Islay Distilleries #7 of 8: Laphroaig – The Uncompromising

by Oliver Klimek on May 21, 2010

Laphroaig is the most southerly of the Islay distilleries, and it is just about 1.5 miles away from Port Ellen, so it can easily be reached on foot by a nice walk along the coastal road to Ardbeg. There is no actual village called Lahproaig, the distillery is located on a small bay behind a patch of forest that separates it from the main road.

The Laphroaig single malt has the reputation of being the most extreme of all Islay whiskies, mainly because of its distinctive medicinal or plainly chemical aromas. Sometimes tasting notes even compare it to “burnt tyres” or “hospital rooms”. But this does not keep people from liking it at all, in fact Laphroaig is the second largest of the Islay distilleries and can be found worldwide from supermarkets to Duty Free shops.

As usual, I had sent an email to inquire about the possibility to talk to someone of the distillery staff. Laphroaig only provides a contact form on their website, so I had used just that. I received no reply, although I originally was rather optimistic about getting a positive response.

When I came to the distillery it turned out that my message obviously had got lost among hundreds of others. Vicky Stevens, the manager of the visitor centre, apologized and offered to answer my questions anyway. Apart from that, I took the regular visitors tour and – as I am also a Friend of Laphroaig – was handed the certificate for my square foot plot along with a miniature of the 10 yo CS.

As well as Kilchoman and Bowmore, Laphroaig also produces part of its malted barley on their own malting floors, but only 15%. The distillery has a pretty high output of spirit, so the largest part of the malt is bought from Port Ellen maltings.

For their mashing and fermentation vessels Laphroaig uses stainless steel, which is rather unusual, especially for the washbacks. Most distilleries are convinced that wooden washbacks give superior results because it supposedly is easier to keep a constant temperature and also because the bacetria present in the wood even after thorough cleaning are said to have a fortunate effect on the wash. But the success of their malts proves that it also works the modern way. We just don’t know if it would be even better with wooden washbacks.

In the production process there seems to be a high level of automation. Not many workers are seen on the grounds or in the buildings.

The stillhouse boasts 3 wash stills and 4 spirit sills, one of those being almost twice as big as the others for some strange reason. Looking at the stills it can be immediately noticed that the spirit stills are significantly shorter than the wash stills. Of course this means that heavier aromatics can make it into the condenser more easily.

Another distinctive feature are the slightly rising lyne arms that increases reflux as well as the constricted neck of the stills. More reflux generally means a lighter spirit while the short stills favour a heavier spirit. This seems a bit paradox but in the end this is what makes the spirit even more complex.

And there is yet another interesting production feature that might be the key to understanding what makes Laphroaig so unique. I was told that during distillation they switch from foreshot to middle cut much later than all other distilleries. Because the lighter components evaporate first this prodecure has the effect that heavy components are enriched in the final spirit. So all those light fruity and floral notes that usually come first are suppressed in Laphroaig in favour of the richer and heavier ones.

Plenty of empty casks can be seen at the distillery grounds, a closer look at them unveils a wide variety of bourbon distilleries. Laphroaig is owned by Fortune Brands which owns Jim Beam and Makers Mark as well as others, the distillery has no problems getting good casks. Only first fill casks ase used. The distillery does not only produce single malts, a fraction of their whisky is also used for blends.

The tour ended with a dram of Quarter Cask in the mini museum at the visitor centre. There is also a lounge room where the Friends of Laphroaig can enjoy their free drams they are given as lease for their square foot. The directory of all plot owners is also stored at the lounge.

Laphroaig’s bottling policy had been extremely conservative in the past. Only rather recently the Quarter Cask and the Triple Wood joined the traditional age statement range. They also deliberately refrain from experiments like wine finishes or the likes. Laphroaig’s approach is to stick with what is successful. Any deviation from this path would confuse the customers, they say.

The reason why the 15 yo was replaced by the new 18 yo was that the distillery thought the age gap to the 25yo was too large and that the smoother flavour profile of the 15yo was regarded as rather un-typical for Laphroaig. Well, I liked it very much, and so did Prince Charles who – as we all know – awarded a Royal Warrant to the distillery. Let’s just hope he will not feel inclined to withdraw it again, now that he has been deprived of his favourite dram.

Friends of Laphroaig can mark their plots with a little flag

The distillery buildings with some palm trees

Gotcha!

Bourbon Barrels

The malting floor

The grill of the kiln

Stainless steel mash tun

Stainless steel washback

The wash stills and two of the spirit stills

The bigger spirit still

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff H. May 21, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Wonderful insights into the distillery setup, processes and bottling range. The whole series is fantastic, Oliver. I love your pictures, too. They should plop all of this right into the Malt Whisky Yearbook. :-)

Cheers,
Jeff

Reply

Oliver Klimek May 21, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Thank you for the compliments, Jeff. Actually I had to tweak the pictures quite a bit because lighting was war from optimum in the distillery buildings.

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