In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Laphroaig distillery on the island of Islay.
Near the very beginning of a visit to the Laphroaig distillery, you come across a roomful of wellies, aka rain boots, neatly arranged in cubby holes. On a nearby wall, a box hold post-it note sized flags of various countries, a veritable United Nations of whisky loving countries. This is a sight not seen on any other distillery tour you’ve ever taken–what on earth is going on here?
The boots and flags are reserved for members of a special club. Friends of Laphroaig members have the rights to one square foot of land on Islay–land that protects Laphroaig’s access to the water source flowing from central Islay towards the distillery on the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. Members who journey to Islay and to Laphroaig have the unique opportunity to visit their assigned plot of land and mark it with the flag of their homeland. The plots lay in an often muddy field near the distillery, thus the wellies. Becoming a Friends of Laphroaig member is as simple as purchasing a bottle and entering the unique six digit code accompanying it into Laphroaig’s online registry. Marketing gimmick? Sure. But is it a great story? Absolutely!
Laphroaig Distillery Background
Like its neighbor Lagavulin just down the road, Laphroaig’s official start date is in the second decade of the 1820s. In the early years of their existence, the two distilleries had a business relationship that eventually went sour, ending in a feud. Water supplies were blocked, and copy-cat distilleries were built, but by the mid twentieth century, the fuss had been resolved. Both distilleries have been churning out the canonical, smoky, peated whisky beloved by aficionados across the globe ever since.
In 1994, Laphroaig was granted a royal warrant by HRH Prince Charles, making it the only Scotch whisky distillery with said warrant, indicating they supply goods to the British crown and are allowed to display the royal arms as a result. In 2005, the brand was part of a complex, multi-part deal involving Allied Domecq, Pernod Ricard, and Fortune brands. When the dust settled, Laphroaig was part of the Jim Beam portfolio. The subsequent takeover of Beam by the Japanese company Suntory Holdings in 2014 now makes Laphroaig one of the flagship brands of Suntory, alongside household names like Bowmore, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Yamazaki.
We arrive at Laphroaig on a blustery, rainy afternoon in January that not so coincidentally was my fiftieth birthday. My friend Dave Kearns who works for Beam Suntory had set up our visit: A full-on distillery tour followed by a premium tasting session. The walk from the parking lot to the visitor’s center meanders through picturesque paths alongside auxiliary buildings—when not being buffeted by gale-force winds (and Mrs. Wonk chasing her hat across the parking lot). We come across a wall covered in glazed ceramic tiles, each expressing a particular opinion expressed by ordinary people during the brand’s recent Opinions Welcome campaign. My personal favorite: “Aged in boots of a warrior on the battlefield too long. Filtered through cigars. Confident. Humble.”
Tours start in the visitor’s center, the largest and most elaborate of any distillery we visited on Islay. A small museum presents the history of Laphroaig in pictures and serves as the launching point for the rest of the visit. Adjacent to the museum is the room with the wellies in assorted sizes, all neatly arranged in cubicles, waiting for the next visitor to use them to traipse through the wetlands across the road from the distillery. (Sadly because of the storm and the very early winter sunset, we were out of time for this adventure—but it’s first on our list for our next visit.)
Laphroaig is one of the few Scottish single malt distilleries that still floor malts a portion of the barley they use. We were lucky to see a recently spread floor of malt, six inches deep or so, freshly watered and starting to germinate. Our guide Tom had us walk out a bit into the malt and scoop up a handful for closer examination. Around the room are wooden shovels, rakes, and power tools used to help evenly distribute and churn the germinating barley. Particularly interesting was a wide scoop that’s pulled from one side of the room to the other via a motor and cable, dragging large amount of barley in front of it.
Upstairs from the malting floor is the drying room. A small grain elevator transports the damp malt up into this area. (We opted to take the stairs rather than this particular elevator.) Peeking my head through the drying room door, I see the floor covered with malt, and dense yellowish brown smoke fills the room. The smell of freshly burned peat is nearly overwhelming – manna for some in our group, not so much for others.
The floor that the malt rests on is punctured with small slots, the openings narrower than a barley kernel. Underneath the drying floor at ground level is a stone oven of sorts, filled with smoldering peat. Records indicate it was built in 1840. The main firebox is about the size of a large household dishwasher. The smoke rises from the oven box and travels up a reverse funnel, narrow to wide, which spreads the smoke before it begins to seep through the slots in the drying floor above. The freshly cut peat chunks are harvested by hand and are about the size of a brick. Peat that’s soon to go into the oven is kept on the floor in a pile nearby. Metal doors around the oven are opened and closed as necessary to control the rate of burn, which honestly was much less intense than I would have expected. Smoke is the goal here, rather than intense heat.
Heading out the doors of the malting area, we caught good glimpse of the iconic shore-hugging white building with Laphroaig painted in black letters on its side—if you approach Islay via the Port Ellen ferry, this is a sure sign you’re headed in the right direction.
Mashing and Fermenting
A short walk brings you to the mash house. Unlike some mash tuns at other distilleries, Laphroaig’s has no windows to allow a look inside. It’s a hulking beast of a vessel. If not for the various pipes plunging into it from all directions, it could easily pass for a bad 1950s sci-fi movie spaceship.
Near the mash tun is the operator console for monitoring and controlling the mashing process. I was quite surprised at how old-school the console was. Many distilleries these days are mostly controlled by PCs with big banks of monitors. Lagavulin, just down the street, is one such example. Laphroaig’s, on the other hand, seems to eschew PCs–or at least we couldn’t spot one. The main control panel appeared like it was built in the 1980s, with oversized buttons, rotary dials, LED lamps, and dedicated digit display modules. The only concession to modernity is a 14-inch LCD display, obviously grafted on after the fact. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose.
Steps away from the mash tun and fermenter are at least five stainless steel washbacks. While many distilleries use the traditional wooden washbacks for fermenting, Laphroaig goes all metal, a critical departure from its sister distillery Bowmore up the coast. Tom opened one of the washbacks and dunked in a small tube, called a copper dog, to pull out a sample of nearly finished distiller’s beer. As with our experience at Lagavulin earlier in the day, I was okay with the flavor, but wouldn’t chose it over a good Hefeweizen. Mrs. Wonk: Not a fan.
Although I wonk out over all aspects of a distillery visit, when I sense we’re done with the washbacks, my heart beats faster and anticipation rapidly rises for what comes next: The still house. The beating heart of any distillery. This is where art, craftsmanship, chemistry, and engineering come together to create magic. The magnificent, gleaming copper vessels paired up and aligned in neat rows are visually impressive to anyone, but even more so if you truly understand what happens within. The stills are where heat and beer are violently thrown together, and newborn whisky emerges.
From the first day I learned of Laphroaig, one of my bucket list items has been seeing their stills, up close and personal. Without reservation, they were everything I’d imagined them to be. We enter the long still room at ground level. A raised platform, about four feet high, runs the length of the room, bisecting the main body of the still. From this platform, distillers have easy access to the hatch doors. At first, Tom keeps us at ground level while he explains the distillation process. I only half pay attention as I scamper around trying to get the best photos possible from ground level, figuring this was as close as we’d get, much like at Lagavulin earlier in the day. To my great joy, we eventually ascend the stairs and are able to get as close as we dared. The intense heat emanating from them viscerally warns us to keep a safe distance.
The neck of the stills ends in an upward angled lyne arm feeding into a condenser tube behind the pot. From the platform we could walk around to inspect all the pieces up close, as well as check out the gleaming spirits safe. One interesting twist with Laphroaig’s stills is that they’re not all paired up like at most single malt distilleries: one wash still, one column still. Instead, Laphroaig has three wash stills (10,400 liters) and four spirits stills, three of which hold 4,700 liters. The fourth and newest spirits still is twice the size of the other three and is fed from the combined output of two wash stills. Surrounding the stills are other essential still house items like the feints receivers and spent lees tanks. For the non-distillation nerds, these tanks are essentially where distillation waste products go.
Reluctantly departing the still house, we come to a barn storing the majority of the on-site peat as well as barrels in various states of repair. We learned that while Laphroaig has a handful of barrel-aging warehouses on Islay, a large amount of the fresh distillate is sent to the Scottish mainland for aging. The barrels used for aging Laphroaig are mostly ex-bourbon, primarily from other Beam Suntory brands like Maker’s Mark.
Near the peat barn is the barrel filling room, where casks are hand-filled with newly distilled whisky. A hose mounted to a flexible arm ends in a nozzle that the operator guides into the barrel’s bunghole. A seriously old-school mechanical meter ticks off the count of liters of whisky flowing into the barrel. Once filled, the operator pounds in a wooden stopper, the bung, with a mallet—and then on to the next barrel.
Our distillery tour ends at one of the on-site stone-walled dunnage warehouses. Inside the warehouse, a gate prevents us from getting too close to the presumably priceless barrels on the other side, stacked only three rows high. It’s said that the whisky in these casks, stored in warehouses steps from the salty ocean, mellow differently and taken on more salt and iodine notes than casks aged on the mainland. Just on the other side of the gate, it’s obvious that care was taken to position a few barrels and tools in a Disney-like display – calculatingly disarrayed to give the impression of a scene from the past, frozen in time.
Back in the visitor’s center, our remaining time at Laphroaig was spent enjoying a glorious tasting session. In front of each lucky taster are five different unlabeled expressions in small tasting glasses. Over the course of 90 minutes, our small group sat around a table and discussed each sample extensively before the tasting facilitator revealed exactly what we were drinking. Some were high-end, limited release expressions, others as yet unreleased–all were exceptional. The pours of each sample were way too generous to safely consume during the tasting. However, as is custom in Scotland, we were provided with small bottles and labels so as to take the unconsumed portion home to enjoy later. As I write this, I still have a few bottles awaiting an ideal evening to enjoy them and travel back to Islay in my mind’s eye. Plus, I now have bottles of Laphroaig 15 and 21 that I picked up at the distillery.
Everything about our Laphroaig visit was magical, a perfect way to celebrate my fiftieth. Even the sun made a surprise guest appearance near the end of the day, enabling dramatic photos of the building and the setting sun. Nearly every aspect of the whisky making process is covered on the tour, and at the right level of detail for the average person interested enough to visit. It’s obvious that the visitor experience is well thought out and executed, and Laphroaig seems better equipped to handle larger crowds than other Islay distilleries. If you only go to one distillery on the island–and really that would be a tragedy, since there are three within walking distance of each other–Laphroaig is a worthy choice.