A wee dram at the Laphroaig distillery in the Scottish Hebrides turns into an invocation of a whisky-loving soul. By Matthew Clayfield.

Whisky business at the Laphroaig distillery

The The Laphroaig distillery on the south coast of the Isle of Islay, Scotland.
Credit: TWS / Alamy

It is a small but committed cross-section of drinkers that has found itself arranged along the tasting room bar. We are here because we have missed the tour: my wife and I accidentally, having thought it was scheduled to begin later this afternoon, and a Scottish fellow and his German friend deliberately, because they would rather drink a dram or two than hear again, after countless other distillery tours, how water and barley are turned into whisky. They swallow with relish: it is, the Scot informs us, his first drink since the drink he had earlier this afternoon. My wife and I are more abstemious, limiting ourselves to drinking our way through the £20 note we had set aside for the tour we missed.

The Laphroaig distillery is a half-hour walk from Port Ellen on the southern coast of Scotland’s Isle of Islay. The Queen of the Hebrides, as the island is sometimes known, is now home to nine distilleries. Some of the most famous whisky names are based here: we visited Bowmore this morning, and Lagavulin and Ardbeg lie a little east of Laphroaig along the so-called Three Distilleries Path.

Not that my wife and I know any of these names particularly well. We’re at Laphroaig because it’s one of the few we recognise. Mostly, to quote Ralph Wiggum of The Simpsons fame, I think whisky “tastes like burning”. But apart from touring whisky distilleries, there’s not much else to do on Islay. The Scot and his friend have already visited all the others.

Behind the bar is Clare, who hails from Northern Ireland. It’s one of Islay’s few clear days and we can see across the Straits of Moyle to Rathlin Island and beyond. Clare has lived in Islay for three years, after falling for a local online. I’ve never seen someone pour such perfect measures. She fills the jigger, not to the brim, but somehow above it, creating a slight but nevertheless perceptible meniscus – a liquid lid – without ever spilling a drop. She also has an innate sense of what role the customer expects her to play at any given moment and transitions between them seamlessly: brand ambassador, educator, talkative bartender. After a dram or two, with the bonhomie rising, she mostly sticks to the third of these, talking about the island, how there’s no work for young people, about the housing shortage, about the Japanese. Laphroaig is owned by Beam Suntory, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Suntory Holdings, which sends teams over to sit by the stills taking measurements. The Scot says they must be doing something right: Japanese whisky has become very good. Clare shrugs and says something mysterious about peat.

About half an hour or so has passed when an American couple join us. They have been wandering around the field across the road, where subscribers known as the Friends of Laphroaig are given a tiny plot of land – “an entire square foot”, as the website puts it – in which to plant their national flag. The “friends” are also entitled to a free dram of whisky every year. The Americans were wandering around this field when they stumbled across something resembling an urn. Inside was a note that told the story of a young woman, Julia, who had long wished to visit the distilleries of Islay before she tragically died in a car accident. “Go inside and ask for a dram from Julia’s bottle,” the note said.

Clare has never heard of Julia’s bottle, and doesn’t know about the note, but she’s clearly moved by the story and offers the Americans a dram of Laphroaig 10 Year Old. She also invites them behind the bar so they can have their photograph taken. There is an email address at the bottom of the note, which the Americans have photographed on their phone. The Scot notes it ends with “.de”, meaning Julia was probably German. He suggests the Americans send their bar photograph to the email address, and soon all of us are posing together, toasting Julia’s memory. We imagine the pleasure Julia’s loved ones will take from these pictures and wax poetic about the beauty, the simplicity, of their gesture.

Stories like these are not unknown. In 2018, the British journalist Joseph S. Furey made headlines in Canterbury and Mississippi after touring the Delta and planting USBs containing musical files at sights along the blues trail. The music had been recorded by his friend Maximum Martin, a young busker from Kent who died in 2017 before being able to visit the spiritual home of the blues. In a note that accompanied the USBs, written in Max’s voice, Furey invited those who discovered them to get in touch, to speak to his friend Max, to acknowledge his lingering presence. A dedicated Twitter account was soon inundated with messages from pilgrims to the Mose Allison blues marker and the gravesides of Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, all addressed to the deceased. The blues knows pain. Whisky tries to soothe it.

After we’ve spent our £20, my wife and I walk to the field to try to find Julia’s urn. We trudge among the flags, the peat squelching beneath our feet, straying increasingly far from the road. Fifteen minutes pass and the Scot and the German ride by on bikes on their way to the island’s “winery”, where “wines” are produced from rhubarb and other vegetables.

We can’t find the urn and my wife returns to the road while I become a little desperate. I scare a group of black-faced sheep and they run ahead of me, hopefully leading the way. Eventually I’m standing in front of a rough stone cairn, which Prince Charles, known as the Duke of Rothesay in these parts, unveiled three-plus years ago for Laphroaig’s 200th anniversary. The 15 Year Old is said to be his favourite tipple, and indeed Laphroaig remains the only single malt Scotch to bear a Royal Warrant. But I’m a republican and don’t much care. The urn still eludes me.

My desperation is now tinged with suspicion. I am beginning to doubt the Americans’ story. But surely they didn’t go to the trouble of inventing Julia and the German email address just to score a free drink? The idea seems perverse. But not impossible. I now imagine the Americans barging into all the tasting rooms on the island, spinning Julia’s story in ever more ludicrous forms. It wouldn’t be the first time a tall tale has been told in a bar, or even a tasting room. How many times have I bought someone a drink in order to keep such tales coming? How many lies have I told and been told?

But Laphroaig is the only distillery on the island boasting a field of flags in which a grieving family might think to deposit a mysterious urn, and the field in question is large and overgrown. It’s possible the Americans left the urn where they found it, half-hidden in the undergrowth. Defeated, I return to the road, where my wife is entertaining suspicions of her own. The idea that Clare and the Scot and the rest of us have been had is a cruel one, but impossible to shake. Of course, we’re also slightly drunk at this point, and susceptible to paranoid flights of fancy. Maybe the urn wasn’t ours to find. We walk back into Port Ellen in silence, daydreaming of Julia, who dreamt of Islay.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Whiskey business".

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Matthew Clayfield
is a freelance foreign correspondent.

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