So after reluctantly leaving Ardbeg we made the short jaunt over to Laphroaig. It was fitting that we should be visiting this legendary distillery as my love for all things whisky started with a Laphroaig. It all began when an Englishman, an Irishman and two Scotches met in a bar in Edinburgh…
The Englishman was my very good friend Chris Melling, the Irishman was myself, and the pair of Scotches were in fact two rather large glasses of Laphroaig 10 year old. Up to that point I had never had smoky single malt and upon tasting it I was wondering if my new found friend was in fact trying to poison me! But after he explained where it came from and why it tasted as it did, I was hooked. I began to appreciate the incredible flavors of smoke, seaweed and band aid all vying for my attention. And I have never looked back.
So we arrived at the distillery for our tour which was scheduled to begin at 3:00pm. The clock ticked by – Islay is in a different time zone to the rest of Scotland! Twenty minutes later though the tour began and we were off.
What was immediately recognizable about Laphroaig was that even though it is owned by the mighty Beam Global Corporation (makers of Jim Beam etc) who thrives on corporate culture with standardized processes etc, the distillery has still managed to keep much of its old time charm.
Evidence of this could be found on the second floor of the malting house. When virtually every distillery in Scotland has outsourced the malting aspect of production, Laphroaig has kept some of its production in house. Some people argue that this old traditional method is just for the tourists benefit but it is anything but. The distillery does 15% of its total production on-site, with the other 85% coming from the local Port Ellen malting. But they are still using implements like the rake above which would not be out of place one hundred years ago.
I realize that you can’t see much in the picture above (we couldn’t either), but this is the kiln where the wet malt is spread out on the floor to allow the smoke from the peat fires below permeate. We had the opportunity to walk into the room and breathe in the dense smoke. After having done that you soon realize just where Scotch gets its unique character from. Thirty seconds and my clothes were stinking. It was like walking into a cigar bar on a Saturday night!
After leaving the malt behind we went downstairs to see the actual kilns. These are the fires that generate the smoke that in turns dries the malt. What is amazing is that there is not a machine in sight. Everything is done by hand. That whole mountain of dried peat that you see will eventually end up in the fire. It is a constant job to keep the fires stoked. I think that is why they like to see the tourists coming so that everybody can have a go at it. Here you see our lovely photographer who was making short work of the pile with her bright blue shovel!
When you see the quantity of whisky that is produced at Laphroaig (Laphroaig is the largest producer on Islay) then you realize that in order to be consistent they need some form of computerization. However we weren’t expecting to see a bank of computers that would be right at home in NASA!
From there we moved into the still house which is the largest that I have ever seen. The noise alone as we walked in the door was deafening and the heat? Don’t talk to me about the heat; it had to be well over 100F. All seven stills were humming their tune as they converted liquid into vapor only to be condensed and then re-distilled. It was magical to see the spirit running through the banks of spirit safes at the back of the stills.
We finished up the tour with some very generous pours of different Laphroaig expressions and subsequently donned our green wellies (provided by the distillery) and headed for the ‘Friends of Laphroaig’ plot, located on the other side of the distillery. The idea behind the friend society is that when you join, the distillery will send you a map which indicates where your plot is located. You will also receive a wee dram (free whisky folks!) along with a flag from your country of origin. Then all you have to do is locate your plot with the given co-ordinates. Easier said than done!
What they fail to tell you is that the plot is located in the middle of a quagmire, but that’s the Scottish sense of humor for you!
Join us next week as we make our final distillery visit to the beautiful Isle of Arran Distillery.