Sometimes referred to as the most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies, Laphroaig is one of the most iconic island distilleries. With its smoky and iodine flavours, Laphroaig embodies the Islay identity and is also renowned for its Royal Warrant.
Although the exact etymology isn’t known, Laphroaig is said to mean “broad hollow by the bay” in Gaelic. This references its location; a small basin on Islay’s southern coast. However, it officially operated under the business name of D. Johnston & Co throughout most of its history.
In this article, you will discover Laphroaig as both a brand and a distillery as well as its unique characteristics.
Laphroaig has a rich and eventful history that spans over two centuries. Thanks to several lifetimes of experience, it has evolved into one of the world’s most famous Scotch whiskies. In this guide, we will cover the following topics:
As mentioned above, Laphroaig is located on the Southern coast of the Isle of Islay and has operated from the same location since it was founded.
Known as the “Queen of the Hebrides”, Islay is Scotland’s southernmost Inner Hebride just of the mainland’s west coast. In order to access it, a ferry must be taken from the Port of Kennacraig, which sails for an hour and forty five minutes until arriving at Port Ellen.
Upon landing at Port Ellen, the Laphroaig distillery is but a 10-minute drive East of the fishing village. During this picturesque albeit brief car ride, you’ll see Laphroaig’s Kilbride Stream, which we’ll talk about later.
In the early 19th Century, farmers Donald and Alexander Johnston leased 1,000 acres of land from the laird of Islay to rear cattle. They were given a plot that was named called Laphroaig, which is said to mean “broad hollow by the bay” in Gaelic.
However, when faced with a surplus of barley for feeding the cattle, they turned to producing whisky. Thanks to a relaxing of laws, this was once again legal and the Johnston brothers soon realised that it was more profitable than livestock. Therefore, they set up their small distillery under D. Johnston & Co in 1815.
After selling his share to Donald for £350, Alexander emigrated to Australia. However, in 1847, Donald died in an accident after falling into a vat of partially-made whisky. For the next decade, the distillery was managed by his cousin, John Johnston, and Walter Graham from the Lagavulin distillery until Donald’s son, Dugald, came of age.
Dugald took over when he was twenty years old in 1857 with his cousin, Alexander. During its time under Lagavulin’s care, the distillery had caught the eye of Laguvalin’s owners, the Glaswegian blenders, Mackie & Co. Most Scotch whisky was used for blends during the 19th Century and Laphroaig had set itself apart with its unique flavour profile.
Therefore, many blenders sought after Laphroaig’s whisky with Mackie & Co. in particular. Consequently, the distillery prospered but the arrangement allegedly displeased Dugald who desired to keep some of the production as single malts.
In 1877, Dugald passed away without any heirs and the distillery was inherited by his sister’s husband, Alexander Johnston. However, he died in 1907 and the distillery was then inherited by his sisters, Mrs William Hunter and Katherine Johnston, as well as his nephew, J. Johnston-Hunter.
Meanwhile, another nephew, Ian Hunter, headed to the island in order to oversee his family’s interests. By this time, the distillery was selling a small portion of its production as single malts, which was indeed rare at the time.
On his arrival, he discovered that Mackie & Co received most of Laphroaig’s annual production at a favourable rate. As the family sought to expand their single malt production, this troubled the young Hunter.
Seemingly having inherited his late uncle Dugald’s misgivings, the agreement between Mackie & Co soon fell apart. Since they also owned Lagavulin, tension grew with their neighbours. Mackie & Co accused Laphroaig of acting illegally but soon lost their agency rights in a bitter tribunal.
In retaliation, Lagavulin followed by diverting their precious water source, the Kilbride Stream, with stone blocks. Without their precious water, Laphroaig’s whisky production was crippled. Only after another court case would Peter Mackie, Lagavulin’s manager, be ordered to restore the water supply.
However, the feud persisted with Mackie hiring Laphroaig’s distiller. With his help, Lagavulin built a new distillery that was identical to Laphroaig that was named Malt Mill. However, despite their best efforts to produce an identical whisky, they ultimately failed.
By 1921, Ian Hunter had taken over the distillery. Unfortunately, the long-running feud with Lagavulin was taking its toll on the distillery’s finances due to the many court cases. To make matters worse, a new lease was due to the landowners.
This prompted Mackie & Co to put in a high offer to rent the land. However, the owners instead approached all of Islay’s southern distilleries with an offer to sell the land. Potential buyers were Ardberg, Lagavulin as well as Laphroaig.
As before, Mackie attempted to outbid Laphroaig. However, the Hunter pulled through and was able to acquire the land. Once the acquisition was completed, Laphroaig began to increase its infrastructure and by 1932, the distillery’s capacity had doubled.
Under Hunter’s leadership, Laphroaig flourished and became widely popular. With Prohibition in full swing, Hunter had even successfully used a loophole in order to bypass US Customs for Laphroaig to be sold for medicinal purposes.
Under Female Leadership
During the Second World War, the distillery was commandeered as a military depot. Soon after returning to Hunter’s possession, he suffered from a stroke which left him confined to a wheelchair. Despite being known for his highly-protective attitude towards the distillery and its operations, he confided in his secretary, Bessie Williamson.
Before his death, Williamson had already taken a largely direct role in the distillery’s management. However, having no heirs of his own, Hunter left the entire company to her when he died in 1954. At the time, this was a landmark in whisky history as few women had been in charge of distilleries before Bessie Williamson.
Bessie sought to continue Hunter’s legacy by expanding the distillery’s influence across the world. Yet there was a pressing need for financing in order to undertake some repairs and renovations on the distillery.
Therefore, Williamson sold a third of her shares to the American distiller, Schenley Corporation. This would not only provide her with the finances required but a strong influence across the pond. By the time Williamson retired in 1972, Schenley had acquired complete ownership of the distillery.
New Management & Owners
After rebranding itself as Long John International, Schenley sold Laphroaig to Whitbread. During this time, the distillery continued to run under the watchful guidance of John McDougal, Denis Nicol and finally Murdo Reed.
Before selling to Allied Lyons in 1989, Whitbread appointed Iain Henderson as Laphroaig’s distillery manager. During his 14 years as manager, Henderson went on to be a legend in the whisky industry. Throughout his term, sales increased from 20,000 cases to 170,000.
Furthermore, he witnessed Laphroaig being awarded a Royal Warrant as well as the founding of the Friends of Laphroaig. Today, Laphroaig is owned by Beam Sundory and has been run by John Campbell as distillery manager since 2006.
Laphroaig Distillery Installation & Processes
In the summer of 2018, Bespoke Unit paid a visit to Laphroaig in order to learn about their own production firsthand. In this guide, you’ll learn about each step of Laphroaig’s malt whisky production and how it’s intrinsically linked to the distillery’s identity:
You can use any of the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all!
Firstly, Laphroaig sources all of its water from Kilbride Stream. In the 1930s, the distillery built a reservoir that holds nearly 23 million litres (6 million US gallons). The subject of the aforementioned water wars, the source offers soft, non-mineralised and heavily-peated water. As such, the water has a natural brown colour.
Although some experts argue that the water used for making whisky doesn’t affect the flavour, Laphroaig believes it plays a vital role.
Grassy roots and decayed fungus renders Islay peat unique from the woodier variety found on the Scottish mainland. The result is a higher ratio of Sphagnum moss is what provides Laphroaig’s maltings their characteristic flavour, which is more earthy and medicinal rather than smoky.
For instance, their own Glenmachrie peat bog, which can be found halfway between Port Ellen and Bowmore, has a unique blend of heather, lichen and moss. This produces a phenol level of around 45 ppm.
Furthermore, Laphroaig continues to hand-cut is peat with traditional implements. A team of two men will cut approximately 2.5 tons of peat every day over the course of 100 days in the year. This is then left to dry in the peat shed over three months before becoming volatile enough for burning.
Given that peat takes many thousands of years to replenish, Laphroaig maintains their land in order to provide enough for another seven generations.
In a similar fashion, Laphroaig is one of the few remaining houses to prepare the barley through a floor malting process. The Laphroaig distillery hosts several floors that are each about the size of half a football field and can host up to seven tonnes of barley each.
Temperature is tracked by simply submerging a thermometer into the grain over the two-day germination process. In order to cool the grain, it’s simply turned and flicked in the air using spades by hand as well as opening and closing windows.
Although Laphroaig continue to undertake their own malting process, the sheer demand means that some will be out-sourced. Their own floor maltings account for 15% of production whilst the rest is obtained from a Diageo facility on Port Ellen as well as the mainland. Maltings from Port Ellen are sourced at 35-40 ppm phenols from Islay’s Castlehill Peat Bog.
Pagoda Kiln Chimneys
Laphroaig’s smoking facilities are instantly recognisable from the exterior thanks to the Pagoda chimneys. Shore peat kilns are still used to create the smoke fifteen feet below the damp malt over a 17-hour period.
Unlike other distilleries, Laphroaig doesn’t peat and dry its grain and the same time but perform one after the other, which produces a much bolder flavour. Here, the damp barley is able to absorb the vaporised oils that contain the peat’s phenolic compounds and flavours.
A stainless steel full-Lauter tun is used to mash over five tons of grist at a time using Kilbride water at temperatures starting at 63.5°C (146.3°F). This is left to dilute for a quarter of an hour in order to begin activating the aforementioned enzymes before activating the tun’s rakes.
Each flush consists of 25,000 litres (6,604 US gallons) at increasing temperatures. The fifth and final instance using recycled wort that has been reintroduced via the heating tanks to catch any leftover sugars from the grist.
Finally, the leftover grist is then siphoned out of the tun and is recycled as cattle feed for the island.
Laphroaig favours stainless steel washbacks over wood thanks to their lower maintenance requirements and costs. Although some distilleries continue to use pine, Laphroaig believes that this doesn’t affect the flavour of their expressions.
After the yeast has been pitched, each of their six washbacks work at a different stage of fermentation at temperatures that don’t exceed 36°C (96.8°F). Following this short 55-hour period, the wort’s resulting beer has an alcohol content of ABV of 8.5%.
It is then exposed to high temperatures to kill the remaining yeast.
In total, the distillery has seven copper pot stills known as the “magnificent seven”, which are used to undertake a double distillation method. Furthermore, they’re all indirectly fired by steam. The first distillation takes place in the three 10,400-litre (2747 US gallons) wash stills. This process produces a “low wine” with an alcohol content of around 22% ABV.
Due to their slow running, Laphroaig have unique lyne arms rather than relying on reflux to develop flavour during distillation. This means that the stills don’t push through heavy oils and flavours but retain a lightness despite their heavy peat profile.
Following that, the resulting low wine is run through their remaining four spirit stills. Three of the spirit stills hold 4,700 litres (1242 US Gallons) whilst the final and newer one holds contains 9,400 litres (2483 US Gallons).
Only a cut is kept of the spirit still’s run as the first and last parts are toxic. The first cut is extracted after 45 minutes, which is one of the longest in the industry. The second is taken once the alcohol content has dropped to 60%. The remaining spirit is then reintroduced into the wine still and recycled.
In the majority of Scotland, these are known as the head, heart and tail. However, they’re referred to as fore shots, spirit run and feints on Islay.
The majority of casks used by Laphroaig are sourced from Maker’s Mark in Kentucky. These ex-bourbon casks arrive in pieces to be rebuilt and coopered by hand on-site into 200-litre (52 US gallons) hogsheads.
Being made from American white oak, the barrels impart particular aromas, which provides Laphroaig with its characteristic flavour.
Although having Beam Suntory as a parent company has facilitated the use of ex-bourbon casks, the practice has been pioneered by Laphroaig since the 1940s. However, the distillery also makes use of European oak ex-sherry casks for finishing mature whisky too.
On-site, Laphroaig features eight dunnage and racked warehouses with a capacity of 55,000 casks. Meanwhile, five thousand casks are held at Arbderg whilst 40% of their production is tankered for maturation in Glasgow.
Most of Laphroaig’s production is destined for single malts. Of the 3.3 million litres of alcohol per year, only 30% of this is used for blending.
Friends of Laphroaig
In 1994, the distillery launched a new community named “Friends of Laphroaig”, which now has nearly 500,000 members around the world. Enclosed in every tube of Laphroaig is a small leaflet with a unique code that can be used when signing up online for free.
Although seemingly just another loyalty program, members are given a lifetime lease of a square-foot plot of the distillery’s land. In exchange, members are provided with a yearly rent of a miniature bottle of Laphroaig, which can be collected whenever visiting the distillery.
Each plot is genuine and not simply and abstract number. After signing up, you’re provided with GPS coordinates and can see your plot in the proverbial flesh.
Additionally, members receive exclusive access to Laphroaig’s online shop as well as discounts on their birthdays. This includes the yearly Cairdeas releases, which means “friendship” in Gaelic.
Overall, FOL is a unique concept, which rewards its community with a number of perks. However, it also provides another benefit to the distillery. The land owned by members is that surrounding the aforementioned Kilbride Stream.
As such, its ownership is further protected and secured as any changes would require over 400,000 signatures to be approved.
On the 29th June 1994, Prince Charles paid an official visit to Laphroaig during which, the distillery was granted a Royal Warrant. As such, Laphroaig is the only whisky to carry a Royal Warrant of the Prince of Wales.
When visiting in 1994, Prince Charles was invited to bung two casks of Laphroaig, which were then given to him as a gift. The first, a 1978 cask, was auctioned for the Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund. Some years later, the 1983 cask was bottled as a 15-year old for another charity operation for the Erskine Military Hospital.
Prince Charles has maintained close ties with the distillery and often cites it as his favourite Scotch. He has since visited the distillery on two other occasions in both 2008 and 2015.
Laphroaig’s expressions are grouped into three ranges:
Core: The majority of Laphroaig’s offerings including the Cairdeas exclusives.
Rare: Limited edition single malts.
Travel: Only available at airports and on cruises.
In the final section of this guide, we’ll take a quick look at the following most exemplary expressions:
The distillery’s standard bearer, the 10 Year Old is well-known even by those with only a passing interest in whisky. First released by Ian Hunter, its process has little changed in over 75 years of production.
Despite its powerful nose and palate with heavy accents of peat and iodine, the 10 Year Old is surprisingly light-bodied at only 40% ABV.
Composed of five unique casks, the lore is a complex expression. Laphroaig have successfully blended this award-winning whisky, which features single malts ranging from 21 to 7 years old.
Although featuring the iconic peated notes of Laphroaig’s usual blends, it’s a much fuller-bodied experience with bitter chocolate and biting notes.
Having undergone a double maturation, the Quarter Cask is an intense experience for peat enthusiasts. Whisky maturing in standard ex-bourbon hogsheads is transferred into smaller quarter casks.
By using quarter casks, the maturing whisky comes into much greater contact with the oak. This increased exposure develops the texture and flavour with a soft, velvet finish.
As part of the Travel range, the Four Oak can be hard to come by. An extension of both Laphroaig’s Triple Wood and Quarter Cask, the Four Oak combines characteristics of the two.
Here, the expression is composed of whiskies that have matured in their standard ex-bourbon barrels as well as quarter casks, virgin American oak barrels and European Oak hogsheads. As such, the whisky is a complex marriage of woody notes including pine, fir and sandalwood.
Launched exclusively for the Friends of Lahroaig, “cairdeas” means friendship in Gaelic. However, non-members can still pick up bottles directly from the distillery on during the Fèis Ìle festival when they’re released.
As they’re released on an annual basis, each Cairdeas expression is slightly different. For instance, the 2017 expression was a 15 Year Old single malt. Meanwhile, the latest 2018 release was reracked for a fino sherry finish.
You can learn more about this expression through our full review of the Cairdeas Fino.
Learn More About Laphroaig
Unashamedly polarising, Laphroaig lavishes its loved and loathed reputation with marketing campaigns such as #opinionswelcome. The most outlandish and creative summaries of the brands flavours can be found proudly brandished around the distillery. After all, Laphroaig is the 8th best-selling single malt in the world.
You can learn more about Laphroaig and their rich background via their official website. Not only can you discover more about the brand but you can make use of their online shop and exclusive Friends of Laphroaig access.