Lagavulin, an Anglicized spelling of the Gaelic ‘lag a’mhuilin’, which translates as ‘hollow by the mill ‘ is a much sought-after single malt, considered by many as the connoisseurs choice when it comes to Islay whisky. It has an unmistakable, powerful, peat-smoke aroma, that’s typical of southern Islay. Whilst being robustly full-bodied, it nevertheless offers a well-balanced richness and a smooth dryness that leaves a slight sweetness on the palate, which together turns it into a truly fascinating dram. The 16 year old expression, described by many as the ‘aristocrat of Islays’, has become the benchmark Islay dram to originate from the Lagavulin distillery.
Situated in a small bay near the south coast of Islay, Lagavulin stands near the ruins of Dunyveg Castle. The distillery is considered by many to be one of the longest established distilleries in Scotland because distilling at the site can be recorded back to 1742.
As one of Scotland’s most notable whiskies, Lagavulin embodies the flavours of the island on which it is produced, with its rich dark fruit and smooth smoky flavours complimented by a complex mixture of Islay peat from the moor and crisp sea saltiness of the island’s seashore.
Lagavulin is produced by Diageo plc. It is marketed under their ‘Classic Malts’ brand.
The Lagavulin distillery is located in the village of the same name, where can be found a stainless steel full lauter mash tun, ten wooden wash-backs made of larch and two pairs of stills: two wash stills and two spirit stills. It has an annual production capacity of around 2.4 million litres of finished whisky.
Diageo (since 1977)
Phone: +44 1496 302749
(Litres of finished whisky per annum)
|2.4 million litres||Visitor Centre|
Yes, tours are available all year round
A brief history of Lagavulin
Lagavulin Distillery officially dates back to 1816, when a licence to distil was granted to John Johnston, although local records show illicit distillation took place in at least ten illegal distilleries on the site as far back as 1742.
Originally there were two legal distilleries operating on the site, having been constructed by John Johnston and Archibald Campbell respectively. The first, established in 1816 was believed to be named “Ardmore” and the second named “Lagavulin”.
By 1837, Donald Johnston had bought out the other distillery and production of Lagavulin was consolidated at the one distillery.
Lagavulin whisky came to wider public attention in 1862 when blender John Logan Mackie purchased the distillery. His nephew Peter J. Mackie was sent on many trips to Islay beginning in 1878 to learn the secrets of the distilling process, which eventually led to him becoming a distiller in his own right and subsequently took over production of Lagavulin. (Sir Peter Mackie, as he became, is considered as one of the pre-eminent figures of late 19th century whisky production. His credits include the creation of the White Horse blended whisky in 1890; he helped co-found the Craigellachie distillery and generally was noted for being a great innovator.)
Towards the end of the 19th century, Mackie was drawn into a number of legal battles with neighbouring distillery Laphroaig, whose owners accused him of attempting to copy their style of whisky after leasing the distillery for a time.
In 1908, Mackie built a replica distillery of Laphroaig at Lagavulin which he called ‘Malt Mill’. Although this smaller distillery was set up in an attempt to produce a whisky with the same character as Laphroaig, the water and peat at the Lagavulin site was completely different from that at Laphroaig’s, despite being only two miles away and the distillery never succeeded in encapsulating the essence of Laphroaig, since the results were always different. Neither did it produce any Lagavulin but rather any whiskies it did make were used for blending. Malt Mill ran until 1962, when its stills were incorporated in a rebuild of the Lagavulin still house.
The visitor centre at Lagavulin dates back to 1998 and was established in the buildings of the former maltings and kiln of Malt Mill Distillery.
The water source for the distillery is Lochan Sholum on the slopes of Beinn Sholum above the distillery to the north.
These days water for the mash is carried by pipe but the burn still runs past the distillery to provide cooling water in the distilling process.
The scale of operation is now much larger, than in earlier times. There are ten wash-backs each holding 21,000 litres. The still house contains four stills: two onion-shaped wash stills holding 10,500 litres and two pear-shaped spirit stills holding 11,500 litres.??The lye pipes on Lagavulin’s stills rise at a very steep angle, which are unique to this distillery, helping to add depth to the spirit produced, as more of the heavier vapours are captured during the long eleven hour second distillation. Lagavulin has the slowest distillation of all the Islay distilleries, which is also one of the slowest in Scotland, to help retain the rich, peaty flavours their whisky is famous for. ?The only significant change from its early days is that fermentation times have been reduced, introducing a cereal note to the new make. The second distillation remains extremely long however, to maximise reflux. Ageing takes place predominantly in refill casks.
All spirit made at Lagavulin now leaves the Distillery in tankers, as it has for a number of years, where it if filled into casks on the mainland where the majority of it now matures. On site, there are four bonded warehouses holding some 7,500 casks of maturing whisky, further casks are stored in warehouses at Port Ellen and at Caol Ila.
In 1989, Lagavulin 16 Year Old single malt joined the Classic Malts of Scotland portfolio, established by then owners United Distillers. It had been chosen to represent the Islay Single Malts, although the management considered that its smoky notes would perhaps appeal only to the most dedicated single malt drinkers, as it was felt that for the average drinker it was perhaps a step too far.
Lagavulin proved its critics wrong becoming a runaway success, to the extent that demand for it exceeded limited mature stock. Today, the distillery has to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to keep up with ever-growing global demand. The world has fallen in love with Lagavulin’s complex mix of tastes that express Islay’s tangy seashore, peaty moorlands and rich dark indigenous fruits.
In recent years the company has experimented with a controlled programme of small batch releases, including some that are aged in ex-Sherry casks. For the real peat heads a small amount of a higher strength 12-year-old is released on an annual basis.
The Lagavulin 16 Year Old is hailed as one of the finest whiskies available, being the connoisseurs choice of Islay whiskies, with its rich, smoky and elegant flavours.
Lagavulin is produced in the following proprietary bottlings:
- Lagavulin Distillery Only – 52.5% abv.
- 12 Year Old (Special Release cask strength) – 56.8% abv.
- 16 Year Old – 43% abv.
- Pedro Ximenez Cask Finish – 43% abv.
- Lagavulin Feis Isle – 51-54.7% abv.
- Other special bottlings, including Islay Jazz Festival (55.4% abv.) and 11 Year old Manager’s Dram (57.1% abv.).
Personally, I would recommend the 16 Year Old as a starting point; the 12 Years Old for real lovers of peaty smoke and the superb Pedro Ximenez Cask Finish for that something a bit special.
Lagavulin in the news
March 2016 saw the launch of Lagavulin 8 Year Old, bottled at 48% abv, marking the beginning of the distillery’s 200-year anniversary celebrations. The variety, created in honour of Alfred Barnard, the renowned 19th century whisky scribe, will be launched twice during 2016. Barnard sampled an eight-year-old Lagavulin during one of his visits to Islay and described it as “exceptionally fine” and “held in high repute”. Dr Nick Morgan, Diageo head of whisky outreach commented on its release “This is a special year for a much loved single malt Scotch whisky revered around the world as the definitive Islay whisky.”
- Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2016, Murray, J, 2015, Dram good books Limited, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, UK.
- Malt Whisky Yearbook 2016, Ronde I, 2015, MagDig Media Limited, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, UK.
- 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, Buxton, I, 2013, Hachette Scotland, London, UK
- The Whisky Book, Smith,G.D. and Roskrow, D, 2012, Dorling Kindersley Ltd. London, UK