In stately parlour rooms around the world, where a refined appreciation for the good things in
In stately parlour rooms around the world, where a refined appreciation for the good things inlife is convivially shared, one topic comes up for ‘spirited’ discussion from time to time: just what does it take to produce the world’s finest whisky?
And now, after my recent visit to the home of Laphroaig—the world’s largest-selling Islay single malt whisky—to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the distillery, I can state with authority that all it takes is a propitious alignment of the forces of nature; an enchanting setting in an idyllic part of the world; a heightened skill in the craft of distilling; a continuing, trans-generational commitment to producing fine spirits—and an occasional ‘water war’ with one’s neighbour. It’s as easy as that!
The intensely peaty and smoky Laphroaig single malt, whose name in Gaelic means ‘beautiful hollow by the broad daylight’, has been the toast of whisky lovers for decades. Its quiet, confident and assertive taste, hidden humour and the explosion of smoke serve as a multi-sensory delight. The regal whisky will, however, not step down to appease you; you will have to show yourself worthy of its valour and its vigour. Opinions over its taste vary across the spectrum: some love it, but there are also those who don’t really warm up to it. I, however, have been charmed by its smoky flavour for years, ever since I first ventured into the world of whisky.
Laphroaig’s essential characteristic, which is hardwired into its DNA, is a product of its colourful history over these 200 years. The distillery was established in 1815 in the remote island of Islay in Scotland by two brothers, Donald and Alexander Johnston, but whisky distillation at the site probably predated that milestone, and came about as a byproduct of the Johnstons’ original enterprise of cattle-rearing. (Surplus barley, which primarily served as cattle feed, was channelled for whisky distillation.) The Laphroaig whisky acquired renown fairly early on, and although one of the two founding brothers met with a somewhat unfortunate end—Donald is believed to have died after falling into a vat of partially made whisky!—its reputation continued to spread.
That early success, however, begat trouble as well: the neighbouring distillers at Lagavulin estate cast a covetous eye on Laphroaig’s success, and at one point even blocked access to the water source. Laphroaig subsequently underwent several changes of ownership. Along the way, refinements were constantly made in the whisky distillation and casking process, particularly during the stewardship of Ian Hunter (the last in the family line), all of which served to infuse Laphroaig’s tradition with new vestments of sophistication. After yet more changes of ownership, the distillery was sold to brewers Long John International in the 1960s, and was later acquired by the Bristol-based spirits company Allied Domecq in 1990. The Laphroaig brand was acquired by Fortune Brands in 2005, and was eventually taken over by Suntory Holdings, a Japanese firm, in April 2014. The journey that started out in 1815 completes 200 years this year.
My invitation to visit Laphroaig arrived in March, and a fabulous itinerary had been drawn up for the celebrations. The trip began with a night at Cameron House, Loch Lomond, near Glasgow. Cameron House is a centuries-old estate steeped in history. Located in the heart of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, it is surrounded by a hundred acres of woods and offers views of the majestic blue mountains. The rooms look like they’re straight out of an 18th-century hunting lodge, with Scottish tartan upholstry to match.
Gathered at Cameron House for the festivities were 20 of us, from over 15 countries. After settling in, I went for a long walk and discovered that besides being a famous hotel, Cameron House is also home to a boat and yacht club and has some of Scotland’s most famous restaurants. It was one of the most refreshing walks I’ve ever had. The cold mountain air was invigorating, and I managed to build up quite an appetite for the Laphroaig-paired dinner that was to come. Over smoked duck, Scottish salmon and pine-nut risotto, we savoured generous quantities of whisky. And the dessert—a Laphroaig-infused pudding that brought out the balance in whisky flavours—was, well, the icing on the cake.
The next morning, after an ‘Estate Breakfast’ of sausages, bacon, black pud-ding and haggis, we took off from Loch Lomond in a seaplane headed for Islay. The plane was a nine-seater, and it felt like we were all huddled over the pilot. The ‘Water to Whisky’ tour had begun…
The views from the seaplane were breathtaking. I could see an abundance of water bodies, hills, and sheep dotting the landscape. In about 30 minutes, we were hovering over Islay, and the Laphroaig Distillery was visible from the skies.
Islay has remained quintessentially the same through all my visits over the last decade. It has a charming little airport, a population of 3,000-plus, long winding roads, and cheery sheep and ducks in summer. The Isle of Islay spans 622 sq km and has a 209-km-long coastline. Islay’s main attractions are its eight excellent single-malt whiskies that are distilled in distilleries set in the most evocative and picturesque settings. The first official distillery on the island, which received its licence in 1779, was in Bowmore.
After checking into our hotel, we went to visit Loch Kilbride, Laphroaig’s celebrated water source (which was at the centre of the ‘water war’), located just a few miles from the distillery. The walk to the water source was cold, windy, wet and slippery. The highland winds ripped through our clothing, chilling us to the bone. But when you are in whisky country, that is only a minor inconvenience. After downing three drams of Laphroaig Triple Wood, we were chatting gaily away, and marvelling at the fact that we were standing right at the source of what makes Laphroaig the mighty ‘Peat Monster’. The highlight of that morning was drinking Laphroaig with water from its historic source. It’s a memory I will cherish forever.
Post-lunch, we enjoyed a tasting of the finest expressions of the whisky, but I was somewhat surprised to learn that Laphroaig has only 10 expressions. The tasting was conducted by John Campell, the distillery manager, and Vicky Stevens, who looks after the visitor centre. We were each asked to describe the whisky in one word, and write the word and our names each on a bung (cask stopper). This was then placed in a new cask in the distillery. I did suggest that the bung be returned to us with the cask in tow (even if it were after a few years), but all I got in return was a warm smile from John.
Dinner was a formal affair, with Islay formals: suits, jackets, jeans, winter longs, open shirts, polo Ts. Over smoked haddock, lamb chops, jacket potatoes, pork belly and an oat pudding, we paired Laphroaig expressions, including 10-year-olds, Triple Wood, 18-year-olds and a new release.
The next day, yachts transported us to Jura Island, where a scrumptious seafood lunch awaited us. To me, Jura appeared frozen in time since my last visit in 2009: nothing seemed to have changed. Our group bonded over whisky that kept out the cold and warmed our hearts, catching up with old friends and making new ones.
On the ride back, we compared notes on which expression of Laphroaig was best suited to our palate. Opinion was fairly unanimous that it was whisky on water.
But yet more delights were in store. The Laphroaig team had saved the best for last: a beach barbeque with whisky. On the shores of the distillery, a grand and rustic barbeque stall had been erected, and was being managed by a team of local chefs. Oysters soaked in Laphroaig, followed by barbeque with local flavours and produce complemented the picturesque sunset. We felt we were a favoured lot, sipping the world’s grandest whisky and tasting food fit for royalty on a lonely beach next to a historic distillery, on the remote island of Islay in Scotland. This was well and truly an experience of a lifetime.
Air India, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways offer direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to London Heathrow (one-way tickets for about Rs 39,000). From Heathrow, British Airways flies direct to Glasgow (one-way trip for about Rs 5,500). Islay has an airport with daily flights operated by Flybe from Glasgow (one-way trip for about Rs 8,600).
Where to stay
Islay has an excellent range of accommodation options. There are several guest houses, B&Bs, hotels and self-catering cottages as well as an excellent youth hostel on the island. Cameron House (from £350; +44-1389-755565) on the banks of Loch Lomond makes for a luxurious stay. Indulge yourself with a day at the spa, loch cruises or an invigorating game of golf while at the five-star property. The Bowmore House (from £68 per person; +44-1496-810324) offers five en-suite bedrooms in the main house and three rooms in the refurbished fisherman’s cottage nearby. The B&B offers great views of the lake as well as of the distilleries in the vicinity. Set in the grounds of the Lochindaal distillery, the Distillery House (+44-1496-850495; email@example.com) is a homely B&B in Port Charlotte.
Visiting the distillery
The ‘Water to Whisky’ experience (£85 per person; May-September: noon, Mon-Fri) includes a distillery tour, a picnic lunch, peat cutting, a visit to the water source and a taste from a selection of casks. The experience is limited to eight people per tour, so book in advance. The Laphroaig Distillery (+44-1496-302418) also has a museum where you can learn about the history of the whisky. Drop in at the visitor centre, pick up a souvenir from the gift shop, or just enjoy a dram in the lounge. You can also take a one-hour tour of the distillery (£6 per person), which includes a sample of the whisky and a commemorative Laphroaig glass.