Laphroaig is arguably the world's ultimate 'Marmite' whisky, dividing opinion between those who just don't get its intense, phenolic, maritime character and those who are fiercely loyal to the Islay single malt. Clearly, Laphroaig is doing something right, as it is the world's best-selling Islay brand, and in 2013 the ninth-best-selling single malt in the global top ten.
The brand has many 'friends,' too, in fact 669,000 from more than 190 countries at the last count. 21 years ago the marketing team behind Laphroaig came up with the notion of creating the 'Friends of Laphroaig' organisation, with each registered 'Friend' receiving preferential purchasing terms on bottles of whisky, and sometimes exclusive new expressions not on general release. They are also granted a lifetime's lease on a square foot of land at the distillery and the annual 'rent' takes the form of a dram of Laphroaig.
High profile aficionados of the distinctive Laphroaig style include HRH The Prince of Wales, who bestowed his Royal Warrant on the distillery in 1994, and this year there are particular causes for celebration down on the southern shores of Islay, as Laphroaig marks its bi-centenary, having first been licensed in 1815 by brothers Donald and Alexander Johnston.
When the Allied empire was split up in 2005, Laphroaig, along with Ardmore distillery in Aberdeenshire and Teacher's blended Scotch whisky, was purchased by Fortune Brands and the most recent change in ownership came in 2014, when Suntory Holdings Ltd acquired the shares of Beam Inc, which brought Laphroaig into the same ownership as fellow Islay single malt Bowmore.
The powers that be at what is now named Beam Suntory Inc. seem relaxed enough about having the two best-selling Islay single malts apparently competing against each other, taking the view that stylistically they are not actually competitors, due to Laphroaig's greater peatiness and more overtly 'maritime' character.
However, one thing that both distilleries do have in common is the continued operation of traditional floor maltings. Indeed, three of Islay's eight distilleries actually make some of their own malt, with Laphroaig's four malting floors producing around 15 per cent of the plant's total malt requirements. There are seven stills of which low wines are produced in the wash stills and feints/foreshots/middle cut(new spirit) are produced in the spirit stills.
The man at the helm of Laphroaig is John Campbell, who has managed Laphroaig since stepping into the large shoes of the legendary Iain Henderson back in 2006, when he became the youngest distillery manager on Islay and the first Ileach to hold the position in living memory. John says that the major differences between Laphroaig and other distilleries on Islay are:
1. Floor Maltings
We malt 20 per cent of our barley on site using traditional floor maltings (there are only six distilleries in Scotland which still malt onsite). The malt we are producing has a higher phenol level and we are using hand cut peat to infuse the malt.
2. Hand cut peat
All of our peat is cut by hand to allow more moisture than machined cut peat. This gives us a colder smoke during the peating process in the kiln and a higher phenol level, as the malt is still moist and the fore slowly absorbs the peat reak before drying afterwards with warm air.
3. Long fore shot run
Our lyne arm is positioned at a very steep angle and we have an unusually long foreshot run of 45 minutes (it's generally 10 - 15 minutes in the industry). We allow a longer fore shot run to ensure all the Laphroaig characteristics are captured in the vapour.
4. We use the casks only once
The casks are usually ex Bourbon Makers Mark. We use the casks only once at Laphroaig and then they are sold on and reused by other companies such as Chivas. This is quite rare as many distilleries will use casks two or three times at least mainly due to cost.
5. Maturation on Islay
Due to the Gulf Stream we get a different maturation, more air in the cask and faster the evaporation.
When it comes to the expressions of Laphroaig generally available, the trusty 'entry level' 10 Years Old is accompanied by a cask strength version at the same age, Quarter Cask (where maturation is speeded up by the small size of container), Triple Wood (aged in ex- Bourbon casks, quarter casks and Oloroso sherry casks), 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old.
Last year Laphroaig Select was added to the line-up, and this No Age Statement variant comprises a vatting of spirit matured in no fewer than five different cask types, namely Oloroso sherry, Pedro Ximinez sherry, first-fill Bourbon, quarter casks and new American oak barrels. To commemorate the distillery's 200th anniversary, a limited edition 15 Years Old bottling has been released, reviving memories of the 'original' 15 Years old, launched more than 30 years ago, and John Campbell's favourite expression of Laphroaig.
Drinking the whisky itself may be the ultimate experience, but visiting the distillery is also extremely rewarding, and Laphroaig certainly sets out its stall to impress and satisfy visitors. According to Vicky Stevens, Visitor Centre Manager, "We get visitors with a wide range of levels of interest and experience, so we have a wide range of tour options.
"The interactive nature of all our tours is at the heart of what we do. We spend at least an hour over every tasting session to guide and explore and provide one-on-one time. You can get very hands-on at Laphroaig, in the floor maltings, with peat, tasting the wort and the wash and so on. We've developed our visitor experiences over the last five or six years, as we've been given the resources to do it."
The 4½ hours 'Water to Whisky Experience' (£85) is the ultimate immersion in Laphroaig, beginning with a walk to the Laphroaig water source for a picnic lunch, complete with a dram or two, accompanied by the distillery's source water. This is followed by a lesson in peat cutting - much harder than it looks - before a return to the distillery and the opportunity to turn the 'piece' on one of the malting floors, followed by a comprehensive distillery tour. Finally, there is the chance to sample a range of Laphroaigs from the cask in Warehouse No 1 and bottle some to drink at home using a valinch.
Malt: Peated to 40 - 60ppm (floor maltings) and 35 - 45ppm (bought in)
Mashing: Full Lauter mashtun - 5.5 tonnes mash
Fermentation: 6 x stainless steel washbacks - 53,000 litres each. 53 hour fermentations.
Distillation: Three wash stills - 10,400 litres charge
Four spirit stills: 4,900 (one still is double the size at 9,400) litres charge
Annual capacity: 3.3 million litres
Laphroaig 15 Years Old 200th Anniversary bottling, 40% ABV
Nose: Brine, tarry peat, warm leather, pepper and salted caramel.
Palate: Mellow and medicinal, with sweet, spicy smoke, citrus fruit and a hint of chilli.
Finish: Long, with a citrus tang; ashy, with drying smoke.
The polarity of responses to the character of Laphroaig single malt has inspired the competition '200 Opinions Wanted.' Two hundred of what are judged to be the best and most unique opinions will be displayed on a series of tiles on a wall at the distillery, and authors will be invited to attend 'Laphroaig Live' - the annual internet-based celebration of all things Laphroaig, this year being hosted by the distillery itself for the first time in nine years. Details of when the event is to be staged will be posted at www.laphroaig.com/laphroaig-live