On the edge of the world (Laphroaig)
The peat-reek and iodine fullness of Laphroaig is the epitome of Islay; and it has changed little since the distillery was founded in the early nineteenth century, says Neil Wilson
Laphroaig's situation , on Islay's rugged south coast, cna only impress. Bracken-clad greenstone outcrops shield the distillery from the worst of the weather coming off the bay; beyond them, on a still September day, a heron is perched motionless by the water and a seal, some distance offshore, smoothly breaks the surface. On the far side of the bay a youn roe hind looks up from its grazing. To the north the distillery's water runs sluggishly over peat; the land here was one of the distillery's best buys, since control of its water source is as vital for a distillery as for any Middle Eastern desert state.
The beginings of Laphroaig were strictly farmyard. The founding family, the Johnstons, maintained it as a small croft-distillery untiol 1815when Islay's laird, Walter Frederick Campbell, encouraged them to establish a larger two-still unit capable of selling its output in the mainland markets. The distillery gradually evolved during the 19th century until, under the direction of the founder's great-grandson, Ian Hunter, it was rebuilt with four stills. The modern-day layout is the legacy of Hunter's heir, Bessie Williamson, who arrived here in the early 1930s to 'help out' but who then stayed until her death in 1982. She took over the reins in 1954 and maintained Hunter's high standards for this unique whisky, ensuring that these were passed on to Long John Distillers who took over in the mid-sixties before eventual ownership percolated therough the corporate structures involved to the present owners, Allied Distillers.
The last time I met the current manager, 61 year-old Iain Henderson, was in 1987 when he had been in charge of Bladnoch Distillery in Wigtownshire. (He had been at various Seagram-owned distilleries before that, and after Bladnoch he moved to Laphroaig where he also acted as caretaker at nearby Ardbey until its recent sale to Glenmorangie.) 'Whisky is made from four ingrdients, ' he had said then. 'Three of them are obvious: water, yeast and barley. The fourth is the secret ingredient: people.' At Bladnoch, with ver limited financial resources, he had been in charge of a workforce whcih seemed to be able to fix anything. He himself had once been a ship's engineer i the merchant navy and a Bladnoch, when five o'clock came he often swapped his shirt and tie for overalls and spanners and went back to work until the wee small hours.
Spanner, though, are not the secret of Laphroaig's unique flavour- a flavour of iodine and peat-reek, sea salt and seaweed with a sweet, lingering fullness. That medicinal smokiness was the saving of Laphroaig during Prohibition, when technically it should have been banned form entry into the US. Instead it wad imported perfectly legally- as a medicinal spirit. the peatiness comes from the way Laphroaig peats its barley first, and then dries it. 'Eighteen hours of peating followed by 12 hours drying in warm air imparts between 35 and 40 parts per milion of phenols,' explains Henderson. About 30 per cent of Laphroaig's malt requirements come from its own floor maltings; the rest come from Port Ellen, but that portion is peated and dried at the same time. 'The phenol specification is the same as that of our own floor-malted barley, but it si or kilning technique that givesus the edge. When we move the barley into teh kiln from the malting floor it is damp and better able to absorb the peat smoke. If drying commences at the same time, the grains close up and are less receptive. By controlling the peating and following this with drying, the phenolic characteristics are more pronounced. The industrial scale of the process at Port Ellen means that this degree of controlis difficult to obtain.'
Laphroaig's water is drawn from a dammed burn lying inpeat which itself overlies quartzite rocks ot the north of the distillery. The water is therfore highly acidic, but because most of it moves by surface flow, there is little reaction with the underlying rock and so the mineral content of the water is very low. It is also fair to say tht all the Kidalton whiskies, the collective naame give to thsose in the parish of Kidalton in the south of the island, have broadly similar water sources; it is the degree to which they peat their barley that maks the differences between them/
Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg all fall into the high end of the phenolic spectrum, beating (on this scale) any other Scotch malt whisky currently being pproduced. Ardbeg converys the heaviest phenolic attributes, with 50ppm, and old-style Ardbeg was distilled from malted barley which was procuced in kilns in which the reek was not exactly drawn through the barley but was rather allowed to suffuse it and permeate it at its own rate. Whilst the current 17-year old Ardbeg is not quite the same as teh last of the 10-year-old produced under the old regime, it has the typical medicinal characteristics. Other variations between these near nbeighbours are down to the wood policy. Lagavulin's wood is ex-bourbon and sherry; Ardbeg's is American oak, and the whisky has no sherry characteristics.
'We've invested a lot into these floors, although thsi may not be immediately apparent, 'Henderson says of Laphroaig's maltings. ''We had to refurbish the funace brickwork recently and discoverd the date1840 marked on one of the bricks. These are very nearly the original funaces and they need a lot of care and attention now.' Maintenance consumes a great deal of money in such an exposed location, as did the installation of a heat reclamation system whcih draws hot water form the stillhouse condensers and turns it inot hot air to dry the barley in thekilns. More noticeably, the practice of hand-turning had gone and now one man operates an electical turner. Other than that little had changged. "The justification for using the 200-year-old technology is part heritage, part PR and part commonsense. It helps us keep that edge.'
The adjoining mash house confirms that the process in every malt distillery up to the point when the wash enters the still house is basically identical. The process of mashing (Whereby the starc from the barley grains is extracted by mixing the grist with hot water) and the n fermentation (when yeast is added to the resultant wort) is simply brwing: if the fermented wash was left to its own devices, beer would be the result.
Laphroaig's stillhouse, rebuilt to its current layout in the mid-eighties undr Murdo Reed's management, contains seven stills, theree wash and four spirti working on a complex system of charging, distilling and recharging. 'Many distilleries don not operate their stills efficiently and cnan end up with a poor ratio of low wines to feints. In other words, for every 1.8 litres of low wines produced, we create one litreof foreshots and feints. Synchronicity is vitally important here. All the stills have to be worked correctly for the process of distillation to be successful. We run the foreshots for aruond 45 minutes- one of the longest runs in the business- in order to pick up the phenols whcih begin to come in at the end of the end of that period. The largest of the spirit stills is run for fully three hours while the other two are run for two. The whole low wines run lasts six hours.'
Anyone who contends that distillation is a simple proccess and views these seven stills in operation will begin to appreciate where the human element really begins to make its mark on the finished product. Stillman Alan Hyslop judges when the middle cut is ready to capture and switches the run off from thelow wines and feints receiver to the spirits receiver. From this point onward, the quality of Laphroadig is in the hands of those who determine the wood policy.
Laphroaig's wood policy is one of the simplest there is: first refill ex-bourbon. This is why there is no influnece of sherry in Laphroaig's expressins. Except, that is, for the sample of 30-year-old (which retails at around £200 per bottle) whch Hendereson handed me. 'There is some sherry wood in that one,' he says, 'but it wil be the only one. There's no more after that.' The resultant dram is curious, displaying typical iodine and sea salt Laphroaig characteristis but with a pronounced sweet afgertaste fom the sherry influence. It is just enough to confuse the traditionalist and I'm not entirely sure I approve.
The wood policy of today is almost certainly nothing like that of the nineteenth century, although in other ways Laphroaig had changed little, apart form a reduction in strength from 43 per cent to 40 per cent in the late eighties. The ingredients are basically the same, though th ebarley strains are slightly different, and the water and kilning pracitces are relatively unchanged. It is only the industrialization of the process, as technology has evoloved, that will have made subtle changes to the character. A Laphroaig of the last century would almost certainly have been coarser; Laphroaig is a far more consistent spirit today than it ever would have been last century.
Laphroaaig had many feinds. Indeed, it had over 87,000 friends who have joined i the last five year via the entry docket that comes with each bottle. There are Friens all over Europe, in the USA and even India. They get lifetime ownerdistillery, which Laphoaig then rents back for the annual sum of one dram to be collected in person their dram, some of them visit their plots an dsome even propose marriage on them. With over 200 acres of rough ground at its disposal, Laphroiag has room for plenty more Friends.
I wander down to the edge of the bay. The heron is still there, patiently wating for the rising tide to bring in the fish. Cormorants are sunning themselves, wings outstretched, on the justting reefs offshore. At a time like this, Laphroaig is just about the best place for any whisky drinker tobe, friend or no friend.