Laphroaig is one of Scotland’s most iconic distilleries and it can trace its history back to 1815 when local Islay farmers Alexander and Donald Johnston decided to establish their own coastal distillery. Initially they leased around 1000 acres from the laird of Islay to provide pasture for their cattle but given the huge scale and growing demand for whisky they turned their attentions elsewhere. It would be a shame to waste the abundant barley crops after all. The site they selected was on the southern edge of Islay and its location translated means the broad hollow by the bay, which is exactly where you’ll find Laphroaig still standing today.
Their whisky was an immediate success and the brothers continued until 1836 when Alexander decided to emigrate, selling his share of the business to Donald for £350. Tragedy struck in 1847, when Donald fell into a cauldron of boiling liquid and was killed. His son, Dugald, was too young to take over the family business and Laphroaig was overseen by an uncle and family friend. By 1857 he is of an age to take up the role of owner and with the help of a cousin, Laphroaig continues unabated until Dugald passes away in 1877. Prior to this his main concern as owner is the growing reputation of Laphroaig and being unable to support its single malt potential by providing for blends orchestrated by Lagavulin’s owners in the form of Mackie & Co.
With the distillery passing into the hands of his sister and her husband, they eventually decide to terminate their agreement with the Mackie blenders. This contentious decision goes to court with Laphroaig winning the case and incensing Mackie & Co, who go so far as to deliberately divert Laphroaig’s vital Kilbride stream water supply prompting another court case. Having lost both court battles, Peter Mackie, in 1908 decides to build his own version of Laphroaig with the assistance of a former employe from the Johnston owned distillery. Known as Malt Mill, the distillery remains in operation on Lagavulin grounds until 1962.
Mackie always remained interested in Laphroaig but never succeeded in acquiring the distillery that remains in family hands until 1954 when Bessie Williams is given the distillery with the passing of Ian Hunter. She steered Laphroaig through difficult times and made sure that it embraced the Islay culture. In 1967 the distillery is completely purchased by Seager Evans & Company, commencing the remainder of its existence within the corporate ranks of larger companies resulting in Beam Suntory today. Unfortunately, the history of Laphroaig is as well documented as it is interesting; too much for our short summary however its distinctive whisky has endured the test of time.
The most notable change in recent times was the decision during the 1970’s to increase the size of the Laphroaig stills. The shape was kept intact but the still itself grew in size. The distillery manager at the time highlighted the effects of such a change to the spirit itself but the company chemists were only concerned with production. Following the implementation of these changes Laphroaig was changed forever and partially explains why bottles from this period or before are so collectable now. Today’s output is around 3 million litres and the distillery is in the enviable position of being unable to meet demand.
This explains the wide range of No Age Statement releases that we have seen in recent years and will continue to see going forward. Sadly, Laphroaig does not have the aged stock to maintain many of its age statements with the 18-year-old being withdrawn recently despite only being launched in 2009. The classic expression remains the 10-year-old which is still widely available and seen as one of the iconic Islay malts. It offers a snapshot of the classic characteristics comprising of peat, smoke, salty seaweed and iodine amongst others. It’s a very distinctive whisky even after the changes of the 1970’s that removed the oily and dense textures from the menu.
One aspect that does endure is the welcoming of visitors with the distillery offering a wide variety of tours and bottles on site, going so far as claiming your own piece of Islay. Special editions are also available annually and distillery visitors do have the option to walk away with a cask strength 10-year-old that represents one of the best value expressions from this distillery today.