Lagavulin Distillery was founded in 1816 on the south coast of Islay, making 2016 their 200th anniversary. There are no doubt many tales set within the walls of this place throughout these 200 years 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 distilleries 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 also acted as ‘sales agent’ for Laphroaig but lost this role after a legal dispute over water sources.
Mackie was famed for his fiery temperament however, 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 he was unable to successfully match the distinctive character of his neighbour and while Malt Mill continued to provide for the White Horse blend, it was never bottled as a single malt and eventually ceased 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 – which is exactly the premise behind Ken Loach’s excellent 2012 film ‘The Angel’s Share‘ that see’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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. Although, they also find time for the odd special release… The annual 12 year old at cask strength for example… Or the Distillers Edition ‘Double Matured’ expression… This range has now been bolstered by the release of an 8 year old to celebrate the 200th anniversary. Bottled at 48% and retailing 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 a higher strength. The nose is immediately Islay with 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. This same Liquorice note comes through on the palate with Vanilla again, Pepper, Coffee and Dark Chocolate, then Smoke and Ash and a little Fruit at the finish. It’s a little sensitive to the addition of water and as a result I have been preferring to drink it neat.
The Scores: About the Scoring System…
Smell: Big ‘in-your-face’ smoke coupled with the level of sophistication we’ve come to expect from Lagavulin.
Taste: A very different dram from the 16 year old, it’s younger and a bit feistier but no less enjoyable.
Value for Money: Coming in around £50 – £55. It’s not cheap for an 8 year old but then it is bottled at higher strength and for an anniversary release the producers deserve credit for releasing something that’s affordable and available to the many instead of the few.
Overall: 44 / 50. An interesting alternative to the traditional 16 year old. Recognisably the same spirit but also very different. For those that like it smokey though this is a new expression well worth checking out.