Ahead of the Laphroaig Open Day Fèis Ìle 2020, John Campbell, the Distillery Manager of Laphroaig in Islay was able to spare some time to talk with Inside the Cask. Fèis Ìle is the Islay Festival of Music and Malt held during the last week of May every year on the Isle of Islay on the southwest coast of Scotland.
I first met John back in Maxxium days when working with the brand, which is owned by Beam Suntory, and I still have some really nice memories of taking my team to Islay and visiting Laphroaig (as well as other Islay distilleries of course!). Obviously, like many others around the world, I am also a “friend of Laphroaig” (plot below). John was kind enough to spare some time for a few questions.
Inside the Cask: Hi John, you are the Distillery Manager at Laphroaig and the 1st ‘Ileach’ (native of Islay) in its history. However how did it all start for you? Where did the interest in drinks initially come from?
Hi Andre, well its strange as my first career was as a lobster fisherman but I needed more security and didn’t want to leave the island, so chose whisky and then Laphroaig to try and work there. Luckily this happened and started off at the easiest job on the site and worked my way up.
Inside the Cask: Most people will have no idea of the work involved in producing whiskies, so what does the job of distillery manager entail on a day to day basis? What experience do you have in your career to date?
My three main responsibilities as the distillery manager are for the people and to make sure they have all that they need. The liquid quality and so, ensuring consistency of the alcohol produced. Finally, ensuring that the distillery meets all its legislation requirements. There are lots of other small responsibilities also but these three are key.
Inside the cask: What attributes would you suggest someone would need to have to become a whisky distiller?
I think it’s the same qualities with any career. So be passionate and care about what you do, keep learning and developing your knowledge of your chosen career and be targeted and by this I mean, make things happen. We find sometimes reasons to not do things in our lives and at my age now I believe that you can make anything happen if you want it too.
Inside the Cask: You have been the Distillery Manager at Laphroaig since 2006. Can you tell us more about Laphroaig single malts and what makes it special? What is so different about it?
Laphroaig single malts are special due to the production process we use. We do a few unique things around the site like the way we smoke the barley is different to the rest of the Scotch Whisky industry and this produces different flavours to extract. The way we distill is different to the rest of the Scotch whisky industry and so produce a different spirit due to this and the smoke flavours we have extracted from the malted barley. So two huge factors in a similar process to everybody else.
Inside the Cask note on reference to smoking barley at Laphroaig (from The Whiskey Wash interview with John): “Laphroaig 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 flavour it, for about 17 hours. Every other single distillery, whether it’s a full malted or a commercial malted, will flavour and dry at the same time. So you just get different flavours coming through that way. Different smoke flavours, 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.”
Inside the Cask: Scotch whisky remains a large and popular drinks category globally and demand for single malts in particular continues to increase. Laphroaig is reported to be producing close to capacity with 70% of its production used for single malts. How will the distillery manage to continue to increase the supply of Laphroaig to its many fans worldwide?
Yes, Laphroaig is now producing close to 90% for single malt and the only way to do this is increase the overall capacity or cut back on the 10% volume we trade to other companies or use within our company for blends.
Inside the Cask: Can you tell us more about your personal background? What else are you passionate about?
I have 4 children who take up a big part of my life and they are all amazing. My favourite sport is American Football but I will take part or watch any sport!!. Play golf a lot and I am pretty good at it and love to travel around the world learning from and experiencing other cultures.
Inside the Cask: What would be your advice for anyone else wanting to work in the drinks industry?
Go for it, it’s a very rewarding life.
Inside the Cask: What surprised you most about working in the drinks industry?
How this brand Laphroaig from a small island of the west of Scotland will be recognisable in most bars all the way around the world. Most people on Islay don’t even realise this 😊
Inside the Cask: What is the favourite part of your job? Anything that you would like to share that not many people would know about you?
My Favourite part of my job is to create a new brand or whisky for people to try. Its very nerve wracking but amazing and so creative. It is also amazing when people like what you do.
For Reference – link to VIDEO: Laphroaig Open Day – Fèis Ìle 2020
For Reference – link to VIDEO: Kristiane Sherry (Master of Malt) interviews John Campbell in 2019
For Reference – link to VIDEO: Laphroaig Distillery Tour