The Laphroaig and Lagavulin Water Dispute… A lovely bit of Islay History from a time when whisky distilling was in its infancy, life was hard and competition tough!
The name Laphroaig is Gaelic and means “The beautiful hollow by the broad bay”. Laphroaig is one of the oldest distilleries on Islay and this story shows that, despite Islay whisky distilling is often romanticised, it was also a dangerous occupation!
After the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 the clearances started and in that period three Johnston Brothers came to Islay. Their purpose was farming and they occupied different parts of Islay. Two of their sons, Donald and Alexander, started their own farms at Laphroaig around 1810 and started distilling soon afterwards. When Alexander died in 1836 Donald became the sole owner of Laphroaig.
At that time the Campbells, who owned Donalds land, leased a plot to James and Andrew Gairdner who built a rival distillery next to Laphroaig. They installed two experienced Clackmann distillers, James and Andrew Stein, to take charge. Donald Johnston, owner of Laphroaig at the time, was deeply disturbed finding out that the new, Ardenistiel distillery, proposed to use the same watersource. Water that made a vital contribution to Laphroaig’s unique character. Specially when Donald was about to expand his business leaving him with a too small water supply.
Donald appealed to the judiciary the probems he had with the sharing of the water supply and the fact that the expansion of his business wasnt possible without a proper water supply.
The dispute lasted almost 6 years and ended abruptly when Andrew Stein fell ill with fever and died soon afterwards. His brother James, who couldnt cope distilling alone, stopped and moved to Port Ellen. In June the following year Donald himself died in a tragic accident at the Laphroaig distillery. It was a hard life in those times.
The Ardenistiel Distillery was also known as Kildalton (1849-52) and Islay (1852). This distillery was taken over by Laphroaig in 1853.
Laphroaig became a successful whisky distillery and the neighbouring Lagavulin distillery built identical stills to try and get the same taste as Laphroaig. The Lagavulin distillery however got its water “from the other side of the hill” which was the reason for the different character of Lagavulin whisky and not succeeding to copy Laphroaig. It is also said that the location of the maturation houses from Laphroaig, being so close to the sea, made a difference in the taste.