On the far Western edge of the Scotch whisky map, the art of distillation supposedly first came to the Isle of Islay by Irish monks.
Whisky distilling flourished among the islanders, much to the chagrin of the tax man. But once laws relaxed, whisky makers of all manner set up legitimate distilleries. Among them was a pair of farmers, Donald and Alexander Johnston, who founded their distillery on the island’s south coast.
That was 1815, and they called it Laphroaig, named after its location, “broad hollow by the bay.” It remained in their family for the next 139 years.
Today, Laphroaig carries on that historic tradition with new faces forging new paths, with new people, making new products.
After a career at Laphroaig that spanned a decade, Barry MacAffer was officially named the new distillery manager in March of 2022. He’s been named a “true guardian” of Laphroaig, as he previously honed his skills within the operation and production side of the whisky-making process.
He started in a role covering the malt floors and the warehousing of the distillery, before becoming assistant manager in 2016 and then acting-distillery manager in late 2021. He worked closely with former Distillery Manager John Campbell, who worked at the distillery for more than 25 years until late 2021.
MacAffer recently visited with The Whiskey Wash about the standards and systems within the distillery and his dedication to supporting the Laphroaig team, creating an inclusive environment in which all employees can contribute and thrive.
The Whiskey Wash: Tell us your first experience with whisky and how you got into the spirits industry.
Barry MacAffer: “It’s hard to remember my first experience. Growing up on Islay whisky is a way of life. The interesting thing is it dominates every event and conversation, but it’s never a talking point.”
“Every event on Islay comes hand in hand with a dram: weddings, funerals, birthdays, gala days, highland games, and even our local sports day. Everyone will enjoy a dram at these events, but the whisky is never in discussion. It is merely enjoyed.”
“As a kid on Islay, I watched my family and their friends roll a full cask they purchased into the living room to bottle by hand, so I don’t think it’s a coincidence I left my previous career to return to Islay and start a new venture in the whisky industry. I never knew what I wanted to do when I left school, I moved around different industries until I was 26, I worked on the malt floors for one week and I knew Laphroaig was my future!”
TWW: What about Islay makes it so special, as far as single malt whisky goes?
MacAffer: “Islay has a unique climate and terroir that contribute, in no small part, to Laphroaig whisky. In the wintertime, the island faces Atlantic storms and cool, humid weather. In the springtime, we are greeted with the warmth of the Gulf Stream, which transforms the island into a fertile breeding ground for vegetation. All the while, our whisky is being transformed at a molecular level by the changing conditions. Another major differentiator for us and the island is the water source. Our water is very soft, peaty, and lacking in minerals all of which contribute to our liquid’s unique taste and finish.”
TWW: Is there something about Laphroaig that experts and enthusiasts alike point to and go, “that’s Laphroaig.”
MacAffer: “Our method. Despite all of the innovations and modernization we have seen, the essential building blocks of what makes our whisky so unique were put in place more than 200 years ago. Laphroaig is still hand-crafted; we take our queues from this beautiful terroir, and we still employ many of the same tools of the trade from the early 19th century. The result is a portfolio of whiskies, which – in my humble opinion – has no equal.”
TWW: Looking back at the long line of Laphroaig distillery managers, what trials and tribulations can you study and learn from, crafting your own style?
MacAffer: “As the brand has evolved, every distillery manager has had to face their own set of challenges, whether it was competition from rival distilleries, navigating prohibition, managing global expansion, modernizing our facilities or simply keeping the brand relevant while staying true to the more than 200-year legacy of Laphroaig.”
“Today, as we continue to evolve the brand, one of our chief focuses is environmental consciousness, from our efforts to restoring and regenerating more than 400 acres of peatland at the Airds Moss reserve in East Ayrshire to our move towards more sustainable packaging. But ultimately, every master distiller has had the same mission: to develop and improve the standards and systems within the distillery and ensure the highest quality production of Laphroaig.”
TWW: If it’s the little things that matter in whisky making, what are those little things at Laphroaig that sets the peaty liquid apart from all others?
MacAffer: “The secret to Laphroaig is that it benefits from the environment of where it is handcrafted – next to ocean water and on land that gives every sip of this whisky a unique, peaty taste. Moreover, we are one of only a few distilleries that still uses traditional malting floors, and dries and infuses its own malt with the thick blue smoke from old peat-fired kilns. The result is a drinking experience that is uniquely ‘Laphroaig.’”
TWW: What upcoming Laphroaig products or special editions should we be on the lookout for?
MacAffer: “This year we will have a bevy of expressions, collaborations and events that will bring to life the essence of Laphroaig’s craftsmanship, celebrate aficionados’ shared love for the spirit and foster social imbibing occasions. As always, we’re excited for the annual release of our Càirdeas bottle, only available to Friends of Laphroaig. Fans should stay tuned for some fun happenings from the brand.”
TWW: As the whisky industry continues to evolve, is Laphroaig’s superpower staying constant, or does it evolve at its own pace?
MacAffer: “It’s a bit of both. Ensuring that every single bottle and drinking experience from the brand meets our rigorous standards of excellence is table stakes. We work tirelessly and uncompromisingly on that. At the same time, one thing that distinguishes Laphroaig is our curiosity and intrepid spirit. We are constantly experimenting and pushing the boundaries of distilling in efforts to delight and surprise our fans.”
TWW: If you could describe to a whisky drinker that’s never had an Islay Scotch just what they’re in for with a dram of Laphroaig 10, what would it be?
MacAffer: “Laphroaig 10-Year-Old may be one of my favorite expressions, one that is quintessentially Laphroaig. I’d say that the first sip of the spirit teleports the drinker to Scotland. The tasting notes bring to life the region, the smoky peat, the sea, and a hint of sweetness. It really is a great entry point into the world of authentic Scotch whisky.”
TWW: Is it true that registered Laphroaig enthusiasts can stake their claim to a tiny plot of land on Islay?
MacAffer: “That is true. It’s been very important to us that fans of the brand know and feel that they are part of the Laphroaig family. Under my predecessor, Iain Hunter, Laphroaig introduced the Friends of Laphroaig program, through which registered fans can receive access to exclusive perks. One of these perks is indeed an honorary piece of land on Islay.”
TWW: What do you see on the horizon for Laphroaig in 5 and 10 years?
MacAffer: “I think the future for Laphroaig and the category in general is an exciting one. While fans can rest assured that the quality of our drams will never waiver, they should be on the lookout for new and innovative ways our spirits will be presented. This will include novel experimentation with maturation and flavor, unique collaborations, and a mindset that will look to bring in new and diverse audiences into the fold.”
Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether...