Posted on | October 2, 2015
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Laphroaig Celebrates Two Centuries of Distinctiveness
Although it’s not Laphroaig’s real birthday (the cattle-farming Johnston family was turning excess feed barley into whisky long before it was legalized in 1815), this year marks as good of an excuse as any to raise a dram and toast the world’s number one Islay malt.
Just how this liquid became one of the most revered and coveted on the planet is owed to a confluence of tangible—and intangible—factors. For one, the Kilbride river, which provides both the pristine water and peat beds. Laphroaig is one of the few distilleries left that retains its own floor maltings, and they kiln at lower temperatures than most others. The distillery is famous for being hyper-selective with their “cuts”—meaning, they let the still run for a full 45 minutes before they start collecting spirit in order to capture the purest, smoothest distillate.
“Over the years some things may adjust, like coal-fired stills, but generation to generation our cuts remain the same,” says Simon Brooking, Laphroaig Brand Ambassador. “We are committed to staying true to the philosophy our forefathers pioneered and the practice of cutting is core to that principle.”
Sense of place
The result is a pronounced translation of place. To taste Laphroaig is to taste Islay; each sip channels the rawness of the windswept, rugged landscape, the smoky peat fires and the sea spray which literally kisses the barrels as they age in the warehouses and absorb its salty, briny character. Few spirits express their place of origin so distinctly.
“Laphroaig has a polarizing flavor,” says Brooking, and the distillery embraces that not-for-everyone taste profile, as echoed in their #OpinionsWelcome campaign. “The smoky, fiery quality of Laphroaig hints at ancient circles sitting around the campfire,” he adds.
Ownership has changed over the years, but Laphroaig’s flavor profile hasn’t much altered since the early 1900s when then-master distiller Ian Hunter traveled to the U.S. to source American oak bourbon barrels, which pioneered that practice for the entire industry. Islay born and bred John Campbell is at the helm today.
Campbell is running the distillery at full capacity these days, but can’t possibly keep up with international demand. Notes Brooking: “When supply becomes an issue we see it as an opportunity to educate our consumers about our entire portfolio.”
Laphroaig’s innovations are often more of a nod to the past—“We like to say we innovate through tradition,” says Brooking. Laphroaig Quarter Cask—launched a decade ago and now the distillery’s second best seller—is transferred after five years into small, quarter-sized casks which were used over 100 years ago to transport via horse. The smaller barrels create greater “angel’s share,” but also more opportunity for the spirit to absorb flavors from the wood and sea air. The Cairdeas expressions are also modeled on Laphroaig’s early years, made from 100% floor malted barley and distilled in small stills, then finished in different types of wood barrels.
Though in recent decades Laphroaig has been owned by large spirits companies, the distillery remains small—just 33 employees. Brooking explains: “I think people would be surprised at just how little has changed at Laphroaig over the last 200 years.”