Although he has been a Friend of Laphroaig for more than 10 years, Harry Williams of Wolverhampton, England, made his first journey to the Islay-based distillery only last summer. With him, he carried a small, black plastic film canister filled with more than 40 metal disks—each one collected from the top of a Laphroaig bottle—which he hoped to trade for a bottle of 30-Year-Old. “I had to drive past the distillery three times before I had the opportunity to go in,” says Williams, whose recent trip to the Isle of Islay culminated with a tour of Laphroaig. “It was like driving past the gates of heaven and not being allowed to enter.”
By no means alone in his conviction, Williams is one of more than 200,000 members of Friends of Laphroaig, a fan club for devotees of Islay’s—if not Scotland’s—most distinctive Scotch. Laphroaig (pronounced la-froyg) is one of seven single-malt distilleries on the Hebridean island, where a landscape of buttercups, wild orchids, and unpopulated beaches obscures a ruthless past of shipwrecks and clan battles. Even among the smoky malts of such neighbors as Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg, Laphroaig’s 30-Year-Old ($275) exhibits a distinctively peated scent, sea salt tang, and a flavor that some compare to cough syrup. “Laphroaig is definitely an acquired taste for some people—like caviar or oysters,” says Ken Lindsay, brand ambassador for the nearly 200-year-old distillery. “For others, their first dram is like a rite of passage. They say, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’ve been looking for all these years!’ It’s as though they’ve found their soul mate.”
Since its inception in 1994, the Friends of Laphroaig organization has gained an international following, with members from more than 150 countries worldwide. Friends have access to restricted auctions and special bottlings (such as a Laphroaig 11-Year-Old). They also enjoy shop discounts and a private online forum, where members from as close as Wolverhampton to as far away as Iraq (British soldier Gary Finnigan is among those who sign on to the site) share a sense of solidarity in their passion for this single malt. “It’s so full of character,” says P.A. Ohlsson, a Friend from Nassjo, Sweden. “I actually don’t remember if I liked it the first time I tasted it, but I do know I wanted to introduce it to all my friends and colleagues.”
Perhaps the club’s most unusual perk is the assignment of 1 square foot of land from a field at the Laphroaig property that is reserved exclusively for members. Each registered plot comes with the promise that the distillery will pay annual rent in the form of one dram. The drams can be collected only by those who make the pilgrimage to Islay, but they need not bring their collections of metal disks.
Members of Laphroaig’s fan club flock to the distillery on the Hebridean Isle of Islay.