Friday, 28 August 2015

Laphroaig-gasm! An epic evening with John Campbell.

It's not very often that a high-profile whisky celebrity visits Brisbane. But, largely thanks to champion brand ambassador Dan Woolley, we recently had a visit from John Campbell, manager of our beloved Laphroaig distillery, as part of his Australian tour.

I was lucky enough to attend two amazing Laphroaig tastings, hosted by John & Dan, and to interview John during his tour. And of course, I can't write about this complete & utter Laphroaig-gasm (the copyright is pending on that, by the way) without reviewing a very special Laphroaig!

This is quite a long post, but there's no filler here - it's all cream, if you ask me (and I hope you agree!). I learnt loads about Laphroaig over this time, John is basically a walking, talking Laphroaig encyclopaedia. So sit back, grab a dram of Laphroaig if you can, and settle in for the journey. 

Dan Woolley, Brand Ambassador (L), with John Campbell, Laphroaig's Distillery Manager.

John's quite a softly spoken guy, very relaxed and friendly, very genuine and modest. His love and passion for Laphroaig, and his native Islay, is palpable. Laphroaig is in his soul, and his soul is also in Laphroaig! He's been at the distillery for over 21 years, starting at the bottom, in the warehouse, and working his way up to distillery manager in 2006. It just so happens that he's the first Ileach (Islay native) to manage the distillery.

He's also the public face of Laphroaig distillery, travelling to various parts of the world for 4-5 weeks each year, hosting tastings and masterclasses, appearing in YouTube videos and at whisky shows, and occasionally being interviewed by pesky whisky bloggers.

It's really quite surreal watching someone on YouTube one week, while they're on the other side of the world, and the next you're shaking their hand, in your home town. The power of the internet, I guess. Maybe this is how teenage girls feel when they see Miley Bieber, or whoever is 'in' this month?

The Interview!

This being my first official interview for Peated Perfection, and with John being such an icon of Islay whisky, I admit I was a little nervous to begin with, hoping that my questions would be up to scratch. But John was, and is, very relaxed, and was very forthcoming and attentive. Sharing an amazing Laphroaig (pictured above) with Dan & John, may have helped as well! But don't worry, more details are coming on that, further down...

John, why did you get in to the whisky industry, and which whisky was your 'gateway' dram?

I was a lobster fisherman, and was looking for a more steady income, so I could get a mortgage and settle down. My first dram was Laphroaig 10 year old. I wasn't even sure if I liked it or not, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why it tasted the way it did, and to understand it better.

During your career, what changes have you seen at Laphroaig?

It hasn't changed, it's still much the same. We're using the same cuts, running (the stills) at the same speed. The only thing that has changed is how we fill & empty the stills, which we call the waste processes, which is much faster now. The barley variety does change, but because we flavour with the peat before drying, it takes away some of the subtle changes you might get from that.

What separates Laphroaig from the other Islay distilleries, in terms of process?

In terms of the process, our floor-maltings, our water source, using our own peat, the size of the stills, the makers mark (wheat bourbon) barrels, and only maturing on the island.

You've mentioned that you flavour the floor-malted barley with peat smoke, and then dry it in a separate step. Could you explain how this works?

We cold smoke the malt. You can hold your hand over the peat, it's blue smoke, it's not hot at all. We flavour for 17 hours, then dry using heat recycled from our still house - this energy recovery process has cut our energy consumption by a third. Most distilleries flavour & dry at the same time, it's quicker that way.

What are the main differences between the floor-malted barley, and that sourced from Port Ellen?

The creosols and guiacols in our floor malted barley, and that cold smoking. It's all using Islay peat though. Our floor malted barley is around 60ppm, and the Port Ellen is around 35-40, and we average that out.

Laphroaig is famous for dividing opinions (opinions welcome), but what are your recommendations for the novice / first timer, and for the casual drinker? And which is your personal favourite?

Select cask is good for a beginner, to get used to the flavours. It's more subtle, it's breakfast whisky. For the casual drinker, quarter cask is good for bourbon drinkers, triple wood is good for wine drinkers. But then cask strength (10yo) can be a sink or swim moment, 'I'm not sure if I like it, but tell me more'. My personal favourite is the 10 year old, it's just rock solid whisky. It's the taste of Islay in a glass.

What are your thoughts on the Non-age statement (NAS) movement?

Quarter cask was the first NAS whisky (for Laphroaig). Consumers will decide if it works or not. NAS is for mixing ages, not for (selling) young whisky. We're very open with the ages and mixes, we have no problem telling anyone all about them.

Some expressions of Laphroaig state they are non-chill filtered, and some don't. You've mentioned that only the 10yo & 15yo are chill filtered. Do you feel it affects the finished whisky?

Our 48% and above malts are non-chill filtered. Generally it's 46, but we like it that bit higher. It doesn't make a big difference to Laphroaig, it makes more difference with un-peated malts. We do use lower-grade filters than some distilleries, but we don't make a big deal out of it. (see here for more information)

What is the process when creating a new expression? Is it a matter of picking casks from the current stock, or starting from scratch? 

It can be both, picked from stock or planned in advance. It's not a quick process, it takes around two years to create a new Laphroaig. All the departments come up with ideas, but I generally do Cairdeas (myself). We listen to the people, and try and give them what they want.

How receptive are you / is Laphroaig to customer feedback?

Absolutely (receptive), it's hugely important. The two-way communication is what makes Laphroaig different, it's why the Friends of Laphroaig is so important. Our philosophy is still the same (as always). Peat is hot at the moment, and Laphroaig is peatier than it was 30 years ago. And it's going to get peatier.

What does the future hold for Friends of Laphroaig, and the Cairdeas bottlings? Will there be more Cairdeas on the shelves in more countries?

It (F.O.L) will get bigger, the growth rate is increasing. We have millions of square feet of land, so there's plenty of land for the plots. Cairdeas will stay on-line only, we can't keep up with the demand. We're thinking about how Cairdeas is managed, we've bought in the ballot system, and the 21yo with the 350mL bottles is a trial for Cairdeas. We're trying to get liquid in as many hands as possible.

The 2015 Cairdeas was made using only floor-malted barley, and the smaller stills. Was this planned for the bicentennial when it was distilled, and will this be done more regularly?

No, it's a one off. It was planned for the bicentennial from the start, and it's been very popular.

What do you see as the challenges for Laphroaig, and how can they be overcome?

Growth and (keeping up with) demand is the big challenge. We will overcome this through continuing consumer engagement, and keeping the values of Laphroaig. That's what has made us successful. We're just holding the torch, ready to pass it on to the next guy.

Finally John, how would you describe Laphroaig, in one sentence, to someone who's never tried it?

My tag line from opinion's welcome: "A big, peaty slap in the face. Perfect."

That is perfect! Thanks John.

And on to the Tastings!
Cobbler's 'Laphroaig wall'
John was also hosting a number of tastings around the country during his tour of Australia, but Brisbane was his first stop. He was hosting a large tasting, with food pairings, at whisky mecca Cobbler, in West End, and a smaller tasting at the Nant whisky bar, in Brisbane's CBD. I was lucky enough to attend both tastings, where we tasted basically the entire range that is currently available in Australia - Laphroaig Select cask, the venerable 10yr old, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, the limited 15yr old, and the popular 18yr old. For the Cobbler tasting, we also tasted the amazing 25yr old bottling, and one very special Laphroaig which John had bought with him from the distillery. But you'll just have to keep reading to find out about that one...

The tasting at the Nant bar was a very relaxed and casual affair, and aside from the six whiskies mentioned above, we were also treated to some phenomenal cheese boards - fresh oysters drizzled with Laphroaig, anyone? Or perhaps you'd prefer Laphroaig-cured beef jerky! Awesome stuff, and an absolute bargain at just $40 a head. Even more so when you consider who was hosting!

The tasting at Cobbler, the following day, was also relaxed and casual, but with a much bigger crowd. The event was completely sold out, and the place was absolutely packed! Dan had personally designed an amazing food-pairing menu for this one, with some incredible light finger food, prepared by Matt from Jahh Tiger. Let's have a closer look at the whisky, and the food, that we were treated to:

Not bad at all. But it got even better at the end!

- Laphroaig Select Cask, a marriage of many different casks at different ages. Paired with Laphroaig cured salami and spiced fig paste. This salami was amazing, it brought out a little more spice & peat in the malt. Select is a more subtle Laphroaig, maybe a beginner's Laphroaig. But there is still plenty of flavour, and it does make for a very good palate primer.

- 10yo, the original family recipe, and the heart of the brand. Paired with fresh oysters drizzled with more 10yo, and with Laphroaig-cured beef jerky crumbled over the top. This was absolutely mind blowing. The combination of the salty, briny oyster and dry, savoury jerky, plus a hint of Laphroaig peat and vanilla, was delicious. I don't normally go for many raw oysters personally, but I'll be fixing some of these Laphroaig-drizzled ones for myself, and soon.

- 15yo, the limited release for the bicentennial. Which as it turns out, is actually the exact same base whisky as the next one. It's just bottled at a lower strength, is chill filtered and has adding colouring, and that's because it's how the original 15yo was made. Paired with a seared Japanese scallop, with smoked honey & citrus dressing. The combination of the two bought out a slightly umami or mushroom flavour for me, plus the citrus (grapefruit) I always seem to get in the 15yo. Previously reviewed here.

- 18yo, which is the same actual liquid as the 15, but without the added colouring and chill filtration, and at the higher strength of 48%. I'm a big fan of this one, and I hope it doesn't go anywhere. Paired with a cold smoked peking duck pancake, which was just wonderful in every way. I could happily eat these, and only these, forever. Well, maybe with some Laphroaig-drizzled oysters on the side! I do prefer the 18yo to the 15yo in a head-to-head comparison, but they're quite different expressions. Previously reviewed here.

- Quarter Cask, which is an (and was the first for Laphroaig) NAS whisky, but is actually a mix of 5-11 year old first-fill bourbon-matured malt, married for 2-3 days (as are all batches prior to bottling), then finished for 7 months in the quarter casks. These quarter casks are also first-fill bourbon, but are re-coopered down from standard size. This was my favourite Laphroaig for quite some time, and it turns out it's the fourth biggest-selling Islay malt, and makes up around 20% of Laphroaig's sales by volume. It was paired with a slow roasted beef short rib, which just melted in the mouth, and balanced the sweetness in the quarter cask nicely.

- Triple wood, which was my least favourite Laphroaig expression, previously reviewed here, although it has since grown on me. This one is essentially quarter cask Laphroaig, which is then finished in first-fill Oloroso sherry, European oak casks. It's quite complex, but that sherry finish softens the Laphroaig character a little too much for me. Paired with our dessert, a dark chocolate tart-let topped with spiced jam. Dark chocolate & sherry are a fantastic match, as are peat & chocolate, so this was a flavour bomb when tasted together.

- 25yo, the 2013 release. This one has sat for 18 years in first-fill bourbon barrels, then for 7 years in second-fill, Oloroso sherry, European oak, hogsheads. It's bottled at cask strength (45.1%, for this release), not to be confused with the old 40% travel exclusive version. This one is so, so good. Soft and velvety, gentle peat & oak, fruity sweetness, and some coffee grounds in that lovely, long finish.
But don't worry, there's one more to come...

And now the review!   

I didn't actually taste this one during the tasting with everyone else. Instead, I decided to be slightly presumptuous, and asked for a sample bottle-shaped doggy-bag. Why? So I can share the love with yourselves, of course! And what a way to finish off the Laphroaig-gasm.

I must admit that I had already tasted it, though. John had personally selected this incredibly rare, and almost priceless, bottle of Laphroaig, to bring with him on his tour. And I was deeply honoured when he opened it during our interview, and poured himself, Dan and I a dram of this precious nectar. To share some of this amazing whisky, which it's highly unlikely I'll ever see again, with the man who made it, was just one awesome experience. Dan summed it up very well later in the evening: What a time to be alive!

What's that I hear? Shut up and show me the whisky? OK, OK, here it is:
Laphroaig Cairdeas, 2009 release, 12 years old, 57.5% cask strength.   
The second-ever Cairdeas bottling, after the initial 2008 release. 12yo, first-fill bourbon cask, mostly matured in dunnage warehouses. Non-chill filtered, no added colouring. 5,000 bottles, released 6 years ago, and now basically all gone! John Campbell bought this with him on his tour, from the distillery on Islay. Oh yes...

Colour: Pale yellow gold. 

Nose: Stunning, and so different. Loads of lightly oiled leather, slight soapy - carbolic soap. Sweet vanilla, slightly fruity, and lovely medicinal peat. Complex and very dynamic - constantly changing. After 10 mins, herbal and more earthy, wet stone. After another 5 minutes, vanilla ice cream, near a smouldering peat fire. 

Texture: Oily and sumptuous. Velvety, and no heat whatsoever.

Taste: A big peaty punch, nice & intense, quite different to the nose. As John described it, 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' ! Ashy and flinty, some oak, and gun powder residue. With a little more time, creamy vanilla comes out, and the peat has softened slightly, now warm, earthy, and lovely. 

Finish: Long, peaty and ashy, well balanced, with a little sweetness & some liquorice behind the peat.

Score: 5 out of 5.

Notes: Just awesome. I'm trying not to be too subjective, but I love this stuff. And whisky is an emotional thing, after all! Like I said, to be able to drink this very special malt with the man who made it (John selects the Cairdeas bottling's himself, remember), is just awesome, and I'm very honoured. It helps that he's such a down-to-earth and relaxed guy, and of course that he has such a huge amount of knowledge and passion.

This one was quite different to all the other Laphroaig's, and Cairdeas' especially, that I've had so far (the 2012 'origins' and the 2014). It was the icing on top of one awesome evening. I just wish there was more of it! Just goes to show the huge difference that varied maturation can make to the same spirit. I shudder to think that at the time this drop was released, I was mostly drinking beer, and Bundaberg rum, god help me. Just think of all the brilliant whiskies I've missed out on which, like this one, are now un-obtainium.

So after two brilliant tastings and a good solid chat with John, I've learnt quite a bit more about this mainstay of peated whisky, as did the other tasting attendee's I imagine, and my love for this distillery has been strengthened even further. Now I just need to visit it on Islay myself!

A massive thanks to John Campbell, Dan Woolley, Nant Brisbane, Cobbler, Laphroaig, Beam Suntory, and CCA/The Exchange for making all this happen. Just to have John visit Australia at all is fantastic, but to have him stop in Brisbane, conduct two brilliant tastings, and put up with my questions, was incredible.

John was also good enough to sign my bottle of last year's Cairdeas, which was pretty special as is, but is now white-hot! Now I just need to resist opening it for a while. Or maybe I'll just get a second bottle...


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