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Living The Islay Dream: An Interview With Laphroaig Master Distiller John Campbell

Islay, to many lovers of Scotch whisky, is like the holy mecca. For those who love peat in their glass, a visit to this island off of Scotland’s southwestern coast is something of a pilgrimage. It’s currently home to eight functioning distilleries, with some having history stretching back hundreds of years. Well known names include Ardbeg, Bowmore and, of course, Laphroaig.

Laphroaig, as we wrote about in our article on Islay earlier this year, is an iconic Islay single malt Scotch whisky. Its name is a Gaelic word that means “beautiful hollow by the broad bay.” This classic and beloved Islay distillery was established in 1815, and is owned today by Beam-Suntory. Management of the whisky creation process is currently handled by master distiller and distillery manager John Campbell. We recently had the chance to sit down with him and talk about the distillery, his involvement in it, and what life is like on Islay.

John Campbell Laphroaig
John Campbell of Laphroaig (image via Laphroaig)

Note this interview is edited for brevity and clarity.

The Whiskey Wash: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started at Laphroaig?

John Campbell: I’ve been there for 22 years and just started off at the bottom. I started off in the warehouses stenciling the numbers on the barrels and then just basically kept sticking my hand up, kept being given the opportunities so obviously people had faith in me. I went through all the processes: malting, mashing, and stilling. I did that for five years, then became the assistant distiller in 1999. Then in January 2006, I became the master distiller.

TWW: And what was Laphroaig like when you started there compared to today?

Campbell: It’s completely different. We didn’t get visitors for a start, whereas today we get 25-30,000 visitors. That side’s changed probably the most. As for the distillery, what’s changed is that we’ve automated a tiny wee bit, but there’s not an awful lot of change in the process-wise, I would say.

TWW: So I assume you live on Islay?

Campbell: I stay at the distillery, right on site. I’ve got about a 100 yard commute to work in the mornings. Not tough.

TWW: What’s life like living at a distillery on one of Scotland’s most famous islands?

Campbell: To me, it’s a real privilege. It’s a real honor. I’m from the island as well. The first guy in 200 years to be from the island that’s running Laphroaig Distillery as well. I don’t take that lightly it’s an amazing place I run.

TWW: Describe the characteristic Laphroaig single malt style.

Campbell: It’s usually all about the distillery flavors, so you do expect peat; kind of iodine, medicinal type flavors. You do expect fruit. You do expect kind of floral notes as well and then salt coming through there. Most people will drink the 10 year old and you get the compliments of the American oak cask as well. So you will get a bit of sweetness, maybe a wee bit of vanilla up front and then white spice in the notes.

TWW: Talk a little bit about what it’s like to use peat in whiskey and how do you feel like that influences the Laphroaig taste?

Campbell: So the peat is a hugely important part for Laphroaig and it’s because of the way we use it that makes it completely different to any other distillery in the Scotch whiskey industry. We will cold smoke malted barley. Basically we’re just trying to get the smoke off the fire, no flames, and getting that nice blue smoke going through a malted barley to flavor it, for about 17 hours. Every other single distillery, whether it’s a full malted or a commercial malted, will flavor and dry at the same time. So you just get different flavors coming through that way. Different smoke flavors, so that’s one of the real keys to making Laphroaig different, I would say.

The peat on the island itself is different to the peat on mainland Scotland as well, just due to the geology. It’s kind of seaweed-based and decayed grasses and vegetation, whereas the peat in mainland Scotland, based in an old Caledonian forest, is wood-based.

TWW: Living as you do on the distillery grounds, what’s a typical day in the life for you?

Campbell: There’s no typical day I guess. Generally, I go to work maybe 7:30, 7:45, sometimes earlier. It just depends on how much is going on. Just have a quick look, prepare for the day and then at 8:00 we do review meetings: the last 24 hours of production in all of the areas. I’ll kind of be involved in them. I make sure the operators have got the support they need to get through the next 24 hours, all their problems fixed, all that sort of stuff. See that we’re on track.

A lot of my day is involved in planning and strategy and stuff like that, keeping the distillery legal so dealing with government agencies and all those sort of things.

And then people. We all have different things going on in our lives, so we’re trying to keep that balance and keep everyone happy. I think the thing about my job is the scope, that’s what makes it the best. Because I can be dealing with people issues, government agencies, and then you’ll walk outside and you’ll meet a Friend of Laphroaig and all of a sudden it’s all about them and what they’re doing and what they’re kind of feeling and their visit. It’s almost like a pilgrimage when they come to Islay so you have to give folks that time.

TWW: When you are doing distilling and barreling, what is going through your mind about your place in the history of a distillery like Laphroaig?

Campbell: To be honest, I don’t think about that at all. To me, it’s not about me at all. It’s all about Laphroaig. I think if I ever started getting like that, the operators I would hope, would put me in my place pretty quickly. Because it’s the same for them. It’s all about Laphroaig. What we’re doing, why we’re there. We’re only holding the torch just now, and Laphroaig’s been there for 200 years, it’ll be there for another 200 years or more, at least. Our job is to make sure we’re increasing the health of Laphroaig and improving it for the future generations to pass on to.

TWW: You talked a little earlier about when you started there, there weren’t really any visitors. What do you attribute to that change in folks coming there now?

Campbell: I think we’ve concentrated a lot on that fan program, the Friends of Laphroaig. It’s a real two-way communication. We involve the folks a lot. I think that’s what makes Laphroaig different to any other brand. We’ll do consumer events. In each city in the U.S. that I’m over here visiting, there’ll be Friends of Laphroaig events at some point. It’s always good to engage your consumers and to get their feedback.

TWW: With Friends of Laphroaig, people get their little square foot of land at the distillery. What are typical reactions that people have when they’re given a little flag and sent out to the bog to plant it?

Campbell: Yeah, people just love it. Again, we’re all made of the same materials, but we all act differently to different things. Some people are like a kid in a candy store as they say. It’s a cultural thing as well. I mean, some cultures like to be very specific and go out and get the exact square foot land and do that. And some people just like to jump in the bog and have the most fun that they can. It’s totally up to you and that’s the thing, it’s about having a bit of fun when you come to the island.

We give you “a rent” for your square foot of land as well, which is a dram of Laphroaig’s finest. It’s like everything in life, it’s up to you how you deal with it, take it, and embrace it.

TWW: What are some stories you can share of life on Islay?

Campbell: When you walk out your door at night, for example, you’ve got to keep your wits about you because there could be a deer just standing right in front of you. And hopefully they’ll get scared because these things have got big horns. Sometimes you get as much a fright as the animals do as well. There’s all sorts of so much wildlife around here. Otters running through your garden. Owls. All sorts of things can happen at the distillery.

All sorts of different things with people too. You get people walking up to your door and asking you for photographs and stuff like that. So I’ve learned to get dressed every morning before I get out the bedroom. So it’s just a bit of fun like that.

When we do get an opportunity to celebrate, we take that too. Some of the year end parties now are becoming quite legendary. Letting our hair down, having a laugh, and just getting the music up and the big screen and just enjoying each other’s company for a whole day, evening, for whatever.

There’s a lot of great people at Laphroaig. We’ve got up people here with up to 42 years service who are very loyal to Laphroaig. The people that work there, they love Laphroaig. They’re very protective of Laphroaig as well.

TWW: What’s it like working at a place that’s so integrated into the thread of what is Islay?

Campbell: To be honest, I don’t know any better. I’m quite happy about that. I think there’s some good points and there’s some drawbacks like everything else in life. The good points are that somebody’s always got your back, you can go to other folks and help each other out. There’s always people looking out for you and taking care and making sure you’re okay.

The other side of that is, in a small community, everyone knows your business. You better make sure you’re squeaky clean. Not that I don’t want to be squeaky clean, but sometimes stories get made up for the lack of something better to do.

TWW: So you’re on a desert island. You can only have one bottle of Laphroaig with you. What is that bottle and why?

Campbell: That’s so easy. That’s the Laphroaig 10-year-old. It’s the heart of the brand. It’s Laphroaig to me. It is Laphroaig to most people as well. If you ever taste this Laphroaig, add a couple of drops of water in it and you smell. That atmosphere is like standing in the beach at Laphroaig. Breathing in, the kiln fires burning. You’ve got the seaweed all kind of evaporating away and you’ve got the sea-salty air and it’s just the essence Laphroaig in a glass.

Nino: Do you attribute that in part to the relative young age of that Laphroaig compared to some others?

John: Nope, it’s still got a lot of the distillery flavors in there. The older ones you get more of the kind of cask entrance starting to build up versus the distillery flavors. I think so. I really like to get, in any whiskey, and this is just me but, in any whiskey, I like to taste the distillery flavors. What’s the distillery done for this? Rather than, what’s the cask done for this?

TWW: When people travel to Islay, are there any travel tips you can offer them that might not be something that immediately comes out of the guidebook or comes off the top of their head when they’re trip planning?

Campbell: Get your accommodations sorted before even your travel. It’s really hard to get accommodations in Islay. The infrastructure on the island is not equipped for the amount of visitors, so you just need to be very organized with accommodations and also with travel. Don’t just think you can turn up at a ferry and you’ll get a place in Islay. That’s not gonna work. You might not even get on the ferry.

That being said, things should open up a wee bit in another couple of years. We’re getting a hotel built just now, with about another 40 to 50 bedrooms, which is not a big hotel, but it’ll make a big difference to the island. Most people now are turning their houses into holiday homes so that they can rent them out as well.

TWW: Does Islay see traffic jams?

Campbell: Maybe if there’s somebody moving sheep or cattle in the road or something, but generally no.

TWW: Have you had any run ins with sheep at the distillery? Or anywhere on Islay?

Campbell: You just got to watch certain times of year when they’re having the babies, the lambs. You’ve really got to be careful then. And everyone will have had a run in with a sheep, a deer, or a cow at some point in their life. Cause there’s more of them on the island than there is humans.

TWW: Is there a favorite place you like to go on the island that you’d want to share with readers?

Campbell: Oh there’s so many amazing places in Islay. I love the beaches. The beaches are amazing. You can go to Machir Bay and just stand there and imagine that 3.5 thousand miles away is Canada. You feel the power of the Atlantic coming in there. It’s just amazing.

On the other side, there’s another beach, down beside the airport, that’s seven miles long. It’s just a great beach to go, whether it is summer or winter. There’s a forest in the middle, Bridgend Woods, where no matter what kind of weather comes, you can enjoy yourself. We’re outdoory folks on Islay. We try and get out and walking on beaches or something as much as possible. We don’t like being hemmed in houses.

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