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Hung, drawn... and quartered?

Allied is rolling out its quarter cask range after the success of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Dave Broom was given a sneak preview
By Dave Broom
THE LAST TIME Whisky Magazine encountered Allied Domecq’s master blender Robert Hicks he was still laughing at the ridiculousness of the experiment – and the fact that his hunch had paid off.The Laphroaig Quarter Cask is now a cult. But even on that day there were hints that there were other things in the pipeline.What you must realise about blenders is that they have enquiring minds. While blending is about quality control and maintaining consistency it also requires you to think outside the box on occasion.So, when the call came to join Robert, his assistant Sandy Hyslop and Allied’s malts man Michael Cockram for a day “to have a look at some more things,” I was on that plane in double quick time. I mean, who could turn down the chance of a day trip to Dumbarton?Robert and Sandy are inside their sample room (also known as ‘The Bubble’) at Allied’s bottling plant at Kilmalid. It is cluttered with the usual muddle of bottles. A space has been cleared for two dozen glasses on the central island.“We figured we might as well extend the quarter experiment to the whole range,” explains Michael.“Just to see what would happen,” adds Robert, who is already grinning. He’s poured a control sample of the original vatting of young whisky from Scapa, Miltonduff, Glentauchers, Glenburgie, Tormore and Ardmore; then another glass with the same whisky that’s been given a year’s further aging in a standard barrel and then two cask samples of it after a year’s aging in two different quarters.Now Scapa is a lush dram at the best of times, all Body Shop lotions and silky peaches, but on the evidence of the young vatting, there is a mature note, something which only appears after some time in cask. Though some soft fruitiness can just be discerned, this has retained the punchy aggressiveness of youth and finishes abruptly.Ayear in cask had softened things a little, but the quarters had changed things hugely. It was still young and fresh but those rough edges had been rounded off, there was a fruity depth to the whisky, and the finish had been lengthened.It seems unfair, but you kind of expect quartering to work with Scapa. It’s such an amenable whisky, but what of the unknown quantities of Miltonduff and the two Glens?The control sample of Miltonduff showed classic new make notes: all cabbage water and sulphur. Even spending a year in cask hadn’t quite expunged this (perfectly normal) note, but the quarters had.That immature note had been removed and replaced with vanilla and a perfumed note began to show itself, shyly, like a spring flower just opening. Achange, if not the big leap of Scapa. More time maybe?Glentauchers, however, was a revelation. To be honest, the control sample was bloody good in itself: grassy, slightly oily, touches of orchard fruit, a little malt. The quarters picked up on this and ran with it, adding spice, coconut, apricot and light floral notes.“I TOLD you Glentauchers was a good dram!” said Robert with glee, recalling my expression when he revealed what had been quartered.The experiment proved to have been less successful with Glenburgie. Even though the quarter had removed immaturity and laid down coconut notes, they were just sitting on top of the whisky not improving it. Another which might need more time. Tormore was equally stubborn. Edgy in the control sample and edgy even after quartering.Things picked up with the best dram on show, Ardmore. I’d say that anyway, being a fan of that great Victorian pile.Though the coal fires have gone, Ardmore’s sootiness has survived, giving a touch of Highland smoke to drift among the apples and flowers. The smoke is the major element, along with a rubbery immaturity, but the quarter in this instance had added complexity: the peat is there, but there’s a new, integrated, layer of flavour rather than just an overlaying of creaminess. Like the other successful examples, the finish is longer too.So, what can we conclude? On a simplistic level, quartering appears to answer the question which industry accountants have been asking distillers for years – why must we keep whisky is cask for all those years? Why can’t it be like vodka?The answer is maturity takes time. Cask and whisky have to be given years to work together, talk to each other.Quarters, it would appear, speed that process up. You see the loss of immaturity (in Miltonduff especially) a softening (Scapa) the uptake of greater colour (all of them) the addition of flavours, vanilla, spice, coconut, from the oak (in all, bar Tormore) and finally, in exceptional cases, an increase in complexity (Glentauchers and Ardmore).Between them, they demonstrate show what takes years to achieve in a standard cask. That’s the trouble. Quarters accelerate the process, but at such a speed they are impractical for long-term aging.Neither is it a universal success. While some distilleries seem to work brilliantly, others just sit there, and some even reject it.This might be irritating to marketing who like simple solutions to make their life easier, (though to be fair Michael seems remarkably sanguine) but I suspect the fact that quartering cannot be applied to every distillery appeals to Robert and Sandy because the unpredictable nature of whisky, its mystery has been kept safe. Nothing is simple or straightforward in whisky.Nor is everything simple in business. The visit coincided with the announcement of Allied’s acceptance of Pernod-Ricard’s takeover offer. Though at the time of writing it is unclear what will happen, Allied’s whisky estate will be broken up. Teacher’s and presumably its distilleries (and Laphroaig) will go one way, Ballantine’s and its distilleries another.Will Scapa and Laphroaig stay together? Everyone hopes so. It’s ironic that just as Allied commits itself to malt that its portfolio is broken up.And the quartered whiskies? It’s too early to say if any of these will now see the light of day. It reminds me of Diageo’s plan in the 1990s to release a Classic American Whiskey range, similar to the Classic Malts. The brands (including an ancient rye and a venerable Indiana corn whiskey) were there, labelled, ready to go... then the board sold its American whiskey business and they disappeared – or did they?No matter what happens with Allied’s eventual ownership I’ve a feeling the quarters have yet to be hung and drawn.