1/4 Cask and a Word on Nosing & Tasting
Blenderm hit the nail on the head about aging. The smaller cask size changes the spirit in a different way than a larger cask but by no means changes the speed with which a spirit ages. Aside from historical transport by mule and cart as was noted earlier, Laphroaig's foray with the 1/4 cask was a designed "experiment" to try and support a growing demand for Laphroaig beyond what their stocks allow to support keeping older expressions on store shelves. The hope was that they could get some of their younger spirit to drink similar to their older expressions by altering it with different wood and cask size strategies while they ramped up production to meet the shift in demand. I'm paraphrasing here but this is what John Campbell, Laphroaig's Distillery Manager, told me last November when I last got together with him.
Where they were a little disappointed with the results, there is no doubt they've created something many people enjoy. Afterall, Laphroaig makes a great spirit and pays a lot of attention to detail.
For me, the tricks with heavily peated whiskies which show loads of iodine and medicinal characters is either age or understanding and improving one's nosing skill. With age, the iodine and medicinal characters tend to be tamed and the fruitiness and floral notes more easily show through. It is one reason a Laphroaig 30 isn't as appealing to many who love Laphroaig 10 - they love the more prominent iodine and medicinal in the 10 (not to mention its $55-60 price) compared to the tamer 30 (with its $500+ price). Of course, not every distiller's spirit ages gracefully, and we all know (or should) that older isn't necessarily better. There are many distillers whose younger expressions I prefer to their older ones.
As for nosing, one of the things I strongly recommend for the avid whisky nut is a set of Glencairn glasses. They are designed for assessment of spirit, namely single malt whisky, and are one of the tools of the trade. Having a set of nosing glasses allows the taster to better compare whiskies because the aromas are similarly focused to the nose and taster's olfactory senses so comparison is more easily made than using glasses of various shape and/or wide rims.
This is easily understood by pouring a few drams of the same whisky. Take three drams of 1/4 cask, leave one dram untouched, put a few drops of distilled water in another, and an ice cube made from the same distilled water in another. Then nose, don't taste, each dram and find the differences. The reason I say distilled water and not spring is because spring water does maintain flavor compounds and minutely (though sometimes obviously) changes a whisky from its bottled form because of those compounds. Thus, what the average taster is recognizing as the difference is the water and not the spirit. Further, most taster's ice (if they drink it this way) is made from tap water (including a lot of store-bought ice) which often contains fluoride and chlorine compounds - which is totally detrimental! The most obvious thing ice does is change the temperature of the whisky; the thing to learn here is that the temperature of the whisky greatly affects its aromatics, as well as its taste.
As we have millions more olfactory senses in our noses than we have working taste receptors on our taste buds, it is easily understandable (if you work at training our nose) that we decipher more with our nose than with our palate, and that what we smell affects what our palate tastes. Try plugging your nose and tasting the 1/4 cask (keeping it plugged for a minute or so after swallowing) and I guarantee you will notice less on your palate than you do with you nose unobstructed.
One of the interesting things about nosing whisky compared to wine is that what we smell in wine is very infrequently what we taste. You might get cassis from the nose of a cabernet, but you rarely taste it. Whereas what we smell with in whisky does show on the palate. You get the iodine component on many Islay whiskies and you also taste that character.
Another important concept in nosing is habituation. We get use to major influences and after a short time our brains start to ignore them and move onto lesser influences. For example, people who keep dogs in their home get used to the smell of their dog in their house. And when their spouse is cooking a full Scottish breakfast with bangers, haggis, smoked haddock, fried tomato et al, all they notice is the glorious aroma emanating from the kitchen. If we're invited for breakfast, we'll smell the breakfast and the dog. Eventually we get used to the aromas of both and then notice their cat. Another example is how nonsmokers perceive tobacco smoke and it is not noticed by smokers. This is habituation.
So, when faced with a whisky you find has unappealing aromatic characters, continuing to nose the whisky, literally keeping you nose in the glass and smelling continually until your brain starts to ignore the major aromatic congeners in the whisky, will eventually allow you to uncover the whisky's more hidden treasures - hopefully ones you'll enjoy. With this level of olfactory training, you will get to a point where you can turn off the major congener influences quite quickly and uncover those more deeply routed influences you enjoy. The same applies to a whisky you love, if you want to uncover more about it than the major influences you find inspiring.
Finally, there are Islay whiskies without heavily peated, iodine and medicinal tones. Until recently, Bunnahabhain didn't peat their malt and any sense of peat came from their water. Additionally, their iodine and medicinal character would only come from the environment of Islay affecting their casks during maturation - but it's really nonexistent. Bunnahabhain is now producing some peated spirit, having seen the success of their neighbors. Bruichladdich has greatly toned down their use of peat to the point they will not be peating except for a few bottlings, I understand. Their plan is to relegate their peated whiskies to future Port Charlotte bottlings. For someone wanting to discover peat without the iodine and medicinal characters being dominant, try Springbank 10, Glenturret, Benriach Curiositas Peat. These range in their use of peat but all have tempered to no iodine and medicinal character. For someone who wants to experience peat, iodion and medicinal without spending $55-60 or more for an Islay, try Benromach Traditional $35. Benromach 10, about $70, tames the iodine and medicinal because it is aged 100% in first fill sherry casks - this is a great whisky and great for understanding peat and wood influence.