November 11, 2012

Laphroaig - soft name, smoky whisky

If you ask occasional whisky drinkers to name a few distilleries in Scotland, chances are they will mention two or three beginning with Glen - and Laphroaig. Whatever the reasons, the Laphroaig name is probably the most well known of all the Islay distilleries. Perhaps it's the legendary smoky character, or its prestigious position as a Royal Warrant holder, (thanks to Prince Charles), or the easily identifiable old-fashioned bottle, or the uncomplicated range led by the great and consistent 10 year old. Unscientifically, it could simply be the soft sounding "Laffroyg", which rolls off the tongue in a delicious manner!
Outside of name recognition, Distillery Manager, John Campbell would say that it's the depth of flavour which makes the whisky, itself, so popular. Like so many other folks in the Islay whisky industry, John grew up on the island and has worked at Laphroaig for about 18 years, 6 of them as Manager. He is a busy man who not only oversees the many whisky production activities, but is a key figure in the global marketing side of the business. Whether he's tweeting with one of thousands of followers, or hosting a visit from His Royal Highness, he's always front and centre of Laphroaig outreach. With his gentle manner, knowledge about his product, and twinkling eyes, it's not surprising that Beam Inc (the parent company) like him on the road from time to time, talking about Laphroaig.
In September he was in Germany for Laphroaig Live, an annual 45 min internet show, which in recent years has been hosted in Sydney, Kentucky and London. More recently, he was in the US, one of Laphroaig's biggest markets. With his understated good looks and quiet, purposeful, concise way of speaking, he has the kind of presence that makes people listen - a rare gift.
I chatted a bit with John on a late Friday afternoon in mid September, a time when one could imagine the entire population of Islay downing tools to have a wee dram of - something! Not so at Laphroaig. Our chat was sandwiched between a meeting that ran late and a conference call that was still to happen. There was a sense of quiet urgency about the man which made me not want to take up too much of his time. Still, ask John a question about the source of Laphroaig's legendary smoky character, or his favourite expression, (the 10 year old) and he's happy to expand.
Laphroaig has been legally distilling since 1815 (the same year as Ardbeg, so 2015 is sounding like THE year to visit Islay during Feis Ile). It's one of the very few distilleries still conducting some floor maltings, after which the germinated barley is first exposed to a very smoky peat fire to lock in the desired smoky character, before being dried with hot air. John submits that this process is fundamental in producing the smoky depth of flavour of Laphroaig whiskies. The Islay peat is brick shaped to keep the moisture content high and to produce more smoky character. John also described their foreshot run, at 45 minutes, as the longest in the industry. A long foreshot run removes undesirable elements, puts more of the heart front end back into the next distillation, and leaves the heart of the run as close to pure, unadulterated new spirit as possible.
In the stillroom, I met Donnie (19 years at the distillery) and Michael (2 years). Unusually, Laphroaig has  3 small spirit stills and one double size still, the smaller ones producing a sweeter, lighter spirit. Careful attention is paid to the proportions of each going into the maturation stage.
Maturation is predominantly in first fill, ex-Bourbon barrels, giving a slightly sweet, vanilla, nutty character to the smoky new spirit. Sherry casks are occasionally used for final maturation of some expressions. About 70% of the casks are matured on the island, with 60% of that in rack warehouses and 40% in dunnage.
The range is uncomplicated (as in not too many expressions) and tasty. Here's what to look for in the core range.......
The 10 year old is hard to beat. It's smoky, a little bit salty, smoky, a little bit sweet, smoky. There's a cask strength version as well.
The Quarter Cask, which enjoys a few months of final maturation in small casks, offers up additional toffee flavours. I often use this one at tastings and never tire of it. It's a great whisky and, I hesitate to say this in case bad things happen back in Ontario, but it's very decently priced for such an interesting whisky.
Relatively new to the range is Triple Wood, essentially Quarter Cask with a final maturation in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. Such are the wonders of technology that I can tell you that there are currently about 65 bottles of the stuff on LCBO shelves in Ottawa. Go shopping, Ottawa whisky lovers!
The PX, available in Duty Free, is finished in sweet PX sherry casks. I haven't tried that yet but, as I seem to spend  a lot of time in airports these days, I plan to rectify this very soon. I'm expecting syrupy, then dry.
The 18 year old is a dram to be savoured and enjoyed. The extra 8 years in the cask adds more flavours to explore, more sweetness and less smoke. It's really quite delicious. For me, it's hard to choose between 10 year old, Quarter cask and 18 year old - all Laphroaig, each unique.
That's it from Islay for now. You can browse the article list at the side for stories about each of the eight distilleries. Next up will be some posts about  Speyside and other whisky stuff, Swiss wines, German beer and Israeli wine (delicious!) - not necessarily in that order.