More History: Contract Whisky

The fact that single malt distilleries once operated on a contract basis, rather than by an ownership actively promoting its own product, is difficult to wrap one's head around for those used to the corporate structure we're familiar with today. However, contract production still continues today in regions like Champagne and Cognac, where brands like Hennessey, Remy Martin, Veuve Clicquot, and Dom Perignon purchase grapes, must, wine, and distillates from smaller farmers, vintners, and distillers and blend them to create their own line of products. Scotland, on the other hand, is full of companies with no interest in renting--they want to own their own source of production to ensure their demands are being met. What if one day the distillery decided to cut off your contract? Where would you go for whisky after that?

This exact problem happened to Lagavulin owner Peter Mackie back in 1908. For more than seventy years the Mackie family had acted as Laphroaig's marketing agent, purchasing the peated whisky on contract and taking responsibility for its financial growth. When Laphroaig owners the Hunters decided to put their son Ian in charge of the distillery, training him to become its eventual manager, he chose to take marketing responsibilities into his own hands (leading to a slew of legal battles) and cut off the contract with Mackie. So incensed was the former contractor with this new development (and unable to secure the whisky he had been representing to clients), Mackie decided to build his own version of Laphroaig inside of his own distillery. He immediately hired Laphroaig's distiller away from Hunter and put him to work at his new custom-built-to-Laphroaig's-specifications still, calling the mini-production Malt Mill.

Hunter went on to hire another agency to help with marketing, but would begin to travel the world in an attempt to sell Laphroaig whisky directly to the public. He convinced the U.S. government during Prohibition that Laphroaig's medicinal flavors were actually medicinal and managed to export product to America for doctors to prescribe. The man knew how to market his booze. Mackie, on the other hand, was never able to get the Laphroaig flavor exactly right and in 1960 DCL closed down the site and turned Malt Mill into the Lagavulin visitor's center. When Mackie passed away in 1924 his company name changed from Mackie & Co. to White Horse Distillers, in honor of the blended label Mackie had created with his peated Lagavulin and Malt Mill whiskies.

We've got an old imperial gallon that's been hanging around K&L since the 1970s. Maybe it's time to open it?

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll