Scotch Watch

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September, 1998
Volume Six
Number One

Feint Praise and Low Wines - Part Three - Islay

For many of us who participated in the ScotchWatch Tasting tour this past March, the highlight was the trip to Islay.

The experience has more adventurous then planned when we missed the 2 p.m. ferry at Port Askaig! As a result we spent some extra time in the Village of Tarbert waiting for the 6 p.m. ferry. The Scots have a tradition called Half day when village's alternate closing down stores for 2 a day during the week. This was Tarbert=s day but fortunately a few places were open to visit.


Our first scheduled visit was to be Laphroaig but because of the last arrival we were afraid that we would have to cancel our visit. However, Ian Henderson, the manager of Laphroaig agreed to put off a holiday he had planned and wait for the late ferry to arrive. It was an indication of the wonderful hospitality we were to find at Islay.

As we arrived in Port Ellen at 8:30 that evening, Ian was waiting in the cold rain ready to transport us on our tour.

Ian indicated he had been at Laphroaig for ten years. He had previously been in a similar position at Bunnahbhain. Laphroaig started as a 600-acre farm by two brothers named Johnson in 1812. In 1933 Elizabeth Williamson came to Laphroaig at the age of 22 after graduating from the University of Glasgow (one of only 2 or three women to have graduated from the University at that point).

She later became the manager of Laphroaig and became the owner in 1954. Much of the existing design and layout of the distillery including the still house was a result of her tenure at Laphroaig. Twenty-one people are now employed at Laphroaig. Ten percent of the production goes to single-malt; the rest goes for blends. Production now equals 2 million liters a year. It has gone under several ownership changes since the 1970s but it maintains its distinct production and operation.

One of the things that makes Laphroaig distinct like many of its sister distilleries in Islay is the peat. Laphroaig gets its peat from Glen Machrie, which is heavily concentrated with seaweed. We were able to see the cuts in the fields since our hotel during our stay, the Machrie, was in the middle of the Glen - an almost religious experience!

The peat is dried and burnt under a special recipe developed by Laphroaig. The process includes taking out two layers of peat and burning it based on age and condition. Peat can run up to 30 meters deep. While its pulled up wet (like mud) it takes an average of 6 to 8 weeks to dry. April and May are peat cutting seasons because its the most dry period in the Glen Machrie.

The loft holding the barely shown to us by Ian can hold up to 400 tons of grain. Laphroaig uses Chariot 97 variety barley (they have used this variety for three years) but they also use Durcado, as do many other distilleries we visited. Kamar is also used. The key according to Ian is the starch content and the variety.

Only a portion of the barley is malted on-site. The Malting process plant in Port Ellen does the rest. The plant is used by most of the distilleries on Islay as a way to keep jobs on the island and the ensure quality control. Each distillery has very strict specifications for malting its barley and Laphroaig is no exception.

The malting process which is done on-site by only four or five distilleries (Laphroaig and Bowmore are two that we visited) turns insoluble starch into soluble starch over a period of 7 days. This germination process creates heat to such an extent that the barley must be turned. A machine often does the work today but you still see it done with a shovel (shiel).

The process works at Laphroaig in the following way. The barley grain stays in a soaking bin for two days (there are 2 steeps used). It is then spread out on limestone floors. Laphroaig has two floors and 8 tons of grain is placed on each side - a total of 32 tons. It takes less than 24 hours to begin germination.

Once the seven days of germination are completed the grain is heated with a kiln filled with peat. The kiln used by Laphroaig was built in 1840. The grain is above the kiln in a wedge wire floor. The kiln is run around the clock and during an average week they will burn 4 tons of peat. The peat fires reach 49 to 55 degrees Celsius.

The grain is heated for 18 hours with peat and then 12 hours with forced air. The grain goes from 45 percent moisture to 4 2 percent during this period of time. The malt is 10 inches deep on the floor when it is peat heated. Laphroaig stores 400 tons of peat on-site in two warehouses.

Once the malt is ready it goes to the malt mill (over 67 years old) which runs 7 2 hours a day. The Destoner and mill run on electricity and they use a computer to program the mill. The distillery synchronizes the maltings prepared on site with those prepared at the malting facility in Port Ellen.

Laphroaig uses a Leuter Mash Tun. Each production cycles uses 8 2 tons of grist, which enters the tun at 29 degrees Celsius. They use three infusions of water - 67 - 85 and 95 degrees. The tun is quite new having been built in 1985.

The distillery uses six washbacks, each 42,000 liters. Laphroaig does not dump its yeast into the washbacks, but like Macallan cremes and pumps the yeast into the containers. They use 150 kg for 42,000 liters of worts. The washbacks, like the mash tun are about 12 years old and are made of stainless steel.

Laphroaig has 3 wash stills and 4 spirit stills. Three of the spirit stills are 3630 liters and one is 7270 liters. All the wash stills are 10910 liters.

Ian spent a great deal of time speaking to us about the importance of the Microenvironment. He told us the story of how many years ago investors purchased the Bladnoch Distillery, dismantled it and shipped the facility to Sweden where it was reassembled. Production began and the whisky was nothing like the previous Bladnoch scotch. The owners brought the facility back to Scotland and it began producing a high quality product once again.

Elizabeth Williamson designed the still room at Laphroaig in 1956 but some elements are over 160 years old. Replacement of stills occurs due to thinning of the copper. The stills start out at 7 mm in thickness but can thin to as little as 1 mm before they have to be replaced.

The process at Laphroaig is similar to other distilleries. The liquid from the washbacks arrives in the wash still at 8 percent alcohol - leaves the wash still at 26 percent alcohol and eventually leaves the low wine (spirit) still at 70 percent alcohol. Laphroaig has a process where the wash stills and low wine stills are integrated together so that the mixing between and among the still occurs in a synchronized fashion. This assures consistency in the final product that reaches the spirit safe. According to Ian the wash still adds character to the still while the low wine still finishes the product's character.

In the spirit safe the run is approximately 45 minutes for foreshots, 2 to 3 hours for the middle cut and 3 hours for the feints. The final product is about 71 percent alcohol and as with other distilleries it is brought down to 63.5 percent alcohol at the filling station.

Laphroaig has used only American Bourbon barrels (Marker's Mark and Jack Daniels) since prohibition ended.

Casks are only used once at Laphroaig, then they are given to blenders. One cask can be used as long as 45 years. Laphroaig has up to 55,000 casks on-site.

Ian was a wonderful host and stayed with us till almost 11 that evening, regaling us with stories of Laphroaig, allowing us to sample the wonderful peatiness of the 10 year old and sharing with us the various products in the tasting room. We will be forever appreciative for his hospitality and graciousness that evening.

We arrived to a very late dinner at the Machrie Hotel - a wonderful facility about 5 miles from Port Ellen. It was our staging area for two days and the owner treated us like royalty while we were there.


The next morning we were up early to make our first visit of the day to Caol Ila. Alester who has been with the distillery since 1974 gave us the tour. Caol Ila has a long history but its modern product began when the distillery was closed in April of 1972 for 20 months. When it reopened in January of 1974 it increased the quality of the product and expanded its production capacity by four times.

99 percent of Caol Ila is sold for blends, largely those produced by United Distillers who owns the distillery. Production is now at 3.3 million liters per year. About 5,000 casks are actually stored on-site while the rest are shipped out in steel glass tankers where the whisky is stored until it is ready to be bottled. Some casks are stored at Lagavulin down the road from Caol Ila. This is understandable since United Distillers also own Lagavulin.

The whisky stored on-site is used for the 15 year old single malt bottling while that planned for blends is shipped out to other locations.

As with most distilleries, Caol Ila used a Proteus Malt Mill, which has been used at the distiller for 28 years. Caol Ila also uses Chariot barley - It is soaked in 40-ton lots in steeps for 3 days. They then use kilns (heat oil fired) and add peat smoke at the malting facility in Port Ellen. In the case of Caol Ila the peat smoke is 28 parts per million (this is the same as Lagavulin). As readers may know, Ardbeg is the highest at something over 50 parts per million.

The Mash Tun used 3 infusions of water (65-76-77) with the first infusion lasting about 8 hours. The mash tun is stainless steel with a wire mesh bottom and a copper top. The whole process takes about five to six hours.

The process from mash tun, to washbacks to still room takes about 54 hours total. The liquid from the mash tun enters the washbacks at 16 2 degrees. There are 8 washbacks at Caol Ila are quite new and made out of Canadian pine. The washbacks are new and are 18 feet in diameter and 18 feet deep holding 65,000 liters of worts.

The production process is such that yeast is put into the washbacks on Tuesdays, (liquefied and pumped like Laphroaig). Caol Ila uses 250 kg of yeast (distiller's yeast is 70% and brewer's yeast is 30% of the mixture).

At Caol Ila the decision was made to go with wood wash backs because of what they perceive to be the value of bacteria created that does not exist in stainless steel washbacks. This is the opposite of what we heard elsewhere.

The washbacks fill in about 2 3/4 hours and the liquid stays for about 45 to 60 hours.

Caol Ila has 3 wash stills and 3 spirit stills. The wash stills are 7775 liters and the spirit stills are 6500. The oldest still is about 15 years old. The stills come to a boil in about 20 minutes. In the spirit safe the foreshots take about 20 minutes followed by the heart of the run (1 2 to 3 hours) and feints about 3 hours.

The distillery also uses a salt-water condenser to cool the water from the stills in the summer. They also recycle the water for cooling. As with Laphroaig the distillery mixes all the spirit stills together into one run.

According the Alester, the speed of the distillation removes some of the peatiness from the whisky. All the casks are made of oak. Caol Ila is one of the prettiest locations on all of Islay and the still room overlooks the ocean, as does the tasting room where Alester treated us to a wonderful dram.


From Caol Ila we traveled to Bowmore the 'capital' of Islay and the home of the distillery by the same name. Christine the 'managerist' was there to show us around. After a short film on the history of the distillery we headed out for our tour.

Bowmore was established in 1779. Like Laphroaig, Bowmore does some floor maltings while the remainder is done at the malting facility at Port Ellen. The Port Ellen facility does drum maltings.

A variety of barley is used at Bowmore. Barley is not grown on Islay so it all must be imported.

Barley spends about 36 hours in the steep tanks where the change the water 3 times before the barley starts to germinate (about 48 hours). The floor maltings occur over 7 days when it readies for heating via the kilns. Bowmore has 3 floors of maltings - 15 tons per floor and the floor temperature is about 15 degrees Celsius.

The peat at Bowmore is chopped up into a fine mixture. The broken up peat used in the kiln is called 'Caffe'. Bowmore was the first to use this approach. To the mixture Bowmore adds a touch of water is added to make it moist. According to Christine this results in burning less peat and provides greater smoke for the kiln. By her estimate the kiln burns less than half (2 tons versus 4 tons) per week than if the distillery did not chop up the peat. 15 to 18 hours of peat smoke are used at Bowmore - the hours are the key. Outside boilers are used to produce heat except for the peat kiln.

Another unique feature of Bowmore is the handicapped accessibility. This is a feature for which they are rightfully proud. The mash tun used three infusions of water - 63,85 and 100 degree Celsius. Jimmy the mash man was very helpful in demonstrating the process to all of us. The mash tun has a copper top made of 8 tons of cast iron. The inside, however, is stainless steel.

Two copper tanks are used to heat the water that goes into the mash tun. The grist spends 8 2 hours in the mash tun. The bottom uses slated bottoms to drain off the worts for the 6 wash backs that are used. Each wash back holds 40,000 liters. The washbacks are made of pine. Unique to Bowmore, each mash tun is named after former owners:

Simpson1779 - 1836
Mutter1837 - 1892
Holmes1892 - 1925
Sherriff1925 - 1950
Grigor1950 - 1963
Morrison1963 - present

From the washbacks the worts go into two large wash stills (39940 liters) and two large spirit stills (14750 liters) in the final production process. The spirit safe is 100 years old and does its job very well indeed. The runs at Bowmore are 1 hour for foreshots, 3 hours for the middle cut and 1 hour for the feints. Thursday is the normal day that the spirit is picked up by the blenders.

Bowmore has 28,000 casks on-site and use concrete floors for storage.

Christine hosted a wonderful time in the tasting room where we got to sample a wide variety of Bowmore vintages including some new ones that we had not had before. We think she warmed up to us once we demonstrated that we were Yanks with a love of the 'water of life'.


After lunch we proceeded to another favorite of the group - Lagavulin. Our tour guide this time was Donny McKennon who had been employed at the distillery for 37 years. Donny was the production manager and was looking forward to retirement in the near future. He was a wonderful guide for those of us in love with the unique taste of this whisky.

Lagavulin does not do floor maltings anymore. They do have a Porteus Mill, which has been in use since 1967. The barley used in this spirit includes peat levels at 40 to 45 parts per million and as with Bowmore and Laphroaig, Chariot 97 is a strain that is popular with this distillery. The mill handles up to 104 tons per week.

The mash tun is a Leuter tun made of stainless steel. It uses a pores plate bottom to separate grist from the worts. It takes about 2 hours to infuse 25,100 liters of water and grist. It operates 6 days week, or about 2 million liters per year. Lagavulin runs about 24 mash=s per week. The three water infusions are 64-68, 78-80 and 84 degrees Celsius. Draff created after the sparge goes into a holding tank and made available to farmers similar to other distilleries we had visited. Reversing the rake does discharging the mash tun and the draff comes out with use of an air blower.

Lagavulin has a very computerized system to ensure quality control. The 10 washbacks were each 21,613 liters and made of larchwood. All the washbacks are 50 to 60 years old. The yeast is pumped into the washbacks and the ratio is 1.8 percent yeast to 2 liter of worts. Lagavulin used a combination of brewers and distillers yeast.

The still room at Lagavulin includes 2 wash stills and two spirit stills (18000 liters). They use steam heat, which increases the life of the still over the old oil based heating process.

While United Distillers owns both Caol Ila and Lagavulin, according to Donnie the differences in the Spirit are a result of the location by the bay and access to fresh water versus sea water. Lagavulin has sea weed in its water, which Caol Ila does not have. He also indicated that the sea air does make a difference.

In the spirit safe the foreshots are about 2 hour, the middle cut is quite long - 5 hours - and the feints are about 3 hours. Lagavulin used wooden holding tanks and store up to 8,000 casks on site. One personal touch noted by Donnie was the use of oak bung corks for the casks. Only nine people staff Lagavulin.

At the end of our tour Donnie treated us to a smell and taste of the world famous 16 YO Lagavulin right from the cask but taking a sample out of a matured cask and running it over our hands. He urged us to rub our hands together and smell the wonderful aroma it creates. It was a thrill for all of us to experience this "hands-on" experience. Donnie and Drew at Dalmore gave us the most 'hands-on' experience on the tour and we will be forever appreciative for that experience!


Our last tour on Islay was one for the books. We were greeting by Jackie with hard hats and the sounds of construction throughout the facility. Ardbeg had been out of production for some time and had been recently purchased by the owners of Glenmorangie. Rumors had been circulating that it would be back in production in the near future but until we arrived we did not know the truth in those rumblings. Jackie assured us that it was true. Her husband Stuart had recently been hired to be the production manager of the facility and work was underway to bring this wonderful distillery back to working order. While not open for tours, Jackie graciously agree to allow up to see the facility in its current state if we agreed to wear hard hats. No problem! The treat was to go into the old still room with its ancient stills. Jackie pointed out the Celtic bolts around the wash still. She and Stuart were trying to estimate the cost of replicating these bolts on the new stills that were being ordered for the facility.

A new visitor's center was being built and was to be opened this summer. While no formal tasting room existed we did gather for a sampling of Ardbeg in Stuart=s office. Stuart walked in while we tasted and greeted us all like lost friends. A final touch was added by Jackie who went out with us to the back of the distillery where we all had our pictures taken with hard hats in front of the Ardbeg Sign on the wall of the distillery. A treat indeed!

Sadly we packed up that next morning for the trip back to the mainland. What will stay with us forever are the sites, sounds and genuine friendliness of the people of the Islay. We all promised to return again someday soon. This was also true of Shari who is not a fan of high phenol levels!

The Scotch Watch is a joint venture of Bill Wakefield and B.J. Reed. Anyone with comments or suggestions may contact Bill at 4020553-3097 or B.J. at 402-556-5509. E-mail for B.J. is