The isle of Islay had a reputation in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s for its moonshine. In 1815, two brothers Donald and Alexander Johnston set out to build a distillery at Laphroaig. Once the duty was set and laws passed in 1823, many illicit distilleries became registered and legal in the following decade, including Laphroaig.
Tragically Donald, the brother who ran the distillery, died in 1847 after he fell into a vat of boiling pot ale. Despite this, D. Johnston & Co. remained owners of the distillery until the 1960’s.
Ian Hunter, Donald’s great grandson, arrived at the distillery and kick started the brands rise to fame in the early 1900’s. He instigated the building of Malt Mill and by the 1920’s Laphroaig was being sold as a single malt, building its reputation worldwide thanks to Ian Hunter’s global sales trips. Due to the building interest in their whisky, Laphroaig increased the number of stills to 4. In 1854 Ian Hunter died and left the distillery to his secretary Bessie Williamson, which by the time she retired in the early 1970’s, the distillery had 7 stills.
In 1967 the American distillery, Schenley, bought the distillery outright. The Laphroaig distillery was then passed through several owners’ hands until Jim Beam bought it in 2005. Suntory then took over Beam in 2014 which now means the parent company of Laphroaig is Beam Suntory. Prior to this in 1994, Friends of Laphroaig was launched which was the first modern ‘member associations’ which currently has over 600,000 members.
Despite the size of the distillery, Laphroaig still has its own floor maltings which make up for 20% of its requirements. They still use their own maltings because it is believed the Laphroaig kiln produces malt with a more phenolic character. This leads to the signature taste of Laphroaig’s spirt, known to be tarry iodine notes. Laphroaig has an odd number of stills, with the 7th still being double the size of the other 6. The different sized still creates a whisky with a different character, so it is always blended in with the smaller stills whisky.
There can be distinct sweet notes from their spirit which comes from the ex-Bourbon casks that are used for maturation. This became Laphroaig’s cask of choice during the period post-Prohibition, when Ian Hunter was regularly travelling to the U.S. Some of Laphroaig’s long term maturation spirits use Sherry casks.