"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Laphroaig Distillery, Islay

After visiting Ardbeg and Lagavulin on their first full day on Islay, Barnard’s party returned to the White Hart Inn at Port Ellen for a second and final night.  The following day they visited Laphroaig and Port Ellen Distilleries before travelling to new accommodation at the Bridgend Hotel, a journey recorded in his report on Bowmore Distillery.  My stay at Bridgend began after visiting Lagavulin and but I will keep these reports in the same order as Barnard and discuss the next two distilleries first.


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.
Laphroaig had by far the smallest production volume of any distillery visited by Barnard up to that time and was then the smallest on Islay, producing only 23,000 gallons (105,000 litres) p.a.  Barnard provides only one short paragraph describing the actual distillery workings, and none of his usual measurements or volumes are provided.  Perhaps after all the detail he provided for Ardbeg and Lagavulin he didn’t feel the need to do so again for a much smaller distillery.

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











Ciara gave me more of an insight into the peat.  It is normally cut by hand in spring and it then takes a few months to dry, but not left to dry completely so that more smoke is produced.  The peat used at Laphroaig is light in colour and still contains some vegetable matter that has not decomposed, a reflection of the ‘top cut’ that is more often used in distilleries.  All the malt used at Laphroaig is peated to 45-50ppm.  There are now two kilns with pagoda roofs and I was able to see the full drying process in action for the first time on my journey.

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











The current still house is relatively new and stands on ground once used as a warehouse, the wash now being pumped across the courtyard, whereas when Barnard visited the still house was integral to the other buildings and the two stills had outside worm tubs.  There are now 3 tall wash stills each with a capacity of 10,500 litres and four spirit stills, one at 9,400 and three at 4,700 litres each.  The lyne arms on each of the seven stills are angled upwards at 15-20% to help release only the lighter vapours into the condensers; the full smoky, peaty character of the spirit being given a lighter body in the process as the heavier oils fall back into the still.

Stills with rising lyne arms
The spirit run here is 5-5 ½ hours and the 2 ½ hour middle cut can be determined as much by the first hints of smoky aromas coming through as it can by the more mundane measuring of abv.  The aromas are delightful just standing beside the spirit safe, which I happily did for some time while talking with the stillman, and with no other guests on the tour I don’t think Ciara minded either.

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
The casks are stored in seven warehouses on site, now all full, and also in spare capacity at Ardbeg and some at Dumbarton.  Now, there is a long running argument about how much the location of a maturing cask contributes to the whisky.  Barnard recounts that “the Distillers maintain that the sea air has no effect whatever on the Whisky”.  In contrast, legendary Laphroaig Managers Bessie Williamson and Iain Henderson both thought that it did make a difference - the seaweed beside the warehouses and the wet, blustery weather on Islay contributing significantly to the final character.

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.

Museum exhibit
Laphroaig has a history as rich as the character of its whisky and a timeline of events is on the chronology section of their website.  A few highlights since Barnard’s time include the pioneering use of bourbon casks for maturation in the 1920s; sale of Laphroaig in America during prohibition, the then Manager Ian Hunter convincing the authorities that the iodine/seaweed flavour indicated ‘medicinal’ qualities; in Ian’s will he left the distillery to his then secretary Bessie Williamson who remained at Laphroaig for over 40 years; in 1994 a Royal Warrant was granted by Prince Charles, and while other blenders and bottlers hold Warrants, Laphroaig remains the only Single Malt to have one.

Friends of Laphroaig lounge
After the tour we returned to the visitor centre where there is a museum exhibition and a very comfortable lounge dedicated to the ‘Friends of Laphroaig’.  This was a venture established in 1994 which now boasts over 340,000 friends worldwide.  The concept is brilliant and also a lot of fun.  Become a friend and you will be allocated a lifetime lease of one square foot of prime Islay land not far from the distillery.  Laphroaig will pay you a dram on each visit as rent for your plot and you can even borrow some wellies, pace out the field and plant a flag on the spot which you believe to be your own piece of heaven.  I had visited Laphroaig once before on an impromptu stop with a large group from Edinburgh University, and even though we didn’t have time for the tour we were made to feel extremely welcome at the centre and our flag placing adventure turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Pacing out our plots

Like Malt Mill distillery at Lagavulin, Laphroaig was also home to another distillery at one time, called Ardenistle.  This was part of another dispute with people trying to cash in on Laphroaig’s good name which, like Malt Mill, eventually failed and the buildings were incorporated into the Laphroaig we know today.  Also known at one time as just Islay Distillery it had, in any case, come and gone long before Barnard visited.

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.