Founded on the Kildalton coast in the south of Islay in 1816 by John Johnston, Lagavulin takes its name from the Gaelic for ‘hollow of the mill’. Renowned distillery-bagger Alfred Barnard commented that ‘no prettier or more romantic spot could have been chosen for a distillery.’ Although legal distilling began in 1816, the distillery is thought to be one of the oldest on the island, with distilling taking place on the site since at least 1742. Two distilleries were operated on the site by the Johnston family from 1825 until production was absorbed into one in 1837 – which of the distilleries was the original Lagavulin is lost to history.
Rise to prominence
At the time of Barnard’s visit in the late 19th century, the whisky distilled at Lagavulin was largely used for blending purposes but was also sold as a single malt. Barnard noted ‘there are only a few of the Scotch Distillers that turn out spirit for use as single Whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent.’ This reputation was in large part due to the efforts of Sir Peter Mackie, creator of the White Horse blend (registered in 1891) and co-founder of Craigellachie distillery (also 1891). Mackie’s uncle had acquired Lagavulin distillery in 1861, and in 1878 Sir Peter began to make many trips to the distillery to learn the art of distilling. In 1890, Sir Peter became a senior partner at the firm, now named Mackie & Co., and with his personal motto ‘Nothing is impossible’, the company grew to become one of the ‘Big Five’ whisky producers of the day.
The Infamous Malt Mill
Mackie & Co. had also held the agency for the nearby Laphroaig distillery until 1908 when new owner Ian Hunter took charge and the loss annoyed Sir Peter greatly. In response, and amidst court battles with Hunter, Sir Peter set out to replicate the Laphroaig spirit within the grounds of Lagavulin distillery. He created a second distillery on the site, named Malt Mill, with two pear-shaped pot stills modelled after those at Laphroaig and the head brewer at Laphroaig was poached. Despite his efforts, Malt Mill was never able to recreate the Laphroaig spirit, neither did it replicate Lagavulin. The spirit produced at the facility was used in Mackie & Co.’s various blends until it was finally closed in 1962. As far as historians know, Malt Mill was never bottled as a single malt, but one single sample bottle of new make spirit from the final year of production has been kept safe at Lagavulin ever since.
A classic malt
In 1989, Lagavulin 16 Year Old was selected for the Classic Malts range from United Distillers (now Diageo). With its intensely smoky profile, and a mix of seaweed and dark fruits, it was thought that only the die-hard single malt aficionados would appreciate the expression, with the lighter spirits of Dalwhinnie and Glenkinchie destined to be the best sellers in the series. When Lagavulin became the runaway success, the distillery was caught off guard and the output had to be put on allocation to keep up with global demand. Today, the 16 Year Old remains the distillery’s flagship expression, with younger limited edition expressions released as part of the Diageo Special Releases series and a 25-year-old expression bottled for the distillery’s bicentennial.
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