Laphroaig distillery is the closest of the three south coasters to Port Ellen, all of which share some similarities - whitewashed buildings lying beside a rocky shore; the distillery name in bold black letters facing to sea; pagoda topped kiln rooms; old maltings converted to visitor centres. The distillery translates their name as ‘The beautiful hollow by the broad bay’ continuing a geographical theme present in the other names as well. The distillery was established in 1815 by brothers Donald and Alexander Johnston; D Johnston & Co is the name still listed as the owners today, albeit as part of the larger group Beam Global.
Barnard notes that “at a distance the establishment looked like a cluster of ruins, but on nearer inspection we found it to be a distillery of a very old fashioned type…”. The buildings have changed much since then and comparing layout plans from the 19th century to the current layout shows a series of changes over time, but the modern developments sit alongside, and not overwhelming the traditional practices that are cherished here.
Three times he compares Laphroaig to Lagavulin, stating that like Lagavulin it “is built on the margin of the sea”; when his one paragraph on the workings lists the various buildings present he declares them to be “all similar to Lagavulin, only on a smaller scale”; yet when comparing the whisky he does ascertain that “although situated within a short distance of one another, each produce whisky of a distinct and varied type” without providing any detail as to why that may be.
Much of Barnard’s report was on matters affecting distilling in general, noting that “distilling of Whisky is greatly aided by circumstances that cannot be accounted for...largely influenced by accidents of locality, water and position”, but he provides very little information on Laphroaig Distillery specifically. Fear not - I was the only person on the tour that morning so I had Ciara MacTaggart all to myself to answer my awkward questions on a very special tour.
We began at the maltings where there were once three malting floors, one of which has now been converted into the visitor centre. Laphroaig is one of the few remaining distilleries still malting barley with around 20% of their requirement done here, the remainder coming from Port Ellen. The barley lies on the floor of the loft for 5-6 days before 17 hours of peat drying followed by 19 hours of hot air, peat only having been used in Barnard’s time.
|Newly fired peat|
|Peat reek rising through the malt|
From once being the smallest licensed distillery on Islay, Laphroaig now has the second highest annual output at around 2.6m litres. The water still comes from “a pretty little burn…of excellent quality” that runs through the grounds via the distillery lade, although last summer’s drought almost led to it not running anywhere. The stainless steel Lauter mash tun that feeds the washbacks is enormous. The six washbacks at Laphroaig are now made from stainless steel, each holding 53,000 litres and fermenting for 55 hours to an abv of 8%.
|Lauter Mash Tun|
|Stainless steel washbacks|
|Stills with rising lyne arms|
I was eventually dragged away to look at some empty casks (humph!) which Ciara was keen to tell me about. I guess she is used to the heady aromas and can appreciate them on a regular basis. The casks now used at Laphroaig mainly come from Makers Mark bourbon distillery in Kentucky, both distilleries being owned by the same parent company. The casks are good quality with not much loss to the angels (probably all hovering around that spirit safe) and Laphroaig only uses them once. They are charred in America before being shipped in one piece to Islay. The charring process is done on a scale of 1 to 4 with Laphroaig opting for a significant level 3 on this scale.
|Modern bar codes beside traditional stencils|
In another throwback to tradition Laphroaig started to produce a Quarter Cask expression of their whisky in 2004. This is a resurrection of an old method of maturing whisky in smaller casks which were used before transport became easier, and some say to make them easier to hide from the Excise. Now they take whisky from standard casks after between 5 to 11 years maturation and transfer it into Quarter Casks holding around 120 litres to boost the maturation and to allow more wood interaction. This final maturation of around 7 months takes place in Warehouse No1, a dunnage warehouse right by the shore.
|Friends of Laphroaig lounge|
|Pacing out our plots|
For all the similarities to other distilleries that Barnard alluded to, and that Malt Mill and Ardenistle tried to copy, Laphroaig has always remained very much in a class of its own. The full flavoured peat smokiness of a definitive Islay style whisky, a Royal Warrant, experimentation without losing the character of the whisky and avoiding the diverse and often desperate ‘finishes’ that have become common elsewhere - modern and traditional sit easily together here at a distillery that is warm, welcoming and would like to have you as their Friend.