Lagavulin is found on the south coast of Islay and is equidistant between Ardbeg and Laphroaig. It is one of the oldest distilleries on Islay, originally consisting of 10 small illicit distilleries that formed a collective around the current site in 1742.
An excise license was issued in 1816 that heralded the start of legal distilling at the Lagavulin site by Whisky pioneer John Johnston. But it wasn’t for another 75 years that Lagavulin came into the public consciousness.
In the Victorian era blender John Logan Mackie bought the distillery. Thanks in part to Queen Victoria, Britain and the commonwealth couldn’t get enough of Scottish produce. Mackie’s nephew Peter Mackie used his family connection to whisky to learn the tricks of the trade, eventually taking over the marketing and distribution agency of Lagavulin from his uncle.
Mackie became one of the biggest figures in 19th century distilling and created the White Horse Whisky blend in 1890 in which Lagavulin majors. It is still considered one of the best blended Scotch whiskies by whisky aficionados.
Lagavulin was also the sales agent for neighbouring Laphroaig. All was not well with the partnership and by 1907, with whisky sales becoming increasingly competitive, Mackie lost the contract from his neighbour. To spite the unfair break of the contract he built an impromptu dam that blocked Laphroaig’s water supply. The dam was eventually removed but hostilities continued and he bid to buy Laphroaig on three occasions. When that didn’t work he decided to out-compete them with a new distillery in their shadows.
A coppersmith was commissioned to construct two replica stills, effectively passing off his own ‘Malt Mill’ whisky as Laphroaig. It remained in production until 1960, with the equipment removed in 1962. The Malt Mill distillery was integrated into Lagavulin and now forms the visitor centre.
In 1924 production was such that a small coal-fired, single-masted cargo ship known as a Clyde Puffer was purchased to transport barley, coal and empty casks to Lagavulin, returning with filled casks of whisky. The Pibroch doesn’t last long as her flat bottom keel isn’t well suited to the rough Hebridean seas and the supply is instead transported by road and ferry.
Given the global acclaim of Islay whisky and Lagavulin in particular, the distillery runs 24/7 to keep up with demand.
Whilst Lagavulin carries the islands iconic peaty taste, much of the younger Lagavulin’s on the market are smoother and lighter. As a general rule of thumb the older the peatier.