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Lagavulin Distillery: A Journey Through The Peaty Flavors of Islay

Lagavulin | whisky distillery

April 7, 2023

A guide to Lagavulin distillery, its history, heritage and whisky production.

Lagavulin is for sure one of Islay’s most beloved distilleries. Its complex history makes for an interesting story, involving illegal production, smuggling and quite a few accidents on the way. The MNIW team visited the Lagavulin distillery some time ago. We were so fascinated by its heritage, that we actually ended up selecting a Lagavulin’s whisky for our latest bottling: Sea.

In this article, we will take you with us on a journey into Lagavulin’s history, and we’ll discover its production process and what makes its whisky so special.

Are you ready? Let’s go to Islay!

The origin of Lagavulin

Pronounced “lagga-voo-lin”, after the Gaelic Laggan Mhoulling, meaning “hollow by the mill”, Lagavulin is one of the three Kildalton distilleries (together with Ardbeg and Laphroaig) in the south of Islay, nestled in a small, sheltered bay facing the ruins of Dunyveg Castle. Surrounded by breathtaking natural landscapes, the distillery is also one of the oldest on the island. It is said that whisky was produced in this area as far back as 1742, and then, a legal distillery was established by John Johnston in 1816.

However, the plot thickens from here. The distillery founded by Johnston was actually called Kildalton. The following year, another distillery named Lagavulin was built next door. Eventually, in 1837, the two distilleries merged to become the Lagavulin that we know today.

Lagavulin’s popularity skyrocketed in the 1890s when Peter Mackie, then-owner of the distillery, used its whisky as the core ingredient in his White Horse blend. 

About Peter Mackie

Peter Mackie was a legendary figure in the whisky industry and was responsible for creating the famous White Horse blend. He was also one of the first to promote Lagavulin whisky as a single malt, and his efforts helped to establish the distillery’s reputation for producing high-quality, peaty whiskies.

Indeed, Peter was a businessman with a great passion for whisky. He was born in 1855 at Corsepatrick, St Ninians, just south of Stirling. At the age of 23, he started working for his uncle, James Logan Mackie, whose Glasgow-based whisky firm Mackie & Co. had been established the year after Peter’s birth. 

Around 1890 a new company, Mackie & Co. (Distillers) was established with Peter Mackie now a partner. Under Peter Mackie’s drive, the company grew to become one of the big whisky producers of the day, due to his insistence on the consistency of quality of the whisky and its distinctiveness. These combined to ensure the fame of Lagavulin whisky around the world until today.

Lagavulin VS Laphroaig 

Around the end of the 19th Century, Lagavulin and Laphoaigh got into an argument. Apparently, Laphroaig tried to get out of the agency agreement with the Mackie & Co. firm to sell their whisky to Lagavulin for the White Horse blend. The issue ensued in several legal battles, initially won by Peter.

Eventually, the contract finally ran out in 1907. Laphroaig refused to renew the agreement, and Lagavulin, as a response, blocked off Laphroaig’s water supply. Another legal battle raged on, but this time it was Laphroaig to have the upper hand. 

How would Peter get his precious Laphroaig whisky for his White Horse blend now?

In 1908, enraged by the loss of the agency for Laphroaig, Peter tried to reproduce Laphoaigh’s whisky characteristics, replicating its stills and constructing a new distillery just nearby Lagavulin: Malt Mill. However, he inevitably failed since the core ingredients used were very different.

Despite this defeat and the consequent adjustments he had to make to his blend recipe, White Horse was a massive success. Indeed, when it came to blending whisky, Peter Mackie was passionate about quality, using only well-aged malt whiskies.

Lagavulin today

During the early 20th century, Lagavulin Distillery struggled to keep up with demand. Hence, the decision was made to expand the distillery. This involved building a new stillhouse, increasing the number of stills from two to four. The expansion was completed in 1962, and Lagavulin was able to increase its production capacity.

In 1988, the distillery was purchased by drinks giant Diageo, who continues to operate it to this day. Lagavulin whisky remains one of the most popular and highly-regarded single malts in the world.

Lagavulin Whisky Production

This Islay distillery houses one of Scotland’s most renowned whiskies. The distillery produces approximately 1.4 million litres of alcohol annually. Its spirit is famous for its distinctive smoky flavour, with distinctive peat and iodine notes. 

The core ingredients

One of the secrets to the whisky’s unique flavour lies in the water used for the whisky production. The waters of Lochan Sholum flow through a peat-laden hillside, thus absorbing some of the peat notes before arriving at the distillery.

Another key ingredient that makes Lagavulin whisky unique is its malted barley. The distillery shut down its traditional malting floors some decades ago. Hence, they source this core element from Port Ellen Maltings since 1974. Nevertheless, the malted barley produced for Lagavulin undergoes a meticulous process of drying with hot air and peat: a specific recipe used just for this particular distillery.

The slowest distillation on Islay

Lagavulin employs the slowest double distillation process among Islay’s whiskies – for the first distillation approximately five hours and more than nine hours for the second.  The wash stills are filled up to 95% capacity, allowing for minimal contact between the vapours and copper sides. Some of the heavier elements from the vapour are attracted to the copper. As a result, the spirit produced has a softer taste.

The Warehouse

The current warehouse was built in 1962 after renovation work which integrated the buildings of the Malt Mill distillery with those of Lagavulin and turned the facility into the visitor centre.

Here in the white-washed brick warehouse, Lagavulin stores its precious whisky casks, mainly using ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks. The whisky is finally left to rest exposed to the sea breeze blowing from the ocean. This step is crucial for the whisky, as this allows the spirit to absorb those iodine notes that are typical of Lagavulin whiskies.

Lagavulin Whisky

What’s so special about Lagavulin whisky then?

The family of Lagavulin bottles is quite numerous, as one can imagine given the age of the distillery. However, there is no question that the high quality of this spirit remained consistent throughout the years. 

Here are some of the most popular bottles from Lagavulin.

Lagavulin’s most beloved bottles

The brand’s most well-known offering is certainly its Lagavulin 16: a full-bodied single malt at 43%ABV. This expression is aged in oak casks for a minimum of 16 years and has massively peaty, smoky flavours with some wood and a sweet note on the finish. This bottle is so well-loved by fans all over the world that it is quite often in shortage. If you want to stock up on this bottle, grab one as soon as you see it on a shelf!

Other popular bottles are the 2020 and 2021 Lagavulin Distillers Editions, which are double-matured in Pedro Ximinez casks, as well as the surprising 8-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

Launched in 2016 to commemorate Lagavulin’s 200th anniversary, Lagavulin’s 8-year was intended for limited release. That is until an overwhelmingly positive consumer response. Therefore, in 2017 the whisky became a permanent part of the Lagavulin family. 

Our favourite Lagavulin bottles

After a short list of what are the most purchased expressions of Lagavulin, we could not fail to include the MNIW team’s favourite bottles!

Lagavulin  Moon Import 10 yo vintage

Lagavulin Moon Import

This expression was bottled at 50% ABV in 1998 as a part of the Horae Solaris series of Moon Import, an independent Italian bottler. This limited edition Islay single malt was distilled in 1988 and bottled 10 years later. There are 1300 bottles of this whisky out there in the world. If you have a chance to taste a dram of this rare whisky, take it! It will be an unforgettable experience. 

Lagavulin Samaroli 1988 

This is another Lagavulin bottling from an independent Italian, this time from Samaroli.

This is a very rare bottling (there are only 324 bottles) from the iconic series of Very Limited Editions that include a sought-after Bowmore and Port Ellen as well. Bottled at a natural strength of 56% ABV, this Lagavulin expression has a perfect balance between salt and sweet tunes, iodine and primary aromas. A smooth, mellow and aromatic whisky that will become your next favourite!

Lagavulin Samaroli

Lagavulin Kingsbury 14yo

Lagavulin Kingsbury

This whisky was bottled by Kingsbury who mostly exported to Japan. It is a 1978 vintage Lagavulin distilled on the 1st December of the same year, and bottled in 1992 from a single ex-Bourbon cask which yielded only 132 bottles. A powerful salty lemon aroma will welcome you immediately while pouring this whisky,  followed by a warm chocolate and peaty embrace. On the palate, has a complex yet delicate bouquet with notes of chocolate, cayenne pepper and sea salt. A combination that finds its perfection in delicate honey final notes. 

Lagavulin Cadenhead 15 yo

The Authentic Collection was launched by Cadenhead, an independent bottler,  in 1991, and included whiskies from several rare closed Scottish and Irish distilleries, bottled for the company’s 150th anniversary. 

This Lagavulin was distilled in December 1978 and bottled after 15 years of maturation in a Bourbon Cask at cask strength in July 1994. Trust me, you want to have this piece of history on your shelf if you are a collector!

Lagavulin Cadenhead's

Lagavulin Beyond – Sea

In this list of the MNIW team’s favourite Lagavulin whisky, we couldn’t help but include our latest bottling. After all, there must be a reason why we selected this whisky! 

Sea is the first bottle in the Beyond collection. This 22-year-old Lagavulin, distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2022, is a limited edition of 120 bottles. Sea is meant to be a tribute to Lagavulin whisky and the story of Peter Mackie, one of the distillery’s owners over time who made this whisky so distinctive.

This bottle is only available to the MNIW community. If you would like to be a part of it and learn more about Sea, sign up for the waiting list at this link

Lagavulin Beyond Sea

In Conclusion

Lagavulin remains one of the most beloved distilleries among whiskey lovers. What is your favourite Lagavulin? Share this article on your social media, tag us and let us know!

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