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200 Years of Lagavulin
Lagavulin Distillery was founded in 1816 on the south coast of Islay. That makes 2016 the distillery’s 200th anniversary. There are no doubt many tales set within the walls of this place but perhaps the most famous of them, thanks in part to film director Ken Loach, is the story of Malt Mill, the distillery within a distillery.
Lagavulin rests on the Kildalton coast between neighbouring Laphroaig and Ardbeg. For the most part, the relationship between these whisky giants is of healthy competition and respect but it has perhaps not always been so. In 1889 Lagavulin came under the ownership of Peter Mackie of Mackie & Co – famed for the creation in 1891 of the White Horse Blend. As well as running Lagavulin, Mackie served as the sales agent for Laphroaig but lost that role after a legal dispute over water sources.
Mackie was famed for his fiery temperament and responded in characteristic style by establishing a new distillery within the Lagavulin grounds with which to replicate the Laphroaig style. He named it Malt Mill. Despite poaching staff from Laphroaig, however, he was unable to successfully match the distinctive character of his neighbour. Malt Mill continued to provide for the White Horse blend but was never bottled as a single malt and eventually ceased production altogether in 1962.
Today, Malt Mill is lost to the mists of time. All that survives is a single sample bottle of New Make, taken from the last spirit run in ’62 which now rests in a dusty cupboard within the distillery walls. Of course, one can’t help but wonder if there could exist, somewhere, maybe, a surviving bottle or even a cask tucked away in a forgotten corner somewhere – and that is exactly the premise behind Ken Loach’s excellent 2012 film ‘The Angel’s Share‘ when a group of no-hopers set out to steal the contents of a recently discovered cask of priceless Malt Mill.
Away from this now legendary chapter of its history, Lagavulin has produced some of the most characterful whisky not just in Scotland but the world. The 16-year-old has been a huge hit ever since its inclusion in Diageo’s Classic Malts range in 1989 and demand for it is such that the distillery runs at full pelt just to keep up. Though there is also time for the odd special release. The annual 12-year-old at cask strength, for example, or the Distillers Edition ‘Double Matured’ expression. This selection has now been bolstered by the release of an 8-year-old to celebrate the 200th anniversary. Bottled at 48%, it retails in the UK for around £50.
The first thing that strikes me is the pale colour, there’s no caramel E150 colourant added here, this is all-natural. It’s also bottled at 48% ABV and it’s always nice to see official distillery bottlings at that higher strength.
Smell: Wood Smoke, Charcoal and Ash backed with some Vanilla and Honey, Barley and Lemon. The smoke tames over time in the glass and a strong note of Liquorice comes through with a little Blackcurrant.
Taste: Liquorice note comes through again, Pepper, Coffee and Dark Chocolate, then Smoke and Ash and a little Fruit on the finish.
Thoughts: For years I’ve been hoping for a higher strength bottling of Lagavulin that’s a bit cheaper than the annual 12-year-old. Well, here we have that very thing. It’s quite different from the famous 16-year-old. Possibly it lacks some of its complexity but there’s still layers of flavour to navigate through. I feel like credit is also due for releasing an affordable bottle for the anniversary. I was expecting to be priced out of any such releases (there is a more premium bottling as well, by the way). £55 isn’t particularly cheap for an 8-year-old, certainly, but I personally don’t think it’s too extreme for a Lagavulin bottled at 48%. For me, Lagavulin produces one of the very best single malts in the world and it’s nice to see a new take on it, as the range has been fairly small up ’til now. An excellent wee dram from one of Scotland’s finest distilleries.
If the whisky featured in this review has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission should you make a purchase after following a link from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.