"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 22 November 2010

Lagavulin Distillery, Islay

After my sensory experience at Ardbeg and with a full belly I retraced my steps along the road to Lagavulin where I had left my car earlier.  I had been to Islay once before but this was one distillery not on the itinerary for that trip so I was eager to see what I had missed.

Barnard’s party travelled from Ardbeg to Lagavulin by horse and cart and their driver, who didn’t speak much English, happily sang Gaelic songs for them as he anticipated “another wee drappie” at the next stop.  Lagavulin means “the Mill in the Valley” or more commonly ‘the hollow of the mill’.  The mill that was here must have been ancient as the 1865 map records only the distillery, a church, a smithy and saltings by the shore.

On their approach to the distillery Barnard observes Dun-naomhaig (Dunyvaig) Castle on a peninsular rock, guarding the bay beside the distillery.  It was once a refuge for Robert the Bruce and also a stronghold for the Lords of the Isles, the MacDonalds.  I will discuss the history of the MacDonalds on Islay in a later post on my visit to Loch Finlaggan; Barnard recounts a few stories here in his introduction to Lagavulin although there appears to be no specific connection between the MacDonalds and the distillery.

Dunyvaig Castle
Before commencing his tour Barnard discusses the setting for the distillery, describing “a miniature bay, around which rocks of fantastic shape rise abruptly from the sea…like weird monsters of the deep”.  These rocks are treacherous but routes between them would be well known to smugglers, offering both speedy escape if attacked from the shore and protection from excise officers approaching from sea.

Smugglers coast at Lagavulin
Illicit distilling and smuggling were rife on this coast before licensing was introduced and Lagavulin was formed out of a number of small bothies that once produced ‘moonlight’ - legal, duty paid spirit being known then as ‘daylight’.  Originally descriptive terms for the hours during which production mostly took place, moonlight, or more commonly now moonshine, carries romantic notions of the smugglers at work.  Barnard suggests that “every smuggler could clear at least ten shillings a day, and keep a horse and a cow”, with large families being supported by these means.

Last of a hundred falls
The legal distillery on the site of these bothies was first registered in 1816 and had changed owners a couple of times before Barnard’s visit.  In addition there was a second legal distillery on the site, called Ardmore and founded in 1817, but it was merged into Lagavulin after closing in 1835.  The owners when Barnard visited were J.L Mackie and Co and they had further enlarged and improved the distillery over thirty years while still preserving the original character of the place.

The water source is two lochans on the slopes of Beinn Sholum above the distillery to the north.  Barnard calls it the hill of Solan and this recalls to mind the tragic story from my earlier pilgrimage, Solam community lying north of here as well.  The name Lochan Sholum is marked beside one lochan on both modern and 19th century maps but no name is ever given for the other lochan, although they are connected by a short stream so it appears to be a collective name.  The water flows through moss and peat, carrying the flavour to Lagavulin over “a hundred falls” that Barnard’s driver claimed.  Today the mash water is carried by pipe but the burn still runs past the distillery to provide cooling water.

Our guide for the afternoon tour is Marjory and we began the tour outside in the warm sunshine where the history of the distillery was explained.  The distillery has changed both internally and externally since Barnard’s visit and we can compare the etching in Barnard with the layout today.  New warehouses have been built to the east (rhs in photo) and the layout now looks less disjointed.

Distillery from Dunyvaig Castle


















A large part of the change was due to another distillery being built on the site in 1908.  Malt Mill Distillery was designed to operate using only traditional methods.  The owner at that time was Peter Mackie, or ‘Restless’ Peter as he was known, and after his company lost a contract to sell Laphroaig he tried to re-create his own version of their spirit.  The style never quite matched though, despite copying everything he could in some detail, and Malt Mill closed in 1960.  The current visitor centre is part of the now integrated buildings and the stills were added to Lagavulin in a new still house built in 1962.

The maltings which Barnard observed lay on the north side of a long open court and the large kiln, 36 by 28 feet, was fired by peat only.  There is now a double pagoda roof on this substantial building although the etching in Barnard shows only a single vent on the apex of the roof.  These buildings were last used to malt barley thirty years ago and the barley is now malted to 35ppm at Port Ellen.

Lagavulin courtyard, old maltings on right, still house on left
Barnard describes the mash and still house as “a sombre building, which brings our memories back to the middle ages”, the ‘original character’ of the place perhaps being retained a bit too much.  The buildings round the courtyard are today all of a similar nature, their plastered and whitewashed walls creating a timeless uniformity of style broken only by a commanding red brick chimney and the pipes carrying the new make from still house to spirit store.

The mash tun was a large vessel 18 feet in diameter, the current one is 16 feet and only 12 years old.  A statue of an owl sits on the rafters looking over the process below, symbolic of the wisdom and knowledge handed down through the generations of distillers and craftsmen working beneath its gaze.  Lagavulin is now a Diageo distillery and their policy is for no photographs inside their distilleries so your imagination is required to bring the scene to life.

The scale of operation is now much larger, the “seven washbacks holding 2,000 gallons” (9,000 litres) now expanded to ten holding 21,000 litres each.  The current backs are 63 years old and they fill the room.  From here we proceeded to the still house which contains four stills.  The old still house mentioned above had only two, 1,200 and 650 gallons each (5,450 and 2,950 litres) but the Malt Mill stills were added and at sometime the capacity was increased to 10,500 litres for the onion shaped wash stills and 8,000 for the pear shaped spirit stills.

The lye pipes on Lagavulin’s stills are at a very steep angle, unique to this distillery and helping add depth to the spirit produced, more of the heavier vapours being captured during the long ten hour second distillation.  They have the slowest distillation of all the Islay distilleries, one of the slowest in Scotland, which helps retain the rich, peaty flavour their whisky is known for.  Only 2,000 litres are taken in each middle cut which takes five hours to flow.

As in Barnard’s time there are four bonded warehouses on site but which now hold 7,500 casks to 4,000 back then; an annual production then of 75,000 gallons (341,000 litres), now at around 2.4 million litres.  The warehouses on site are now full so further casks are stored at Port Ellen and at Caol Ila.  Barnard notes that some of the casks were floated out to ships in the bay, knowledge of those smugglers routes between the rocks no doubt invaluable to save an early dilution of the whisky.

For the first time on his tour Barnard here mentions that some of the make is sold as a Single Whisky.  This was certainly unusual in his time, and most of Lagavulin’s output still went for blending then, and he does note here that only a few Scotch Distillers produced singles with Lagavulin “one of the most prominent”.  The ratio is now reversed and most of their make is held for bottling in one of the few single malt expressions they sell.

Barnard tried some “exceptionally fine” 8yo, I tried the Distillery only bottling which has been ‘double matured’ in PX casks for 3-6 months and then a further spell in an American Oak cask that had been ‘seasoned’ with sherry.  The peat was still there in spades, particularly on the nose, and the taste was not as sweet as I had expected, with a drying finish.  The robustness of this whisky mellowed a little with water, becoming almost effervescent with cream soda vanilla notes.


Lagavulin had developed from its early smugglers bothies to the consolidated buildings of Barnard’s time; much has changed since then with another distillery nestling alongside for half a century and now integrated within.  It was the original Islay representative in Diageo’s Classic Malts series, now joined by Caol Ila, and this rich, deep, peaty, robust cannonball of a whisky is only hinted at by the bold frontage to a picturesque distillery, where an owl within recalls the moonlight activity that once took place on this misty shore.