Saturday 6 September 2014

Johnnie Does Laphroaig

Monday 18 August 2014 - 12:00pm

Price: £82.00

With my first distillery tour of the day, and indeed the week, under my belt, I jumped on the road to Port Ellen and headed to Islay's south coast to visit my first of what some would call "The Big Three". 

My first experience of Laphroaig took place when I was 14 and was asked to stick my nose in a glass and have a whiff. I remember thinking that nobody could possibly drink something like that and enjoy it. 21 years later and I wouldn't be without at least one bottle in the Stumblevault. You could say I've been looking forward to this one.

Whereas my trip to Bowmore was a fleeting visit, the Laphroaig visit was to be an all-singing, all-dancing affair. After all, this is no mere tour; this is a five hour monster covering all aspects of the whisky and carried a price tag to match. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

Dark clouds, light spirit

Part 1: The Distillery

Our experience began with a tour of the distillery. I found myself in a group of eight people; a mix of Brits, Germans and Aussies. As most of the distillery tours I have experienced have been led by chirpy, Scottish ladies, I was amused to find out that our guide for the day was not only a chap, but an English chap; what's more a southern English chap. Once I managed to get over the fact that James sounded like he lived around ten miles away from me, it was clear to see why he worked at Laphroaig. Not only was it immediately obvious that he was knowledgeable, laid-back and witty, you could see he has a real passion for what he does.

Its technical name is the diesel, grainy, turny machine
Our first stop was to be the Malting Floors. Unlike our morning visit to Bowmore, these floors were covered in germinating barley. We had a chance to examine it up close and James informed us that approximately 15-20% of the barley that Laphroaig uses is malted onsite, with the rest coming from the Port Ellen Maltings. We were taken into an empty kiln where we were given the chance to chew on some smoked, malted barley. Let me tell you, if Tesco ever start stocking this in the cereal aisle, I may just go bankrupt; lovely stuff.

Like a British pub in the nineties

The source of all its power
Next, James opened the door to one of the other kilns which was at that point being pumped with smoke from the peat fires below. Laphroaig, we were told, is peated to 45ppm on average. We were invited to climb the stairs and have a sniff. My pleas for fifteen more minutes in there fell on deaf ears and, after a quick stop to throw some more peat on the fire, we were led outside to clear our heads.

Space. The final frontier.
After going back inside to have a look at the mill, we found ourselves in the heart of the distillery and James gave us a bit of history behind the equipment being used. I must say that, far from being the antiquated, traditional set-up I had imagined, the whole affair was quite modern and precise. A necessary part of putting out so much spirit each year, I imagine.

Some idiot
We soon found ourselves by the big, metal washbacks, at which point James dipped a container inside one and promptly offered us all a dram of the contents. Having never tried the stuff before, many of the group (me included) jumped at the chance. Their enthusiasm waned a little after having tasted it. The last time I saw Mrs S pull a face like that was....well, that's probably a story for another day. Personally, I found it wonderfully fruity, although a little bitter on the finish.

More witchcraft
Laphroaig uses seven stills; three wash and four spirit. The arms at the top of the stills have a slight upward angle. James advised us that this meant that only the lighter vapours make it out of the still and there's a lot of reflux. This allows plenty of contact with the copper, presumably reducing sulphur compounds and giving the new-make spirit a fruitier flavour. As I said in my Bowmore ramble, it's all witchcraft to me.

Part 2: The Great Outdoors

After all that indoorsy stuff, we were about ready for a little bit of the countryside. We all bundled into a van and were driven down a bumpy lane into the sticks. After ditching the van, we began our hike to the water source. 

A small patch of blue in the sky to remind us of home
They say that you don't go to Scotland for the weather and, admittedly, it was as windy as balls out there. Nobody seemed to care much as the views were wonderful. One ten minute game of 'dodge the cowpats' later and we arrived at the Kilbride stream. To my surprise, they'd cunningly placed a picnic table in a little hollow and we sat down to eat.

My kind of picnic
Lunch was vegetable soup, wraps containing smoked salmon and venison, scotch eggs, cheese (made with Laphroaig), fruit cake (also made with Laphroaig) and shortbread (probably not made with Laphroaig). This was all washed down with a couple of drams, cut with the green, peaty water our host had collected from the stream. Once we had all eaten, and drank, our fill, and one of the German chaps had filled his water bottle from the stream as a souvenir, we set off for the van.

These captions are terrible, for peat's sake!
Our next stop was the Laphroaig peat bogs. We were treated to a drop of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask and told that now we had been fed and fuelled, we had to work it off cutting peat.

Mrs S in her Stormtrooper costume. Not sure about the wellies though.
I convinced Mrs S that I would be best placed to take the photos at this stage and that she should crack on with the heavy work. She muttered something that sounded like 'glass bowl' (not sure what she meant) and she set about cutting some peat. My workshy attitude was soon noted by James and I was told to get in there and start digging. Annoyingly, while Mrs S seemed to be able to cut perfect blocks, my effort resembled the sort of thing you'd normally find at the bottom of an elephant enclosure. Back to the distillery anyone?

Part 3: The Warehouse

What dreams are made of
Upon our return to the distillery, following a coffee and a quick comfort break, we were led into Warehouse 1 for the grand finale; the cask tasting.

The Prince of Wales indulging in a spot of graffiti there
What greeted us was the wonderful aroma of breathing casks, peat and sweet vapour. If this is one of the perks of being an angel, sign me up. Beyond the royally autographed (but apparently empty) cask of 1978 Laphroaig, lay row upon row of slumbering barrels, just waiting for the right time to be bottled. Three duty-paid casks had been selected for us and we were forced, absolutely forced I tell you, to sample them. 

Now that's what I call a menu

That idiot again
We were asked to pick a favourite, so that we could bottle it to take with us. From the three vintages available, all the chaps went for the '99 and all the ladies picked the '05. To the drivers amongst us who were unable to sample no more than a couple of drops (yup, you guessed it, the four ladies), James presented 30ml dram jars of each cask to enjoy at a later date. We grabbed a valinch and got to work filling our jugs.

The spoils of war
Once our bottles were filled and labelled, we were asked to enter our details onto a line in the log book, ostensibly to make the whole affair legal. Mrs S decided to put her nationality down as English (inflammatory at the best of times, let alone in the current political climate), much to James' amusement. I decided to adopt a touch of diplomacy and register myself as British, although by this point I was a little wobbly and unable to follow basic instructions, somehow ending up authorising my own bottling. I was afforded a pitying look and presented with my bottle and glass as a souvenir.

The experience was finished and so was I. We said our goodbyes and retreated back to the safety of our Bowmore cottage to recharge, safe in the knowledge that we could have a lie-in before tomorrow's experience.

To be continued.......


The Tour: A
Like I said before, this isn't a tour; it's a monster. The bracing walk, the stunning views, the picnic at the water source, the camraderie, the misshapen peat lumps and the charred splinters settling at the bottom of your self-fill bottle. All fantastic.

The Drams: A
Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength Batch #006
Laphroaig 18yo
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Laphroaig 1999 Warehouse Cask 5175 - 60.9%
Laphroaig 2002 Warehouse Cask 6930 - 57.0%
Laphroaig 2005 Warehouse Cask 127 - 59.2%
PLUS a 250ml self-fill bottle of your favourite of the three warehouse casks and mini Glencairn glass in a presentation box.

The Shop: A
The shop is weighted a little heavily towards merchandise as opposed to whisky. There are a good few whiskies on offer, from the new Laphroaig Select through to some of their older, premium bottlings. Plenty of merchandise; everything from bar runners to clothing to cheese. Free coffee for visitors, a bar and not forgetting the Friends of Laphroaig Lounge. I could happily spend a whole day (and a fortune) here.

Overall: A
Put simply, this is a wonderful, full-on experience. Yes, it's bloody pricy and, yes, it takes nigh-on five hours but, for anyone who is a fan of Laphroaig, I can't recommend this highly enough. If, as we did, you find yourself in a group of easy-going, like-minded people, you'll never want to leave.


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