The Islay Series – Distillery #2: Lagavulin

The 2nd part of my 8-part series on the Islay distilleries focuses on Lagavulin, which is fast earning a reputation for quality and sophistication throughout the world.

Lagavulin is located near the village of Port Ellen in the Southern part of Islay and is situated in a sheltered bay which shares the same name as the distillery. The name ‘Lagavulin’ is derived from the Gaelic term lag a’mhuilin, which translates to ‘hollow by the mill’. Lagavulin is sandwiched between two distilleries, with sister distillery Laphroaig being located one mile down south and Ardbeg being located two miles north.

It is noted that these three distilleries located in the South of Islay typically produce a heavier and more substantial peated whisky in comparison with the other distilleries on the island and this holds particularly true for Lagavulin. The character of the whisky is obtained through Lagavulin’s famous slow distillation process and the unusual pear-shaped pot stills used by the distillery.

Lagavulin distillery as seen from the main road.
Lagavulin distillery as seen from the main road.

While it is accepted that Lagavulin was founded in 1816, records show that there were as many as ten illegal distilleries operating within the same area, some of which dated back as far as 1742. The distillery was built by John Johnston while another distillery, Ardmore, was build adjacent to it the following year by Archibald Campbell. Production at Ardmore went on till 1821, when it was mothballed. Johnston then purchased the distillery in 1825 and continued production of Ardmore until 1837, when both distilleries were merged under the Lagavulin name.

The distillery underwent a series of changes in ownership before being taken over by Peter Mackie, who inherited it upon the passing of his uncle, James Logan Mackie, in 1889. Peter Mackie then introduced the blended whisky White Horse, which used Lagavulin as one of the signature malts and still does so to this day. The White Horse brand has over time grown into one of the more popular blends around the world, especially in Japan.

In 1908, Peter Mackie decided to repurpose some of the old distillery buildings and founded another distillery by the name of Malt Mill on the site. The Malt Mill distillery shared the same still house as Lagavulin and operated on the same site till 1960, when it was closed and faded into the pages of history. There are no bottles of Malt Mill whisky left in the world and the only link to the past is a bottle of new make spirit found hidden in a steam cupboard in the 1980s.

The only bottle of Malt Mill spirit left in the world.
The only bottle of Malt Mill spirit left in the world.

While the spirit is considered to be new make, it is the last remaining vestige of a bygone era and has been appraised as beyond priceless. Needless to say, it now occupies a place of prestige within the Lagavulin visitor centre, which is also the site of the old Malt Mill distillery.

In 1927, the distillery ownership passed on to Distillers Company Limited (DCL) and production continued till 1974, when the floor maltings were decommissioned and Lagavulin began sourcing their malted barley from the Port Ellen maltings facility. The Port Ellen maltings facility is the primarily source for the barley needs of all 8 distilleries on the island and caters to their respective needs and specifications.

Like Caol Ila, Lagavulin is part of Diageo’s Friends of the Classic Malts programme. Visitors to the distillery are encouraged to sign up for it prior to visiting and can do so at the following website: www.malts.com

Once you have signed up as a Friend of the Classic Malts, you will receive a certificate via email. Please remember to print out the certificate and bring it with you for the distillery tour. You will receive a passport-like document which can be used to gain stamps at other Diageo distilleries such as Caol Ila, Oban and Cragganmore.

Friends of the Classic Malts are also rewarded with free or subsidised distillery tours. The standard tour at Lagavulin costs £6 per person and the premium tour costs £23 per person. However, Friends of the Classic Malts would be able to go for the standard tour for free, while the premium tour would be available at a reduced rate of £20 per person. All tours at Lagavulin also entitle you to a complimentary Glencairn glass which sports the distillery logo on it and is a very nice souvenir to remember the trip by.

Visitors to the distillery would also do well to remember that there are photographic restrictions in place. As with Caol Ila, visitors are not allowed to take photos of the operational areas of the distillery and electronic equipment such as mobile phones and cameras must be switched off for the duration of the tour of the distillery’s inner sanctum.

I personally find the rule to be a bit of an overkill and have sent an email to Diageo asking them about the rationale behind such a rule and whether it extends to the other distilleries within their portfolio. I have yet to receive an answer to this query but I will make an update to this post if and when I have received a reply.

In terms of equipment, Lagavulin has one 4.3 tonne stainless steel mash tun and 10 washbacks made of larch wood. The fermentation time is approximately 55 hours, which produces a wash akin to weak beer of approximately 8-9% alcohol. The wash is then transferred to the pair of wash stills, each of which can handle 11,000 litres of wash. The spirit is then transferred to the pair of spirit stills, each of which can handle 12,500 litres of spirit.

A peculiar feature of the distillation process at Lagavulin is that the stills are filled to 95% of capacity. The purpose of this would be to reduce the contact between the alcohol vapors and the copper condensers, thus allowing for a more flavourful and strong spirit character. The majority of the new make spirit is tankered off to the mainland to be filled into casks and aged in one of Diageo’s larger warehouses, but a small percentage of the spirit is stored in casks and matured for the entirity of its lifetime on Islay.

The distillery has approximately 16,000 casks on Islay, which are located at Lagavulin as well as in the warehouses of Caol Ila and the old Port Ellen distillery. The core range of Lagavulin whiskies are the 16 Year Old, the 12 Year Old and the Distiller’s Edition, which is a 16 Year Old Lagavulin that spends a few extra months maturing in a cask which once contained Pedro Ximenez sherry.

Lagavulin used to be one of the 5 signature malts that made up the character of Johnnie Walker Black Label, but its surge in popularity has forced a rethink in terms of how Diageo is able to cater to both the blended and single malt markets. According to my tour guide Hazel, who also works at the Caol Ila distillery on certain days, Diageo has moved away from using Lagavulin within the Black Label whisky and has substituted it with Caol Ila and another unnamed whisky in order to retain the flavour profile.

Diageo has also stepped up production of Lagavulin and it has been forecast that the distillery will be producing approximately 2.45 million litres of new make spirit in 2015 in order to keep up with demand, which has seen sales of Lagavulin surge by 17% year on year to a total of 1.6 million bottles sold worldwide in 2013. The demand for the whisky has also seen it appear in Duty Free markets across the world, further showcasing the strength of the brand.

I decided to go for the Premium tour and tasting at Lagavulin. After going through the distillery tour, I ended up at the tasting room where Hazel had set aside 5 drams of whisky. The reviews for the whiskies can be found at the following link: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/whisky-review-2-lagavulin/

I hope that you enjoyed this post and welcome any comments that you might have. The 3rd part of the series will focus on a distillery which has been able to hold it’s own even at such a young age (I’m sure that pretty much gives away the identity).

Until the next post, have a wonderful week ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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2 thoughts on “The Islay Series – Distillery #2: Lagavulin

  1. A wonderful distillery producing some of the best whisky in the world! I too did the premium tour and was super glad I did (this was between Ardbeg and Laphroaig tastings – good day!) This is a great article with lots of info about the place. Very good!
    Keep on waffling,
    Nick

    Liked by 1 person

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