Sometimes, when sipping a smoky, peat-infused single malt from the Hebridean Isles of Scotland, the mind-loosening qualities of the beverage put me to philosophizing about how I am tasting the very same flavors as generations of MacLeans—Island men, originally—before me. It’s a lovely, romantic thought, until one gets to thinking about what peat actually is (compressed and decayed carbon matter, harvested from the bog) which leads to the unavoidable consideration that generations of MacLeans may be precisely what I’m tasting.
I hope that their introduction to strong waters was gentler than my own—a traumatic experience that I can fix to the day. As I was to be away from home the summer of my 21st birthday, my saint of a mother generously threw me a party before my departure. It was a very mature, grown-up affair, full of family friends and the kinds of people you call ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ by way of a friendly honorific. It was all over by about 10:30, but I, used to more raucous evenings at school, and emboldened by the modest amount of wine I had consumed, decided that I wasn’t finished.
My father, Angus, had died a few years earlier, but his liquor cabinet—for all intents and purposes, his Scotch cabinet—had remained there undisturbed beneath the kitchen counter. I kneeled, opened the doors, saw a half-dozen or so bottles sitting there in the dark, and felt the obligations of manhood resting weightily on my shoulders. It seemed wisest to sample a bit from each bottle. In my youth and exuberant inexperience, I had no idea that I was pouring myself doubles.
The next day I drifted cruelly back into something like consciousness around noon—but now, wisdom dictated that remaining still would be best, in the way that a man whose skull and upper spine have been rolled over by a 18-wheeler might decide that stillness is best, because moving poses too great a risk of death, and, anyway, is too painful to contemplate. It was four o’clock before I dared to turn over on my back, and four years before I contemplated another drop of whisky.
It was surely fate that my reintroduction to Scotch would come in the form of a bottle of Laphroaig, which is… an acquired taste, even among those who enjoy whisky. The late, lamented spirits writer Michael Jackson well captures this ambivalence in his introduction to the brand: “The most medicinal of malts… Like hospital gauze? Reminiscent of mouthwash or antiseptic? Phenolic? That is the whole point: the iodine-like, seaweed character of Islay.” I was in England, and had paid my way for a seat at a Burns Night dinner, where traditionally haggis and Scotch are paired on the menu. I was avoiding the spirits, but couldn’t help but notice that people kept coming over and asking for a pour out of the bottle that had been set in front of me—a Laphroaig 10-year-old, as it happened. I soon gave in to curiosity and, when in extravagant moods, have been drinking golden, smoky, salty hospital gauze ever since.
In this affection I’m not alone. The company has now been around for just over 200 years, and is celebrating this anniversary in part with a thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and handsomely illustrated commemorative volume by Marcel van Gils and Hans Offringa. For those, like me, who have never had the pleasure of visiting (I did once make a pilgrimage to Lewis, my grandfather’s island of origin—as well as that of Donald Trump’s mother, as it happens) the photography provides some surprises, including the sight of a whimsical palm tree in front of the distillery, a nod to Islay’s proximity to the Gulf Stream.
But the volume’s great pleasure is its pleasingly thorough examination not only of Laphroaig’s malt-making practices, but of the history of the place, and of the many generations that have owned it, before leaving it to a staffer named Bessie Williamson, the only woman distillery owner in Scotland in her day, and by all accounts quite the force of nature. In the second half of the twentieth century the company sold out. It has been passed from one corporate master to another in the years since, and currently is an ornament of the Suntory group—a turn of events that can’t be contemplated without thinking of Bill Murray’s brilliant, ennui-ridden, fictional promotion of “Suntory Time!”
Not that going corporate has led to a compromise in standards, one must hasten to add. Laphroaig is one of only a handful of Scotch distilleries that still malts a portion of its barley on site—the old fashioned way, by spreading and turning it over on the floor, before drying it out (in part) with the peat smoke. Paging through the biographies of the current staff, one notes that many of the most prominent of them are not only Scottish, but indeed from Islay, the total population of which is smaller than the student body at my old high school.
Indeed, it’s very important to the lovers and promoters of high-end single malts that they offer a sense of place—of terroir, even: that the local water’s interaction with minerals is critical, along with the weather, the local culture of distilling, and a dozen other factors. You’re not just drinking whisky, but a story—and stories cost. Blended malts and those made with greater efficiencies of scale tend to be much more affordable: Laphroaig 10-year-old retails for around $45 a bottle, a price that Angus MacLean—a child of Depression-era Ohio, and son to another Angus who came over from Lewis with no more than he could carry—would have found risible for a bottle of Scotch. I can hear it now.
But isn’t this just the way? At nice restaurants in American cities, the craze tends to be for ‘locally-sourced’ cuisine. In D.C. and Philadelphia, one now hears of ‘mid-Atlantic’ cuisine, hitherto an unknown entity to those of us who have spent much of our lives in these parts. It’s all often of very good quality, and those who can afford to are happy to pay for the inefficiencies that come with providing a fantasy of place, of rootedness—things that used not to be a fantasy, but unremarkable birthrights, but things that, in 2016, cost.