I, like probably millions of others, am used to the dusty male image that comes to mind when talking about Whisky. I used to go to this old Finnish hotel from the 1930s as the bar was really fascinating, with all these elderly gentlemen drinking Whisky for their sorrows or telling stories about their lives to anyone who cared to listen. It felt like they were still living in the past and had forgotten to move on. Whisky has for long been considered ‘too manly’ for women so we are supposed to have hardly any knowledge on the subject. When I finally travelled to Scotland, I was surprised to see that the majority of people working in the Whisky industry were women, and the elderly gentlemen in the boozers were replaced by Whisky-drinking young adults. I really enjoyed my stay on Islay, a beautiful part of Scotland with warm and friendly locals.
What’s the story?
A stone’s throw apart, these two distilleries have had their battles over the years and share a fascinating history. Laphroaig was officially founded in 1815 by the Johnston brothers and was one of the first distilleries to be allowed to ship to the US during the Prohibition Era. The owner at the time, Ian Hunter, convinced the US Government that the iodine smell meant the drink had medicinal properties and distribution rocketed as Laphroaig started to be prescribed by enlightened or sympathetic doctors. (Even I have used it for medicinal purposes from a young age as my mother is firm believer that a little Whisky in your tea cures anything.)
Lagavulin, also founded by a Johnston but not related to the brothers, opened its doors in 1816. From 1847 Lagavulin bizarrely became an agent for Laphroaig by selling almost half of their production. Lagavulin used the Laphroaig for blending with their own grain Whisky and therefore limited Laphroaig’s ability to sell their own pure malt Whisky to a wider market. In 1907 (with the help of the courts) Laphroaig finally got the agreement dissolved; however, this was just the starting point of many more battles between the distilleries as their rivalry deepened.
No water – No whisky
During the same year, 1907, Lagavulin’s owner at the time, Peter Mackie, blocked Laphroaig’s water supply to disrupt production; you don’t need to understand the technical stuff to realise that no water means no Whisky! Yet again they found themselves in the courts as Mackie could not get over the ending of the agent agreement. This wasn’t the first time Laphroaig had argued over their water rights with a next-door distillery; for six years the battles were with Kildalton distillery (also later known as Islay), which ended when one of the Johnston brothers died after falling into a vat of partially made Whisky. One can only imagine how that happened.
After the second court case ended in 1908, Mackie built Malt Mill and copied Laphroaig’s stills with the aim of duplicating the product, so trying to force Laphroaig to close their production (he really didn’t like them!). However, even today, it is impossible to copy their product due to the combination of the unique waters, their own peat fields and the original floor malting. Since the very first court case, Mackie had tried to take over Laphroaig’s land several times but failed on each occasion. Even though the Malt Mill wasn’t a complete success, their production continued until 1960 and initially caused a lot of damage to Laphroaig. It took years for Laphroaig’s production to pick up, and it wasn’t until Ian Hunter (a member of the Johnston family) took over the distillery in 1921 that production finally began to recover and the distillery became an international success.
Until 1954 Laphroaig stayed in the Johnston family, as Hunter did not have any family of his own, and he didn’t trust the secrets of the distillery with anyone else. It was a bit of a shock nonetheless when he passed over the ownership (no money was exchanged) to his secretary Bessie. Perhaps Bessie and Ian shared more than just the production secrets. She had come to Laphroaig one summer to help Hunter as an office administrator and ended up staying for 40 years.
Bessie became an important part of island life, taking part in peat cutting and other activities, and she even held community dances at the distillery. With Bessie in charge of the distillery, its fame and sales continued to grow, until finally she felt it was time to get some international support to develop further sales worldwide. In the 60s she sold the distillery to Long John International, making Laphroaig the fastest-selling single malt in the world. The distillery is now owned by the Japanese company Beam Suntory.
I was lucky enough to travel to Islay just before the high season and most of the tours were one to one with the guide. Jenny at Laphroaig had plenty of knowledge of the product and the production itself. She was very friendly and happy to answer all the questions I had. She even let me bottle my own Laphroaig straight from the cask! I have become a friend of Laphroaig and lucky owner of one square foot of land on Islay. Currently there are over 200,000 members from over 50 countries who are all part of the community and will receive discounts and special offers and take part in many events on Islay.
As I left Laphroaig clearly impressed it was hard to keep an open mind when it came time to my next tour at Lagavulin. It didn’t help that they don’t allow photos for health and safety reasons (since when did selfies become so dangerous?), but I did my best to obey the rules. I felt the tour was lacking personality even though the girl (yet another!) was knowledgeable. When the drams were served I had to admit I actually enjoyed the taste of Lagavulin, especially the Distiller’s Edition. Laphroaig is not a drink for Whisky beginners but because of their interesting, and impressive, history, I plan to master the drink, and one day, in the company of a good book (or my mother), I will relax and sip away a dram or two.
So in the wars of Lagavulin and Laphroaig I have no losers, just two winning distilleries with incredible products and the dedication to stay on top.
How to drink it
I took the advice of the women in the Whisky industry and tested several Whiskies in the local pubs, tasting some neat and some with a drop of water. Water is used to round up the taste of the higher alcoholic options and should not be used for the older products, as these have been kept in the casks for all those years for the specific tasting notes, and these efforts should not be wasted by adding water to it! Whiskies with alcohol levels between 40 and 46% ABV already have water added to them. However, I recommend always tasting the Whisky before adding any more water; this way you can make up your mind how much water to add, if any.
Then there is the common mistake… ICE! Leave the ice for pussies and appreciate the Whisky for its original flavours that’ve taken years to get right. By adding ice not only do you change the temperature of the drink (Whisky should be drunk at room temperature) but you will also change the consistency as the ice dissolves, adding more and more water. The drink will be completely different at the end and the temperature change can make it taste flat. In my opinion, the words ‘straight up’ (stir with ice until cold, strain into a glass and drink up) should not be allowed anywhere near Whisky! You see this way of drinking especially in many cocktail bars, where young men think it is cool to drink Whisky but they do not actually like the taste of it. If you aren’t man enough to handle it properly stick to Whisky cocktails. At least on Islay when women drink Whisky they actually want to learn about the characteristics by drinking it as it is meant to be drunk. If you are not sure, start with the likes of a Bunnahabhain 12-yr-old for a lighter taste; anything lightly or non-peated will be easier to appreciate.
Sum and Substance
Overall, Whisky has surprised me positively and, like many other spirits, there are plenty to choose from. Don’t feel intimidated by the options, as with a little research you will find the Whisky for your taste buds. Also talk to fellow Whisky drinkers for guidance. Distillery tours help you to understand the process of making Whisky, and these are also a good way to try several products with the help of the tour guide.
UPDATE: I finally returned to Islay this summer (2021) and feel like I’ve completed the full circle when it comes to my whisky journey. Last time I visited the island, my palate wasn’t quite ready for these medicinal whiskies that Islay has to offer. Today, however, I absolutely love smoky, peaty and savoury whiskies. So my word of advice – just keep sampling and hang in there! You will end up surprising yourself.