Lagavulin is a distillery held in universal esteem by enthusiasts and is generally regarded as a classic producer of whisky. Nowadays with the reputation of a behemoth, it represents one of the jewels in the Diageo crown, having survived the distillery cull of the 1980’s that called time on Islay neighbour Port Ellen and the illustrious Brora to the north of Scotland.
During 2016, Lagavulin celebrated its 200th legal anniversary with a series of releases culminating in a single cask bottling for charity. A total of 7 charities from Islay benefited from the sale of the 522 bottles, each snapped up for £1,494. Few of these seemingly will be opened as the price of Lagavulin and the scarcity of aged stock continues to grow in appreciation, as does its value. For the more modest whisky drinker, then a 200th anniversary 8-year-old was also released, although the classic Lagavulin expression remains the 16-year-old which offers more bang for your buck.
The origins of the distillery can be traced back beyond 1816, but this is when John Johnston established what we know as Lagavulin today: just behind Laphroaig and Ardbeg that sprang up in 1815. It was situated literally next door to another distillery known as Ardmore, which is not to be confused with the mainland distillery of the same name in operation today. The original Ardmore only had a short shelf life before being purchased by the Johnston family and closing in 1835 when it was merged into Lagavulin.
Subsequently Lagavulin changed ownership and it’s the arrival of the Mackie’s in the 1860’s that heralds significant change. Soon becoming the sole owners of the distillery, John Logan Mackie who was primarily a blender, sees its potential before his nephew Peter Mackie inherits the distillery in 1889. This was the era of blended scotch, which became very fashionable with many of the Whisky Barons making inroads into new markets such as the Dewar’s at Aberfeldy distillery and James Buchanan with his Black & White bottling. Mackie sensing the potential gains, launches one of the most famous blends in the form of the White Horse mainly for export in 1890. Its inspiration comes from a coaching inn in Edinburgh that was also owned by the Mackie’s, having closed in the 1700’s it remained in their hands for several generations. The distinctive White Horse Close was restored in the 1950’s and is worth a seeing if you’re in Edinburgh.
The Whisky Barons generally became titans of the industry and were used to getting their way. Unfortunately for Mackie in 1907 disaster struck when he was defeated in the courts regarding the exclusive sales of Laphroaig. Not one to rest on his laurels, by 1908 work was underway to construct a mini-Laphroaig within the Lagavulin distillery grounds. This small traditional pot-still distillery was known as Malt Mill and Mackie went so far as to copy the Laphroaig ways and hire ex-staff from the Islay distillery. Unfortunately, the project did not produce Laphroaig-style whisky but had a character of its own. Malt Mill was predominately used in blends with the White Horse being one of the recipients before it closed in 1962. The former Malt Mill building is now the visitor centre at Lagavulin and the Angels’ Share film in 2012 enhanced the myth around this lost distillery.
The distillery eventually was acquired by a forerunner of Diageo and has remained in their ownership to this day. In 1962 with the closure of Malt Mill, the still room was extended to the 4 stills giving Lagavulin its current an annual capacity of around 2.5 million litres. This may sound like a great deal of whisky but in Diageo terms it’s small, yet its importance as a single malt is to the global giant is enormous. The floor maltings closed in 1974, before the arrival of the difficult aforementioned 1980’s, when whisky and particularly the peated Islay variety was not in favour. Lagavulin operated on reduced hours for much of this decade. Hence why aged stock from the distillery is so prized and desirable.
Until recently, the only bottlings of Lagavulin were official editions however in the last couple of years, young Gravlin’s have been released from independent bottlers. Suggesting that more casks are coming onto the market with the increased production since the 1990’s. These younger versions offer a more rugged and traditional experience, but ultimately a Lagavulin is sweet yet incredibly smoky, with emphasis on coastal and earthy characteristics; making it Islay in a bottle.