Laphroaig is a Norse-Gaelic hybrid which means the ‘hollow of broad Bay’. The distillery was founded by the two brothers Donald and Axel Johnston. As so many other distillers at the time the two farmers only started their production to satisfy their own domestic needs. However the whisky from Laphroaig quickly became well-known due to the quality of the water they used and to the natural talent of the Johnston brothers. Naturally they soon began to sell some of their whisky for a nice profit. This illegal business was made easier since the area surrounding Laphroaig was ideal for smuggling.
Because of the illegal beginning, the early history of the distillery is not completely known. However Laphroaig officially claim that they were founded in 1815. We also know that Laphroaig gained their licence in 1826. Donald Johnston bought his brother’s share of the company in 1836 and ran Laphroaig himself until his death in 1847. By then his son Dugald was only eleven years old and could not take over the business immediately. The business was therefore leased to a trustee of Johnston’s estate, a man named Alexander Graham who also ran Lagavulin. Dugald took over in 1857 and ran the company until 1877 when he died. Alexander Johnston became the new owner and continued to develop Laphroaig which by then already was a highly appreciated whisky.
At the turn of the century Laphroaig wished to cancel Lagavulin’s agency which still remained from the time when Alexander Graham was alive. This created some tension between the two companies and they met in court several times until 1907 when the lease ran out and Laphroaig refused to renew the contract. Mackie and Co, the current owners of Lagavulin, responded by cutting off Laphroaig’s water supply. This resulted in another round at court which Laphroaig won. In 1908 Mackie and Co bought over the distillery manager at Laphroaig. Their goal was to create exact copies of the stills at Laphroaig and create an identical whisky. The venture failed and Mackie and Co instead made several offers to buy Laphroaig but their offers were turned down every time. Ian Hunter took over Laphroaig in 1921 and made several modernizations, for example the production capacity was doubled in 1923. Ian Hunter also introduced the concept of storing the whisky in bourbon casks.
During WW2 production was completely shut down since Laphroaig was used as a garrison. Ian Hunter died heirless in 1954, but in his will he left the entire distillery to Bessie Williamson. Bessie was the niece of his accountant and had worked at Laphroaig ever since one summer in the thirties when she had been appointed Ian’s temporary secretary. She was a pragmatic owner and soon realised that Laphroaig needed a strong financial partner to meet the increasing competition. She therefore sold the company to Long John in the sixties. In 1990 Laphroaig was bought by Allied Distillers which are the current owners. In 1994 Prince Charles visited the distillery and presented them with the Royal Warrant. A Royal Warrant is an official approval that can only be bestowed by a few members of the royal family. By giving this honour to the Laphroaig distillery Prince Charles declared that he is of the opinion that Laphroaig is the best whisky in the world.
The Laphroaig fan club is named ‘Friends of Laphroaig’. You may become a member if you buy a bottle of Laphroaig and register the bottle’s barcode at their website. As a member you will also be the owner of one square foot of Islay just outside the distillery.
Production at Laphroaig
Laphroaig use water from Kilbride Dam which has a soft and very peaty character. The reason that the water is so soft is that it flows over granite and therefore does not pick up any unwanted minerals. The Barley used is called Optic. Laphroaig malt 30 percent of the barley themselves, the rest is bought from Port Ellen Maltings. The peat comes from Laphroaig’s own bogs which lie east of Loch Indaal. Kelp and seaweed are often washed ashore when the sea is high and the wind blows inland. This gives Laphroaig’s peat a different character and is one reason for the unique taste of Laphroaig whisky.
The kilns at Laphroaig are from 1840. After the malted barley is peated to a ppm of 35 it is left to harden for a month before it is taken into the mill house. The Porteus Mill at Laphroaig is almost 60 years old and also one of the oldest in use. The Mash Tun holds 8.5 tons and their six washbacks each hold 42 500 litres. The washbacks are made from stainless steel since is makes it easier to keep them clean and free of unwanted particles and bacteria.
Laphroaig have seven stills; three wash stills and four spirit stills. The wash stills are onion-shaped and hold 10 500 litres each. Three of the four spirit stills hold 4 700 litres while the fourth has a capacity of 9 400 litres. The warehouses are located on-site very close to the seashore. All storage is done in first-fill bourbon casks. Half of the production is used for making single malt whisky, and the other half is sold to the blended industry. In 2002 the annual production was 1.9 million litres.
Isle of Islay
Argyll, PA42 7DU
Phone: +44 (0) 1496 302418
Fax: +44 (0) 141558 9010
Manager: Robin Shields
Visitors: Laphroaig welcome visitors all year round. Guided tours start at 10.15 am and 2.15 pm. Make sure to book in advance. Production is closed down in July/August due to maintenance. The admission is free.
The visitor centre feels fresh and welcoming and has a very nice bar. They also have a museum which tells the history about Laphroaig. If you are a member of Friends of Laphroaig you get a free 5ml dram as ‘interest’ for your square foot of Islay.
Owner: Allied Distillers