Laphroaig

Laphroaig is perhaps one of the most instantly recognisable single malt Scotch whiskies. With a fierce, smoky, maritime, almost medical character, Laphroaig is as popular as it is divisive. A loyal fanbase has developed around the iconic Islay Whisky. The punchy peated 10 year old whisky makes it an unmistakable treat for those who enjoy smoky single malt but will drive all others screaming!

Laphroaig Whisky Distillery

The distillery is located in a quiet bay on the south side of the island of Islay (pronounced Ei-lah). The island itself, sometimes known as the queen of the Hebrides is easily the most famous of the Scottish whisky islands. Islay is flat, swampy and streaked with extensive peat bogs and many small streams. The fertile areas are located in the south and west of the island, here are the three largest peat mining areas in Islay. Visitors can reach them in two ways: either by small propeller plane, or by ferry. Due to weather conditions which can prevent flights from landing the Ferry is often a safer choice.

The name Laphroaig is a Gaelic term that translate roughly to ‘the beautiful hollow by the broad bay’. This is quite an apt name as the location of the distillery is rather spectacular and the Antrim coast can be seen in the distance on a clear day.

Laphroaig Whisky

Laphroaig is the westernmost distillery of the famous trinity Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, which make the south coast of the whisky island the Mecca of all friends hard peated and smoky whiskies. Nowhere else can you find such a high concentration of smoke and peat in such a narrow space: just under three kilometers separate Laphroaig and Ardbeg from each other, while Lagavulin marks about the middle of the way. From Laphroaig, it is only a walk to the Port Ellen, two kilometers further west.

Distillery Features

Laphroaig is, alongside nearby Bowmore one of a handful distilleries that still have their own malting floors. However in the case of Laphroaig these can provide only around a fifth of the distilleries needs. The soaked barley is spread about 15 cm high on a stone floor and turned regularly until germination has progressed far enough.

In a clever marketing line anyone who buys a bottle of Laphroaig can claim a ‘plot’ on the Island and collect ground rent in the form of a dram when they visit the distillery. Visiting your plot is a popular activity as is cutting peat on one of the distilleries peat cutting tours.

Peated Whisky

Most Islay whiskies are known for their peated nature, and Laphroaig is no exception. Oweing to the lack of electrification on the Island at the founding of these distilleries, and lack of trees the distilleries halted the barley germination process by burning peat. While this is no longer the case, in fact most distilleries no longer malt their own barley, smoking the barley using peat is still common due to the flavours the process imparts.

House style

How does Laphroaig single malt taste?Laphroaig embodies the best characteristics of Islay whisky, heavy oily malts with fierce medical notes, from peat smoke, iodine, algae and seaweed. A whisky with a lot of character that has long been advertised as either love or hate. The peat required for whisky production is sourced on the coast and in conjunction with peat moss and swamp myrtle, the Laphroaig whisky is famous for sweet, citrus-like and maritime flavors.

The distillery as part of their marketing have sought some hilarious reviews from their fanbase, the most amusing and creative being actually printed on their packing tubes. Some classics include “Bog body”, “rubber tires with cat piss”, “hot asphalt surface in the rain” and our personal favourite “A vegetarians answer to a life without bacon”.

Recommendations

The Laphroaig distillery has for many years brought a whisky style to the market which has always brought new delights to the taste buds albiet with a heavy dose of peat smoke. This is why Laphroaig’s marketing principle is pushed as Love it, or hate it. Laphroaig impresses with its bottlings, particularly because of its high level of complexity. Once you have navigated through the medical, phenolic and maritime tones, everything is covered by a pleasant sweetness and leaves a wonderful overall impression. So long as you’re open to exploring peat, Laphroaig has somehting for everyone.

For beginners: Laphroaig Select

All hardcore peat fans can skip this paragraph directly and continue to the Laphroaig for 10 years: The Laphroaig Select is not made for you! The bottling is deliberately softer and should gently introduce newcomers to the distinctive flavors of the Islay distillery. The smell and taste of the whisky are nevertheless characterized by intense, sweet peaty aromas. What is missing are the strict notes of iodine and bandages, making the Select appear milder and more forgiving. If you don’t like it so rough to get started, you should try Laphroaig Select. The only drawback is the price, despite being a No Age Statement this single malt often costs about the same as the more complex Laphroaig 10 years.

The classic: Laphroaig 10 years

The Laphroaig 10 years is the great classic of the distillery. Without much ado, it brings all the typical Laphroaig flavors into the glass: the sweet peat notes as well as dry mineral notes and distinctive smoke. Small tips of orange jam and lemon peel tickle the senses. In the mouth, the Laphroaig appears 10 years stronger than it actually is with 40%. The aftertaste is characterized by iodine and plasters and remains on the palate for minutes. Generally costing no more than £35, the price-enjoyment ratio is fantastic. The Laphroaig 10 years is one of the best single malts in the distillery and a mandatory bottle for every collection!

The young savage: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

With the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, the distillery has created an interesting alternative to the incomparable 10-year-old. The most striking difference: The Quarter Cask has no age on the label. Unofficially we#re told, the whisky will initially be matured in ex-bourbon barrels for 5 years, and then get a 7-month finish in new quarter casks with 125 liters capacity. The younger age in combination with the increased alcohol strength of 48% ensures wild aromas incresed smoke and even peat, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask first smokes the nose and then the mouth. The aromas appear dark and powerful, at the same time sweet notes resonate. While the Laphroaig has a little more maturity for 10 years, the Quarter Cask is more intense. Clocking in at a few pounds more than the classing 10 single malt this one is hard to recommend as a replacement but makes an excellent addition.

Christmas In a Glass: Laphroaig PX Cask

Don’t be fooled: this Laphroaig is stored in three casks in succession: American bourbon barrels, smaller quarter casks and finally Pedro Ximenez sherry casks from Spain. The sweet and lush sherry actually transfers a number of flavors to the Islay malt. The robust smoky and peat notes typical of Laphroaig are complemented by sweet-berry nuances. We tasted strawberries, forest fruit jam and red jelly. This combination ensures that the Laphroaig PX Cask does not get boring when tasting and invites you to new discoveries again and again. The liter bottle costs between around £70 euros, which considering the quality is pretty reasonable. Our tasting recommendation for everyone who likes sherry and peat in a glass!

The unfiltered: Laphroaig Triple Wood

Laphroaig and sherry is itself the story of a love-hate relationship. Because the combination of rough peat notes and Spanish Jerez wine does not always lead to a round result. The Laphroaig Triple Wood matures in succession in bourbon barrels, Oloroso sherry barrels and Virgin Oak Quarter Casks. The result is significantly softer than the Laphroaig 10 years or the Laphroaig Quarter Cask: Instead, sweet-spicy notes characterize the triple wood. On the nose, cardamom, cinnamon and vanilla can be recognized with a little imagination. The taste is dominated by charcoal and dates. At the same time, the mixture is not well rounded, if anything you’re left with the impression that the sherry fruit and the smoke-peat complex are staging a fight in the nosing glass. If you want to try the result of this experiment, you have to put around $40, one thing going for the bottling is that is one of the few Laphroaig standard bottlings that do not undergo chill filtration prior to bottling.

Laphroaig 10 years Cask Strength

The annual release of the Laphroaig Cask Strength is a firm favourite time of year for a great many peat fans. Always a little different, they dial the flavour palate of the standard 10 all the way up to 11. This whisky delights Islay connoisseurs and Laphroaig fans and draws them into its dark, uncompromising aroma world. Not a whisky for every day consumption, in part due to the price, in part because it demands full attention when drinking.

Independently filled Laphroaig whiskies often appear under the name “Williamson” named for the former owner Elizabeth Leitch “Bessie” Williamson.

Lost Bottlings

Laphroaig 15 years 43% ABV - Prince Charles’ favorite whisky was much more reserved in smell and taste than the 10-year-old. Nevertheless, it has a clear character of smoke and peat. It is hardly available anymore since it has been replaced by an 18-year-old bottling in 2008.

Laphroaig 18 years 48% ABV - The 18 year old bottling was very similar to the 15 year old it was introduced to replace, albiet a little milder and sweeter. Sadly this bottling has now been discontinued as well, though occasionally available at auction.

Production

How is Laphroaig Whisky produced?

Laphroaig use three Wash Stills and four Spirit Stills for an annual production of 2.7 million litres of pure alcohol, equivalent to about eight million bottles of whisky. The water required for the production process, drawn from the Kilbride Dam, is very peated. Which is to say very mineralic, as opposed to smoky, the peat smoke being added only by peating the barley. The peat used during this process is taken from the peat bogs on the Glenmachrie Peat Moss owned by the distillery.

The smokyness of whisky is measured in phenol parts per million (PPM), at Laphroaig the peat content is generally around 40 PPM. Around 80% of the distilleries malt is sourced from Port Ellen at a specification of 35-45 PPM, the remaining 20% from their own floor maltings is more heavily peated sitting between 40 - 60 PPM. For context Lagavulin is peated to 35 PPM, Ardbeg to 55 PPM and Octomore 08.3 edition, unsurprisingly described as ‘the most heavily peated Octomore to date’, containing barley peated to a staggering 309 PPM. In addition to the barley peated on site Laphroaig secures additional peated malt from the Port Ellen maltings. As a rule, the two types of malt are not processed separately, but are mixed in order to always achieve the perfect mixture.

Laphroaig use six stainless steel washbacks (rather than the traditional wooden washbacks) each with a capacity of 42,000 liters, Mauri liquid yeast common in the industry fermentation times ranging between 50 and 55 hours. For context the industry recommends a minimum of 47 hours. Walking something of a walk, Laphroaig succeeds in creating a new make that cries out for maturation in ex-bourbon barrels.

An other factor that give Laphroaig its distinctive house character are the distilleries seven pot stills, their number alone being something of an oddity. Laphroaig worked with 6 stills until 1972, after which an additional spirit still was put into operation. In addition to being an even number the stills themselves are unusual in the industry in that their Lyne Arms point upwards instead of downwards which increases the reflux during slow distillation. Despite this Ardbeg and Lagavulin produce considerably more reflux than Laphroaig during distillationresulting in get more estery notes and general sweetness. John Campbell, Distillery Manager at Laphroaig, wants to avoid just that, his goal is a note reminiscent of tar and a body in the whisky that is heavy and dry on your tongue. They cut the head after 45 minutesto remove almost all ester flavors and increase the smoky content. The consequence: the whisky appears heavier and smokier.

First-fill Ex-Bourbon barrels are the rule for maturation at Laphroaig, although the distillery does regularly experiment with sherry, port and other casks. These barrels come directly from the Bourbon production in the USA (typically Makers Mark) and are then filled with the clear smoky new make Laphroaig. They give off fine notes of vanilla and bright fruits to the maritime whisky.

The buildings of the distillery were built directly on the shore. The warehouses are so close to the sea that they have wet feet at the high seas! It is no wonder that the white buildings with the typical killers are under historic monument protection!

History

As is common for distilleries that have survived as long as Laphroaig, and in part due to the complex legal/illegal nature of their trade prior to the introduction of the 1823 the Excise Act, the full story of distillation at what is now Laphroaig is unknown, lost to the mists of time.

In 1815 in the picturesque bay the brothers Donald and Alex Johnston founded today’s Laphroaig distillery. The location, a natural cove, offered protection from prying eyes and the site of illicit distillation operated by their family years before. Donald, who ran the distillery, bought out Alexander in 1836 and assumes control. Tragically he died in 1847 after falling into a vat of boiling pot ale.

However, Donald’s only son, Dugald, was only eleven years old at the time and was still too young to take over his father’s business. So his uncle John Johnston and one of the local farmers, Peter McIntyre, took care of the distillery. Eventually, in 1857, leadership was given to Donald’s son, Dugald Johnston, after which the distillery remained in the Johnston family for almost 100 years.

During the period between 1837 to 1868 there was another distillery on the same site. Andrew and James Gairdner built the Ardenistiel Distillery, which is also known as Kildalton Distillery (1849–1852) and Islay Distillery (1852–1866), just a few meters away.

When Dugald died in 1877, he was without an heir and so the distillery was handed over to his sister Isabella, who was married to her cousin Alexander. Alexander’s death in 1907 saw the distillery passed to his two sisters Catherine and Isabella, while his nephew Ian Hunter, a newly qualified engineer, was sent to the island to look after the interests of his mother and aunt.

Soon after Hunter arrived on the island the ‘agency agreement’ with the owners of neighbouring Lagavulin fell apart. Ian Hunter felt the company was being deprived their due returns as Mackie & Co were diverting most of the distillery’s annual production to their own blends. After the court case which saw Mackie & Co. lose the agency rights, Peter Mackie, Lagavulin’s manager, diverted the water channel to Laphroaig away from the distillery. Requiring another court case for this to be restored.

In 1908 Peter Mackie wooed Laphroaig’s master distiller and had an exact copy of the Laphroaig distillery built on his site in the hope of being able to copy the immensely successful competitor. Amusingly his complete failure also lead to the creation of the world famous, Ron Swanson/Nick Offerman favourite Lagavulin.

Under Hunter’s watch Laphroaig increased the number of stills from two to four in 1923 and when Isabella and Catherine died in 1928, he became the sole owner of the company. In 1950, Ian Hunter founded D. Johnston & Company, which became the new owner of Laphroaig. Four years later in 1954 Hunter died childless and his long-time secretary, Bessie Williamson was entrusted with the distillery.

Bessie Williamson

Bessie Williamson was one of the first women known to run a distillery, and by every account successfully as she steered the fortunes of the distillery until her retirement in 1972. A large and, at the same time, pragmatic step was her gradual and piecemeal sale of the distillery to Long John Distillers (Seager Evans & Co - themselves a subsidiary of Schenley International) with the understanding that she would remain at the helm. The sale to Seagar Evans began in 1962 and was finally completed in 1967. Under their management Laphroaig worked with 6 stills until 1972, after which an additional spirit still was put into operation. 1972 saw the Bessie Williamson retire and handing over her position as distillery manager to John McDougal, and as testament to her success, the distillery adding a further two stills to meet growing demand.

Laphroaig Today

In 1975 Whitbread & Co. bought our Long John International (the recently rebranded Seagar Evans) from Schenley International and thus acquiring Laphroaig distillery. In 1989 the distillery changed the owner again when Whitbread & Co’s spirit division was sold to Allied Distillers. 1994 saw the introduction of the Friends of Laphroaig.

in 2005 Robin Shieldsnow manager launched Laphroaig Quarter Cask with its innovative barrel storage. Shields was succeeded by John Campbell, the current distillery manager. The same year Pernod Ricard acqured Allied Domecq. To close the deal however, Laphroaig had to be sold, and so Beam Global Spirits & Wine, a subsidiary of Fortune Brands, became the new owner of Laphroaig. In 2014 Suntory Holdings purchased ‘Beam Inc.and now manages the Laphroaig distillery under Beam Suntory.

Distillery Factsheet

Name Pronounced AKA Region Country of Origin
Laphroaig Islay Scotland
Status Active Whisky Type Website Tours Available
Active 1815 - Present Malt Laphroaig Tour Link
Manager Distiller Blender Owned by Parent Group
John Campbell Beam Suntory

Laphroaig Timeline:

1815: Said to have been founded by Donald & Alex Johnston, though not in the 1821 distillery list (1820 mentioned as well)

1836: Donald buys out Alexander and assumes control

1836: Alex Johnston, Donald’s brother, withdrew

1837: James and Andrew Gardner found Ardenistiel distillery near Laphroaig

1847: Donald Johnston is killed in an accident at Laphroaig, drowning in a vat of fermenting wash

1856-1954: Operated by members of the Johnston family under the style of Dugald Johnston & Co.

1857: Donald Johnston's son, Dugald, takes over operation of Laphroaig

1860: Ardenistiel distillery merges with Laphroaig

1877: After his death Dugald's sister, Isabella, takes over operation of Laphroaig with her husband Alexander Johnston

1924: Laphroaig's two stills are increased to four

1927: Ian Hunter, Alexander Johnston's nephew, assumes control of Laphroaig

1928: Isabella Johnston dies and Hunter becomes sole owner

1954: Hunter passes away and the distillery is run by his former PA and secretary, Elisabeth 'Bessie' Williamson

1967: Seager Evans & Company, owned by Schenley, buys shares in Laphroaig and increases the stills to five

1970: Seagar Evans group reorganized as Long John International

1972: Bessie Williamson retires and the number of stills are increased again to seven

1974: Enlarged from six to seven stills

1975: Long John International acquired by Whitbread & Co. Ltd.

1989: Whitbread's spirits division is sold to Allied Distillers

1994: HRH Prince Charles grants his Royal Warrant to Laphroaig; Friends of Laphroaig is founded

2004: Laphroaig Quarter Cask is released

2005: Laphroaig moves under the ownership of Fortune Brands (Jim Beam)

2008: Laphroaig Cairdeas is introduced, as is Triple Wood

2013: Laphroaig QA Cask, An Cuan Mor and 25 Year Old are released

2014: Owner Beam Global is bought out by Japanese group Suntory

2019: I proposed to my partner Rebecca

Useful Laphroaig links:

Laphroaig at Master of Malt