So after leaving the beautiful Isle of Skye, I’m heading to the most prominent island for producing whisky in Scotland. I am of course talking about Islay, the giant of islands for the production of Scotch whisky. With an abundance of big name distilleries on the island and a peatheads dream location, my choice wasn’t that hard for me.
The distillery I choose to visit is one of the big three, it has one of the best loved single malt expressions and is used in the Johnnie Walker blend and the White Horse blend. I am of course talking about Lagavulin, based in Port Ellen it is one of the iconic white walled distilleries you see as you arrive by ferry. Founded in 1816 on the site of some illicit stills by John Johnston, becoming the first legal operation in the area. A second distillery is set up next to Lagavulin a year later in 1817 called Malt Mill, this is purchased a few years later by John and merged with Lagavulin.
Lagavulin changed ownership in 1836 and again in 1861 when James L Mackie & Co acquired the lease, James later introduced one of Lagavulins most influential owners to the company in 1878. This was Peter Mackie or restless Pete as he fondly became known. Peter was the driving force behind the White Horse blend and it’s success, his work ethic and passion making Lagavulin and the White Horse blend a force to be reckoned with and a household name in those early days. His mantra of “nothing is impossible” matching perfectly with his tireless pursuit of perfection.
Lagavulin has been one of the biggest producers of malt whisky on Islay for a long time, but like most distilleries in the 80’s it suffered and reduced it’s production. Producing on just two days a week until the early 90’s, this did cause a problem when the 12yo expression was replaced with the now standard 16yo. With such a high demand the distillery ran into a little shortage problem, even with the stills working seven days a week it would take the 16 years for the spirit to catch up with demand.
The core expression from Lagavulin is the 16yo and some would argue the best Islay core malt available. This is matured in American oak casks with a peated level of around 35ppm, this has been the Peated level since 1989. The casks are mostly matured on the mainland with around 16,000 cask maturing on Islay, these are stored at three locations on the island with some at Lagavulin, Caol Ila and Port Ellen. They also have an annual Distillers Edition expression which is matured in American Oak before finishing in PX casks for two years. Last year (2016) was the bicentennial anniversary for the distillery and to celebrate they released both an 8yo and 25yo expression as limited editions.
With the old Malt Mill distillery buildings now being the visitors center, the future looks bright for Lagavulin. It’s the one Islay distillery I would want to visit, between it’s history and wanting to see those pear shaped stills combined with the picturesque location what more could you ask for. Well there’s the whisky, for me personally it is probably my favourite Islay malt, it has a nice balance between the peat and richness. Some people will say that the likes of Bowmore or Laphroaig are better but I’ve never come across some who will say Lagavulin is not a great malt.
So that is were I will leave Islay and next head to the historic capital of Scotch malt whisky production.