A Visit to Lagg plus Machrie Moor Single Cask Review

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A visit to Lagg

The Arran distillery went into production in 1995, the first new distillery to be built in Scotland since the 1960s. It took a while for the company to move into profit but they hung in there and over time the brand began to carve out a place for itself in the growing single malt market.

Any successful business will have to tackle the subject of expansion at some point and Arran was no different. The distillery’s pot stills were doubled in 2018 but warehousing space was becoming a problem. It wasn’t going to be possible to build more storage space on their current site, so a new premises would have to be found. Of course, if you’re building new warehousing somewhere else, why not throw in a new distillery to go along with it?!

The isle of Arran may appear to be a relatively recent addition to the whisky map but, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The production of uisge beatha was once central to life on the island. So-called illicit distilling was rife and for many years, largely tolerated by the island’s authorities. Far from being the work of one or two lone men in some shady ben or glen, the task of distilling itself often fell to women. The men were responsible for smuggling the produce to an eagerly waiting market.

Arran was well placed to make the most of the whisky trade. Equipment could be brought in from Campbeltown in the west and the produce shipped to the Ayrshire coast in the east. Over time, however, successive governments sought to crack down on such tax-evasion and skirmishes between the representatives of the excise and the smugglers became more and more bloody. People were maimed, killed, jailed and hanged as a result of such activities.

There were legal distilleries too. The last to close was located near the village of Lagg in the south of the island. So, when it came time for the current distillery to find a new site, where better than Lagg, where the island’s last distillery closed in 1837.

As a fan of Arran whisky, Lagg has been on my radar for some time. The distillery went into production in 2019 but with other commitments and a global pandemic blocking my path, I didn’t make it over until July of this year (2021). It was a pleasant, clear day in one of the best Scottish summers on record as my taxi drew into the carpark. From there you get a real sense of Arran’s place in the geography. To the southwest was the northern coast of Ireland. To the west (my right) lay Kintyre and the Victorian whisky capital, Campbeltown. To the east, seemingly within touching distance was the Ayrshire coast. In the old days, this must have been a thoroughfare of trade and commerce.

The distillery sits beautifully in the landscape, perching above the sea. Its angular shape is said to mirror that of the island itself. Arran is often described as Scotland in miniature because the same geological fault line that created the Highlands cuts diagonally across the island. The north is dramatically crowned by jagged mountains while the south consists of flat, arable land.

The original Arran distillery in Lochranza predominantly makes unpeated whisky, though a peated version called Machrie Moor had been produced during a short peat season. Going forward, however, all the peated whisky on the island will be made at Lagg. In fact, Lochranza hasn’t produced any since its sibling went online in 2019. Sadly, it seems likely that this will mean an end to the Machrie Moor brand. A shame, as the series has produced some fine drams over the years.

I confess I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a distillery tour in covid-times but my early morning slot meant I was the only one there. Soon I was back in the swing of things, watching a well-presented video that was projected onto the floor. Narrated by islanders, it told the story of whisky on Arran and the origins of the distillery. Already I was feeling at ease. That’s what a dram of 63.5% new make spirit will do for you at 10am.

My tour guide Fred talked me through the distillery’s story, some of which I knew, some I didn’t. In any case, it was presented in such a way as to keep the guest engaged, regardless of their own knowledge. Entering the main production room I was struck by the scale of the place. The pointed ceiling reminded me of the Catholic church I was dragged to as a boy. I’m glad to say, however, that the overall experience was quite different. For one thing, I was able to stay awake.

Like Lochranza, Lagg takes the everything-under-one roof approach, though the room is more spacious. Tourism it seems has been taken into account in the design, with plenty of space to wander through without getting too close to the important bits. It seems there has also been one eye kept on the future as open floor space has been left to allow for expansion in years to come. There’s room for four more washbacks and a second pair of stills, should they be needed.

Speaking of the stills, Lagg intends to create a heavily peated single malt. The copper stills are of fairly simple design, with thick necks that will encourage the capture of those heavier compounds. In this way the malt will differ quite radically from that produced at Lochranza, where the stills have narrow necks and produce a much lighter dram.

The team behind Lagg intend to take peat very seriously. There’s talk of experimenting with different localities, even different bogs in pursuit of intriguing new flavour profiles. There’s even talk of using a small amount of Arran peat, if the relevant permissions can be secured. The possibility of using locally grown barley is also being discussed and there’s apple groves next door that can be used to make apple brandy.

Prior to my visit, Lagg sounded like an interesting project to me. Having now spent some time there, I think it sounds absolutely fascinating and I cannot wait to see what they produce in the years ahead. Speaking of which, 2022 will mark three years of production. It seems likely that their first single malt won’t be too far behind.

I’d like to thank all the staff at both Lagg and Lochranza distilleries for the warm welcome I received at both venues. Face masks and temperature checks aside, it felt like I was getting back to my life pre-pandemic. Thank you all for your professionalism in making everything feel so wonderfully normal.

The Whisky

Machrie Moor was produced at Lochranza distillery in the north of the island. This single bourbon cask was bottled for sale exclusively at Lagg. The whisky takes its name from the eerie moor on the island’s west coast. There are several circles of standing stones there, some of which date back to 5,500 BC. It’s a magical place to visit, should you find yourself on Arran.

Smell: Lots of honeyed malt notes with some pleasant bourbon vanilla. There’s also some fruit. Apple and pear, spring to mind. There’s the aromas of a bakery too. Baking bread and pastries, cinnamon and ginger. Soft peat smoke weaves throughout. Wee bit of liquorice in there, as well.

Taste: Smokier than the nose. It’s there right from the off, though it lacks the medicinal, coastal blast of an Islay. The peat smoke here is woodier. There’s oak and pepper. Butterscotch and honey. Vanilla. Perfectly drinkable at its full cask strength but a splash of water brought out more of the fruity notes and puts the bourbon cask centre stage. Becomes even fruitier the longer you leave it. Lots of citrus notes. The finish is medium-long, smoky and peppery.

Thoughts: I’m enjoying this one. It’s nothing overly fancy, just a straight-forward peated spirit aged in a single bourbon barrel. Rather than rely on trendy cask finishes, the quality of the spirit does all the heavy lifting. The end result is a well-balanced dram that seems to drift from fruit to bourbon cask to smoke and back again. It feels like every sip tastes a bit different from the one before.

Regarding price, £70 may seem a bit expensive for a 9 year old whisky but it’s a single cask of just 248 bottles. I also suspect that it falls on the more affordable side of distillery exclusive bottlings, some of which can be crazy money. In any case, I don’t regret my purchase because the whisky is good enough to justify the price.

I’ll be sad to see the Machrie Moor brand go but the excitement of the Lagg single malt arrival will no doubt make up for it. For fans of peated whisky, Lagg could turn out to be the most exciting of Scotland’s new distilleries.

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For more on Lagg Distillery visit here.

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