Part of the triumvirate of heavily-peated southern Islay malts, alongside Ardbeg and Laphroaig, Lagavulin was officially founded in 1816 by John Johnston (although illicit distillation is said to have been carried out on the site since the mid-eighteenth centrury) and has been the Islay representative of Diageo's Classic Malt selection since 1987.
The histories of Lagavulin and Laphroaig have been closely tied together, with Laphroaig said to have been founded by the son of the founder of Lagavulin. They were both called Johnston, you see. People talk.
After Laphroaig's Donald Johnston (the afore-mentioned son of John Johnston) fell into a vat of boiling whisky by-products in 1847, Lagavulin's Walter Graham leased Laphroaig and ran both distilleries until the young Dugald Johnston (Donald Johnston's son) was ready to take over Laphroaig. However, a generation or so later, around the end ofthe 19th Century, the two distilleries got into an unseemly and very litigious scrap after Laphroaig tried to get out of an existing agency agreement to sell their whisky to Lagavulin for the latter's blends (which included White Horse, invented in 1890 by Lagavulin's then-owner Peter Mackie). This resulted in a string of court cases.
After the agency had finally run out in 1907, and with Laphroaig refusing to renew it, Lagavulin got the hump and blocked off Laphroaig's water supply, necessitating another return to court to sort out the rights. Laphroaig won this round, only for Lagavulin to pinch their distillery manager the following year and set about trying to create copies of Laphroaig's stills in a bid to make a spirit that would taste exactly like Laphroaig. Fortunately, this attempt was not successful and today relations betweeen the two great distilleries are rather more cordial.
Lagavulin is almost exclusively matured in ex-bourbon casks, meaning its fiery, uncompromising smoke and salted fish character comes storming out of the glass unhindered. It has converted untold numbers of people to whisky-drinking and remains the firm favourite of countless malt fans worldwide. Allocations of the standard 16 year-old are never adequate to satisfy demand for the product, resulting in frequent shortages. To ameliorate this difficulty, Diageo also release a cask strength 12 year-old almost every year, along with the vintage-dated Distiller's Edition, which has been finished in sweet Pedro Ximinez sherry casks and has won numerous awards in its own right.
From the website:
Islay has been cradle to many things, early Christianity for one. But it is in malt whisky distilling that this fertile island, some twenty miles by twenty-five, has found its modern vocation. Here, in the still mainly Gaelic speaking community around Port Ellen, on the island's south eastern shores, twelve men today craft pungent, dark Lagavulin™, made on this historic site at least since 1816.
The sea has shaped everything here. A narrow fringe of mica schist and hornblende provides coastal relief from the Dalradian quartzite of the hills above, providing Lagavulin with its romantic bay and the offshore island of Texa.
Above all, Islay means peat. Miles and miles of peat bog in the west of the island provide the raw material whose influence so characterises the south eastern Islay malts, of which Lagavulin™ is perhaps best known. Lagavulin’s™ richly peaty process water runs down the brown burn to the distillery from the Solan Lochs in the hills above the distillery. Though it shares a coastline with two neighbouring distilleries, former owner Peter Mackie took pains to ensure that Lagavulin shares its water with no-one. Rights over the water course and the surrounding land were hotly contested in his day; his persistence secured Lagavulin's legacy.
The barley used to distil Lagavulin™ is malted at nearby Port Ellen and has a strong peat "reek" - it has perhaps twenty times as much exposure to peat smoke as a typical Speyside, Cragganmore. Fermentation of the barley is a slow process, too. Between 55 and 75 hours are taken for the full peat-rich flavour of the locally-malted barley to come through.
The four stills at Lagavulin, two of them pear-shaped in the style inherited from Malt Mill, take this peaty wort and give it all the time and care it deserves. Following the original practice, Lagavulin™ receives the slowest distillation of any Islay malt - around five hours for the first distillation and more than nine hours for the second is the norm. This long distillation is often said to give Lagavulin™ the characteristic roundness and soft, mellow edges that devotees rightly prize.
There's nothing rushed about Islay, nor is there about Lagavulin™; before being bottled, the malt spends sixteen unhurried years breathing the sea-salt air of Islay, mainly in refill European oak casks kept in traditional white-painted warehouses by the sea shore.
Long fermentation, long distillation and long maturation together ensure that Lagavulin develops all of its long, rich, peaty character. It’s is a spirit that likes to take its time. The definitive Islay malt demands nothing less.
“An Islay classic. In the peatiness typical of the island, this is the most powerfully, intensely, dry. It also has smoke, salt and seaweedy, medicinal notes, though those characteristics are more evident in some of its neighbours.” Michael Jackson, whisky writer and expert.
Islay came late to law and order. It was well into the 19th Century when arrangements to collect duty here finally fell into line with those applying elsewhere in Scotland and legal distilling became the norm.
As early as 1742, there were perhaps ten illicit stills operating at Lagavulin. In 1816 local farmer and distiller John Johnston founded the first legal distillery, within view of Dunyvaig Castle, once the stronghold of the Lords of the Isles.
A year later Archibald Campbell founded a second, which seems later to have traded under the name Ardmore. After Johnston's death the two were united, when Glasgow-based Islay malt merchant Alexander Graham, to whom Johnston had been in debt, acquired Lagavulin for the princely sum of £1,103 9s 8d.
Graham improved the buildings and his successors, James Logan Mackie & Co., carried on the business successfully. Lagavulin went from strength to strength. Alfred Barnard, visiting in 1887, commented that "There are only a few of the Scotch distillers that turn out spirit for use as single malt whiskies, and that at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent."
Owner Peter Mackie became famous throughout the whisky world as the creator of the famous blend, White Horse. A man driven by the Victorian work ethic and so nicknamed by his staff "Restless Peter", he was continually planning fresh ventures, one of which the famous "traditional" Malt Mill distillery opened alongside Lagavulin in 1908 and closed in 1960.
Today's Lagavulin™, winner of Gold Medals at nine International Wine and Spirit Competitions and the 1993 Ian Mitchell Trophy as best 'Special Edition' Single Malt Scotch Whisky, is acclaimed by writer Jane MacQuitty as "gloriously rich, smoky, iodine-scented".
Lagavulin™ is a powerful yet wonderfully rounded pleasure. Its recently described "awesome power and marvellous complexity of flavours" are enjoyed by a small but growing band of malt lovers, for whom this big, dark, intense character just is malt.
"Restless Peter" can rest easy at last....
Character and Style of Lagavulin
- Wet wool (wet dog)
- Fruit Cake
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