The island of Islay, off the western coast of Scotland, maintains an extreme sense of small-town community. It’s the kind of place where there's no bakery, but everyone knows that the receptionist at the police station makes the best birthday cakes. It’s a place where if the ferry doesn't come in from the mainland, you can’t buy milk or toilet paper. It’s a place where if something interesting happens, all 3200 residents will know before morning.
But despite its tiny population and size, this island houses eight Scotch distilleries that distill some of the most highly respected whisky in the world. And with 200 years of history, Laphroaig is among the most venerated.
Islay is a beautiful but barren place, with the moody skies and wind-whipped coastline you'd expect from a remote Scottish island. But those qualities, as the kids say, are not bugs. They’re features. And they help produce some of the world’s most distinctive whisky. Spirits from Islay carry a reputation for intense, smoky, peaty flavors—highly prized by some Scotch-lovers, loathed by many Scotch neophytes. However, if crazy-intense is your style, Laphroaig (and Islay more generally) is your place. So, what exactly are the secrets to this taste that is very much worth acquiring?
All Scotch is distilled from malted barley; so what, exactly, is malted barley? Essentially, barley grains are germinated and allowed to sprout; as they do so, they convert the seed's starch into sugars, which can then be fermented—the first step in making the alcohol we all know and love.
Few single-malt distilleries malt their own barley, but Laphroaig malts 15 percent of theirs—as much as their facility can handle. According to Laphroaig’s master distiller John Campbell, the in-house, old-school malting has a major impact on the flavor. Four longtime distillery workers handle all of the barley that comes through, 7 tons at a time, working the grain by smell and touch; opening the windows when a sea breeze is neede and, turning the grains with a 100-year-old floor plow to keep them from getting too wet and clumping together.
All that sounds rather backbreaking and tedious, but distillery life looks pretty cheery. In fact, until the late 1970s or so, distillery workers engaged in "dramming," taking a dram (1/8 of an ounce) of Scotch every morning, lunch, and afternoon.
You'll hear the word "peat" a lot in conjunction with Scotch, so let's start with the fundamentals: what is peat? It looks like mud, but it's largely made up of the decaying remains of plant matter. Found in naturally occurring peat bogs, including much of Northern Europe, the detritus has long been burned for fuel—and it's the smoke from that peat, when used to dry malted barley grains, that lends some Scotches, including Laphroaig, their distinct flavor.
Islay peat, according to Campbell, is different from what you'll find on mainland Scotland or elsewhere. Because there are no forests on Islay, the decaying plants are primarily heather, lichen, and moss. That makeup gives the Scotch a sort of herbal, medicinal quality that's distinctive to the island. Laphroaig still harvests all their peat by hand before drying, removing the tough top layer and cutting the exact size of peat bricks ideal for the fire.
How It's Smoked
Once the grains are malted, they're spread out on mesh and raised 16 feet over a peat fire. Why the distance? Keeping the grain further from the heat prevents it from drying out as quickly and the longer the barley stays wet, the more flavor it absorbs.
The fire is continually manned for 17 hours, its temperature deliberately kept low so that the grain takes longer to dry, taking on more and more of that peat smoke flavor. Only afterward, in a separate contraption, is the grain fully dried out, before it continues on its way to Scotch-hood.
Once the grains are ground up, cooked, and fermented to around 8.5% alcohol, the wash is ready for distillation. Laphroaig's seven pot stills, squat and distinctively shaped, are where it all takes place.
After a first distillation, the liquid goes through a second, but not all of the resulting spirit will become Laphroaig. Campbell and his team collect a limited "middle cut"—not the first part of the distillation, nor the last—since different characteristics emerge throughout the process.
Finally, that liquid goes into the barrel, and it's laid to rest. The Laphroaig distillery is on the Atlantic. That means waves continually lap at the storehouse walls and a salty, chilly wind whips onshore at almost all times.
And that's coming through the warehouse walls as barrels of whisky sit for 12 years, 18 years, or even longer. There's a definite salty, oceanic quality to Laphroaig -- and as you're shivering in the sea air, it's easy to see why.