1954 - 1990: BESSIE'S REIGN AT LAPHROAIG
During the war, the Laphroaig distillery was commandeered as a military depot. Ian Hunter was now confined to a wheelchair and had decided that – on his death – Bessie Williamson was the only person that could maintain and develop Laphroaig’s long traditions. He died in 1954, bequeathing the whole distillery to her.
Bessie took the reigns as one of the first female owners and distillers in the industry. A true islander, she strengthened Laphroaig’s close links with Islay life, joining in with the annual peat cutting, singing, and dancing to Gaelic songs at the Saturday night “ceilidhs”. She even opened up distillery buildings for community dances. However, her first love was always Laphroaig, and during her tenure its fame and sales grew.
Bessie was a pragmatist and knew that for Laphroaig to continue to grow worldwide, it needed the support of an international group, one that would continue the old traditions but had the financial muscle to carry the brand through to new global markets. So in the 60’s, she gradually sold Laphroaig to Seager Evans & Co (a subsidiary of Schenley International) via its Scottish asset Long John Distillery. Seagar Evans acquired its first share in 1962 and completed the acquisition in 1967. Seagar Evans would go on to rebrand as Long John International.
Bessie retired in 1972, and died 10 years later. John McDougal, who succeeded Bessie as distillery manager, remembered Her most fondly: “It was an honour to work with Bessie Williamson and I will never forget her words of wisdom. They have stood me in good stead the 44 years since she left the office next to mine. So far as I am concerned, she has never left Laphroaig. To have been the last manager to work directly with and for her was an absolute privilege.” Laphroaig owes Bessie Williamson an enormous debt.
Over the course of the 1980s, Laphroaig’s reputation grew. Much of this was down to the stewardship of a clutch of excellent distillery managers. Denis Nicol was succeeded by Murdo Reed, who oversaw the stills being turned 180 degrees and the installing of a new still house roof. In turn, Murdo was succeeded briefly by Colin Ross, before the arrival of Iain Henderson in 1989.
Iain Henderson’s 14-year tenure marked the dawn of a new era, one that saw the inauguration of Friends of Laphroaig, the distillery being granted a Royal Warrant, and Laphroaig awarded a raft of top class awards.
In 1990, Laphroaig’s owner, Whitbread, sold off its spirits division. The distillery was acquired by Allied Spirits, a subsidiary of Allied Lyons, which in 1994 changed its name to Allied Domecq, having acquired the Spanish brandy and sherry giant Pedro Domecq. It was during this time – under the guidance of owner and distillery manager Iain Henderson – that Laphroaig 10 Year Old became the world’s fastest-selling single malt.