We had signed up for the somewhat offbeat Water to Whisky tour and tasting that included a quick tour of the distillery, lunch, hiking to the loch that is Laphroiag's water source and going into the peat bogs to hand cut some peat ourselves before heading back to Warehouse 1 for a few barrel tasting pours and filling a few 250 ml bottles for ourselves. Our guide was James, a nice fellow about 40 years old, originally from Birmingham who moved to Islay 7 years ago with his wife, who'd accepted a position as a teacher, no small feat given the population of approximately 3,500 people on the entire island.
Before heading out for the activities listed above, we were served a pour of the Select. During the tour, we tasted the cask strength 10 years aged (poured for us while cutting peat) and with lunch had a pour of the Cairdeas from 2013 that is purportedly among the last bottles remaining in the distillery's stock.
Interesting tidbits learned on the tour include: Laphroiag using only first fill bourbon casks once and using sherry butts only twice before moving these casks on to other users; total production being a bit less than 4 million liters per year; Laphroiag malting only 10-15% of its barley in house with the balance purchased from Diageo's Port Ellen malting facility; malted barley in the kilns at Laphroiag is generally dried at 40 degrees Celsius, which is considered cool drying, and the barley on the kiln floor is turned frequently for even peating and drying; phenols in the barley generally only average about 45 ppm: all of the peat used by Laphroiag is hand cut and the land restored for peat regeneration (which occurs at about 1 mm per year); and Laphroiag's peat bog properties on Islay presently have enough peat to keep the distillery supplied for another 5,000 years; and we were told that the black lanyards we were given at the start of the tour are only provided to those who participate in the Water to Whisky tour.
While cutting peat was fun, the best part of the tour was tasting whiskies fresh from the barrel. The first was a whisky that had spent 7 years in an ex-bourbon cask before being moved to a quarter cask made of staves from an ex-bourbon barrel for another 6+ years. The dram was well matured, expectedly strong vanilla and oak flavors, and a smoothness that may have been surprising given the greater than 50% abv. The second was an ex-bourbon casked whisky set down in 2005, which was a lovely pale gold, rich in vanilla and honey on the nose and the palate, and not surprisingly less oaky than the first barrel. My traveling partner chose to bottle a wee bit of that one. I chose the third cask, which had been matured for 7 years in an ex-bourbon cask before transfer to a second fill Amontillado sherry cask. The color was a deep amber and the dry sweetness and spice of the whisky was readily apparent in the nose and palate.
The best line of the day belonged to James, our guide. When asked if there was a difference between the barley malted at Laphroiag versus that purchased from the malting house, James stated, "our malt is the extra shot in the coffee."
While my traveling partner and I enjoyed all of the whiskies we tasted, the only bottle purchased from the distillery shop was the distillery exclusive Cairdeas 15 years aged, which is essentially a recreation of the Laphroiag 15 that was the first heavily peaked whisky I was able to enjoy when I was new to the appreciation of whisky and had been discontinued well over a decade ago.