The Islay Series – Distillery #6: Laphroaig

The 6th distillery in my 8-part series about the Islay distilleries focuses on Laphroaig, one of the most famous distilleries in the world and one which produces whisky which delights and puzzles in equal measure.

Laphroaig is located on the Southern coast of Islay and is approximately 1 mile down the road from the village of Port Ellen. In terms of proximity, the closest distilleries to Laphroaig are Lagavulin (1 mile down the road from Laphroaig) and Ardbeg (2 miles down the road from Lagavulin).

The term Laphroaig is a Gaelic term which roughly translates as ‘the beautiful hollow by the broad bay’. This is quite an apt name as the location of the distillery is rather spectacular and the Antrim coast can be seen in the distance on a clear day.

The large black lettering on the side of the warehouse closest to the water. It is so prominent that it can be seen from on board the ferries departing from and arriving in Islay.
The large black lettering on the side of the warehouse closest to the water. It is so prominent that it can be seen from on board the ferries departing from and arriving in Islay.

The distillery is also located in a bay, which means that it is battered by the waves during periods of stormy weather. This is important as the briny character of the sea spray imparts its character to the spirit which is maturing in the warehouse closest to the water.

The distillery was founded in 1815 by brother Alexander and Donald Johnston and in 1836, Donald Johnston bought out Alexander’s share and assumed full control of the distillery. The following year, James and Andrew Gairdner found the Ardenistiel distillery just down the road from Laphroaig. This distillery would eventually be taken over by Laphroaig in the 1860s and the buildings form part of the modern distillery that we see today.

Donald Johnston remained in full control of Laphroaig until 1847, when he tragically was killed in an accident when he fell into a boiling hot kettle of burnt ale. The distillery was thrown into an initial state of flux, but eventually Walter Graham, who was the Distillery Manager at neighbours Lagavulin, took over the administration of the distillery.

The distillery remained under the control of Walter Graham until 1857, when it once again came under the ownership of the Johnston family and specifically, Donald’s son Dugald. Dugald remained in control until 1877, when he passed away without siring any heirs. The ownership of the distillery then passed on to Dugald’s sister, Isabella, who remained in sole control until 1907.

In 1907, the distillery came under the joint ownership of Isabella Johnston (now known as Mrs William Hunter) and her sister Catherine Johnston. The following year, Isabella’s son, Ian Hunter was brought into the fold and assisted his mother and aunt in the administration of the distillery. The arrival of Ian Hunter is significant as he is credited with doubling the distillery’s production and successfully exporting Laphroaig whisky around the world.

The view of the bay where Laphroaig is situated. The Antrim coast can be seen in the distance.
The view of the bay where Laphroaig is situated. The Antrim coast can be seen on the left in the distance.

Under Ian’s guidance, the distillery began to ramp up production and this was helped by the installation of another pair of stills in 1924. In 1927, Catherine Johnston passed away and the distillery came under the sole control of Ian Hunter, who set about exporting Laphroaig across the world. One of his biggest successes was managing to sell Laphroaig to America during Prohibition.

Ian managed to do this by leveraging on the spirit’s unique character, which meant that it could be sold for medicinal purposes. He also was one of the first distillers to realise that the use of ex-bourbon casks was advantageous for maturation and devised a mix of American and European Oak casks in order to enhance the flavour of Laphroaig.

Ian Hunter remained in control until his passing in 1954, after which the distillery came under the control of his former PA, Elisabeth ‘Bessie’ Williamson. Bessie assumed the role of Director of the board as well as Managing Director and set about modernising the distillery. She also sold a partial stake in the distillery to Seager Evans & Company in 1962 in order to expand the distillery’s reach within the whisky market.

Bessie remained in charge until her retirement in 1972. During her reign, Seager Evans & Company assumed full control of the distillery through the Long John Distillery in 1967 and increased the number of stills to five. After Bessie’s retirement, the stills were further increased to seven.

The distillery changed hands a few more times between 1967 and 1989, when it came under the control of Allied Distillers. Two years later, Allied Distillers launched the Caledonian Malts range and Laphroaig was one of the four whiskies chosen to represent the range.

Laphroaig received true recognition worldwide in 1994 when the distillery received the royal warrant of HRH Prince Charles, who considers Laphroaig to be his favourite whisky. That same year, the distillery launched the Friends of Laphroaig campaign which sought to create a community network where fans of the whisky were entitled to a one square foot plot of land on the distillery’s land and were also entitled to land rent of a dram of Laphroaig 10 Years, which was to be collected yearly at the distillery.

One of the plots of land which belongs to the Friends of Laphroaig program.
One of the plots of land which belongs to the Friends of Laphroaig program.

Apart from creating a community network for its fanbase, the Friends of Laphroaig program was created primarily to protect the land on which the distillery’s water source lies. This was done due to the distillery being involved in disputes with the farmers on neighbouring land who also shared the water source with the distillery. The program proved to be a rousing success and has allowed the distillery to secure the right to use the water source indefinitely.

The distillery was then sold to Beam Inc, the makers of the Jim Beam brand of spirits. It remained under Beam’s sole control until early 2014, when Beam Inc and Suntory, the owners of Bowmore and Auchentoshan, merged to form the present company Beam Suntory. The merger, which was the largest in the spirits industry, was designed to bring two powerhouses within the spirits world together in order to challenge the established powers of Diageo and Pernod Ricard.

The distillery is one of three on Islay (the others being Bowmore and Kilchoman) which retains an operational maltings floor and malts a percentage of its barley requirement on site. Laphroaig malts 15% of its total barley requirement on site and sources the rest from the Port Ellen Maltings Facility in the village of the same name. As a rule, the distillery blends both types of barley together before proceeding to the mashing stage.

The maltings floor at Laphroaig.
The maltings floor at Laphroaig.
The tour guide showing us the kiln in which the barley is malted.
The tour guide showing us the kiln in which the barley is malted.

In terms of equipment, the distillery sports an 8.5 ton stainless steel mash tun and six stainless steel washbacks. The fermentation time for the wort is between 55 and 90 hours, depending on the type of spirit that the distillery intends to produce. The distillery also sports a total of seven stills, three of which are wash stills and the other four are spirit stills. All the stills possess ascending lyne arms which are critical in creating the signature character of Laphroaig’s whiskies.

Laphroaig's 8.5 ton stainless steel mash tun.
Laphroaig’s 8.5 ton stainless steel mash tun.
The stainless steel washbacks at Laphroaig, which have a fermantation time of between 55 and 90 hours.
The stainless steel washbacks at Laphroaig, which have a fermantation time of between 55 and 90 hours.
The underback, which holds the wash before it is transferred to the stills for distillation.
The underback, which holds the wort before it is sent into the washbacks for fermentation.

The spirit that is produced is then transferred to the barrel filling stations, where they are filled into the allocated barrels which denote the type of whisky that the distillery intends to produce. While the majority of Laphroaig’s maturation is done with the use of ex-bourbon casks sourced from a number of American distilleries, the distillery also actively uses different types of sherry casks and other casks of varying sizes in order to create the type of flavours that they desire.

The barrel filling station at Laphroaig contains a variety of different casks varying origins.
The barrel filling station at Laphroaig contains a variety of different casks of varying origins.
The ascending lyne arms of the stills at Laphroaig is critical in terms of imparting the robust flavour that the distillery requires.
The ascending lyne arms of the stills at Laphroaig is critical in terms of imparting the robust flavour that the distillery requires.

The casks are all matured either on site or at the warehouses belonging to Bowmore, depending on space constraints. When the casks have reached their desired age, they are then either bottled from the cask or diluted to 40-48% abv before being bottled. The core range of expressions from Laphroaig are as follows:

1) Laphroaig 10 Years Old

2) Laphroaig Quarter Cask

3) Laphroaig Triple Wood

4) Laphroaig An Cuan Mor

5) Laphroaig Select

6) Laphroaig QA Cask

7) Laphroaig 18 Years Old

The core range is designed with variety in mind and shows the versatility of the spirit, from the bourbon-matured standard 10 Years Old expression which polarises opinion around the world all the way to the sherry-matured Triple Wood and Select. The use of different sized casks is also apparent in the creation of the Quarter Cask, which exhibits a slightly sweeter character in contrast to the medicinal 10 Years Old expression.

The distillery also releases a cask strength version of the 10 Years Old expression. As this whisky is an annual release, the batch variation tends to be somewhat noticeable especially in terms of the abv. The current batch (006) is bottled at 58% abv and is surprisingly very good when compared side-by-side with the 40% abv 10 Years Old expression. I’d even consider that the cask strength version is a more satisfying whisky when compared to its weaker strength relative.

The travel retail exclusive bottling would be the PX Cask, which is a triple-matured Laphroaig that began life as the standard 10 Years Old expression, before being matured in quarter casks and finally matured for a matter of months in casks which previously held the sweet sherry Pedro Ximenez, or PX. This expression is my personal favourite and is currently only found in the travel retail sections of most airports. There are no plans to turn the PX Cask into a core expression, which is a shame.

During my visit to the distillery, it was a rather cold and wintery day and the ice on the roads made it rather difficult to walk freely without running the risk of slipping. Nevertheless, the distillery’s location within the bay made for some spectacular views and I was treated to a wonderful light breeze coming in from the sea.

As I had arrived a bit earlier than my allocated tour time, I took the time to explore the facility as well as the distillery shop. The distillery shop is quite well stocked with a large variety of items ranging from clothing to slate coasters and of course whisky. I particularly enjoyed the fact that visitors are allowed to sample free nips of the whiskies that formed the core range as well as the travel retail exclusives.

I sampled the cask strength version of the 10 Years Old expression and revisited the Triple Wood and PX Cask expressions for old time’s sake. The shop assistant was kind enough to offer us a plate of caramel fudge and madeira cake truffles, both of which were infused with Laphroaig and were stunningly delicious. I must confess that I was quite liberal with my consumption of both items and definitely enjoyed them.

The tasting room at Laphroaig.
The tasting room at Laphroaig.

As I was a Friend of Laphroaig (registration is free and can be done so here: https://www.laphroaig.com/friends), I was quite keen on visiting my plot of land. But as the weather was quite frosty, I decided against it and preferred to stay within the warm confines of the distillery store. I then proceeded to print out my Friend of Laphroaig details and presented it to the shop assistant, who promptly gifted me with a miniature bottle of the 10 Years Old expression that made up my land rent.

The standard tour at Laphroaig costs £6, but the fee is waived for Friends of Laphroaig members. Considering that it is free to sign up, it is definitely worth it. I proceeded for my scheduled tour, which was informative as well as interesting to say the least. The tour ended at the warehouse closest to the shoreline (as seen in the image at the top of this post), where I was shown the various types of casks that the distillery used for maturation. I was also given a glimpse into the dunnage warehouse, which housed the filled casks of whisky. The smells wafting from the warehouse were invitingly intoxicating and I spent a good ten minutes just standing there and inhaling the aromas.

The casks within the warehouse.
The casks within the warehouse.

After my tour was over, I proceeded back to the distillery store for my premium tasting session (£14) at the adjacent room. The tasting session comprised three whiskies which made up the core range, paired with a food item which was intended to bring out the various flavour nuances within the whisky. The pairings are as follows:

1) Laphroaig 10 Years Old (with Danish blue cheese)

2) Laphroaig Quarter Cask (with an orange slice)

3) Laphroaig 18 Years Old (with chocolate covered espresso beans)

The reviews for the aforementioned whiskies as well as those which I tried within the distillery store can be found at the following link: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/whisky-review-6-laphroaig/

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Laphroaig and it certainly lived up to my expectations in terms of the tour and the tastings. I definitely look forward to returning to the distillery for another round of tour and tastings and I highly recommend that whisky lovers make a trip when they are on Islay.

As we reach the final two distilleries in the series of eight, I can only say this. Stay tuned. The two remaining distilleries provided some of the most memorable experiences that I could ever take away from my time on Islay.

Until the next post, have a wonderful week ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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4 thoughts on “The Islay Series – Distillery #6: Laphroaig

  1. Such a shame that you didn’t get to visit your plot of land! The day that I went was bathed in glorious sunshine so I donned my wellies and headed out into the muddy peat bogs to find my spot. Such a good day.
    Fantastic and detailed report BTW. The history of the distillery is really interesting and not something I knew too much about. And the tour description took me right back there!
    Keep on waffling,
    Nick

    Liked by 1 person

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