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Our whisky making tradition has been passed down by distillery managers since the first drop rolled off the still in 1815. Ian Hunter, Bessie Williamson, John MacDougal, Denise Nicole, Iain Henderson and the incumbent John Campbell were all protective custodians of the art of Laphroaig.
Each brought their own influence, of course, but all respected the unique elements that make Laphroaig the whisky it is. The Kilbride Stream, hand-cut peat, floor malted barley, cold-smoking kilns, mash tuns, copper alchemy and the subtlety of oak aging. Each and every stage crucial in producing the most richly flavored of all Scotch whiskies. Scroll down to read more.
Whisky needs water. As well as being a key ingredient, it serves as a coolant throughout our whisky making process, and importantly for us, it provides flavor. It’s soft, peated and non-mineralised. It’s used to mash the barley, to bring the spirit’s strength down once it’s taken off the still and often – if not destined to become a cask-strength expression – to reduce the whisky before it’s bottled. It cools the ‘wort’ in preparation for fermentation, and it’s used to condense the spirit’s vapours back to liquid during the fermentation process. We are fortunate enough to have a plentiful supply of peaty water by the way of the nearby Kilbride Stream, which we once had to protect against the intentions of other distilliers, who had re-routed it for reasons that failed to convince the courts, and which we had dammed in the 1930s. Consequently, all our waters are sourced from Kilbride Reservoir – our very own supply.
Islay is particularly famous for its peated single malt whiskies. This is partly because its peat bogs are unlike those of mainland Scotland. Having never really had expansive forests or thickets, our peat – historically the only fuel available for the drying out of our malted barley – is made up of a much higher ratio of Sphagnum (or ‘peat moss’ to you and I), and it’s the moss that’s responsible for Islay whisky’s medicinal taste. Of course, depending on location, no peat bog on Islay is exactly the same either. This is a fact especially true of our own Glenmachrie peat bog, its particular mix of heather, lichen and moss responsible for our smoky, iodine-like and medicinal profile. Vital to everything that constitutes a Laphroaig, we take good care of our peat beds, hand-cutting the peat and periodically replenishing the beds. Too wet to burn immediately, we dry the peat out for three months.
Our steeps are located at the top of the malting house, and it is here that the barley is soaked (or steeped) for two days in water sourced from the Kilbride Reservoir. Once adequately soaked, the water is drained off and the now green malt is transported down to the malting floors.
Capable of holding up to seven tonnes worth of barley, our malting floors are where we fool the barley into germinating. Keeping the windows open so as to regulate the temperature, we spread the barley across the floors, and let nature take its course – well, almost.
Having a space as large as our malting floors is crucial to the malting process. The grain germinates at a relatively cool 15-16°C. So as to maintain optimum germinating temperatures, it’s vital that it has the space within which to be spread and turned on a daily basis. It’s a seven day a week job, and if for any reason one of our maltsters failed to make it in, it would knock the process out of kilter, and ultimately affect how much starch was turned to sugar. It’s an important job, spreading and turning the grain.
According to their foundation stone, Laphroaig’s peat kilns were built in 1840, making them almost as old as the distillery itself. The kilns themselves look out over the bay, and it is here that we burn the peat in order to imbue the barley with the distillery’s signature smoky, medicinal flavour. Unlike the majority of distilleries, we peat before we dry. In a process lasting around 17 hours, the smoke or ‘peat reek’ rises up through the perforated drying floor into the kiln. Here, the vaporised oils – the peat’s phenolic compounds and other wood-based smoky flavours – are absorbed by the damp barley. In terms of flavour making, we burn our peat at a relatively low temperature, a ‘cold smoking’ process that is responsible for the tarry note typical of Laphroaig. Once done, the barley is dried using hot air recycled from the still house. Next stop, the mash house.
Owing to the fact that it’s malted, there’s no need for us to actually cook our barley in order to get to the sugar. Instead, once milled or ground to a grist of husk and flour, we mash it in our stainless steel mash tun, using hot water. Beginning at 67°C, the increasingly hot water dissolves the sugar. Once done, the sugary water or ‘wort’ is siphoned off to our washbacks, where the magic of turning the sugar into alcohol takes place. A point of flavour interest: our wort is what is known as a ‘clear wort’ (as opposed to ‘cloudy’), which partly accounts for the fruity notes in Laphroaig’s spirit.
The process of converting the sugar into alcohol takes place in our stainless steel washbacks. After it’s added or ‘pitched’ into 10,500 litres of wort, our distiller’s yeast lives aerobically off the liquid’s oxygen, its population growing rapidly. Once it has used up the oxygen, the yeast then switches tactics, and survives anaerobically off the sugar. At this stage, its main by-product is alcohol, which it produces until it is killed off by high temperatures. Our fermentation lasts a minimum of 55 hours – enough time not only to convert a lot of the sugar to alcohol, but also to develop lots of flavour compounds or ‘congeners’, many of which are responsible for Laphroaig’s fruity notes. Fermentation over, the wort has become a distiller’s beer or ‘wash’. It has an alcohol volume of 8.5%, so around the same as a strong beer. Now, to the still house.
Our still setup is unique. We have seven stills – three larger wash stills and four smaller spirit stills. Like all Scottish pot stills, they are made of copper, which has the effect of stripping the spirit of unwanted largely sulphuric flavour compounds. We double distill, meaning we do a first distillation in our wash still, and then a second in our spirit still. The first distillation produces a spirit or ‘low wines’ with an alcohol content of 22%. The second distillation is slightly more complicated. As with other distilleries, we only keep the middle part or ‘cut’ of the spirit run, and discard the head and the tail, which are poisonous and foul tasting. However, we make the first cut after 45 minutes – the latest first cut in the industry – and we make the second cut once the spirit’s alcohol content has dropped to 60%, which is also quite late. This has an enormous effect on the taste of the spirit or ‘new make’, making it less sweet while at the same time preserving its more tarry, medicinal, peaty notes. It’s the skill of our stillman that is responsible for much of what you taste in a Laphroaig.
The new make is diluted down to an alcohol content of 63.5% then pumped into an oak cask and then laid down in one of our warehouses, where it will be left to mature until deemed ready. Being right on the coast, our warehouses take on the influences of their surroundings, in this case, the might of the Atlantic Ocean seeps through to our very liquid over the long wait within the warehouses.
When left to mature in a cask, the spirit expands in the summer months, pushing into the wood. In winter, it contracts back into the cask, bringing with it the wood’s colour, sugars and various flavour compounds. At the same time, the process of evaporation taking place inside the cask expels air consisting of unwanted sulphides and water and alcohol vapour. We lose between 2% and 4% of a cask’s liquid a year this way. We call this the Angel’s Share – it’s the sweet smell that greets you upon entering the warehouse. Meanwhile, expelled air is continually replaced by oxygen, which reacts with the alcohol and the wood’s chemical compounds to form new flavours.
Nearly all of our whisky is either wholly or partially matured in ex-bourbon casks, sourced from Maker’s Mark® Distillery, in Kentucky. They’re made of American white oak, which gives our spirit its caramel-like sweetness, as well as notes of vanilla, red fruits, light spices and, occasionally, even tobacco and leather. Broken up, shipped over, and coopered on site, we remake them usually as slightly larger casks called hogsheads, which are then laid down in our dunnage warehouses, where they are left to mature under lock and key.
While it was the then distillery owner Ian Hunter who pioneered the use of ex-Bourbon casks back in the 1940s, we continue to use ex-sherry casks as well, often to double or triple mature whisky that has already spent time in ex-bourbon casks. Being made of European oak, ex-sherry casks have the effect of making the whisky a little drier and spicier to taste, and full of notes of orange, dried black fruit, cinnamon and clove.
Once fully matured, and unless destined to be a single cask whisky, the whisky is mixed or vatted with other casks containing the same expression, and then bottled and labelled.