Suddenly out of the empty landscape there are two big, dark green, metal warehouses beside the road – odd and out of context. It is obvious the distillery is near – just to the right, down a smallish driveway, otherwise invisible from the road.
The usual picture of the distillery is of the warehouse on the sea’s edge with L A P H R O A I G written in big black letters but the photo at the head of this post is taken from the warehouse, in the other direction, and shows how close the distillery building is to the sea. When we visited all was calm but I have read other accounts of people visiting in rougher weather when seaweed was flung against the walls and windows. Although I like those stories and to be able imagine the maritime spray infecting the character of the spirit, I am quite happy the weather gives us the opportunity to appreciate the beauty.
Right from the beginning Laphroaig gave us a warm feeling, walking down to the visitor centre we passed one of the staff who greeted us and set a welcoming tone. This was continued by everyone we met – all were friendly and engaged in a way that went beyond a professional, customer service smile. This is important. One of the reasons for visiting a distillery is to make an emotional connection with the whisky you drink. All sorts of things contribute to this: location of the buildings, condition of the site (whether it is well maintained), heritage, the story it tells, and most importantly, the people – are they welcoming, do they have pride in that they do, are they engaged and engaging. Laphroaig scored highly in all areas.
It is worth paying attention to the look of the visitor centre because it tells you a lot about the image the brand wants to project. With Laphroaig the theme is one of warmth and tradition, not too slick or corporate (though it is, of course, part of a large corporation). The room is rough hewn, thick walls and smallish windows, as you would expect from a building on the edge of the sea. A tartan rug thrown over a chair, display boards with vintage photos all help to connect you with a sense of the past but, as I have already mentioned, it is really the friendliness of the staff that sets the tone and makes this all of a piece.
So onto the tour and if you want to convey a sense of tradition and continuity what better way than to have a tour guide who has worked in the distillery man and boy, someone who is seeped in its culture. The picture shows him by the peat oven, showing his peat cutting tool with its handle from the horn of a highland cow. Apparently they still cut the peat by hand, which leaves it slightly more moist that the mechanical cutter used by Bowmore. (How much of a real difference that makes I don’t know but whisky making is full of these subtle distinctions that may or may not make a difference. (Probably they should all be noted in a ‘hmm interesting’ sort of way).
I love the picture of the peat fire drying the malt and coating it with that lovely smokey, toasty flavour that characterises so many of the island’s malts. If you only have time to visit one distillery on the island I would make sure it is either Laphroaig or Bowmore just so you can see this happening. It is after all the basic raw material. We were given some toasted grains to taste, which made me realise the link between my enjoyment of peated whisky and other food tastes – I just like the taste of smoke, whether it be salmon, cheese, or burnt toast. It’s as simple as that.
Onto the mash tun and wash backs and it is here that we move from the nineteenth century to the modern world as everything is gleaming stainless steel. It all looks as if it could be a light industrial unit on a trading estate – bright and functional. Wood vs steel might be one of those distinctions that make a difference. David, our guide, says no but interestingly Bowmore reversed their switch to stainless steel and reinstated the wood. Who knows? (Another of those ‘hmm interesting’ moments).
The heart of any distillery though is the lovely, gleaming, copper stills. For reasons I don’t quite understand Laphroaig has an odd number (3 wash and 4 spirit) but even more weirdly the spirit stills are of different size: three are small and the final one is much bigger. Whether this happened as a result of testing a well thought out theory or because empirical happenstance I don’t know but the different size of still will give a different exposure to copper and produce a different type of spirit. The blending of these two streams is part of the distinctive Laphroaig character as is, of course the cut point, which is very late at 45 minutes. This means the sweet esters at the beginning of the run are recycled and maximum weight and smokiness is retained.
After this the only place to go is the warehouse to see the barrels of the past waiting for their moment of release. Warehouses are wonderful places with the mixed aromas of the building, wood, and escaping spirit and the sight of the old barrels. Ah the barrels – you cannot underestimate their importance as high quality whisky needs to be aged in high quality casks. Mostly Laphroaig is aged in ex bourbon casks and it is here you can see how being part of a multi-national drinks company might help. Laphroaig is part of Jim Beam International (recently bought by Suntory, but we will forget about that for the moment) who also make Makers Mark. There is thus a ready supply of high quality casks – a natural match
So we turn our backs on the warehouse, leave the barrels to carry on sleeping, and head to the visitors centre for our tasting. The tour has been better than could have been hoped. The main reason for this was our guide, David, who embodied the spirit of the place and who could, from his own experience, tell tales of how things used to be.
Sometimes a person uses a word, or a phrase, that both suits there personality so well that you carry it in your head and can hear it being said when you look back and remember. David when describing some particularly dram described it as ‘a belter’. Rasping it out with full weight and gravely emphasis so you knew it was very good.
That will be my summary of our visit – it was a belter