Islay letter from Hugh Smith

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Laphroaig Distillery is another of the trio of whisky producers on the south-east coast of the island and is the only local distillery to be granted a royal warrant by the Prince of Wales following Charles’s first visit to Laphroaig in 1994.

The distillery was formed by the farming brothers Donald and Alexander Johnson in 1815. They were of Ardnamurchan stock and may have been involved in some illicit distilling before seeking respectability and becoming licensed distillers.

In 1836, Donald offered £350 for his brother’s share in the distillery. This was immediately accepted and Alexander emigrated to Australia where he died in 1881. Sadly, Donald died in 1847 from injuries he received when he accidentally fell into a vat of partially-made whisky.

His heir, Dugald, was only 11 years old at the time of his father’s death, so the distillery was run by his uncle, John Johnston, assisted by local farmer Peter MacIntyre. Dugald took full control in 1857 and continued to be in charge until his death 20 years later.

The Johnston family involvement continued for another four decades until it was inherited in 1921 by trained engineer Iain Hunter who was to be the last of the Johnston family line.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was much dissension between the Laphroaig Johnstons and the MacKie family, who were the owners of the neighbouring Lagavulin distillery and acted as agents for Laphroaig.

The bone of contention arose over the Mackies claiming more than their fair share of the Laphroaig product for their blending purposes. This led to litigation which saw the MacKies attempting to block the Laphroaig water sources. Expensive court cases ensued before the MacKies threw in the towel.

Despite the costs involved in these actions and the ensuing financial restraints Iain Hunter greatly expanded and improved the distillery. He also left no stone unturned to ensure that Laphroaig became a global brand.

In 1927, he was approached by the island laird Sir Hugh Morrison who wanted a special whisky produced to mark the coming of age of his son and heir John Granville Morrison, later elevated to the peerage as Lord Margadale. This resulted in the deluxe Islay Mist brand, now highly prized by connoisseurs.

In 1935, Hunter appointed Bessie Williamson, a Glasgow University graduate, as his secretary and she began to play an integral part in the running of the distillery.

Following the Second World War, during which Laphroaig was commandeered as a military depot, Bessie’s managerial responsibilities greatly increased as Iain Hunter’s health and mobility diminished. He died in 1954 and bequeathed the distillery to Bessie who, in 1961, married the Canadian singer, composer and broadcaster Wishart Campbell.

By now well versed in the distilling business, Bessie greatly increased Laphroaig’s reputation but also realised that for it to successfully survive it needed the support of an international group to provide the necessary financial muscle.

In the 1960s, the island distillery was acquired by Long John International with Bessie remaining at the helm and increasing her role as world ambassador for the celebrated Islay whisky.

Bessie, who retired from business in 1972, died in a Glasgow hospital 10 years later. Her husband, who had no direct input into the workings of the distillery, died in 1983.

Today, Laphroaig is owned by Beam Suntory, which is also responsible for the distilleries at Bowmore, Ardmore and Auchentoshan.

Coffee and cakes

Members of the Round Church are busy putting the final preparations in place for their summer coffee afternoon taking place tomorrow (Friday July 14) in the Bowmore Buffet Hall at 2pm.

There will be a wide variety of homebaking and produce to choose from as well as other goodies to tempt you and part you from your money.

Admission is £4 and proceeds go towards the upkeep of the island’s most iconic A-listed building.

Birthday thanks

I am grateful to family and friends who ensured that my 80th birthday on July 3 did not go unmarked. My sincere thanks for all the good wishes, generosity and hospitality.

I’m now in serious training in preparation for joining the nonagenarians ranks. Slàinte!

Hugh Smith, 4 Flora Street, Bowmore, Islay PA43 7JX.
Telephone: 01496 810658.