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    Laphroaig Single Malt Whisky

    Laphroaig - pronounced ‘LaFROYg’ – is the top selling single malt from Islay. With its heavily peated character it is often considered, along with Lagavulin, to epitomise the well-known Islay single malts. Those two neighbouring distilleries, which sit on the east coast of the island, are very closely associated in both history and reputation.

    Laphroaig distillery was founded in 1815 by brothers Alexander and Donald Johnston (son of Lagavulin founder John Johnston). In 1847 Donald Johnston was killed after falling into a vat of boiling ale and the facility was taken over by Walter Graham, the manager of Lagavulin. After a decade Laphroaig was returned to the Johnston family and passed through multiple generations before finally being taken over by Ian Hunter, related through marriage, in 1928. Hunter solidified the reputation of the brand, even ensuring that Laphroaig was exported to America during prohibition; supposedly by convincing officials the whisky had a medicinal purpose, thanks to its strong iodine smell.

    With no further family to inherit the role, Hunter passed ownership of the distillery to his PA and confidante Bessie Williamson in 1954 – making her one of the first women to own and operate a whisky distillery. Bessie furthered the reputation of Laphroaig whisky by expanding the production capabilities and later selling the facility to Seager Evans & Company - thus allowing more finances to compete in the international market.

    Laphroaig then changed hands multiple times, being owned for a period of time by Whitbread & Co. and Allied Distillers before being purchased by current owners, Future Brands (a subsidiary of Beam Global Spirits & Wine) in 2005. The distillery continues to produce the notorious heavily peated whiskies which brought worldwide popularity for the brand.


    What makes Laphroaig different? Where does its unique flavour come from? The flavour of any malt whsky comes from three sources: the raw materials, the production process and the maturation process. In this article I will look briefly at each, in relation to Laphroaig.

    Raw Materials

    Only three ingredients are allowed: water, yeast and malted barley. Laphroaig’s process water comes from the Kilbride Reservoir, which is itself fed by a broad catchment area of 800 hectares. It is brown, from the peat it percolates through before reaching the distillery, and highly acidic. It is unlikely that these peaty solids affect the flavour, and since the peat overlays quartz, the mineral content of the water is low. Distillers’ yeast is exclusively used: a hybrid named Mauri, consistently dependable. Barley comes from the east coast of Scotland and England. The variety is not deemed to be an important contributor to flavour, although it is important for the yield of alcohol. Significantly, a proportion of the barley is malted on site in Laphroaig’s old-fashioned floor maltings (currently around 10%). The rest is malted at Port Ellen Maltings two miles away, peated to the distillery’s precise specification. Laphroaig owns its own peat banks on Machrie Moor, close to Islay’s airport. It is hand cut in April and May, left to dry on site then transported to the distillery in August. It is carried from the peat shed to the kiln via the shortest light railway in the U.K. – only 20 yards long. The fragrance of the peat smoke is an important element in the spirit’s flavour, and Laphroaig is peated to between 10 and 15 parts per million phenols.

    Production

    The malt is ground and mashed. These early stages are very important for yield, but not for flavour. Then the sugary liquid from the mash tun is pumped into washbacks (stainless steel at Laphroaig) and fermented by the addition of yeast for 55 hours. The length of fermentation time is important for developing fruity flavours in the whisky. Now at 8.5%ABV, like a strong unhopped beer, the liquid, called ‘wash’ charges the first still, the ‘wash still’. Laphroaig has three of these, all charged at 83.5% of their capacity with 10,500 litres of wash each. The stills are indirect fired by steam-heated pans and coils and are equipped with shell and tube condensers. A typical run takes five hours. The liquid, now called ‘low wines’ and at around 15%ABV, goes to low wines receiver, and from here charges the second still. Laphroaig has three stills of 4,700 capacity and one of 9,400 litres. It is at this stage that the skill of the still operator comes into play. The first runnings, called foreshots, are high strength, pungent and even poisonous: they are run for forty-five minutes and directed to the low wines receiver for re-distillation. Now the operator begins to save the ‘heart of the run’ which will become whisky. This lasts around two and a half hours in the small stills, three and a half in the Big Still, after which time further undesirable flavours emerge, called ‘feints’, and the spirit is again separated for redistillation. They run for around two hours.

    Maturation

    This is the single most important area for flavour development. Laphroaig uses mainly first-fill ex-bourbon barrels from Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky. Around 60% of the make is matured either at the distillery or at Ardbeg; the remainder is tankered for maturation in Glasgow. The location does not seem to affect the flavour of the mature whisky.

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