In early-nineteenth-century Scotland, the twelve-gallon quarter cask was the preferred method for transporting whisky—the small barrels were ideal for hiding the liquor from duty officers. The casks came up short, however, when the rising international popularity of whisky required greater production; by the 1820s, the industry had largely switched to fifty-gallon barrels.
But Allied Domecq, the global spirits powerhouse, has now rediscovered another virtue of the quarter cask: During aging, a greater amount of the whisky comes in contact with the wood, contributing as much as 75 percent of the flavor. Thus is born the Laphroaig Quarter Cask ($49, in limited supplies). After seven to ten years in a bourbon cask, the whisky was transferred to a smaller oak barrel for a mere seven months and has turned out to be one of the most intense spirits ever produced by the distillery—ninety-six proof.
The whisky matured quickly in the small casks, but this is not just a case of achieving an older whisky before its time—the interaction between whisky and cask produced entirely new elements. Crisp malty and toasty notes give the Quarter Cask a sparkle absent in the popular Laphroaig Ten-Year-Old. All the classic "love it or hate it" Islay characteristics are in place—tar, smoke, smoked fish and seaweed—but there is a subtle sweetness from the renewed maturation method that makes the Laphroaig a standout. Whether the technique works for other malts remains to be seen, but this baby is a definite winner.