Friends of Laphroaig with John Campbell, Master Distiller

Whiskys of Laphroaig
Whiskys of Laphroaig

I’ve always had a soft spot for Laphroaig. I can vividly recall the first time I had Laphroaig: Paddy’s Bar and Grill in Portland, long before I ever got into writing about spirits professionally. Laphroaig was a revelation, a complete campfire experience in a glass in the best possible way. Laphroaig was the first Islay single malt whiskey I ever tried and it sparked a lifelong love of scotch and of Islay. I was so impressed by this first Laphroaig experience that I brought my wife back to that very same bar the next night to share in the experience, and she, too, has become an Islay Scotch lover.

Of all the single malt whiskys on the market, Laphroaig is one of the most distinct. A bold, sweet, spicy, salty and smoky whisky, Laphroaig is one of the most peated, smoky scotches on the market. This unique flavor profile is a direct result of the process that Laphroaig uses with their barley prior to fermentation and distillation.

Laphroaig uses a process called ‘floor malting’, a very old style of dealing with malting barley where the grains are laid out on a large stone floor, dampened, and let to malt. This malted barley is then dried over fires fueled by peat, a thick black earthen substance made from the natural decomposition of vegital matter. Of the 98 or so scotch distillers in Scotland, only six do this old style of floor malting. Laphroaig goes the extra step of smoking the malted barley over peat that smolders at a very low temperature before the grains are dried. Others smoke and dry their barley at the same time.. The result is an intensely smoky and peaty scotch.

While Laphroaig is intensely smoky and peaty, those notes are not the totality of the flavor profile. Laphroaig also has sweet, floral, spicy and salty notes which marry with the vegital, smoky peat to give Laphroaig its signature flavor.

Master Distiller John Campbell is a little bit of an anomaly. He’s an Ileach (a native of Islay, an island that has a population of only 3500 or so people). He grew up in the shadow of the distillery which he now helps run. Amazingly, he is the first Ileach to run Laphroaig in its 190 years. In addition to managing the distillery and ensuring that Laphroaig maintains its signature flavor profile, Campbell is in charge of the “Friends of Laphroaig,” a fan club of sorts whose membership dues is the purchase of a bottle of Laphroaig.

Once you join The Friends of Laphroaig, you can get a plot of land at the distillery, “and we pay you rent,” comments Campbell as he points to a glass of the Ileach Edition of “Cairdeas” (of course you have to come to the distillery to collect the rent). Cairdeas (pronounced car-chus) is the scotch word for friendship, and the Ileach (Islay Native) edition is hand selected by Master Distiller John Campbell. “I went through over a hundred barrels to find the ones that best matched the Laphroaig characteristic I was going for.”

Laphroaig Cairdeas
Laphroaig Cairdeas

For the Ileach Edition, Campbell decided to put out a version of Laphroaig which captured the more floral notes present in the spirit. After selecting 48 casks of 8 year old Lephroaig that best featured the flavors Campbell was looking for, it was proofed to 101 proof and bottled. “There were only 12,000 bottles of the Ileach Edition produced and we always give the Friends of Laphroaig the first opportunity to purchase it.”

Cardeas The Ileach Edition ($80-$90, 101 proof) is a surprisingly different expression of Laphroaig. Much lighter in color (almost a dark straw), the Cardeas is non-chill filtered. The nose has a nice light vanilla note accompanied by candied orange and a distinct floral tone. The signature Laphroaig peat is there in the back, but it’s not nearly as forward as with the Laphroaig 10 year. The entry is slightly sweet with some real herbal spice notes including clove and licorice root. The sweet orange from the nose is there and it emerges as we enter the mid-palate, where the spirit picks up a little brininess. The finish is pretty long and slightly smoky, but not nearly as long or as smoky as the Laphroaig 10 year.

“This Cardeas is a snapshot of the maturation of Laphroaig. If we pulled these same casks now the flavors would be different,” remarks Campbell. “There’s still much we don’t know about the maturation process,” Campbell confesses, which makes creating whisky as much an art as it is a science.

The Cardeas series is heavily influenced by the members of The Friends of Laphroaig, which now has over 250K members. The Cardeas The Ileach Edition is now available in the top 8 states with the most Friends of Laphroaig: California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

In the fall, Laphroaig will release their new ‘Triple Wood” across the US (which has only been available in duty free shops). The Triple Wood includes maturation in ex-Makers Mark barrels, Small Cask American Oak, and Oloroso Sherry casks made from European oak.