Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…
Arran… the next generation
Lagg is Arran’s second distillery, named after a tiny hamlet on the southern tip of the island. Lagg sits on a stretch of coastline that was once a hotbed for illicit whisky and its caves and sheltered bays were often used to harbour smugglers and their stills. The remoteness of the location made it extremely difficult for the men of the excise to arrive without warning, meaning the chances of catching anyone in the act were slim at best. For the distillers, the spot also had a certain practicality. In the days before trains and cars, the sea was the only way to travel and Arran’s southern coast was at the centre of a network of routes.
Over in Kintyre, the booming whisky city of Campbeltown attracted coppersmith’s who were only too happy to make a little extra cash by manufacturing stills for Arran’s smugglers and the people of the mainland, thirsty for the water of life, could easily be reached via the Ayrshire coast.
Contemporary news reports of the time paint quite the picture: “Whisky from Arran and the Cowal shore, as also from Bute, was taken across the Firth to the Ayrshire and Renfrewshire coast and carried into the interior… There was a strong force of Revenue officers at Inverkip, and fights between them and the smugglers were frequent”
To the authorities, Arran’s illicit whisky was a problem that needed solving and the Excise embarked on a sizeable operation to do away with it once and for all…
Another report reads: “The smugglers caves and bothies at the south end of the island are now destroyed. Nearly a dozen of these secret dens have been discovered and demolished, and it is now believed that an end has been put to their operations, at least for a season. For more than half a century the peasantry of the southend of this island have been tempted to prosecute the illicit distillation of whisky, which they maintain is the most remunerative form in which they can dispose of their crops of barley…”
It continues: “As it is indispensable that these little distilleries be planted close by a strem or rivulet, the officers had little difficulty in finding them out by tracing the courses of the streams and watching whether any particles of malt or wash could be found on the margins. Some of them were so thouroughly concealed with heather and bushes that a casual hunstman or tourist would never have suspected their existence, the more active operations being carried on at night.”
It’s telling, I think, that the article mentions an end was brought to the operations “for a season”. There’s an expectation on the part of the writer that the matter wouldn’t stay resolved for long and it would seem they were right. In Gregor Adamson’s excellent book, Arran Water, there’s mention of a still operating on the island well into the 1980s.
So while Arran may have been slow to adopt whisky as a legal business, there’s no doubt the spirit has been a cultural touchpoint for generations. It seems fitting, though, that the new distillery should occupy the same area in which the island’s distillers of yesteryear once operated. Those men and women who were demonised for their work but, as the report above states, were just trying to make a living from the crops they grew.
Lagg officially began producing spirit in 2019 with the first whiskies released in 2022. Corriecravie is a new core release launched in 2023. It will be an annual limited edition going forward and features spirit finished in oloroso sherry casks. It’s bottled at 55% abv.
*Full disclosure: the sample featured in this article was sent to me free of charge. As always, I’ll strive to give an honest opinion on the quality of the dram and the value for money it represents.
Smell: An enticing nose for fans of sherry and peat. Lots of Autumnal, even wintery vibes. Walnuts. Conkers and dry leaves. Christmas Cake. Nutmeg and clove. Chimney smoke rising from coal fires. Dark chocolate covered raisins. Wee touch of glacé cherries. Prune juice. The smell of charred firewood and ash just after the flames have been doused. Also baked apples.
Taste: Dark chocolate and dried fruits on the arrival. Rolling tobacco. Toffee apples. Around the midway pont, the sherry finish seems to lessen, leaving a young, peppery spirit behind. Shows its youth in a wee touch of spirit heat. Interestingly, the peat seems far less powerful than on the nose. It’s there, but keeps mostly to the finish. Nice syrupy texture.
Thoughts: I thought the nose was fantastic with both spirit and cask seeming to have integrated beautifully to create a warming, peaty aroma that draws you in. The palate, didn’t quite live up to those expectations, although it was enjoyable enough in its own right. The nose behaves more like a full-time sherry maturation where the palate is more like the finish it actually is. By that I mean that the sherry is prominent on arrival but fades a little. What it leaves behind is a young, peaty spirit that shows wee flashes of its immaturity. I don’t mind that so much because I think it’s nice to see the character of the Lagg spirit coming through but it feels a bit like a work in progress. Not bad, just sort of, incomplete. There’s lots to enjoy still and it serves as a promise of more to come. A case of good now and potentially great later.
Price: £65. The pricing of Lagg’s initial releases put me off slightly but the core Kilmory expression seems around average at £50 and while Corriecravie is a little higher at £65, it looks on par with limited release from the other newer distilleries. We could have a lengthy conversation over the need for 3 year old whisky to cost £65 but that’s for another time. For now, the dram does enough to suggest Lagg are on the right track where quality is concerned.
For more on Lagg visit https://www.laggwhisky.com/
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