Sat between Ardbeg and Laphroaig on the south coast of Islay, Lagavulin has a history of disagreements and lawsuits. Founded in 1816, a year after Laphroaig, it has been in fierce competition with its nearest neighbour ever since.
Peter Mackie, creator of the White Horse blend, owned the distillery in the late 1800s and was also the sales agent for Laphroaig. When he lost the agency in 1907, he decided to build a new distillery at Lagavulin that would make whisky that was identical to Laphroaig – the legendary Malt Mill. Unfortunately his planned failed, and the whisky was entirely unlike Laphroaig and Malt Mill closed, appearing only in tales of rare whisky, including Ken Loach’s film The Angel’s Share.
The whisky produced at Lagavulin has a range of personalities. The stills are run very full, which reduces the amount of copper contact the spirit has, and the distillation is slow. Both of these are factors in creating the distillery’s versatile and weighty spirit. Maturation is mostly in bourbon casks, with a few ex-sherry casks used to create the signature character of Lagavulin’s older whiskies.
In its youth, the distillery’s whisky is feisty and raw, with huge seaside smokiness; but as it ages, it quickly gains weight and elegance, with the official 16-year-old release well known as one of Islay’s most consistently excellent drams.
Thick and heavy, the Lagavulin signature style is rich and meaty, reminiscent of smoked bacon. Using barley peated to around 35ppm and a relatively short fermentation time, the true secret to creating this heavy spirit is in the distillation. Filling the stills to around 90%, drastically reducing the amount of copper contact and reflux, creates meaty notes in the new-make which, after ageing, become the weighty flavours at the core of the whisky.