LET THERE BE WHISKY
It’s said that the art of distillation in Islay heritage was first brought to us by Irish Monks with a taste for the good stuff. Being a remote island on the far edge of the Scottish whisky map, this art flourished in the hands of the Ilich – Islay natives – and it wasn’t exactly legal at the time. However, their dedication truly tested the resolve of the tax man and eventually the law was relaxed. This gave various whisky makers the chance to set up distilleries that were totally above board. Among them were the brothers who founded Laphroaig’s distillery on the island’s south coast in 1815…
Study any bottle of Laphroaig and you’ll find the words, “Distilled and bottled in Scotland by D. Johnson & Co.”. It’s the business founded by brothers Donald and Alexander Johnston to sell Laphroaig, who we honour to this day. They originally leased 1000 acres from the laird to rear cattle. But to raise cattle you must grow barley as feed for winter. And, what do you do with excess barley once winter’s over? Well, if you’re a Scot there’s only one thing to do – make whisky. By the end of 1815 the whisky was more profitable than farming and Laphroaig was officially born. It was a particularly good dram thanks to our soft, peaty water source – the prized Kilbride Stream. A treasure so precious that it’d soon spell trouble for the distillery.
A FAMILY AFFAIR (1836-1847)
Donald had a clear vision for Laphroaig and offered to buy out his brother’s share for £350, quite a bit of coin in those days. They shook on it and Alexander emigrated to Australia, leaving the future of Laphroaig down to Donald. Plot twist. Unfortunately for Donald, he only lived until 1847. And so it fell to the rest of the family and friends left on the island to carry on what the brothers had started.
Laphroaig’s fame and size continued to grow, but not everything was going as well as it seemed. Most of Islay’s malt went into whisky blends in the late 19th century, and Laphroaig’s was no exception. The smoky, peaty taste of our malt was especially coveted by our neighbours Mackie and Co, who were spirit and blending merchants. In fact, they took so much for their blends that we ran short. We could no longer supply our single malt whisky to a wider market. And that was a problem. Now’s the time to pour yourself a dram because things are about to really heat up.
WATER WARS (1887-1908)
Things between Laphroaig and Mackie and Co continued to sour. In 1907, Peter Mackie even tried to sabotage the distillery’s Kilbride Stream by blocking it up with rocks. This left Laphroaig without a key ingredient and its only source of coolant. Fortunately, the courts quickly waded in and Mackie was made to put things right. One year later, Mackie realised that if he couldn’t beat us, he’d join us – sort of. He sneakily convinced our head brewer at the time to abandon Laphroaig and work for him. Mackie even built an exact copy of our still house, hoping to create another Laphroaig. But cutting corners and taking the easy option is not the Laphroaig way. Nobody – apart from maybe Mackie – was surprised when it didn’t work.
FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL
The war with our neighbours had taken its toll, but it wasn’t over yet. We needed a leader to radically revitalise our spirit. Luckily there was a maverick about to enter the fray, and that man was Ian Hunter. The last of the founding Johnston family to own the distillery, he was unique, distinctive – not for everyone at first. Sounds a bit like our whisky, doesn’t it? But even with this strong character at the helm, the distillery was really starting to flag.
A REVOLUTIONARY REBUILD
After we bought the land, we decided to increase capacity. Ian Hunter – being the visionary he was – rebuilt parts of the distillery to double our output. And he’d thought of everything. Even the wash still and spirit still he erected were exact duplicates of the originals. Ian was one of the first to experiment with whisky and flavour. For example, he reinvented the malting floor by adding large windows and fans facing the coast to impart unique flavour profiles from the sea air. So it’s fair to say that Ian had an immeasurable impact on the whisky we all drink today. You see, Ian understood that capturing the characteristics of the island in Laphroaig would win over whisky lovers all over the world.
The gospel of Laphroaig began to spread. Among the first to fall for its full-bodied, thick peat smoke and oily character were the Scandinavians, which is perhaps unsurprising as they were some of Islay’s earliest settlers. Exports grew to Latin America, Europe and Canada. Even Prohibition America was on our radar, which isn’t the only pioneering move we’ve made.
A NEW BEGINNING WITH BESSIE
Bessie Williamson wasn’t looking for a lifestyle change when she stepped ashore with only a suitcase packed for a three month stay. She was only here for a summer job at the distillery. But it’s easy to fall in love when it comes to Laphroaig, and three months turned into a lifetime of dedication. Hunter saw a burning passion in her and passed on all of Laphroaig’s secrets over the years. This included the idea for maturing Laphroaig’s spirit in ex-Bourbon barrels. Bessie eventually became distillery owner in 1954 after Ian Hunter’s passing and was a pioneer of women in whisky. She put Ian Hunter’s ideas into practice and changed Laphroaig forever, with ex-Bourbon barrels still at the heart of our process to this day.
BESSIE’S LEGACY (1954-1967)
Bessie was Laphroaig’s first female distillery owner. During her time here, she strengthened Laphroaig’s links with Islay life. She joined in with the annual peat cut, and the singing and dancing at Saturday night ceilidhs. She even opened up distillery buildings to host the dances. But Bessie also knew that for Laphroaig to continue to grow, it needed the support of an international group. One that would continue the old traditions, but with financial muscle to carry Laphroaig all over the globe. So in the 60s, she gradually sold the distillery to Seager Evans & Co. They were drawn in by the same unique island character that captured Bessie’s heart and many other Friends in the past. They completed their acquisition in 1967.
LAPHROAIG’S CROWNING GLORY
Any Laphroaig lover will recognise our most famous patron by the distinctive coat of arms on the label. In 1994, HRH Prince Charles visited Laphroaig for the first time and gave us his Royal Warrant. We’re the only Scottish whisky to receive such an honour. The Royal coat of arms is also inscribed on the 200-year-old walls of the original buildings. And as His Royal Highness is the current Lord of the Isles, it’s especially fitting. His Royal Highness even signed the Visitors’ Book and parted, saying: “I hope you continue to use the traditional methods. I think you make the finest whisky in the world.” Friendly advice that we can all agree on.
TO FRIENDSHIP, TO LAPHROAIG
It was also in 1994 that Friends of Laphroaig was officially set up by much loved former Distillery Manager, Iain Henderson. In the true spirit of Islay hospitality, everyone’s welcome in our club. As a Friend of Laphroaig we give you a lifetime lease on your own square foot of the island, so you always have a home here. You’ll even be able to collect a dram of our finest as annual rent on your personal plot. Just make sure you visit us every year. Our family of Friends grows every year. Each member becomes a part of our story and reinforces the notion of friendship and openness of spirit that Laphroaig is built on.
A WORLDWIDE WEB OF FRIENDS
Friends of Laphroaig celebrated its 10th birthday on 30th March 2004 with over 200,000 members in 150 countries. So we launched a website for our Friends to have a home online too. A special Friends-only 11 Year Old anniversary bottling was also commissioned and went on sale exclusively on the Laphroaig website. It was the inspiration for the current Càirdeas series, a tradition created just for our Friends.
A LAPHROAIG LEGEND TAKES THE REINS
In 2006, John Campbell took up the role of Distillery Manager at Laphroaig. The longest-serving leader so far, he was in charge for 16 years. John was the first ever Ileach to lead Laphroaig and he contributed more than his fair share to our story. He created many important bottlings over the years, some of which you may have even sampled yourself. Not only that, but John truly embodies the spirit of friendship that runs through Laphroaig. And although he left Islay in 2021, he considers himself a life-long Friend and regularly makes trips back to visit us.
BEAMING ISLAY, LIVE AND DIRECT
By 2007 we got a taste for this internet thing and had a brilliant idea. If our Friends couldn’t make it to Islay, why don’t we bring the whisky to them? So we started streaming Laphroaig Live. A pioneering online whisky show where we could catch up with every one of our Friends, no matter where they are. Our gatherings now have tens of thousands of viewers, where we talk all things Laphroaig over a lip-loosening dram. So make sure you tune in, Friend.
WHISKY JUST FOR OUR FRIENDS
It was created by John Campbell to celebrate the friendships we’ve built on a shared love of Laphroaig. The first ever edition was bottled in 2008. In 2009, our Friends voted overwhelmingly to make it the permanent name of this special annual release. And we happily obliged.
200 YEARS OF LAPHROAIG
In 2015, it was a double celebration – two centuries of Laphroaig and the 21st birthday of Friends of Laphroaig. This was the year we wanted to remember Laphroaig's whisky makers, past and present, all of whom are responsible for what Laphroaig is today. To mark the occasion, we built a huge dry-stone commemorative cairn by Kilbride Stream to pay homage to the water that gave our whisky life. And we’re not done living yet.
THE STORY CONTINUES…
In 2022, we opened a new chapter in our story with a new Distillery Manager in Barry MacAffer. Another Islay native, Barry has a deep connection to Laphroaig and grew up on the distillery’s doorstep. He even used to play in the distillery grounds when he was a boy, so you might say he’s right at home. He’s a true guardian of our iconic Islay whisky. And with the legendary John Campbell’s official seal of approval, the future of Laphroaig is in good hands.
Laphroaig is a passionate community and an experience that should be available to everyone.
More to Explore
If you’re a fan of Laphroaig you’re a Friend of ours
Join to start unlocking special releases, ‘Friends only’ sweepstakes and even own your own plot on Islay.
Meet the heart of Laphroaig
Without our people, our kilns are just bricks. Our distillery, just an empty building.