Peat bogs, seaweed and rocks line the southern coast of Islay, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. On the smaller side, Islay’s population is roughly 3,000, and the island stretches approximately 25 miles, north to south and 20 miles east to west. This tiny island is known for producing some very big Scotch whisky. [In Scotland, there’s no “e” in whisky.]
Laphroaig Distillery, which has produced the spirit since 1825, is known for making some of the biggest Scotch whisky in the world — in terms of flavor, peat and smoke.
Drinking and appreciating Laphroaig (pronounced “La-FROYG”) takes time, as does the trek to get to the island of Islay from mainland Scotland. “People say I’m going to pop over to Laphroaig when I’m in Scotland, but it takes a little more work to get there, and again I think that speaks to the whisky,” says Simon Brooking, U.S. ambassador to Laphroaig. “It takes some time to get there, to the distillery — and to the whisky.”
Brooking adds, “Some people never get there, and that’s fine. There’s just more for us.”
A combination of factors influence flavor of Scotch whisky, yet when it comes to Laphroaig, location is the key ingredient, specifically the Islay peat made of decomposed seaweed, salt, tobacco and myrtle, according to Brooking. The blend makes Islay whiskies much thicker than those from the lowlands and highlands of Scotland.
“I always like to relate it to the Pacific Northwest in the United States,” says Brooking. “It’s the leading edge of a country. All the storms come across and lash against the west coast of Scotland. In that sense, the island dictates the style of the spirit. Think about the people living on this wind-swept, storm-laden island. You need a bigger bodied spirit. As a result the whiskies from the region tend to be heavier.”
Smoke is key influencer of Laphroaig’s essence. Islay peat is burned and the smoke left to rise up through a perforated floor, drying the barley that has been soaked and laid out for a week. “It’s like sitting out in a campfire in the forest with an Islay peat and sitting out in a campfire on the beach with the Islay Laphroaig,” says Booking. “There’s that salty quality with smoke and medicine.”
At Laphroaig, the single malts are distilled twice before aging in casks. First, distillers bring the whisky up to 25% alcohol before settling it in smaller, copper stills, leaving the spirit more condensed and oily, according to Brooking.
Laphroaig’s 18- and 25-year-old spirits are some of its rarer, more popular bottlings. The 18-year is bit mellower, while the 10-year-old has a salty-sweet dynamic, according to Booking. The 25-year-old is a different beast altogether. Aged in sherry and Maker’s Mark bourbon casks, it has notes of vanilla and caramel with a touch of sherry.
Coming up for Laphroaig is the 2012 Caidreas Origin, a blend of 13- to 21-year-old Laphroaig with the other 50% aged seven years in casks. The spirit has notes of fruits, Scottish Heather, pepper and hints of Islay’s smoky peat. Only 3,000 bottles will be available in the U.S.
Something Brooking loves, particularly when it comes to American Scotch whisky drinkers: women. More women are drinking the spirit these days. “They taste it and are like, ‘wow, this is Scotch?’” he says. “Because it’s different, it’s not your basic scotch, it’s got that peat, that musk. There’s a lot going on.”
When drinking Laphroaig for the first time, Brooking recommends drinking it straight from the bottle. If it’s too thick, add water. The spirit is so thick and oily that it can stand up to water or ice, he says. “For me, I’m like Ron Burgundy,” says Brooking. “I love a good Scotchy Scotch.”