own a hair salon, and one of the old chairs with that bowl-shaped hair drying apparatus on it was once stored in our basement. Being from the 1960s, it naturally had an ashtray in the armrest. That’s what this whisky smells like: metallic ashtray. With time the iodine, band-aid, salt, and brine notes come out but there’s precious little fruitiness or sweetness here. There’s a little charred wood scent as well.

In the mouth: Hot and thin. Salty, ashy, medicinal, and a bit of a wooden cardboard type of flavour. There’s a bit of citrus flavour to it but it’s so far in the background that it’s more like drinking ethanol-infused lemon pledge. There’s a slight vegetal aftertaste as if you just had some unseasoned raw seaweed.

I remember this being quite disappointing, especially after how good the 80s/90s/early 00s versions were.

Score: 3/10

Laphroaig Quarter Cask – Fresh Bottle Review

This was a standard size bottle (750mL) at 48% ABV. Purchased December 2018 for $89.00 CAD. This Laphroaig release is available everywhere including Master of Malt for £38.25, The Whisky Exchange will request £40.95 and Amazon currently demand £38.25. This is also available via SharedPour for $89.99. As always, other retailers might offer better value subject to any special offers. Impressions from the initial 3 pours of the bottle.

Colour: Moderate E150a caramel

On the nose: Campfire on the beach, but the next morning when the fire’s burned out. The brine, iodine, and medicinal notes are there but far more in the background. The burned wood, tobacco, and leather scents are more upfront. Lots of fresh cut oak along with a bit of caramel or brown sugar. Maybe a bit of black pepper bacon as well after airing out. Certainly more complex than the 10 year-old.

In the mouth: Not as hot as the 10 year-old, but with a good punch. The nose is definitely more complex and enticing than the palate. The taste is all cinnamon, leather, tobacco, and burning charcoal. There’s a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, and dark chocolate that’s been burned in a pan.

All things considered, it’s pretty good compared to many other offerings from the distillery.

Score: 6/10

Laphroaig 10 Year Old – One Year Later – Review

Impressions from the last 1/4 of the bottle.

Colour: E150a caramel

On the nose: Far less ashy than the initial pours. In fact, it’s smells much more like actual smoke now. The earthy peatiness is present and the citrus scents are a touch stronger. Less of a lemon pledge, more of a grilled lemon albeit one that has been left on the grill for far too long. An old, wet piece of seaweed and a slight perfume-y note have evolved as well. I think there might be the smell of a fresh cigar in there as well, but that could very well just be my imagination.

In the mouth: Still thin and almost watery but much less hot than the first pours from the bottle. Salty, ashy, and medicinal are still the dominant flavours but there is certainly a much stronger sour lemon-lime flavour that has come out over time. The seaweed flavour is also much less raw and vegetal, more salty and “cooked” if that makes sense.

This is one improved significantly but the bar was low to begin with. From off-putting to average.

Score: 5/10

Laphroaig Quarter Cask – One Year Later Review

Impressions from the last 1/4 of the bottle.

Colour: E150a caramel

On the nose: Wood ashes, tobacco ashes, burned leather, extremely faint caramel. Faint iodine and medical notes.

In the mouth: Too hot and too simple. The peat kick is present, along with some cinnamon red hots and barrel tannins but that’s about it. The oiliness, complexity, and power it had before is gone.

The more I poured from this bottle, the less I found myself reaching for it the next time I wanted a peated scotch. It was a struggle to finish and, near the end, just used the final spoonfuls to deglaze some grilled pineapple.

Score: 2/10

Conclusions

Well, the 10 year-old certainly handled the bottle airing out far better than the quarter cask did. It’s interesting to note that the quarter cask claims to be non-chill filtered, but it fared so much worse over time. Even the addition of water did not result in a large or noticeable degree of cloudiness from oil separation in either dram. I would wager that a significant degree of room temperature barrier filtration was applied to both of these whiskies and they suffer for it. The mouthfeel and oiliness just isn’t up to par.

That being said, the 10 was much improved of the two, despite the fact that the quarter cask started strong. Upon first opening the 10 year-old I was worried that it would sit on my shelf for years untouched, but it ended becoming decently average as the headspace grew. The quarter cask became a broken and pale imitation of what it once was after roughly the halfway mark. I wonder if there was any difference in filtration technique or cuts of the distillate taken for each of these expressions that might account for these results. In any case, it appears Laphroaig 10 is the best value if you want some longevity from you scotch. Then again, this could all be moot as these results are specific to my palate and could also be specific to these respective batches.

One thing that was clear beyond all doubt: my 1990s vintage of Laphroaig 10 was leagues ahead of the modern 10 and modern quarter cask, no matter how much the headspace grew. Perhaps it would be wise for the distillery to revisit what it was doing back then.

Lead image by Artem Podrez from Pexels. Others kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange.

We do have some commission links within this article if you want to make a purchase and conduct your own experiment – let us know how you get on!

CategoriesSingle Malt
Greg
Greg

Greg has been following and consuming the world of single malt scotch and bourbon whiskies for 13 years as of 2020. His educational background is in science with degrees in Astrobiology and the Life Sciences. Some of his hobbies include amateur astronomy, weight lifting, playing piano and guitar, and posting one-minute whisky reviews on Instagram.

  1. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I feel as if that’s generally the case—-the 80s and 90s malts were better than modern day. Not always, but generally. Wondering if access to better casks was easier and cheaper?

    1. Greg
      Greg says:

      Cask selection was probably a little better on the sherry side of things, but changes to the production process are likely the biggest factors.

      For example, the peating stage is carried out differently. It used to be done slowly, burning the peat at low temperatures and allowing the smoke to be absorbed by the barley over several days. Now it is done in a matter of hours, burning the peat aggressively at high temperatures and blowing the smoke around with industrial fans. That results in a more acrid, burning wood taste rather than a sweet candied earthy smoke.

      1. Avatar
        Andy says:

        Great review Greg, it is interesting to get an idea of what can actually happen in the bottle, even though the actual loss of ethanol will be very low it can still cause a significant change good or bad.
        I was enjoying the quarter cask last night and although very much enjoy the Islay style of peated whiskies, I felt the quarter cask was rather one dimensional. Admittedly the bottle has been open for two months and is about 2/3 rds drunk so a note to self to try harder!
        I also find it amazing that they also use caramel colouring these days, I reckon the lighter colours of say an Ardbeg are much more enticing than an artificial glow from the glass!

        1. Greg
          Greg says:

          Hi Andy,

          Thanks very much! The human senses are much better than most would think, and even the addition of a few literal drops of water to a glass can cause perceptible change.

          Many of the heavily peated Islay whiskies (basically the Kildalton trio at this point: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin) have shifted into the realm of peat monsters that are a little too one-dimensional. It’s great when you crave a peat kick, but the lack of complexity makes it boring after a while. Port Charlotte 10 and Ledaig 10 probably offer the best complexity for the dollar in the peat world now.

          E150a should be banished. There is simply no reason for it to exist when the market is becoming increasingly more educated and wary of artificial enhancers. It’s understandable that Beam-Suntory wants to push Laphroaig into territory where they become a shelf staple for profits’ sake, but more often than not it’s quality that will provide the staying power of a product, not the marketing or the image.

  2. Avatar
    Kathryn Aagesen says:

    Thanks so much for this. I jacked a bottle of half full Laph 10 my boss had sitting on his shelf for god knows how long. I was shocked at how tropical fruit forward it was. No way of knowing what decade it was from because the label had been peeled off.

    1. Greg
      Greg says:

      Hi Kathryn,

      You’re very welcome! Ah, that’s a super lucky little jackpot you scored. There’s nothing quite like those old school pineapple/mango/passion fruit notes you get from those vintage Laphroaigs. So different from the modern style.

  3. Avatar
    Andy says:

    Yes, some companies have gone a bit peat heavy and then miss out on the cask influence and as you say Port Charlotte provides both smoke and complexity (more on the nose than in the mouth imho).
    I still lament the loss of the Ardbeg 17 and the interplay between the smoke and sweetness, such a well balanced malt. I can still close my eyes and ‘taste’ it after over 20 years!

    1. Greg
      Greg says:

      Ardbeg 17 was so much better than it had any right to be. Even at 40%, the fruity berry sweetness was so forward and complemented the softer smoke incredibly well. Shame that it costs between $600 and $1200 these days.

  4. Avatar
    djr says:

    To solve the problem of degrading quarter cask, I recommend finishing it in under a month!

    Seriously though, you can usually pick it up on offer less than £30 and so it’s amazing value regular sipper

    1. Greg
      Greg says:

      This is true. However, I’m a fairly slow drinker. A bottle of anything will usually last me a year or more. Probably better for my wallet (and health) that way!

  5. Avatar
    Ben says:

    thanks for that piece – an interesting take!
    a pity that you did not include the unfathomable laphroaig “select” into your portfolio… wondering how that one would have fared over the year 😉

    compared to their yearly 10yo cs and what the indies can get a hold of, I really don’t understand what laphroaig is doing with their core range.

    1. Greg
      Greg says:

      You’re very welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Forgetting that “Select” exists would probably be best for everyone…

      The core range is likely being manipulated to be advertised as a mass-market product. I think Laphroaig has had two major things happen to change its flavour profile (keep in mind this is only my opinion):

      1) The way the barley is peated has changed, and likely many other parts of the distilling process have been altered in order to maximize output in order to put the most number of bottles possible on the shelves.

      2) Beam-Suntory introducing cost-cutting measures such as encouraging multiple cask re-uses, heavy room-temperature/barrier filtration, and sourcing cheaper strains of barley from outside Islay. Of course Laphroaig does its own malting but that only accounts for a fraction of the total malted barley they use.

    2. Avatar
      Richard says:

      Brilliant review, Greg, perhaps the best on Malt in quite some time. A little science, a little experimentation, plus some good old fashioned honesty = a very interesting read.

      Some whiskies handle ~Oxidisation~ (sorry, evaporation) so well, but others seem immune to it’s charms. From my experience, anything over half a bottle empty and more than six months opened is too much and harmful to whisky.

      Please, more of these types of reviews (experimentation; horizontal/vertical tastings; blending/teaspooning various malts, etc), and fewer articles on cider, port, etc. Yes, Malt needs to branch out and remain fresh, especially during this year, but it seems to be diluting the brand a bit too much.

      Again, bravo!

  6. Avatar
    Apple W says:

    Can you provide some idea of the amount of the change in the ABV of a bottle over time?
    Is there a scientific study that shows this effect?

    I agree that the ethanol in the bottle would slowly evaporate, but I wonder how intense this effect would be. And just because this chemical process takes place does not mean that oxygen cannot affect the flavor compounds (whatever we want to call that process). These two processes could take place at the same time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *