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Kildalton farmers and brothers Alexander and Donald Johnston were encouraged by local laird Walter Frederick Campbell to enter into the distilling trade. Campbell had already enriched the island by establishing Port Ellen, Port Charlotte and Port Wemyss but was an enthusiatic supporter of the local distilling tradition and sought to establish a regular source of income for both his estate and his tenants.
The two men founded Laphroaig in 1815 but by 1836, Donald had bought out his brother and remained in sole charge of the distillery until he tragically died in 1847 after tumbling into a vat of boiling pot ale. Laphroaig was once more placed under the care of Alexander until such times as Donald’s 11 year old son came of age.
By 1908, the distillery was being looked after by Ian Hunter, great-grandson of Donald. Laphroaig was fairly unique at the time as its single malt was already being bottled and sold by their agent, and owner of White Horse and Lagavulin, Mackie & Co of Glasgow. Hunter however wanted to do things his own way and sacked them, choosing instead to travel to the US and promote his own product himself. Naturally, this didn’t go down too well with former agent Peter Mackie. Indeed, it caused a feud that would eventually lead to the construction of Malt Mill at Lagavulin, a distillery that was intended to recreate the style of a Laphroaig single malt.
Whilst Hunter was in the States, his distillery was looked after by Bessie Williamson, a student from Glasgow who had come to work at the distillery for a summer but ended up staying and becoming the manager’s closest confidante. When Hunter passed away without heir in 1954, he left the distillery in its entirety to Bessie and though she was forced to sell a third of her shares in order to fund much needed repairs, she would remain at the helm until her failing health got the better of her in 1970. Laphroaig was then acquired by the US-based Schenley Corporation, ending more than 150 years of independent ownership.
Today the distillery comes under the massive Japanese-US merger of Beam-Suntory. It is the best selling of all the Islay brands by some margin and the 8th best selling single malt in the world. Around 2014 however, a new addition to the distillery’s core range was launched. ‘Select’ is created by combining a wide array of different casks, including Oloroso sherry butts, American white oak, PX-seasoned hogsheads, quarter casks and first fill bourbon barrels. All of which, come together to create a somewhat gentler version of this most pungent of Islay drams.
Smell: Honey & vanilla with lemon, toffee, biscuit, burnt toast and wood ash. The Laphroaig peat is there, but more restrained than I’ve ever come across it before.
Taste: Honey, vanilla, dry oak, pepper, a touch of paprika-like heat. There is an undercurrent of smoke that makes its presence known without ever smashing your teeth in the way a Laphroaig is supposed to.
Value for Money: In the UK you should be able to pick it up for around £25 and certainly no more than £30. It’s far from a classic Laphroaig but I suspect it would still fare pretty well against the rest of the Supermarket fodder.
It strikes me as a little odd that a distillery so proud of their ‘love it or hate it’ reputation would release a toned down version of their product. At it’s best, Laphroaig is one of the most powerful and mind-blowing single malts on the planet. Select is a long way off that kind of standard but in fairness, a decent balance has been achieved between a vast array of cask types and I suppose even a restrained Laphroaig has more character than the average single malt. As a sort of Laphroaig-lite, Select isn’t too shabby – and it gets bonus points for affordability.
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Visit the Laphroaig website here.