Day 2 of our Islay whisky tour was the day we had been waiting for, for a very long time. This was the day we scheduled to do the Water to Whiskey Tour (WTWT) at our favorite distillery, Laphroaig. The WTWT is exactly what it sounds like and more. They take you on a tour of the distillery, walk you through the production process, give you an incredible lunch, and then take you outside for an active tour of their water source and peat fields, and you cap the whole affair off in the warehouse sampling straight from the casks. Where you even get to bottle your own cask based bottle to take home! While the cost of the tour seems a little steep, it is in fact a bargain of a deal for the whole day spent learning, exploring, and most importantly tasting all that Laphroaig has to offer.
Now because of the way the weather was on the day we went, our guide, who’s name will be kept secret for her protection (as she was incredibly generous with her pours) but we will call her “Sharlene”, rearranged the tour slightly which actually turned out to be a great and unique experience in and of itself. Typically the tour starts with the outdoor portions and finishes with in the distillery, but we started off by visiting the indoor portions first. Our first stop was the malting floors of the distillery where we had good timing because Arthur, a happy Laphroaig employee who has worked there for over 20yrs, happened to be spreading the soaked barley on the floor when we arrived.
Laphroaig is one of the few remaining distilleries that still do their malting on site, the others being Bowmore and Kilchoman. After seeing where the malting takes place we went down to the shoring kiln where they burn the peat to infuse the wonderful smokey flavors Laphroaig is renowned and famous for. Here we were even able to throw some peat blocks into the kiln to burn and help in the creation of the smokey barley.
It was fun knowing that the peat we tossed was being used to create more Laphroaig, and that it wasn’t just a gimmick of the tour.
Next we moved into the Mash House where the fermentation process begins. Mashing is the process that extracts the sugars and flavors from the malted barley after it has been milled and ground into grist; and this is where the peaty, malted barley is fermented into alcohol. The fermenting process adds yeast to convert this sugar into an 8.5 per cent alcohol, called ‘wash’. It was interesting to see that both of my favorite distilleries (Laphroaig and Bowmore) were using stainless steel washbacks and not the traditional Oregon Pine barrels to ferment their wash. As part of the tour we got to sample some of this wash before it gets distilled, and Erik was selected to pull out a bit of the washback.
It tasted like a warm smoky beer, not bad actually, but I probably wouldn’t drink it everyday. We did learn that years ago workers were allowed to drink this beer daily as a supplement to their wages. Not my new favorite, but definitely worth trying it as it enriched my appreciation for the final product as you already could taste that smokey Laphroaig flavor.
An interesting fact we learned was that the grist remaining after the wash has passed to the stills is given to the farmers as feed for their livestock. However, the farmers can’t take too much from Laphroaig. Years back, farmers that were taking the grist for their cows started tasting smoky milk and a few even made smoky flavored cheeses from the milk. Smoky milk however was not a hit, so farmers now take smaller portions of the grist from Laphroaig and mix it with other feed sources.
After the Mash House it was on to the Still House where the heating of the wash causes the spirit to rise, or in scientific terms the alcohol to evaporate, leaving the water behind. All of the spirit that is produced by this process is required by law to go through a spirit safe.
A mix of science and experience, it is here where the distillers move the running spigot at the beginning and the end of each distillation to weed out the low wines (too weak) and the feints (too strong) and capture the middle section (the spirit) of the distillation process for bottling. The wines and feints are sent back to the kettle to repeat the process till all is used or discarded. The stars of the Spirit House are the enormous copper kettles and the spirit safe. Each distillery has their own shaped kettles, and the notable difference with Laphroaig’s kettles is that at the neck, their stills tilt up ensuring they capture only the lightest of the spirit giving it the medicinal quality that kept it around during prohibition.
After the Still House, it was a bit rainy so we were taken into the “boardroom” which consisted of beautiful floor to ceiling windows looking over the sea in front of the distillery.
The meals are made by a local woman, Ann, and consist of whatever is in season in the area. It was a beautiful spread which consisted of red pepper and tomato soup; haggis bon bons; wraps with smoked venison and redcurrant jelly, smoked beef with horseradish cream, smoked salmon, with lemon pepper cream cheese, fresh caught Islay Crab, Laphroaig Whisky Cheese; and Laphroaig infused fruitcake and freshly made shortbread. A feast to say the least, and to top it off they put out a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask to wash the whole thing down. From there we went down to the boot room, threw on some gum-boots, and it was out to the loch where all the water comes from to make the whisky.
It was here at the loch that we took in the sites and the smells and our guide pulled out yet another bottle, a delicious ten year. As I tasted it in the environment I was starting to notice the notes of the whisky all around me. The salt from the sea breeze, the hints of grass, even an earthy flavor; not sure if that was from the setting or all the drams we had tasted so far. But either way it was wonderful.
After finishing our drams we drove down to the peat fields. Our group gathered up the traditional tools used for cutting peat and we set out to find our peat bank and start cutting. For me, this was a very special point of the tour. We were cutting peat that is roughly 3,000 years old. Laphroaig is the only distillery to cut the peat on site by hand using traditional peat cutting tools as opposed to machines. This helps to keep moisture in the peat so that when it burns it creates more smoke and less heat. This helps to maximize the absorption of peat flavors in their malted barley and that taste Friends of Laphroaig love so much.
After cutting the peat we were rewarded with one of their finest bottles, the name of which I had to swear to secrecy. It was a really special feeling, and again I felt being out in the places where the whisky was from, I could actually taste the notes more. The flavors were from the environment all around me, and I had a deeper understanding as the flavors hit my palate. The kelp, the sea spray, the bogs, the sheep, the lochs, the peat. When you drink a glass of Islay whisky, without trying to sound to hippy dippy about it, you really are drinking in a sample of the island. I will never again drink a glass of Laphroaig without having a brief flashback to that special island, particularly the south shore where “Sharlene,” a wonderful fiery-haired Scottish girl from Islay educated us on the whisky, the people, and the island itself.
You’d think it would be over by now, but it’s not. After this we got back in the van and headed down to the warehouses. After a brief tour of the warehouse, we were brought to three different casks. Sharlene went over the details of each cask: an 8 year bourbon cask, a 14 year bourbon cask, and a 16 year sherry cask. The 8 year kicked like a mule and tasted like more like moonshine and less like spirit, the 14 year still had a lot of warmth behind it however it tasted beautifully of caramel and vanilla, and then we tried the Sherry cask.
I found on this trip that I am very much a fan of the sherry casks. They finish the whisky with a dash of sweetness and a smoothness that almost leaves a coat on the tongue. When I tasted this one I thought to myself it had to be much lower in alcohol then the others as it was so smooth. I found out it was the strongest of the three sitting right around %60 ABV. This was what they called a “dangerous whisky” because it didn’t taste nearly the strength that it is. Sera and Erik chose the 14 year as you were able to bottle the whisky out of the cask itself, and while I was tempted by the 14, I loved the sherry cask so much I had to go for it. It is so popular that there is only a small bottle left from the original cask.
So while Sera and Erik carefully pulled theirs from the cask, I poured mine from the bottle and was happy with the sweet whisky that I brought home as my souvenir. This tour was easily the pinnacle of my trip to Islay.