I signed up for the last available Distillers Wares tour first thing Sunday morning. However two days before that I found myself driving right past the visitor parking lot and parking right outside of the of the Mash House after the distillery had closed to the public for the day. An acquaintance was able to get my wife and I a private tour of the distillery. I had already paid for the tour and tasting online, but who turns down a private tour? Plus the biggest draw of the official tour is the fact that it includes a valinch of your very own 20cl bottle straight from the cask of your choosing for you to take home.
For once it stopped raining and we met our new friend, who greets us with Canadian flags. First, we are taken to the malting floors and told about our friend’s history at the distillery and how Laphroaig operates around the clock. I got a chance to turn the barley with the big shovel and the plough like an instrument. It was pretty cool to be able to do this and to learn that in the old days the men who did this would have massive biceps and shoulder muscles, leading to the term “Monkey Shoulder”.
Turning the barley while it malts is all in service of keeping it within the ideal temperature band for malting: Too cold and it doesn’t malt; too hot and it rots. The only other way to keep it cool is to open one of the many windows. All in all, it’s a very manual process.
If you’re still reading I want you to know that I left a little piece of me on that malting floor and so in a few years from now, just know that juice that I helped to create may be in you. If it makes you feel any better, every man who works at the distillery has put themselves into your drinks. (Editor’s Note: As in sweat, he didn’t lose a finger)
After that we went down to the kiln and saw the big pile of peat used to smoke the malted barley, I was told I could have as much peat as I wanted to take home. Luckily they were joking before I filled my pockets. From there we passed the mill and up to the mash house. Once ground it’s added to hot water (apparently this is a process very similar to making tea where the milled barley is steeped in hot water) and you now have wort. The wort is piped to one of the many stainless steel mash tuns and the yeast extract. Over many hours the yeast does it’s thing and turns the wort into a mash, which is basically just a strong peated/smoked beer. This beer rings in around 8% abv. Our friend got a cup attached to a metal chain and dropped it into the mash tun to get me some of the mash, and I got to drink as much of this warm smoked beer as I wanted to. It was actually really good and I would have loved to have that cold.
On to the Still House where our friend explained how the mash is turned to low wine and from there the 3 stages (feint, foreshot, and spirit run) that is carefully watched over when the low wine is turned into spirit. I got to taste a little bit of low wine and it is pretty strong considering that it gets distilled again. Our private tour was over at that point and I was speechless and the kindness and generosity of our new friend. I’ve always really liked Laphroaig but this day I left with it firmly lodged in my heart and new experience I will never forget.
I couldn’t leave without asking a lot of questions and apparently, a big favourite Laphroaig release of our friend’s is the Portwood Cairdeas. So if this is also your favourite, he wanted you to know that you are in good company and have good tastes.
The formal tour was a great addition to the private tour because it added a bit more of the marketing spiel. Did you know that even with Laphroaig operating around the clock to malt and drying their own barley, this still only is able to produce 15% of the total barely used? The big reason it’s done, apart from the craftsmanship angle, is that Laphroaig dries their malted barley longer than the commercial malters are willing to do. This gives Laphroaig its signature medicinal peat and a big reason why they will always malt and dry their own barley.
After going through pretty much the same route as the earlier tour, we got to the warehouse to taste and select which cask we would bottle. I ended up choosing the 7-year-old that was matured exclusively in first fill Oloroso. It was hard to choose frankly because all three casks were so unique, and each cask was pretty evenly selected among our tour group. On top of the bottle you valinch yourself, you got to keep the little nosing glass and got everything in a nice presentation box which was a very nice touch. Here are my notes from the three casks, would you have chosen something different?
Cask 000125 (14-Year-Old, distilled in 2004) First aged in a refill sherry cask, then into a Quarter Cask, and finally finished in a first fill bourbon cask – 51.3%
Nose: Medicinal smoke, salted candied bacon, cherry syrup, sea air, Laphroaig kiln air (peat fire).
Taste: Bacon grease, oak, vanilla, pastry crust. Water really brought out the smoke.
Finish: Heavily charred oak, cherry, sour lemon and lime, peat air.
Notes: Really unique cask maturation order, you typically don’t see a Laphroaig first matured in a sherry and then finished in a bourbon cask. Our guide even forced us to do these all blind so we wouldn’t have any biases influencing which cask we would choose. I found this to be quite light in appearance and very drying on the palate. I was so close to choosing this cask to bottle.
Cask 00003614 (7-Year-Old and distilled in 2011) Full maturation in an Oloroso hogshead – 59.8%
Nose: Butterscotch, salt spray, very light smoke, baking pie, Apple chips, pear, pine sap.
Taste: Campfire, salt, medicinal, burnt Apple.
Finish: Saltlick, cold smoke, vegetal, sand.
Notes: I found this to be the most unique and changing over the time I spent with it. Curious what more time in the glass will bring out and luckily have some at home.
Cask 000666 aptly named “The Devil’s Dram” by the distillery staff (full maturation in Bourbon casks) – 58%
Nose: Molasses, burnt plastic, grape skins, vanilla, oak.
Taste: Salt, bacon, lemon and lime.
Finish: Salted logs, damp sand, plastic, candied lime peel.
Notes: The quintessential Laphroaig.
I don’t think anything could top the experience I had at Laphroaig. The friendly people, new friends and once in a lifetime experience. Laphroaig will forever have an even more special place in my heart.
One thing to note is that the Friends of Laphroaig “rent” is now the Laphroaig Select and no longer the 10-year-old.