John Campbell, Laphroaig Distiller Manager was recently in Sydney for Laphroaig Live 2011, the annual whisky program that Gourmantic attended and was broadcast live for the first time from the Southern Hemisphere.
I had the opportunity to interview John, who is the first Ileach (native of Islay) to run Laphroaig in its 190 year history and learn about the Friends of Laphroaig program.
In addition to his role as Distillery Manager, John plays a lead role in promoting Laphroaig around the world.
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Corinne: Tell me a little about background, where you grew up and how you became a whisky distiller.
John Campbell: I grew up on the island and became a distiller as I needed to focus on a career, after having some fun as a lobster fisherman for 3-4 years earlier on in my life.
C: When did you first become interested in whisky?
Jc: Whisky has always just been part of island life, so we are always interested in whisky on Islay at all stages of our development. It’s just something we think that everybody else has, so it’s not such a huge deal locally! It’s not until you start to travel the world then you realise that Laphroaig is such a big deal elsewhere.
C: You’re the first Ileach (native of Islay) to run Laphroaig in its 190 year history. What does a usual day at Laphroaig entail?
JC: It entails a 7.30am start and a wander round the plant to see the operators, then onto emails and communications within the organisation and working with the support services to implement corporate strategy.
We also have local initiatives that are required to be completed and my No1 priority is to ensure that I keep the site legal, so I’m often working with government bodies to ensure compliance. Quality also plays a big role in my job and to ensure each drop of Laphroaig is quality, I arrange for tasting panels to sit to discuss the new spirit.
C: What makes Laphroaig different from other single malts?
JC: Lots of things make Laphroaig great. Depth and consistency in flavour within the liquid, which is the result of a lot of the hands-on approach we take in producing the spirit. The people who drink Laphroaig are different; we have a very passionate band of followers. Lastly, but not least, the team on the island are a fantastic bunch who care about the brand they work for.
C: Tell me a little about the Friends of Laphroaig program.
JC: Well, it’s fantastic fun! We have close to 500,000 members now and its growing faster every year. The Friends of Laphroaig (FOL) program will be 18 years old next March, and the fun starts when you come to the island. We set you up in a pair of size 12 wellies and put you out into the field and show you exactly where the square foot of land you’re given when you join us is located. You can take the flag of your nation (or you make your own nation) to your land, and when you’ve staked your claim we give you rent for the square foot of land also – which comes in the form of a dram of the good stuff – slainte! We also create specialised bottling for FOL once a year which is named “Cairdeas”, which means friendship in the local dialect.
C: Have there been any interesting stories when people come to view their Laphroaig plot?
JC: Yes, there has been and people have left themselves literally on their plot. We have spread ashes, had marriage proposals and weddings on site. People just wanting to sleep on their plots is quite common and just cutting the grass, sorting it all out and making it look good.
C: Tell me how the Laphroaig Live event came about.
JC: The event started in 2007 when we realised that a lot of FOL were online and that we could connect to them and they liked this. So we formalised the whole thing and did a tasting from London, to ensure connectivity, and it was a big success. Since then we have gone around some fantastic locations that link into the brand and the popularity continues to increase.
C: Do you believe single malts are increasing in popularity, and if so, why?
JC: Yes I do as the Scotch Whisky Association figures show this also. I think people can connect totally with a single malt in that there is a tangible asset that they can link to. Lots will make a pilgrimage so they can get to fully know what goes into making this product and to meet the people involved in the process. We are very open in showing what makes each site unique and customers love the fact that we all have different flavour profiles.
C: Currently there is an increase in bars that are more cocktail-driven which are attracting a younger crowd. Does Laphroaig fit into that cocktail market or is it still regarded as a straight or mixed drink?
JC: It fits into the cocktail market and barmen see it as a challenge to fit strong flavour profiles like Laphroaig into a cocktail, lots of good cocktails have Laphroaig in them especially in the USA.
C: Aside from the distinctive peat, what makes people enjoy Laphroaig?
JC: Depth of flavour is the real distinction, there’s fruit’s and floral flavours and when mixed with the correct casks provides a very unique taste experience. Laphroaig is much much much more than a one dimensional product.
C: Do you have any favourite whisky and food pairing combinations?
I like smoked salmon and quarter cask Laphroaig, it really accentuates the sweetness in the quarter casks.
C: Where do you see Laphroaig heading over the next 3-5 years?
JC: I wouldn’t expect to see huge changes within the brand, but I expect to continue to see the brand grow and grow. Islay whiskies are proving very popular globally and are outperforming the rest of the single malt market by 100%.
C: You are settling down for an evening of conversation with your best friend. What do you drink?
JC: That’s easy 10 year old Laphroaig, it’s my favourite with a wee splash of water.
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