Distillery Tour: Laphroaig (technical)

I cannot believe I forgot to write this up three years ago. Luckily, I have lots of photos and strong memories.  It is a lovely walk from Port Ellen along the bike path past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It was a typically grey Scottish morning, as you can see, but the weather mild.

The path from Port Ellen towards Laphroaig

Our walk was quiet, with little traffic. We were passed once by bicyclists, and reached Laphroaig in about half an hour if that. It’s an impressive place, especially after the businesslike Caol Isla and fungal-discolored Bunnahabhain distilleries. After a wood, you come across large brick warehouses stuccoed grey, and turn into a bustling and busy entrance surrounded by tidy white buildings.

Business entry. Click for hi-res.
Visitor’s center, on the water. Nice flowers.

And then get directed along a narrow but brightly whitewashed walkway to the visitor’s center, which you can see (photo lower right) is right on the water. Inside, I collected my ‘square foot’ of Laphroaig certificate, as I’m a member of their (soon to end) Friends program. A tall, sturdy Englishman, Scott (who had moved to Islay out of love, a detail my wife remembered) gathered us up and with out any corporate marketing or razzle-dazzle, led us directly onto the malting floor where he gave us a good explanation of their malting. With their own peat bogs, water supply and about 20% of their own malt done on site, Laphroaig has a lot of control over the flavor of their spirit. Unlike at the Balvenie tour, Scott did not encourage us to dive our hands into the malt (below) but did hand out samples of malt at different stages, including after drying in peat. Strong stuff.

Malting floor here is not quite as deep but wider than at The Balvenie.
Check out that thick, roiling smoke..the green Manalishi! Click for hi res.

Scott opened the door to the kiln, and we got a look at the heavy smoke swirling about inside. This brought a rebuke from the watchful malt man, but we appreciated the peek inside at the flavor-making in progress. According to Bespoke Unit, Laphroaig does not dry the grain fully with peat, but smokes it, then dries it in a second step (probably in a much larger, more efficient kiln).

This is where flavor is created.

From there we went downstairs to the furnace, looking much like that at The Balvenie, but a browner peat than on the mainland. Next was the stillhouse, very impressive, stainless steel everywhere and spotless at that. This is a very industrial-looking operation and its scale is impressive, as the mash tun is rated at 5 tons of grist. (Some nice detail on temperatures and process can be found here for you mash nerds.) No Oregon pine washbacks, it’s all stainless (below).

All stainless, all the time. And rather crowded. Our Man Scott, caught in an odd moment.
Dr Seuss would be proud. Click for zoom.

The still house is similarly tightly configured, but impressive nonetheless, with highly shined stills. Here (left) is my obligatory Control Panel pic. I love these bespoke industrial controls. Another nerd shot, lower left: gorgeous metalwork on the mash tun. Spic and span. Click on either photo for a closer look

Mash Tun observation window. Nice metalwork.

As you can see from the photo below, the four spirit stills are on the small side at 4700 liters, with the three initial wash stills at 10,400 liters. They have a respectable production capacity in a small space at about 2.6M liters spirit per year, putting Laphroaig about on par with Glenfarclas and Bunnahabhain (which only has four stills, but much larger ones).

Five of the seven stills at Laphroaig. Shiny, and hard working.

One aspect of the tour I really enjoyed was the opportunity to get up close and personal with the spirit still. Some places allow this (Glenfarclas, Bunnahabhain) and others do not, and since I love the fine brasswork and absolutely Victorian mechanisms (steampunk!), I was happy to take a close look and try some photography. Not easy, with the hustle and bustle and a rather average zoom lens. But here’s a couple shots for those spirit still fans out there.

The Spirit Safe. Tough lighting in there, so went for a detail shot. Click to zoom.
The safe, with Scott pointing ‘this way to the tasting!’ Click for hi-res.


Next we went to the warehouse. Not the highlight of this post, as they don’t let you in the warehouse, just in an entryway—there is a gate, and you can peer past it into a section which is set up to look cute and has some special barrels and equipment (photo below). But no entry. Suntory, like the other big boys, is paranoid that someone is going to blow up the fumes in their warehouse. (Only Bunnahabhain and The Balvenie actually let folks in among their casks. Last time I checked, neither had exploded.) Next Wednesday’s ‘midweek special’ post about Laphroaig will cover the tasting experience, which is part of the (rather pricey at £60) tour. Stay tuned for that…as far as the tour itself, I was satisfied. No heavy marketing or dreary multimedia rooms (looking at you, Glenmorangie), and they freely allow photography (unlike Caol Isla). You do not have many opportunities to visit a malting floor or peek into the kiln, though the corporate line about the warehouse I feel is dubious, that’s fairly common.

A nice little diorama.


Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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