Where Do the Flavours of Whisky Come From? – Laphroaig and Its Iconic Flavours
Laphroaig holds a special place in the hearts of whisky admirers: they find its flavours to be iconic and absolutely unique.
Its Distillery Manager, Barry MacAffer, has gone so far as to say that Laphroaig is constantly searching for iconic flavours, and that ‘with the Laphroaig 10 Year Old that pursuit almost seems as if you’ve made it. It hits all the right notes.’
In this article, we aim to examine the factors in the production of Laphroaig’s whiskies that give it its signature flavours. By the end of this short article, you’ll be able to put your finger on each stage of production and identify the exact flavour that stage endows this unique whisky.
At the end of the article, I will reveal to you something truly outstanding about Laphroaig, something that every serious Scotch lover should know.
We start with something remarkable – the taste of water and earth.
The Taste of Peat – It’s All in the Water
You wouldn’t think it but 15% of the flavour of Laphroaig comes from the water; this is highly unusual.
The Kilbride Stream, the water source of Laphroaig, is a soft, peaty water.
But we are just at the beginning of our journey.
Herbal and Maritime Taste – The Taste of the Earth
Islay is devoid of forests, which means its peat – used to flavour and smoke the barley – is made up of heather, lichen, and moss, infusing Laphroaig with its distinct herbal qualities.
Ancient marine vegetation, remnants from a time when Islay was submerged underwater, also forms part of this mix. This marine influence imbues the peat, and in turn, Laphroaig whisky, with a distinctive maritime character.
So far, you could argue that all the above apply to most of the whiskies of Islay, but now we come to something really different.
The Taste of Peat – Smoke without Fire
One of the remarkable things about Laphroaig distillery is that it ‘cold smokes’ its malted barley. It’s worthwhile understanding what this means.
In order to get the green barley to start germinating and create sugar to turn into alcohol, the barley is soaked in water and then left to germinate on the malting floor. The malting floor creates the condition for fooling the barley into germinating as if it were spring.
After a period of time germinating and producing some light roots, the barley is dried to stop the process of germination – we want sugars, not a full-grown plant.
At this point, every other distillery will dry and flavour the barley, at the same time, by smoking it.
Laphroaig, using its locally sourced peat, cold smokes its barley, by raising smoke off the fire but without any flames. The distillery does this by burning the peat at a low temperature.
This means Laphroaig flavours the barley by smoking it, but it doesn’t dry it: moist barley absorbs more flavour than dry barley.
What can only be described as a blue smoke goes through its moist malted barley, flavouring it for about 17 hours and giving it a very different flavour. Only afterwards is the barley exposed to heat and dried.
The Taste of Fruit – Fermentation
The fermentation process – adding yeast into the barley to create alcohol – gives Laphroaig its fruity flavours.
The next step preserves and intensifies the iconic flavours of Laphroaig.
The Taste of Peat and Tar – A Highly Unusual Distillation
Despite Laphroaig being a heavily peated spirit, it has a very light body. This is achieved by having the lyne arm – the copper tube that leads the vapour away from the head of the still – steeply rise. Because the climb is steeper, it causes the heavier oils and flavours to fall back into the still and not enter the final spirit.
At the end of the lyne arm is the condenser where the vapours condense into a spirit and enter a spirit safe. At this stage, the spirit has to be carefully cut – not all of it is suitable for drinking.
As the condensed spirit enters the safe where it’s collected, it is separated into three parts: heads, hearts and tails. The hearts are the parts typically collected in the spirit still for later maturation, while the heads and tails are recycled.
Initially, the ‘heads’ emerge, which are then recycled. Notably, Laphroaig has the longest head run in the industry, allowing the heads to run for 45 minutes before the distillery separates the ‘hearts’– the portion of the spirit destined to become whisky.
This delay lets the distillery collect the heavier, deeper flavours such as Laphroaig’s tarriness and peatiness while making the spirit less sweet.
The Taste of Vanilla, Caramel, Tobacco, Leather and Salt – Driving the Flavour in
Laphroaig sources its bourbon barrels from Maker’s Mark because Maker’s Mark air dries them for three months longer than usual in preparation for their use. This opens up the wood grains further, allowing the spirit to penetrate further.
Located near the coast, Laphroaig’s warehouses expose the casks to a strong maritime influence.
As the seasons change, so does the maturing spirit. During the warmth of summer, the spirit expands and permeates the cask’s wooden structure. With winter’s chill, it retreats, pulling along the colour, flavour, and sugars inherent in the wood.
The American white oak casks enrich the spirit with a sweet caramel taste. They also infuse it with complex notes of vanilla, fruit, spices, and even hints of tobacco and leather.
I think the above gives a clear idea of how flavour emerges in any whisky and specifically in Laphroaig. I want to end off with something really remarkable about Laphroaig.
The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Laphroaig
It’s common for us to think that when choosing between the core range of a distillery or its limited or more expensive releases you should reach for the latter – if you can.
It will surprise you to know that most connoisseurs would strongly disagree and point you to Laphroaig 10 Year Old – Laphroaig’s entry-level whisky. The Laphroaig 10 seems to be seen by many as capturing the essence of Laphroaig in a bottle.
As we mentioned above, Barry MacAffer, Distillery Manager, says that Laphroaig is constantly searching for iconic flavours, and that ‘with the Laphroaig 10 Year Old that pursuit almost seems as if you’ve made it. It hits all the right notes.’
Have you ever heard any other distillery talk of its 10 Year Old in such a fashion? It seems to treat its more expensive releases as concessions to a market that requires the intense power of Laphroaig to be toned down.
A dram of Laphroaig 10 gives you the sea air, the seaweed, the kiln fires, the peat, the fruits, and the subtle sweetness of vanilla. In every breath, you experience a place called Laphroaig. What more could you possibly want?
A Home for the Discerning in Taste
We, at Whisky Kingdom, are lovers of this venerable and iconic distillery. Apart from the distillery’s core range, we have a large collection of its unique and loved releases. You will not be disappointed. Please visit us here.