It’s the final true day on Islay, and to finish this journey off with a bang I decided to leave the most anticipated tour for last: the Laphroaig Distillers Wares Tour. Laphroaig was one of the first distilleries that truly got me in to drinking single malt whisky. So as I venture onto my final booked tour on Islay I’m very much excited to see the history of this landmark distillery come alive in front of me!
The three distilleries lying along Port Ellen are quite accessible by bus, although the 451 Ardbeg only runs 5 times on weekdays, a bit less on Saturdays and none at all on Sundays (as the whole Islay Bus System doesn’t run on Sundays regardless). The bus also drops you off just outside of every distillery so the walk from the stop down to Laphroaig only takes 3 minutes, however there’s a dedicated walking path to Lagavulin and Ardbeg as well as back to Port Ellen so it’s very convenient to explore if you’re doing a day trip!
The front of the distillery is quite scenic with the visitors centre lying right next to the bay giving some beautiful scenery of the Atlantic Ocean and on some days a quick glance at neighbouring Northern Ireland! The visitors centre itself is quite modern and has a shop that sells clothing and general merchandise along with core range whiskies including this year’s Cairdeas bottling, a cask strength version of the core range Triple Wood expression, and there’s also a tasting bar that serves a variety of drams both common and rare. They were also the only distillery I saw that gave out complimentary coffee and tea for those waiting for the 10pm Distillers Wares tour which was a nice gesture! Soon after we were met by our tour guide and whisked away to explore the distillery!
We start Laphroaig at the same place we started Springbank, at the malting floor! Laphroaig is one of the very few distilleries that do floor maltings in any capacity. Despite having 4 malting floors, 80% of all malted barley used to make the whisky is sourced from Port Ellen Maltings with only 20% being malted on site. The barley spends 3.5 days resting on the malt floor after soaking which is quite longer then what’s noticed at Springbank and Bowmore.
Next, we head to the kiln where our guide Tracy explains how 40% of Islay is covered in peat and that most of Laphroaig’s peat is sourced from around Glengedale, just around the airport, and is made from Spadlen moss which is hollow, very moist and has anti-septic qualities making it truly medicinal. Peat is also the reason why the roads are so bumpy as the highways and local roads are basically built on top of peat bogs which distort the road over the years. Laphroaig goes through 1 ton of peat a day and 250 tons a year, and that’s just for 20% of production capacity! We also got a chance to taste the peated barley and it’s very much a smoky kind of breakfast cereal that some peatheads might just have with a cup of tea in the morning!
We then saw the malt mill, which is a Porteus like with Bowmore and thus is serviced just once a year. Outside from the milling room is an outside deck that provides a good look of Laphroaig’s dunnage warehouse from the outside, peering out onto the bay. Laphroaig’s name in Gaelic means “hollow in the bay” and it’s easy to see why from its picturesque views.
Now we head up to see the mash tun and the washbacks. The third water in Laphroaig’s production is quite a bit lower then Bowmore’s hovering at 85 degrees centigrade. Laphroaig also uses 6 stainless steel washbacks instead of wooden ones and employ a mix of distillers yeast and Maori yeast brought in liquid form for the fermentation which is carried out over 51 hours. Here we got to have a small taste of the wash, which was surprisingly enjoyable like a mix between a wheat beer and a smoked beer. Almost a perfect brew for Oktoberfest!
Next we go to the still house which houses Laphroaig’s 4 spirit stills and 3 wash stills. We also saw the spirit safe, which is quite old but very nicely polished to where it may look almost brand new!
Finally we go inside the dunnage warehouse to take a look at some casks. Like with Bowmore you’re caged in from the rest of the warehouse but at least you can actually smell the yeasts lining the walls and the aromas of the casks unlike at Bowmore. Laphroaig mostly use Makers Mark bourbon casks in their whisky along with a variety of sherry and fortified wine casks for various experiments. All casks are stored at Laphroaig’s warehouses however blending is done on the mainland as with many major distilleries.
Also if you noticed that 1978 cask of Laphroaig on the right side there that one is a bit more special than the other casks Laphroaig hosts from the 1970s.
If you notice the signature below the date then you can see that this is a personal cask given by the distillery to Prince Charles. Sadly, given the princes sweet-tooth for old Laphroaig I can’t imagine he’ll be sharing any for any Canadian visitors anytime soon!
But we have some other treats to enjoy in the meantime now that we’re in the warehouse. So after 3 days on Islay it’s now time for the best part of this tour, and the one I was most looking to on Islay, the barrel tasting! 3 casks were lined up with valinches ready so let’s get it on!
Laphroaig 2011 Manzanilla Cask
The first cask that Tracy had lined up for us was a very fun one to start with, an 8 year old Manzanilla cask! This one is a first fill hogshead that’s been recharred and valinches for us at cask strength after just over 8 years of maturation. It’s bottled at 58.6% ABV.
Colour: Light Brown
Nose: A bit muted at first, nice salty brine, brown sugar, roasted pork, dry lemons, orange, dry leather, white pepper, cherries and candied toffee
Palate: Nice sea salt, barrel char, silky caramel, vanilla cream, dry oranges, cherry peel, lemon cream and soft tea tannins
Finish: Long with big leather, cinnamon, anise, clove, drying lemon peel and oak tannins
Very solid with a fantastic finish. It’s not quite as deep as some other sherry matured Islays but this one was definitely ready after just 8 years as the sherry influence is getting into the intrusive territory but isn’t too overpowering just yet as it works well with the citrus and pepper qualities of the spirit and makes for a nice dry sherried dram. My dad ended up grabbing this one for himself and it was definitely a good pick for him!
And now onto the second cask…
Laphroaig 2008 Bourbon Cask
This one was Tracy’s favourite of the three being displayed this morning. It’s a first fill 10 year old bourbon barrel aged entirely in a Maker’s Mark cask which is also her favourite style of Laphroaig, bottled at cask strength clocking in at 56.0% ABV. I personally love the 10 Year Cask Strength so I’m hoping that it’s just as good as the Batch 007 was for me all those years ago! Let’s find out!
Nose: Candied lemons and tablet, then some sea salt, light brine, black tea, allspice, orange peel, lemon zest and raisins
Palate: Soft oiliness, banana, toffee and rich candied citrus fruits, then brown sugar, tea leaves, clove, cardamom
Finish: Medium to Long with allspice, orange rind, vanilla bean, barrel char and apple juice
Solid but a bit overly tannic for my tastes. Before even trying this I was hoping that it’d end up being the 10 Cask Strength but in single cask form but that wasn’t the case at all, and if anything it shows why vatting your whisky is extremely important sometimes. This one was soft and more herbal, spice and floral forward but was missing the mouthfeel that some early 10 CS bottles have. Still very good stuff, a few people actually went for this one to take home with them, but I think this one just isn’t for me.
And finally we come to the last dram, which is sherried as well as the first one…
Laphroaig 2011 Fino Sherry Cask
So we end with a Fino cask, actually quite a darker one than the usual En Rama Finos I’ve tried lately. That might also be because this barrel hasn’t been air dried or re-charred. This cask is what Tracy calls a “wet style” barrel, where the cask is saturated with Fino sherry and whisky is poured in right after the Fino is poured out. The spirit is matured just shy of 8 years old and comes out at 60.8% ABV. I was concerned at first that it may be oversherried using a wet cask, but an older Fino may just work wonders with Laphroaig’s heavily peated spirit! Let’s see…
Colour: Hazy Brown
Nose: Dry rock salts, Madagascar vanilla, silky caramels and light salty brine as well as raisins, chocolate, chai tea, lemongrass and tangerines
Palate: Sea salt, heavy brine, oak tannins, lemon, tea leaves, ripe oranges, cherries, massive white pepper, dark chocolate and acai berries
Finish: Long with massive white pepper, baking spice, raspberries, tea leaves, silky caramel and wet grass
A massive but well integrated Fino cask. The nose is definitely more deep then the other two but this one felt a tad muted at first and really needed a good teaspoon of water to open it up. When it does it gives off a good amount of brine and sea salt but also massive white pepper moderated by chocolate, dark fruits and citrus. It’s not the best Laphroaig I’ve bad but it comes really close and I’m very excited to grab a bottle and come back to this in a little while!
All around a wonderful warehouse tasting, probably tied for my second favorite with Bruichladdich and just behind Bunnahabhain, especially given that you get a 250ml hand filled bottle to take home with you at the end which makes the cost of this tour (£70) absolutely worth it if you love Laphroaig.
The tasting bar is also good too when you’re finished as they give you coffee, hot cocoa and tea in the morning and you can buy a dram later on which is what I did so here’s something I tried there that you can only get at Laphroaig’s Tasting Bar!
Laphroaig 2004 Distillery Only Single Bourbon Cask No. 46
So most of the better pours are around £12.50 a pour (including every Cask Strength edition and many of the past Cairdeas bottles sans the 2013 Portwood) and of them there were 3 distillery only bottles that you can only get from the distillery. One of those casks was one that immediately appealed to me as it’s a 14 year old single bourbon cask bottled at 49.7% ABV. Funnily enough, the gentleman working the bar that morning actually picked this cask for the tasting bar as he really enjoys mature Laphroaig. So let’s see how this one went as a final Laphroaig day dram!
Colour: Light Golden
Nose: Lovely pepper and heather honey, toasted oatcakes, light whiffs of vanilla, creamy caramel, light salty peat and fresh lemons
Palate: Very light but super building complexity, lemon cake, raisins, orange pastries, wonderful soft tannins, good oiliness, whole butter, tea tannins, roasted pork loin, nice gentle brine and minerality
Finish: Medium to Long with soft salty peat, raisins, lemoncurd, pepper and light cinnamon and cloves
Really delicate but complex mid-aged Laphroaig! Lots of nice spirit integration with the oat cakes but then the bourbon cask brings in some lovely butter, fruit and spice that pairs well with the medium oiliness of the spirit.
A wonderful experience from start to finish and I’ll definitely be back the next time I’m on Islay! Definitely the better of the two Beam Suntory owned distilleries on Islay so definitely check it out even if you’re going in for a dram because you’ll likely be coming back with more!