I’ve visited quite some distilleries over the years, and at most you will be warmly received with a short tour of the premises, followed by a generous helping of the local liquid. While I love these distillery visits, there is no denying that by and large, they mostly show the same thing. This is why it’s so refreshing that Laphroaig has put on something more extensive for the die-hard whisky fan. The tour is called the Water to Whisky Experience, it takes around 4,5 hours and will currently set you back £90 (it was much cheaper when I went in 2011, but did admittedly not involve taking home your own bottle). A trip to Islay is always something special, but this distillery experience really is the icing on the proverbial cake.
The tour starts at the distillery’s visitor centre, where you can gear up in wellington boots if you like. While I was there, the weather was gorgeous, but on a typical rainy Islay day, I can imagine the wellies are essential. Once ready, the first part of the tour takes you to the very origins of Laphroaig’s whisky making process: the water source. Laphroaig sources its water from the Kilbride steam, which was long a matter of dispute between Laphroaig and the neighbouring Ardenistiel distillery. Needless to say, Laphroaig prevailed, and decided to dam the stream in 1930, creating the Kilbride Reservoir. It’s quite an idyllic location, and an ideal spot for a picnic, along with some Laphroaig whisky of course. Along the way, we even spotted some deer, further adding to the bucolic charm of this very pleasant day.
Next it was off to the peat beds, located near Islay’s only airport. This is where Laphroaig still hand cuts much of its peat, using traditional tools. Islay peat is different in composition from mainland peat, owing to the fact that tree growth is very sparse on the island. Peat is essentially decomposed organic matter, so while mainland peat might be made up of tree leaves and branches, Islay peat consists of moss, heather and lichens. This gives Islay whiskies their distinctive medicinal character, of which Laphroaig is one of the finest examples.
We were invited to give the peat cutting a go ourselves, but I quickly found out I’m absolutely no good at it. The idea is to remove the top soil and then cut straight down with a special type of shovel, and afterwards stack up the neatly cut slices for drying. The top soil is then placed back, allowing the peat bog to slowly regenerate over time. After struggling badly for about 10 minutes, I sat down among the beautiful peat bogs for another whisky instead, watching the others do the hard work. While the Laphroaig peat beds were a fun experience, they’re an even more fitting place to fill up your glass with some of the world’s peatiest whiskies.
With the peat cutting done and invigorated by another dram, we headed back for the actual distillery tour. This started off at the malting floor, where Laphroaig still malts some of its own barley, quite unusual in today’s industry (although two-thirds of the barley comes from Port Ellen Maltings just down the road). The rest of the tour followed the usual recipe, with an extensive tasting at the end. At the time I went, filling up your own bottle was purely optional (at an additional charge), but by now it has been included in the increased price for the tour. Either way, there is something very satisfying about filling up your own bottle using a traditional valinch, and later drinking it, knowing exactly where it came from.
By then, the level of tipsiness had steadily increased, but not enough to stop me from planting a flag at my “personal square foot of Islay” in the Friends of Laphroaig fields. After some quick work with the tape measure, the rough location was found and the Dutch flag proudly planted on Scottish soil.
The Laphroaig Water to Whisky Experience is a full day filled with whisky fun, which I can recommend to any Islay whisky fan. It just adds that little bit of extra uniqueness when visiting an island that lives and breathes whisky. It’s true that £90 is quite a splurge, but in return Laphroaig will make sure that you have an unforgettable day!