When I found out I would be spending my birthday week in Islay, there was one distillery that I called pretty much immediately. Their 10 Year Old had, many years ago, inducted me to how incredible the world of single malt could be and their range has always been a staple of my whisky cabinet. That distillery in question was, of course, the Laphroaig distillery.
Whisky friend and manager of SMWS London, Joe McGirr, told me categorically that the one thing not to be missed on Islay was the Laphroaig water to whisky experience that is run infrequently but is not only great fun but helps you to gain a hands on understanding of every single aspect of the whisky making process.
I had been in touch with the distillery to ensure we were booked on to the water to whisky experience taking place on our first ‘distillery day’ on the island, only a maximum of eight people are able to take part on each water to whisky experience so ensure you call ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
Arriving been dropped off in Port Ellen by our soon-to-be-retained cabbie for the week, Sean, we walked ‘a good Islay mile’ – which is roughly a mile and a half, for no good reason – along the coast then a newly made roadside path until we neared the unmistakably iconic Laphroaig-green bonded warehouses and within a few metres we saw the distillery’ welcome sign.
After a short walk along Laphroaig’s driveway, punctuated by me stopping every few metres excitedly taking photos of anything with the Laphroaig logo on it, we arrived at the visitor centre to sign in.
We were greeted by the fantastic Emma, who was to be our host and guide for the rest of the day.
As we were around half an hour early, there was enough time for a couple of wee breakfast drams from the shop’s sample selection that included every bottle from their permanent range as well as their Feis Ile distillery only limited edition which was gorgeous.
We opted to sit outside in the gorgeous sunshine, grabbing a couple of photos of the iconic Laphroaig sign on the outside of Warehouse One until Emma came over to collect us for the start of our water to whisky experience, and to collect our wellies for our walk to the water source later that afternoon.
Following a swift health and safety chat, we embarked on an insightful tour of the Laphroaig distillery, shown in the photos below, where we learned quite a few interesting factoids about a history-rich distillery and brand.
Top five insights we learned on the distillery tour
- Laphroaig peats 20% of their barley themselves
- 95% of the casks used at Laphroaig are ex-Makers Mark bourbon casks
- One of the original family members drowned in one of the mash tuns
- Laphroaig fills 3.5 million litres of spirit per year
- Their spirit safe is still completely manually operated, no automation here
Once our tour was finished we headed to the visitor centre for a swift dram or two, were presented our ‘Water to Whisky’ tasting glasses that would become our friends over the next few hours and, after a swift change into our wellies, we headed to the Laphroaig Mobile for a five-minute drive to the base of the hills nearby.
What happened next was simply awesome.
We walked over rocky terrain, dodging sheep and taking in the awe-inspiring views of rolling hills, the sprawling distillery site and the nearby loch as we heard distillery tales and the history of nearby towns and settlements.
Then, without too much warming we arrived at the Laphroaig water source where we found a perfectly placed picnic bench for Emma to unpack the array of Tupperware boxes that contained lunch for the group.
We sat, a dram of the Laphroaig 18 Year Old in hand, feasting on smoked venison, smoked salmon, a gorgeous chicken noodle soup, Laphroaig infused cheese, short bread, haggis scotch eggs and whisky cake. All in the idyllic setting at the base of the water source, from which we all dutifully drank a dram’s worth to say we had.
Having then quickly packed up the food containers we set off back to the Laphroaig Mobile the way we had come, taking it all in, capturing what we could with our respective cameras.
A few more minutes driving followed, weaving along single track roads, passing stone monuments that, we were told, had no substantiated stories attached but many myths made up by locals over the years.
Shortly after, we pulled into the peat banks where Laphroaig acquires their peat for the smoking of the barley.
Emma explained how there are guys on the island who are pretty much paid by the peat brick to cut into the banks using quite rudimentary farming tools, forming stacks of peat bricks, waiting six to eight weeks for them to dry enough, then delivering them to the distillery. Tough work, I’m sure we can all agree.
Today, however, we all agreed to wave our bricking fee in order to have a go at cutting peat ourselves.
With yet another dram in hand, this time the Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength 6th release (which shot right up into my top ten drams of all time), I got right in there. Luckily I had watched a couple of others have a go first but in truth there was not a great deal I could glean in order to perfect my technique other than by having a go.
I was pretty impressed that I was the only one to cut perfectly formed peat bricks with each cut, extracting them masterfully and carefully. I would also readily admit that there was probably a healthy degree of luck involved, mixed with enthusiasm and an eagerness to impress.
Once we had all had a go, and finished our drams, we headed back to the distillery for the final and most exclusive part of the water to whisky experience the Warehouse One cask sampling.
As we strolled into Warehouse One, we were greeted by huge iron bars, behind which were some of Laphroaig’s most precious liquid including casks dating back decades and even a cask filled and signed by HRH Prince Charles from his visit to the distillery in 1994.
Emma informed us that the tour staff and master distiller sample around two hundred casks a year and pick three that are perfectly distinguished just for people lucky enough to take part in the water to whisky experience to sample and bottle to take home as a keep sake.
- Cask One – Distilled 1999, ex-Makers Mark bourbon cask, 60.3%. Softer nose than anticipated but a healthy burn on the palette and finish. Strong notes of vanilla. Reminiscent of the old Laphroaig 15 Year Old.
- Cask Two – Distilled 2002, ex-Makers Mark bourbon cask, 57%. Medicinal nose, softer and feels more developed than Cask One. A true build of flavours, spicy finish.
- Cask Three – Distilled 2005, ex-Makers Mark bourbon cask, 59.2%. Full nose, huge on the vanilla with a big peat finish, oily texture.
Once we had sampled all three, we were asked to pick our favourite and to valinch our own bottle to take home. Something truly special. Kirst and I chose casks one and three respectively and began our bottling.
After sealing, writing the label and signing the book of owners for each cask we had one final dram and headed to the shop to sample a couple more, change our footwear and to buy some souvenirs.
I would like to say a huge thank you to Laphroaig for an incredible day, in particular Emma who was incredibly passionate, insightful and facilitated an experience that neither us, nor anyone else who goes on it, will forget.