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 though was famed for a 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. However, despite hiring staff from Laphroaig to help him he was unable to match the distinctive character of his neighbour and although Malt Mill continued to provide for the White Horse blend, it was never bottled as a single malt and would eventually be wound down 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. Well worth a watch if you haven’t already.
Away from this now legendary chapter of it’s history Lagavulin has produced some of the most characterful, classy 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 Distillery Edition Double Matured expression… Or there’s the 200th anniversary bottling of an 8 year old, bottled at 48% which I’m going to be reviewing this week.
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 been 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 drowns very easily. As a result I have been preferring to drink it neat.
The Scores: About the Scoring System…
Smell: 18.5 / 20. Big, in-your-face smoke. Just what you’d expect from a young Islay.
Taste: 17.5 / 20. It’s a very different dram from the 16 year old, which I love but I’m enjoying this also. It’s younger and feistier but no less enjoyable.
Value for Money: 8 / 10. 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.