Water: soft from Solum Lochs
Stills: 4. 2 wash & 2 spirit
Capacity: 2.2 million litres
Peating levels: 40-45ppm
Lagavulin is undoubtedly one of the greatest spirits produced in the world today. There are not nearly as many bottlings of it available as its neighbours Ardbeg and Laphroaig but the bottlings that do exist are among the most consistent bottlings in the world. Lagavulin has a very distinctive dry, peaty, oily, seaweed house style that has won it legions of fans the world over. It is also one of the few distilleries that has consistently produced amazing whisky for the length of its 'tasteable' production history. In recent years the number of independent bottlings has increased, as production capacity was increased to meet demand and the wealth of interest in this distillery has been fully realised.
1940s-1974: Historical Lagavulin. Earthy, dry peat, silky fruit, immense depth and potency of flavour.
Like all distilleries during this era Lagavulin was producing an old school style whisky. Production levels were not high meaning that most parts of the production process were done at a slower rate, crucially this included fermentation and distillation. Lagavulin during these decades was also still malting its own barley using locally cut peat. Historical bottlings of Lagavulin from these years are among some of the rarest and most expensive official single malts available anywhere. The ones you are most likely to encounter are the white label official 12yo bottlings from the late sixties through to the early eighties. These are almost all utterly stunning, if there is a bad one I have never tried it or met anyone who has tried it. They contain whisky distilled at Lagavulin during the fifties, sixties and early seventies depending on the rotation. They are characterised by intense, dry, oily peat, beautifully rich seashore characteristics and very full fruit elements as well. Some batches contain more sherry than others, these tend to be fruitier and richer while the straight bourbon ones tend to be very salty, clean, minerally and coastal. During the years 1962-1969 the stills from Malt Mill distillery (see footnote) were used at Lagavulin so any 12yo bottlings from 1975-early eighties are likely to contain a high proportion of whisky distilled in the Malt Mill stills. It is also worth saying that Lagavulin converted its stills to internal steam heating in 1969. There are historical examples of Lagavulin stretching right back to the early 1900s, however I have never tried them and I would be suspicious of any such ancient bottle from a legendary distillery.
1974-1988: Transition and disruption. Modern Lagavulin style is integrated. Less lush fruit character, more seaweed, dry, oily peat and bracing maritime character.
After 1974 Lagavulin took all its malt from the recently constructed Port Ellen maltings. However Lagavulin's production process remained otherwise largely unaffected, spirit from these years is often excellent, it retains its dry rich peatiness but with perhaps less intense fruit character and a magnification of its coastal elements. Whisky from these years can be found in the official green bottle 12yo that was available during the eighties until the launch of the classic malts in 1988. This whisky is also to be found in the early bottlings of the 16yo and throughout the 1990s. The first distiller's edition launched in 1999 was an absolutely beautiful 20yo distilled in 1979, it remains one of the finest 'finished' whiskies I have ever tried. During the 1980s however, Lagavulin was operating much of the time for only two days a week. It was not foreseen how popular Lagavulin would become in the following decade and this subsequently created very difficult stock problems from the late 90s onwards.
1988-present day: Consolidation of the classic house style; earthy peat, seaweed, a little fruit, drying and medicinal.
During the 90s Lagavulin became more and more popular as people discovered the stunning quality of the 16yo. Early bottlings of the 16yo are among the most popular with enthusiasts as they contain spirit distilled in the early seventies and are marked by an intense fruitiness on top of the classic dry peat and coastal character. However the consistency has remained otherwise pretty high. Even today the 16yo remains one of the finest standard bottlings in any distillery's range. Likewise the 'distiller's edition' vintage expressions remain fantastic examples of a finishing that actually works beautifully, they are a little sweeter, oilier and have a sumptuous sherry quality that is different from the 16yo, they are well worth trying. In 1991 production capacity was increased to meet anticipated demand and this has started to pay off in recent years in terms of quantity. In 2002 the first of what would become a regular annual release of Lagavulin cask strength 12yo was launched. These releases have been very consistent and offer a different, more ballsy perspective on the Lagavulin house style. They are intensely heavy with oily peat, salt and vinegar characters and often some underlying fruit. One of the critical reasons for the retention of this style of whisky at Lagavulin has been Diageo's commendably excellent wood policy. Whereas other companies, notably the various owners of Laphroaig, have insisted on first fill bourbon casks in recent years, Lagavulin, like many of Diageo's malts, is matured in refill bourbon wood, often up to 6th fill. This has helped the spirit retain its dry, coastal, mineral edge and created a much richer peat and medicine profile. It has preserved the distillery's character beautifully and not masked it with the sweetness of newer wood. The 12yo is probably the finest example of the success of this policy. There are currently an increasing number of independent bottlings of Lagavulin, although they rarely state the distillery's name. This is probably due to the increased production of the early nineties and subsequent ease of supply. Bottlings tend to be almost all refill hogsheads and represent unusual variations of the official 12yo style. They are often excellent and worth seeking out. The distillery has also taken to releasing more expressions in recent years with festival bottlings from single casks, 21,25 and 30yo expressions and a special distillery only bottling. They are all excellent and worth seeking out although, as with all Lagavulins, their prices go up very quickly once released. Today Lagavulin is one of the few distilleries that runs at full prodction capacity and puts almost all its production towards single malt. It is an interesting distillery to visit, to see the beautiful traditional wooden washbacks and the unusual onion shaped stills. However you will also see it is a highly modern plant that is run largely by two men and lots of computers controlling everything on a finely tuned consistent scale. Almost all spirit is tankered off the island to be filled and matured on the mainland with very litte remaining in Lagavulin's small warehouses. It is not the romantic image conjured up by the beautiful whisky inside the bottle, sadly this is often the case with the modern whisky industry. However, if Lagavulin can continue to produce this level of quality and meet demands without damaging its consistency then it will continue to be renowned as one of the finest malts in the world.
Malt Mill. A Footnote.
During the late 19th century Lagavulin was owned by an intelligent and characteristic individual named Peter Mackie, he remains one of the most famous/infamous names in whisky today. Lagavulin and Laphroaig had always enjoyed a closely intertwined personal history and this was reflected by the fact that Mackie, during these years, was the distributor for Laphroaig, He did not take well to the news that this lucrative contract was not going to be renewed and out of the following legal skirmish (which involved an interesting incident of Mackie building a dam to stop his neighbour's water supply) Malt Mill distillery was born. Mackie figured that, since he knew Laphroaig's process and equipment inside out, he could simply make his own Laphroaig at Lagavulin and force his new competitor out of the market. Malt Mill was constructed in 1908 as an exact replica of Laphroaig. Mackie commissioned two identical stills to be made and took water and peat from the same sources. The fact that he failed to recreate Laphroaig's style is perhaps testament to the magical and even, some would say, 'terroir' qualities of whisky production.
Nevertheless Malt Mill was produced on site at Lagavulin until 1960 whereupon it ceased production. It was dismantled in 1962 and incorporated into the reconstructed Lagavulin site, today the visitor centre at Lagavulin is part of the old Malt Mill complex. The stills were converted to use mechanical stokers and used at Lagavulin for the remainder of the 1960's, thus making any spirit distilled during these years of great interest to collectors and drinkers alike.
I, along with the majority of the human race, have never tried Malt Mill. There are some of the old distillery workers on Islay who remember trying it and it was reportedly the most intensely peated spirit ever produced, it has often been described as being far too heavy. Needless to say such reports only serve to heighten our desperation to taste it. There is only one bottle of 100% genuine Malt Mill spirit known to exist, it is a small sample owned by Diageo and occasionally displayed at the distillery. There are pictures of various bottles and historical examples of labels that were certainly used but they are incredibly dubious. I have also seen first hand two examples of dumpy square bottles, circa 1950s/early 1960s, with labels that state Malt Mill on the front but no one is quite sure whether these are 100% Malt Mill. It is entirely possible that they are Malt Mill mixed with an indeterminate amount of Lagavulin., indeed I know that Diageo themselves stated that they could not be sure these bottles contained 100% Malt Mill. In the end it is doubtful that a genuine bottle will ever surface but we can always hope. What is certain is that Malt Mill remains the ultimate goal and dream of almost every whisky enthusiast in the world.