Lagavulin is one of the oldest, and most well-known, distilleries on the island of Islay. Famous for its heavily peated single malts, the distillery lies one mile from two other peat bomb producers, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.
The Hebridean island of Islay had been home to illicit distilling since the mid-1700s. By the turn of the 19th century, thanks to the excise man, legal operations were starting to pop up. Laphroaig was the first in 1815, and Lagavulin followed one year later in 1816. Founder John Johnstone bought the adjacent distillery, Ardmore, in 1825, which he rejuvenated for 10 years before production once again ceased. After his death in 1836, both distilleries were merged under the Lagavulin name.
Lagavulin – which translates as “the mill hollow” or “the hollow where the mill is”, after the ancient millstones that were found near the distillery site – has changed hands many times since. Whisky legend Peter Mackie, who co-founded the Craigellachie distillery in 1890 and created the White Horse blended whisky in 1891, was also heavily involved in Lagavulin’s history, having learned everything he knew about distillation there. He built the Malt Mill on the distillery site with the intention of rivalling Laphroaig – with whom he had unceremoniously parted ways as their sales agent.
Lagavulin experienced turbulent years from 1941 until the 1980s. The doors were closed during World War II, fire ravaged the site in 1951, and the Malt Mill – a second on-site distillery built by Mackie – was closed for good in 1960. In 1974, Lagavulin’s floor maltings were also shut. Despite all this, Lagavulin survived the mass distillery closures in the 1980s, which claimed Port Ellen and many others, and gained notoriety as part of then-owner Diageo’s Classic Malts range.
Today the stills at Lagavulin are run slow and full – at around 90%. Copper contact is reduced, and reflux is high, resulting in a more full and complex spirit. The distillery mostly favours Bourbon cask maturation, with a few Sherry bottlings.
The distillery’s capacity is approximately 2.5 million litres of alcohol per year. In Scotch whisky terms, this is a drop in the ocean. Islay neighbour Laphroaig is capable of pumping out 3.3 million, and Caol Ila – the largest on the island – produces almost double this amount. Glenlivet in Speyside, however, is capable of making almost 22 million litres per year.
Lagavulin 16 is the most recognised and lauded age statement in the core range.