Laphroaig is the world’s best-selling Islay single malt whisky, and it is the global seventh-best-selling Scotch single malt. When it comes to Laphroaig’s desirability to collectors, specialist analysts Rare Whisky 101 rate it the third most collectible Islay after Bowmore and Ardbeg in terms of market share value.
One classic expression that attracts particular admiration for its drinking qualities and is therefore correspondingly collectible is a 30-year-old, matured in 123 sherry butts, many first-fill, and bottled at 43%abv in 2000. This 1970s distillate will cost around 1,830 Euros, if you can find it, whereas the 2016 30-year-old – aged in Bourbon barrels and bottled at cask strength of 53.5%abv – is available at approximately half the price.
Increasing age brings, unsurprisingly, increasing price tags and the 3,300 bottles of 42.4%abv 40-year-old Laphroaig from 1960, released in 2001, are now fetching well in excess of 2,000 Euros. This remains the oldest Laphroaig bottled to date, but even rarer are the 300 bottles of the same liquid sold exclusively via UK high street retailer Oddbins prior to the main release. Locate one of these elusive beasts and be prepared to pay at least 6,000 Euros.
Even more elusive are bottlings from the ‘Prince Charles casks.’ On 29th June 1994, HRH Prince Charles paid an official visit to Laphroaig where he was presented with two casks, which were to be donated to charities of his choice. One was a 1978 vintage, which was bottled as a 15-year old and auctioned for the Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund.
Meanwhile, the second cask, dating from 1983, was matured for a further five years to coincide with the Prince’s his 50th birthday. This 15-year old was donated in 1999 to an appeal for the Erskine Hospital for ex-servicemen in Dumbarton, Scotland, with most bottles being sold through Loch Fyne whiskies. The Holy Grail for collectors, however, are the 15 of the 270 Erskine Hospital bottles signed simply ‘Charles,’ which fetched a high of 33,200 Euros when offered at auction.
Laphroaig made auction headlines again much more recently, as a 1967 Sherry Wood ‘Samaroli’ bottle achieved the UK equivalent of a record-breaking 69,827 Euros when sold to a German bidder by the online Whisky Auctioneer in August. A spokesperson for the auction house noted that “The £61,000 hammer price it achieved is up from the last auction sale of a Laphroaig 1967 Samaroli in 2014 for £5,700 (according to rare whisky analysts Rare Whisky 101) – representing an over 240 per cent annual increase in value.”
One of only 720 bottles released, the Laphroaig 1967 Samaroli 15 Year Old is also signed by legendary Italian importer and bottler Silvano Samaroli, making this bottling even rarer, with the auction team describing it as “a truly one-of-a-kind whisky collectible”.
As well as the record-breaking 1967 bottle, a number of vintage bottlings dating from 1970 were imported into Italy by Samaroli during the 1980s. A particularly desirable 1984 single cask (#4367) bottling is valued at around 9,000 Euros.
Meanwhile, 6,000 Euros will buy you a bottle of 27-year-old Laphroaig 1980, created from just five oloroso sherry casks, and a 21-year-old sherry cask-matured Laphroaig 1974, bottled in 2005 for Maison du Whisky is available for 12,000 Euros from the Paris retailer.
Some collectors with a penchant for Islay single malts specialise in limited edition whiskies released annually to coincide with the Festival of ‘Music and Malt,’ staged every May. The oldest Laphroaig Feis Ile dates from 2004, when a 17-year-old, distilled in 1987, was offered. The following year saw a 1992 13-year-old, and these can fetch in the region of 1,500 Euros at auction. More recent releases may provide a relatively affordable entry point for collectors. For example, this year’s offering, a Laphroaig Cairdeas Fino Cask Finish, can be purchased from 125 Euros, and the 2017 equivalent from 160 Euros.
‘Cairdeas’ means ‘friendship’ in Gaelic and a Cairdeas bottling has been released each year since 2008, with wide diversity of character. The initial expression was a 30-year-old, which now sells for approximately 3,150 Euros, while one of the most interesting of the series to date was the 2015 200th Anniversary Edition, which celebrated the distillery’s origins. To create it, Master Distiller John Campbell used only barley malted on the distillery’s malting floors and distilled it only in the two smaller, older stills. It was matured in ex-Bourbon casks for around a dozen years, and bottled at 51.5%abv. Bottles can be found for 285 Euros.
A 15-year-old was also created for the same anniversary, and brings in the region of 170 Euros, while an oloroso sherry cask-matured cask strength 32-year-old anniversary bottling is likely to cost you ten times as much.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in 2015 Rare Whisky 101 acquired at auction what purported to be a bottle of 1903 Laphroaig, reputedly the oldest in existence and potentially worth in excess of 100,000 Euros.
Despite apparently genuine period ‘packaging,’ once opened there was a suspicious absence of those phenolic qualities so associated with Laphroaig, and the result of carbon dating revealed that there was a 95.4 per cent chance that the whisky – which was in fact a blended Scotch - had actually been distilled since 1956, and most likely much more recently.
As always with collecting, caveat emptor!
The distillery on the southern shores of Islay was established by brothers Alexander and Donald Johnston, and continued in family ownership until 1954, when the last Johnston family member, Ian Hunter died, having run the operation since 1927.
Ian Hunter was succeeded in the role of managing director of D Johnston & Co Ltd by Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Williamson, who had previously worked as his PA. She became one of the first women to have formal control of a Scotch whisky distillery.
Laphroaig continues to operate four traditional floor maltings, which provide around 20 per cent of the distillery’s total malt requirements. This malt is peated to a phenolic specification of 40-60ppm, while the remainder, sourced from nearby Port Ellen Maltings, is peated to 35-45ppm.
The distillery is equipped with three wash stills and four spirit stills, with the fifth still being added in 1967 to increase capacity, followed by another pair five years later. The spirit distillation boasts the longest foreshots run of any Scottish distillery, a practice designed to eliminate the sweet esters that flow early from the spirit still and which are not part of the Laphroaig character profile.
No other whisky divides opinion like Laphroaig. “Love it or hate it, but never ignore,” as the distillery Twitter feeds puts it. It has been likened to a burning hospital, and Laphroaig was sold in America during Prohibition for medical purposes, due to the Surgeon General’s refusal to believe that it could be drunk for pleasure!
The whisky’s devoted following among fans is nurtured by the Friends of Laphroaig organisation, and the Friends now number almost 700,000, representing some 190 countries.
Laphroaig was one of the distilleries where use of quarter casks (approximately 50 litres) was pioneered by former Master Blender Robert Hicks, who perfected the art of speedier maturation using these vessels. Laphroaig Quarter Cask was launched in 2004.
Laphroaig was awarded a highly-coveted Royal Warrant by HRH The Prince of Wales, and a special ‘Royal Warrant’ bottling of 10-year-old was released to commemorate the occasion.
Since 1994, the distillery has produced bespoke bottlings for HRH The Prince of Wales’ family home, Highgrove House in Gloucestershire. The specially labelled 12-year-old expression is created from single barrels and is available to visiting members of the public through the estate’s Highgrove Shop, and also online. Bottles are individually numbered.
Laphroaig distillery is currently running at full capacity, making around 3.3 million litres of spirit each year. However, there are plans to expand the plant in the not too distant future, increasing output by up to 100 per cent.