We have to thank Bessie for this one

By Pip Hills
Reproduced from the SWMS newsletter, Winter 1993, with permission

Reading Barnard immediately after a visit to Laphroaig distillery, one is struck by how much remains as it was when the Baedeker of Scotch whisky visited it in 1886. The means may have been different - a ridiculously small aircraft of the elastic band variety, apparently held together by rivets, as opposed to Barnard's boat, and a bus where he had a horse and cart - but the end is much the same. The distillery is of very old-fashioned type, lying in a hollow by a little bay. The beach where the puffers pulled up to unload coals is still suitable for small steamers, the pretty little burn still brawls through the policies and the view across the Sound of Jura to the Isle of Gigha and the Kintyre coast has changed not at all.

Perhaps the visitors have, somewhat. We had a contingent of Japanese whose visit, it seems, was a reward for sales achievement. If ever I am to be marooned on a desert isle with a bunch of salesmen, I sincerely hope it will be with Japanese.

Their natural courtesy and intelligence, as well as their good humour, would make it a pleasure. Having over the last year spent a fair bit of time in Japan and in the Hebrides, I can see a few reasons why there seems to be a natural affinity between the Japanese and the Scots. (The good guys on both sides, that is, not the shits, of which both nations alas have their share.) Besides a liking for whisky, there are strong cultural affinities, standards of behaviour and systems of belief.

The Islay people, say Barnard, are very hospitable. Then as now. Laphroaig is not one of those outfits which lie like litter on the whisky trail, traps for tourists, painted and neat so that busloads of geriatrics will commend them for their tidiness. It is a working distillery and looks it, though clean enough for any granny. It doesn't turn tourists away but it does not cater for busloads of the terminally bored either. If you want to see it, you must ring first and arrange to visit - not a great disincentive. The return for such a small effort is disproportionately great, for there is a strong likelihood that you will be shown round by the admirable Iain Henderson himself, the distillery manager. He is a big improvement on the lassies in blazers and kilts that you get at the showbiz end of the whisky business.

Iain describes how he first came to know Laphroaig. As a young man in the 1950's - he is not so old now, so he must have been very young then - he was the engineer on a British merchant ship, sharing a piece of the Indian ocean with a hurricane. The crew having adopted drams as a prophylactic against irregular motion, whisky stocks ran out before the hurricane did, so crew were forced back onto the chief steward's stock of Laphroaig. This, the product of some shady barter arrangement, lasted long enough for the young Henderson to acquire the taste.

This story is told because there seems to be some lesson in it. Quite what that is, is not immediately apparent, but it may become so as the Laphroaig goes down. There can be no doubt, it is an acquired taste. You either love it or you hate it; few are indifferent. Even those who dislike the stuff will generally admit that there is a very fine whisky under the peat reek.

The latter is the main reason for the very distinctive nose and taste. The distillery malts a large part of its own barley and on almost any working day, the distillery can be found by nose alone, if you happen to be downwind. It has a proper malthouse with several floors where the barley is malted in the traditional manner and a kiln where it is dried. The kiln has proper pagoda roofs and altogether the whole thing looks and smells as it ought. The malt, once dried, is sweet, crisp and incredibly smoky.

There is a widespread belief that the peculiar flavour of Islay malts is caused by their littoral location, hence descriptions of them as being seaweedy and full of iodine. While the influence of the sea cannot be discounted entirely, it must be negligible by comparison with the effect of the peatsmoke from the malt kiln. Certainly, when Barnard asked the then distillery owner, the latter was quite clear that it was the peat that mattered. It would be interesting to see a highland whisky made from heavily-peated malt. The nearest we have is probably Clynelish, which could easily be mistaken for an Islay, for it has a more peaty nose than some of the Islays, such as Bunnahabhain or Bruichladdich, which use lightly-peated malt.

Besides the malthouse at Laphroaig, the distillery has the usual complement of mashtuns, washback, stills, etcetera. There are six stills, of the swan-neck variety. The process of shifting spirit from one still to another is a complex one, requiring fine judgment on the part of the stillman. Iain explained that though this, like much of the rest of the distillery, is fairly old fashioned, the owners see no reason to change it, on the very good ground that since the present kit makes some of the best liquor on the planet, change is unlikely to be for the better.

The distillery guards its water supply most carefully. It owns all of the land from which flows the burn which supplies the mashtuns. There are no cows or sheep on the moor, or any human intrusion, so that the distiller may be sure that all of the influences on the water supply are as natural as possible. It appears that the greatest care has been taken of the quality of the materials from a very early date.

The distillery had for many years the distinction of being the only Scotch malt distillery owned and run by a woman. Bessie Williamson joined the company in the 1930's as a chemist. She rapidly came to take control of the production process and in the early 1950's became owner. She continued to run the business and the distillery until the 1960's. Her expertise in and love for her product is sufficient evidence, if any were needed, of the falsity of the macho image of Scotch whisky in general and Islays in particular.

The Laphroaig is matured at the distillery in American bourbon casks. In the warehouse, the Conduce origins are sometimes evident on the cask ends, which bear stencils of Jim Beam and Jack Daniel. The proprietary bottling of Laphroaig are at ten and fifteen years old, all from bourbon casks.

Laphroaig is the market leader in Islay malts, and may take most of the credit prominence of whiskies from that island in world markets. Annual sales are an astonishing - 80,000 cases of the stuff, which just goes to show that if you have a taste for tar, you are not alone.

Allied Distillers, who own Laphroaig distillery, have an understandable confidence in the quality of their malt whisky. [...] Laphroaig use only bourbon casks for maturing their spirit. There are sherry butts in the warehouse, but these belong to customers who require such maturation for their blends. The bourbon is all in American white oak. [...]
© (1993) Pip Hills, SMWS

(OCR-scanned document)

Back ...