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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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