Laphroaig Càirdeas is an annual non-age-statement release that has been around in various incarnations since 2009. 2013 marked a move to non-age statement releases and more colourful, consistent packaging. The outturn significantly increased too, with up to 30,000 bottles released each year. It’s the post-2013 period that this review covers.
Beyond interesting cask selection, higher strength, and a lack of age statements, the theme that binds the annual releases together is the Distillery Manager and Master Blender John Campbell. A fifth generation islander, he recently left Laphroaig after 27 years, bringing an end to this iconic series of releases.
John Campbell can now be found as Production Manager at Lochlea Distillery. Lochlea release their inaugural bottle this year. There is currently no information about who Laphroaig have appointed in his place.
Laphroaig have a very traditional approach to the role of the distillery manager, who runs the whisky production whilst also shaping the products that are released. John Campbell took on a role previously held by industry legends Ian Hunter and Bessie Williamson.
Laphroaig is run by Beam-Suntory and I speculate that Beam have kept the traditional distillery manager model partly because the Laphroaig range remains quite consistent year on year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Other companies take quite a different approach to the running of their distilleries, where their distillery manager takes on more of a functional role while the master blender or whisky maker is the celebrity “face” of the brand.
Take Tomatin distillery, which celebrates Graham Eunson (Distillery Operations Director) on each bottle of whisky, but whose distillery manager is the less publicised Janice Mair. More famously, Billy Walker (Master Distiller at Glenallachie) is commonly seen at flashy tastings, but the “distillery manager” role appears not to exisit. The closest role, Operations Director, is held by Richard Beattie.
At Billy’s old stomping grounds of BenRiach, Glenglassugh, and GlenDronach, the Master Blender appointed by Brown-Forman was the genuinely whisky-famous Dr Rachel Barrie. The Distillery Manager, Alan McConnochie, takes on a less public role here too; the distillery manager’s role is spread between all three distilleries. At Dalmore, Andrew Scott keeps things running on a daily basis, but Richard “The Nose” Paterson is better known for crafting the releases.
It’s easy to make the analogy between a celebrated executive chef who may oversee and creatively direct the cuisine at multiple restaurants, but rarely take a shift at the pass. The reputation and quality of these restaurants is maintained day in and day out by the head chef of each restaurant. This is where I see the role of the distillery manager; they’re the (often unsung) heroes of our daily dram.
Per Liquid Careers, typical duties of the distillery manager include:
- Monitoring product quality, cost, and delivery to confirm that all three remain within approved guidelines
- Ensuring that the distillery employees meet production goals
- Working with the Master Distillers [or Master Blenders] to make new whisky products while making sure that existing output maintains quality standards
- Confirming that the distillery complies with health and safety regulations
- Organising proper equipment maintenance and recording details about overall equipment effectiveness (OEE)
- Managing the distillery’s annual budget
- Recording key information about the whisky production process
- Filling out any necessary regulatory documentation to comply with the requirements of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC)
- Working with human resources and the distillery management team to recruit new employees when required
- Serving as a brand ambassador to promote the distillery at public events”
Seeing this list, you can imagine more than a few distillery managers are happy to get on with their day job, uninterrupted by media calls. Where distillery manager roles are retained, they are increasingly focussed on operations rather than PR.
Distillery managers are also becoming more academic. The majority of the previous generation of distillery managers were time served, working their way up from entry-level positions through the ranks to become senior managers. The current generation of managers have usually had no less of a hard incremental career, but are also likely to be university qualified in Brewing and Distilling on top of the tradecraft. Many are recognised for their achievements through induction into the Keepers of the Quaich Society.
With increasing reliance on technological developments, the art and mystery of the operation of a distillery is increasingly predictable and repeatable. Procedures followed by still room operators will yield predictable outcomes without the direct oversight of a manager. Larger volumes of aging stock, again, require particular attention from the master blender to ensure profitable utilisation of stocks.
Stock management is area which is also increasingly seeing the use of computer systems to optimise and eliminate the random casks found at the back of warehouses. Perhaps the smaller condensed operations of Lochlea and other new distilleries will continue to offer the multifaceted and multi-skilled combined roll of a distiller manager and master blender long into the future. Other producers seem to be doing away with the distillery managers and spreading the responsibilities to other roles.
Time will tell if Laphroaig retains the same joint role arrangement when they announce a replacement for John Campbell. I’m confident that a distillery manager designing a long running range of whiskies such as the Càirdeas is fairly unusual, and set to become more-so as the industry pivots to incorporate more Master Blender roles.
As for Càirdeas: the Laphroaig website notes that these special editions celebrate the Friends of Laphroaig, and friendship in general. The Friends of Laphroaig is a free membership club, rather like the Ardbeg Committee, but rewards those who either buy their whisky directly from Laphroaig or enter the bottle-codes when purchased elsewhere. The scheme has run since 1994 and delivers a range of tiered bonuses, illustrated below. You get a generous fistful of points for each bottle purchase, so really any self-respecting Laphroaig fan should be on the Oak tier.
To bring you this article I was fortunate to buy into a bottle split of each of the expressions. Arranged by The Whisky Sleuth and skilfully photographed by Ian Robinson. Watch both their Instagram accounts for reviews and thoughts on these same bottles. The set was acquired at reasonable secondary market prices and split at cost. The prices quoted below are rough estimates, supported by some additional knowledge from the Laphroaig visitor centre.
Is the Càirdeas range a fitting celebration not only of friendship but of the hard-working distillery manager John Campbell?
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2013 Edition – Review
Port Wood Finish. 51.3% ABV. Approximately £50
Colour: Rose gold.
On the nose: Berry fruitiness, gentle peat, red fruits remain, some caramel giving depth, baked oat biscuits, milk chocolate, cinnamon buns, and a pinch of clove, some cherrywood chips on the BBQ.
In the mouth: Smoked undyed haddock, salty, buttery, sweet highland toffee, subtle berry fruitiness, rich exotic oak spices, green apple skin, cherry Tunes, barbequed green bell peppers, moist tobacco, and a long finish.
Tasty, interesting, complex, lively.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2014 Edition – Review
First fill bourbon casks and Amontillado Sherry finish. 51.4% ABV. Approximately £55.
On the nose: Baked madeira cake crust, butter caramel, gingerbread, spun-sugar, gentle subtle smoke, churros, apricot jam.
In the mouth: Vuttery toffee and smoky peat, glazed almond croissants, apricot, quince jelly, dry caramel, creamy texture, dry caramel, charcoal, peat, and oak spices with a short, salty finish.
Lots of tasty textures and boulangerie sweetness with drying peat smoke.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2015 Edition – Review
Bourbon casks. 51.5% ABV. Approximately £60.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Prickly peat, clean crisp spirit, dry vanilla, chalky and ashy, white fruit and apricot, dry smoke and light honey.
In the mouth: quite direct with peat smoke, sharp under-ripe fruit, medicinal peat, earthy on the mid-palate, peppery, chilli, chalk, becoming creamy and approachable with water, long lingering finish of pencil shavings, crayons, and cheap cigar.
Hard work initially, but definitely growing on me over time. The score here is with the consideration of water to tame the spirit a little.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2016 Edition – Review
Bourbon with Madeira hogshead finish. 51.6% ABV. Approximately £65.
On the nose: Sweet smoke, juicy plum, a little Christmas cake spice, iodine, pine disinfectant, charred pork fat, cold dusty hearth.
In the mouth: Sweet fruit syrup, toasted sugar, slight BBQ char, and then spicy peat, brandy snaps, big bold bonfire smoke, salty and drying on the finish.
Reasonable; interesting, but not as tasty as previous years and slightly out of balance.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2017 Edition – Review
First-fill Makers Mark casks with quarter cask finish. 57.2% ABV. Approximately £70.
Colour: Pale gold.
In the mouth: Spicy peat, vanilla, quite dry, oak spices, plantain, digestive biscuit, white bread, buttery, consistent smoky note, iodine, and menthol cigarettes on the finish.
In the mouth: Very oily, forceful spicy peat, juicy on the mid-palate, turning vegetal, then vanilla fudge, the finish leathery with a lasting spicy finish.
Quite raw; not the bourbon bomb I expected, but complex and, again, water rewards the drinker here.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2018 Edition – Review
First fill bourbon and Fino sherry casks. 51.8% ABV. Approximately £75.
On the nose: Smoky and earthy, dry salty and vinous, spun sugar, white pepper, baked sweet pastry.
In the mouth: Sweet smoke, baked fruit streusel, toasted and charred oak, crystalised ginger, After Eight chocolates, smoky iodine, aromatic peat, medium finish.
Quite tight on the nose; the palate was rewarding. I am always amazed how much richness comes from Fino casks when the sherry itself is so dry.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2019 Edition – Review
Triple wood: ex-bourbon, quarter casks, and oloroso sherry casks. 59.5% ABV. Approximately £80.
Colour: Rich gold
On the nose: Powerful bourbon cask, bright fresh fruity, the peat taking a back seat at first. BBQ peach, vanilla poached pear, becoming more medicinal, slight iodine, menthol, mint intertwined with smoke, chlorine, some dry exotic wood spices.
In the mouth: Oily texture, minty, menthol forceful peat, some lively raw spirit, toffee and sweet Scottish tablet, followed by wood spices. Transformed with water it gives rich toffee, fresh orchard fruits, vanilla and baking spices, and a strong dry ashy and chalky finish.
Conclusions: Twice as many notes as some of the others here. This grabbed my attention; bourbon forward with sherry doing the backing vocals only. Water really helped but a super…
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2020 Edition – Review
Port and wine casks. 52% ABV. Approximately £85.
Colour: Rose gold
On the nose: Sweet red fruits, dry peat, sitting unharmoniously, ruby port more prominent than wine, toasted sugar, spicy peat, jam rolly-polly, raspberry Danish pastry, a little chalky and dry, ashy smoke
In the mouth: Thin on the mouth, non-descript fruit, forceful smoky peat, eventually sweet iodine, menthol, dry pencil shavings, coal smoke and a sweet finish. With water there was some more red fruit and more creamy.
This is an outlier in my opinion; too much ruby port, and a surprisingly thin mouthfeel.
Laphroaig Càirdeas 2021 Edition
Pedro Ximenes finish. 58.9% ABV. £89.
Colour: peaty highland river water
On the nose: blackcurrant cordial, blackcurrant and menthol Halls Soothers, eucalyptus, boiled sweets, the ‘new’ black Sports Mixtures, ashy and a little medicinal, Sunkist raisins, sticky baked figs served with mint and dark chocolate ice-cream
In the mouth: mellow, rounded, balanced with a light whipped butter texture, deep dark sweet flavours and more refined peat, salted dark chocolate, dates, dry peat, minty and menthol on the finish with tobacco and leather
Great release to end an era on. I’ve never had so much blackcurrant from PX and loved it, it avoided being too sweet due to the peat and medicinal notes. A bit of a revelation really
Overall this series has been strong and largely consistent. Tasting the range demonstrates that the punchy powerful Islay spirit is much more versatile than I had previously thought especially when handled with skill and care.
John Campbell photo courtesy of Laphroaig.