The main reason I decided to stay in Port Ellen was its close proximity to the three South Islay distilleries, namely Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. I didn’t want to hire a car for the trip and figured that this would put at least 3 of the distilleries within walking distance.
Port Ellen is a really great place to stay. It sits on a bay where you can see the Mull of Oa (or “The O” if you want the locals to know what you’re talking about) and the mainland in the distance. It’s quiet but there are still people walking around and there are benches and tables dotting the coastline. It’s really the kind of place that makes you feel like you’re on holiday.
For my second day on the Island I only wanted to visit one distillery. I was doing a long tour and wanted some time to just get my bearings. So after a hearty breakfast at the B&B, I set off to Laphroaig. There’s a really nice walking path that goes next to the road all along the South coast from Port Ellen to Ardbeg. It’s well maintained and the views along the way are breathtaking, I stopped quite often to take pictures, say hi to the sheep or just enjoy the scenery.
As I began to approach the distillery I saw the warehouses and chimneys in the distance. I remember taking my first sip of Laphroaig and never thought I’d actually be seeing what was right there in front of me. The distillery grounds were quite nice, surrounded by woods and sitting on the coastline. I found the visitor centre and went to say hi and was astounded by all the Laphroaig brand stuff for sale.
I had about an hour to kill until I started my tour so I had a look around, they have a pretty nifty museum, and then found the Friends of Laphroaig corner. This is a really nice marketing gimmick, but when you buy a bottle of Laphroaig, it comes with a little card with a code, you can use that code to register as a Friend of Laphroaig and they give you a square foot of land and you get paid ‘rent’ of a dram. So I printed out my certificate/map, got a flag out of their folder of flags, grabbed a pair of provided wellies, and my rent, and plodded off to stake my claim. I noticed most of the flags had just been stuck next to the paths but I went ankle deep into the muck and actually found my little plot.
When I came back to the visitor centre I still had some time to kill, so I bought lots of stuff, because their stuff is all so very, very cool. Also, it’s one of the few distilleries that sell their whiskies for cheaper than average market price, so you’re actually getting a good deal. I picked up a bottle of the 10 year old Cask Strength, which I absolutely love, and a bottle of the 18 year old to keep for a rainy day. I also bought a really awesome winter jacket, a shirt, a wooly hat and some cheese.
While I was waiting for the tour I was given a dram of Laphroaig’s new premium NAS expression, the Lore, whose story is all to do with the long history of whisky making bla bla bla. So I sat in the lounge looking out at the bay and sipped away.
Aged 3 years*. 48%ABV. Non-chill filetered.
*for lack of age statement
Nose: Earthy Peat, typical Laphroaig, but mixed with quite a strong fruity note. Slightly floral. Soot. Apple cider. Yellow cherries.
Palate: Very ashy. Wet earth. Juicy fruits. Fried mushrooms. Crisp lager.
Finish: Long. Ash. Oil smoke. Wet wood. Seaweed.
Would I buy this: No
Would I order this in a bar: Yes
Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass: Yes
This was a really nice dram and it does emphasise the whole Laphroaig profile quite well, very medicinal and peaty but with some sweeter notes as well. The higher ABV and no chill filtration means it is very rich as the box says. But it’s just not as good as a whisky almost twice the price of the 10 year old cask strength should be.
After sipping away at my Lore, and getting a taste of the 10 year old cask strength (just to make sure I was right to buy a bottle you see), our tour got going. I was doing the Water to Whisky your, it’s one of the more pricey distillery tours on the island, but really comprehensive, as you shall see, and a great way to start my trip, Laphroaig being one of my favourite distilleries.
Our guide Christianne was fantastic, and had a really good knowledge not just of the whisky but of the general history of the distillery. She also talked to us quite a bit about general life on the island which was fascinating, and dropped some great tips on where to get some good eats in Port Ellen.
We started off with a tour of the distillery itself, which was in production so we got to see everything at work. First we saw the malting floors, we passed by one active one and then went up to one that wasn’t in use to see how it all worked and then the kilns which we got to step into. The smell of the dried malt was heavenly. After that we got to go down to the peat fires and see what this glorious substance actually was and got to throw some peat on the fire.
We proceeded on to the mash tun and washbacks where the ‘beer’ that will be distilled was made. This was my first taste of the stuff, which I found to be a very fizzy, un-hopped, warm beer with a slightly smoky taste. It wasn’t very good, but nonetheless interesting to see what flavours were present in this raw product. I ended up trying to get hold of some at every distillery to see what it tasted like. From here it was off to the still room where the real magic happens. There was a lovely smell of new make in the room and we got a talk about Laphroaig’s stills and what makes them unique. The stills have a rather long neck and upward angled arm for maximum contact with the copper as well as a thingy (forgot the name) to catch condensed alcohol in the arm and bring it back down into the still(reflux).
I think at this point we tried the 16 year old (I meant to take notes the whole trip but most of the time I was too engaged to do so, so everything is from memory, which was admittedly fuzzy most of the time). I’ve tried it before, it’s a little different to what you’d expect from Laphroaig with a very heavy bourbon cask influence that takes precedence over the peaty notes. From here we donned some wellies and set off to the distillery’s water source. We had a brief drive and then a short hike through some lovely fields overlooking the distillery to the natural spring that provides the water for the production of the distillery. We actually got to try the water, as it’s quite clean, and it was kind of earthy, flowing through a lot of peat. We then had a packed lunch which went along with a dram of the 15 year old, which I’ve also already tried. We also got to know the rest of the group (the water to whisky tour is limited to 7-8 people so it’s quite easy).
After that we were driven down to the peat fields which were a little South of Islay’s airport near the West coast of the island. Here we got put to work cutting peat which was quite interesting. Apparently Laphroaig’s peat is still hand cut as it ensures getting better cuts of the peat and less of the undesirable topsoil, something that’s harder to control with a cutting machine. As a reward for our labour we got a dram of the 2016 Cairdeas release. This is an annual release that usually has some sort of special cask finish, this year’s being finished in Madeira casks. This was one I’d had my eye on for a bit, as I’m quite a fan of Madeira finishes, but I’d had a small taste at Whisky Live a while before and it wasn’t as promising as I’d hoped, so I was glad to give it another chance.
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2016 Madeira
Aged 3 years*. 51.6%ABV. Matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in Madeira hogsheads. No colourant added, non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.
*for lack of age statement although we were told it’s around 10-11 years old
Nose: Slight farmy note, refined, not the big, bold notes usually found in a Laphroaig. Bit of a sweet oily nose, like sage oil. Spicy. Cinnamon. Pepper. Salt. Ozone.
Palate: More Laphroaig here mineral peat and medicinal notes. Juicy, sweet red fruits. Cinnamon. Cough syrup.
Finish: Long. Farmy. Anise. Spice. Cherry cough syrup.
Would I buy this: No
Would I order this in a bar: Yes
Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass: Yes
This wasn’t a bad whisky at all, but it was very light and full of sweet herbal notes. For me that just didn’t sit right with the Laphroaig profile, so not a bad whisky, just not to my tastes, so I passed up on buying a bottle at the distillery.
We were driven back to the distillery, after having a brief encounter with an older local who was apparently speaking English, but no one was really sure. We took off the wellies and while doing so were given a taste of the 21 year old. Another one I’ve previously reviewed, an absolutely amazing dram, which I can best describe as sublime, but it only comes in little tiny half-bottles so a no-buy for me. But definitely something Laphroaig fans need to try.
From here we proceeded to the warehouse for the final, and most interesting part of the tour. Here we were taught about the maturation process and Laphroaig’s particular preferences and methods, such as the heavy use of first-fill bourbon and their fetish for quarter casks. Here we were presented with three casks from which samples were drawn. The first was a 2004 Bourbon cask, which sat at a friendly 51%ABV. It was quite sweet and light, but I found it lacked that Laphroaig peaty punch to it. Next up was a quarter cask of spirit distilled in 2005 which had previously spent 8 years in Bourbon casks before being transferred to quarter casks. It sat at a much more aggressive 56.9%ABV. It was very rich and oily, quite sweet yet still very peaty. Next up was a 1998 Sherry but, sitting at 59.3%ABV. This was a really nice one, the Laphroaig profile is still very much there but mixed with a delightful, dry sherry from the cask.
Finally we got to bottle our own 250ml bottle from the cask of our choice. I ended up taking the 1998 sherry cask, but it was a really close choice between that and the 2005 quarter cask which was also good. I also ended up spilling the stuff all over myself, apparently I’m no good at using a valinch, but I didn’t really mind the smell at all. I was on a real buzz after this, having also grabbed a quick 2nd sample of the sherry cask, and having had an incredible time, and happily stumbled back along the 3 Distilleries path back to Port Ellen. I hit up the bar at the Islay Hotel that night, directly next door to the Askernish B&B, where I was staying and met up with a fellow redditor who was also on the island for a holiday. We had a dram and a pint together and a good chat. I also noticed some bottles from Israel’s Milk & Honey distillery on the shelf of the bar, which some friends had deposited there when they visited in May for the Feis Ile. So we sampled a bit of that too. There was a local singer playing at the bar that night which added to the atmosphere and then the bar manager broke out his bagpipes and joined them. At this point I stumbled off to bed and fell asleep to the sweet sound of the pipes, a really successful day on Islay all in all.