Monday, December 29, 2014

Distillery visit - Laphroaig

Laphroaig (pronounced la-froyg) is one of the most famous names in the world of Scotch whisky and is known for its very peaty and smoky style of single malt.  In fact the 10 years old expression is the biggest selling malt in this category and helps put Laphroaig in ninth place for total sales in 2013*. The name is derived from the Gaelic meaning 'beautiful hollow by the broad bay'.  Laphroaig was one of the whiskies that got us in to the peaty flavour, so Matt C was delighted when he recently got invited for a special tour as part of Beam Suntory's Peated Malts of Distinction launch.

The distillery is located on the southern shore of the the famous whisky island of Islay and is a couple of miles drive east from the village of Port Ellen.  It is the first of three famous distilleries that you get to that are located on the south coast, with Lagavulin being next and finally Ardbeg.  The moment that you arrive at Laphroaig, you get the 'sense of terroir' more than almost any other distillery that we have visited.  A blast of salt, seaweed and kiln smoke welcomes you as you step out of your vehicle and look across the 'broad bay'.

The jetty and 'broad bay'

Laphroaig was founded in 1810 by two brothers, Alexander and Donald Johnson, although production did not officially begin until 1815 and it is this date is marked on all labels. Celebrations are planned for next year when the 200th anniversary is marked.  The distillery has just been taken over by the Japanese drinks giant Suntory. The previous owners to this were Beam Global and it now operates under the new Beam Suntory banner.

Did you know?
A key figure in the history of Laphroaig is Bessie Williamson, known as 'the original woman of whisky'.  She started working at the distillery in 1934 as a secretary and went on to be PA to owner Ian Hunter.  On Hunter's death in 1954, and with no natural successor, control passed to Williamson who became Managing Director.  It makes her the first woman to own and manage a Scottish distillery in the 20th century.  She pioneered the promotion of single malts, especially Laphroaig, in the 1960s.  Bessie retired in 1972 and died in 1982.

The tour began in the visitor centre, which looks out on the bay that Laphroaig stands on.  Vicky Stevens, our guide and Visitor Centre Manager, told a few impressive and detailed statistics - over 23,000 people visit the distillery each year and last year these came from 53 countries.  A third came from the UK, a third from Germany and Sweden combined and the remaining third from the rest of the world.

The visitor centre

The visitor centre includes a shop, museum and a lounge for Friends of Laphroaig members.  Friends of Laphroaig (or FoL for short) is a club for fans of Laphroaig and was the first such club for a whisky brand when it was founded in 1994.  Many other brands have followed the format since but Laphroaig continues to lead the way with over 630,000 members.  Each member also get a square foot of peat bog across the road from the distillery, which they are entitled to visit.  To join Friends of Laphroaig - click here.

The malting floor

Next was a visit to the floor maltings.  Laphroaig is one of the few distilleries in Scotland to still do some of its own malting, the process where the starch in barley is turned in to sugars that can be used in the production of alcohol, in the traditional way.  We have only seen this at Balvenie before.  Laphroaig produce 15% of their total malt usage on the floors that have been used for nearly 200 years, with the other 85% coming from the commercial maltings of Port Ellen on Islay and Port Gordon on the mainland.

The top of the steeping tanks

Firstly we climbed to the very top of the building and got to see the two large tanks where the barley is soaked in cold water.  Each of these hold seven tonnes of barley and this is steeped in rain water to raise the moisture level in the grain from about 10% up to around 40%.  The water is then drained away and the barley, which is then termed as 'green malt', is emptied on to the floor below and spread evenly across it to a depth of about six inches.  The increased moisture then tricks the barley in to growing and this starts to break the starch down in to sugar.

Underneath the steeping tanks

The main malting floor at Laphroaig has four 'lanes' and each 'lane' contains one seven tonne batch of barley at a different stage of the malting process.  A total of 28 tonnes of malt is produced each week.  As the barley begins to grow it has to be regularly turned every four hours.  This is for two main reasons - to stop the rootlets knitting together and to stop it getting too warm.  The malt must be kept below 17ºC to ensure that it develops correctly.  Traditionally the grain was turned by hand using a flat shovel but it is now done using a rake, which is pulled by a distillery worker.

A malting rake

Learning about the traditional malting process and seeing it all spread out across the entire huge floor space was fascinating and gave a real sense of harking back to a bygone era.  It was great to get to feel the grain at different stages and to walk across it was a treat.  The experience left one to imagine how tough the job of turning it would have been.  The next stage for us and the malt was to visit the kiln.

The kiln is the part of the process that introduces Laphroaig's distinctive peaty characteristic.  A batch of malt is loaded on to a mesh floor inside the kiln and a fire is lit underneath it.  Dried peat is then added to the fire and this produces a thick acrid smoke that rises through the mesh floor and the permeates the husks of the grain.  The smokiness is then locked in and remains through the remainder of the whisky making process and beyond.

The kiln door

The malt is exposed to the peat smoke for 17 hours and this ensures that the right levels of phenols, the chemical compounds in the smoke that give the distinctive aromas and flavours, are imparted.  This smoke is cold so as not to dry out the malt too much.  The malt is is then dried with hot air at 70ºC for a further 17 hours to bring the moisture back down to around 5%, which is the level required for it to be milled.  The final specification of the malt is 45 PPM (Phenol Parts per Million) and Laphroaig's own malt is then blended with that brought in from elsewhere to ensure consistency.

Inside the kiln

Then came a real treat - we were allowed to enter the kiln and walk on the bed of malt as the peat smoke rose through it.  This felt like a 'once in a lifetime' experience and the group of experienced whisky journalists and bloggers were hypnotised by the scene of swirling acrid smoke that surrounded them.  The smell of the peat was intense and caught in the nostrils and clothes.  All too quickly it was over and time to move on.  Please note - this is not part of any regular tour of the distillery.

The Porteus mill

After the malting floor and the heady experience in the kiln, the remainder of the tour returned to a more regular feel.  The Porteus mill, which is jammed in a tiny room between the malting facilities and the mashing and fermentation area,  grinds the malt to the correct specification.  The mill contains two pairs of rollers - the top two crack the husks of the grain and the bottom two mill it in to grist.

The room where the mashing and fermentation parts of the production process took place were probably the least aesthetic and least romantic part of the distillery.  The stainless steel equipment was installed in the 1980s and gave the area a functional and slightly dated feel.  The mashtun holds 5.5 tonnes of grist and the barley sugars are extracted with the addition of warm water.  This is rain water that comes from the local Loch Kilbride, which is in the hills about three miles behind Laphroaig.

The mashtun and underback

There are four fermentation washbacks and these hold 53,000 litres each.  Two mashes go in to each washback and liquid yeast is then added.  This begins the process where the dissolved sugars are converted to alcohol.  Laphroaig has a relatively short fermentation period of 52 hours and by this time the resulting wash has an alcoholic strength of 8.5% ABV.  We sampled this and it tasted like a warm smoky weißbeer.  It was not very pleasant, if honest.

The stills

The next stage of the whisky making process and our tour was the impressive still house.  This was home to seven stills, which sat proudly in a regimented line.  These stills produce 3.4 million litres of new make spirit per year.  Laphroaig has three wash stills, where the first distillation takes place, and these have a capacity of 10,400 litres.  There are also four smaller spirit stills (pictured in the foreground of the image above) where the second final distillation happens.  They have a capacity of 4,700 litres.

A spirit still and lyne arm

It was interesting to note that the lyne arms of the stills had a pronounced upward angle.  The lyne arm is where the alcohol vapours travel towards the condenser.  This angle encourages the vapours that condense back to a liquid early to flow back down in to the spirit still and be re-distilled.  This is called reflux.  The result of this is a lighter body to the final spirit.

At Laphroaig the new make spirit is predominantly filled to ex-bourbon casks.  These are sourced mainly from the Jim Beam and Maker's Mark distilleries in the American state of Kentucky, both of which are owned by Beam Suntory.  These casks are shipped over whole and then broken down and rebuilt by The Speyside Cooperage on the mainland.  They are then returned to Laphroaig, where they get filled at the distillery.  At the time of visiting at the beginning of October, they had filled just over 4,700 casks this year to date.

The filling store

There is space for half of the casks to mature on site in eight warehouses (three traditional dunnage, including the famous whitewashed one that faces out to sea, and five modern racked) and the remainder is matured on the mainland. The success of Laphroaig determines that approximately 60-65% of all matured whisky goes towards the single malt range, with the remaining percentage being used in blends.

There are currently 10 permanent expressions in the current range of Laphroaig (seven in domestic retail and three in travel retail) and these are joined by occasional limited edition variants such as the popular Cairdeas, which is bottled annually for the Islay Festival.  We were treated to an in-depth tasting of four whiskies - Select, Quarter Cask, 18 years old and Cairdeas 2014 Edition - with John Campbell, the Laphroaig Distillery Manager.

Our tasting line up

One final and unexpected treat was trip away from the distillery to the peat bog owned by Laphroaig.  They are the only of the Islay distilleries to harvest peat for their own use.  The peat was the traditional fuel source on Islay and the other Hebridean islands and was cut in the Spring and left to dry over the Summer.  It was then used in Autumn and Winter to heat homes.  On Islay peat is still used to impart the smoky flavour that its whiskies are famous for.

The peat bog

The Laphroaig peat bog that we visited was next to the road between the village of Port Ellen and the airport.  They cut the peat in rows and pile up the resulting bricks to dry.  We were supposed to have a go, but a missing peat cutting tool put an end to that.  All of Laphroaig's peat is cut by hand by skilled workers.  The finale to our visit was to share a dram of the classic Laphroaig 10 years old, which contributes to 65% of all Laphroaig sales, with Vicky.  All of those in the party had tasted it numerous times before, but all agreed that it had never tasting as good as it did in that moment on that windswept peat bog ...


Distillery tour information
The distillery is open all year to visitors, although there are restrictions to opening hours and the number of tours per day during winter and holiday periods.  The regular tour costs £6 per person and lasts approximately one hour.  If you are a Friend of Laphroaig, then you can also visit your plot of land over the road from the distillery.  This is free of charge and is self guided.

There are also a 'Luxury Visit Program', which includes the 'Flavour Tasting' for £14 (this pairs three whiskies with food), the 'Premium Tasting' for £25 (this is a tutored tasting with four whiskies), the 'Distillers Wares' tour for £52 (this includes sampling three casks in the warehouse and then bottling your favourite) and the 'Water to Whisky Experience' for £82 (this includes a hike to the distillery's water source, a full tour plus the warehouse sampling and bottling experience).  Each of these have limited spaces and booking is advised.  

To find more information about any of the tours or experiences, or to book a place - please visit

* Source The IWSR Report 2014 via The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2015.


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