Lagavulin distillery

Where to find Lagavulin

Lagavulin Scotch Whisky

Lagavulin  (Pronounced: LA-ga-VOO-lin)
Islay
5538'7.908 N, 67'34.968 W
Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Port Ellen
1816
Active
Solum Lochs
2 Wash stills, 2 Spirit stills
2,250,000 litres of pure alcohol per year
Diageo (since 1927)
Port Ellen, Argyll PA42 7DZ, Islay, Scotland, UK
+441496 302749
Yes (the buildings of the old 'Malt Mill' distillery)
No
Yes
Below, on WhiskyFun and on the Malt Maniacs Monitor

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Lagavulin whisky

Lagavulin distillery in the new millennium

2002 - The Lagavulin 12yo Cask Strength is released; the first official bottling at cask strength for a long time.
 
2006 - The oldest official bottling of Lagavulin whisky ever is released; the Lagavulin 30yo. There are actually two different versions; the Lagavulin 30yo (52.6%, OB, 2340 Bts.) which is destined for the UK and Europe, as well as the Lagavulin 30yo (54.1%, OB) which is available in the USA and international markets.
 
2008 - The spirit stills at Lagavulin are (partially) replaced. In 2009 it's the turn of the wash stills.
 
2011 - Distillery manager Peter Campbell is replaced by Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin. It was all a shuffling of the seats within the Diageo empire; Georgie came from Talisker and Peter moved on to Cardhu.
 

Trivia about Lagavulin

1) At one time maverick distillery manager Peter Mackie also owned the Craigellachie distillery in Speyside and the Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown. Both passed on to other owners over time.

2) Lagavulin was part of Diageo's original series of six 'Classic Malts', together with Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Oban and Talisker. This series was first released in 1988. Around 2005 seven other distilleries were added to the range; Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Glen Elgin, Glen Ord, Knockando and Royal Lochnagar.

3) Lagavulin uses a stainless steel full lauter mash tun in the distillation process.

4) When the 'Classic Malts' range was released at the end of the 1980's the standard expression of Lagavulin (which had been a 12 years old whisky until that time) was upgraded to a 16 years old version. For a decade, that was the only available expression. At the end of the 1990's the double matured 'Distiller's Edition' was released, followed by a string of other bottlings a few years later. The 12yo Cask Strength was first released in 2002.

5) The current Lagavulin 16yo is still a very fine dram, but the bottlings from the early 1990's are TRULY great.
However, the design of the Lagavulin bottle has hardly changed in two decades. That makes it very hard to tell when a particular bottle you find in a store or at an auction was bottled. That's a bummer; I'd be willing to pay significantly more for a bottle that was bottled in 1991 than for a bottle that was bottled in 2001. Nevertheless, there are some subtle changes in the packaging that allow you to tell the difference between various batches. The oldest (and 'best') batches from the late 1980's and early 1990's can be identified by the royal seal at the top of the oval-ish vertical label ("by appointment to her majesty the queen") and the text "1816" and "Isla" on both sides of the oval-ish label, painted in gold. Bottlings from the late 1990's - slightly less spectacular but still great - still had the royal seal, but the text in gold paint next to the label became a bevelled part of the bottle. In both cases the text at the bottom of the main label said 'White Horse Distillers Glasgow. This had been changed to 'Port Ellen' on bottlings that were released after circa 1999. On these 3d millennium bottlings the royal seal has been replaced with a sail ship.
 

Lagavulin single malt whisky

Lagavulin NAS (52.5%, OB, Distillery only bottling, Bottled 2010)
Nose: Serious, coffee. Much more smoke after a few seconds, followed by organics and leathery notes.
It grows nuttier with a few drops of water. Tar? Polished oak? It keeps on developing over time. Fantastic!
Taste: Smoky start, growing sweeter and then peatier again in the centre. Tannins & smoke in the finish.
Score: 90 points - this eventually reached the 90's, with a smoky punch and an excellent mouth feel.

Lagavulin 12yo 'Special Release' (56.4%, OB, Bottled +/- 2009)
Nose: Subdued start. Some rubber and industrial oil. Remains sharp and biting. Much lighter than the 16yo.
Taste: Serious and peaty with no fruits to balance things out. Quite sweet with a touch of beer bitterness.
Score: 84 points - A fine Islay malt, but it lacks the organics I love in some other Kildalton single malts.

Lagavulin 16yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2009)
Nose: Leather and smoke with some subtle fruits in the background. Whiff of diesel? Lovely as always.
Perhaps a tad more fruits early on than other recent batches? Spices join the party after ten minutes.
Taste: Sweet and peaty, growing smokier in the centre. A hint of liquorice, although the smoke dominates.
A little bit of tar; an echo of Laphroaig. It starts out pretty smooth on the palate, growing drier in the finish.
Score: 88 points - Excellent batch consistency; the profile is very similar to a batch from 2008 I tried.

Lagavulin 16yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2008)
Nose: Loads of leather - like in an old saddle shop. Wood too, masking some subtle fruits.
Sweaty notes and other organics. Burnt nuts. Perhaps some fruits were replaced with spices?
Taste: Beautiful balance between peat and fruits. Dry finish with a touch of liquorice. Tannins too - but no fruits.
This has a brilliant 'opening' that's worthy of a score in the 90's, but after half a minute it drops down.
Score: 89 points - I tried it blind for the MM Awards 2008, so I'm pretty sure Lagavulin is coming back.

Lagavulin 1991/2008 Distillers Edition (43%, OB, Pedro Ximenez finish, ref 4/496)
Nose: Aaaah… Organics, peat and fruit; wonderfully balanced. Smoke and something medicinal as well.
The profile of this release doesn't seem as different from the regular 16yo as it used to be in the past.
Taste: Smoky start; none of the fruits and organics are present on the palate. Sweetens out after a while.
The finish seems fairly harsh with cheeky tannins in the end. The smoke returns as well in the end.
Score: 89 points - When the DE was first released I preferred the regular 16yo by a few points - not anymore!

Lagavulin 12yo Special Release #7 (56.4%, OB, Bottled 2007)
Nose: Light and fairly sharp with smoky overtones. Faint organics evolving in the background.
Continued evolution, pulling it from the lower 80's into the edge of silver - but it needs a lot of time.
More leather and spices over time. It grows in complexity but lacks perhaps some warmer tones.
Taste: Gentle for a few minutes before a peaty explosion. A big burn. Dry finish with some faint tannins.
Maybe I'm imaginaing things, but it seems the finish isn't at succulent as it once was.
Score: 85 points - a very fine dram, but I wouldn't have minded a little more sweets or fruits.

Lagavulin 21yo 1985/2007 (56.5%, OB, 6642 Bts.)
Nose: Sharp, 'green' peaty notes. Great complexity, although it earns most points on the palate.
The leather that often a 'marker' for Lagavulin for me is not quite as strong here, but still present.
Taste: Smoke and liquorice. Wonderful sweetness. Touch of liquorioce. Hangs together exceptionally well.
Brilliant balance with loads of smoke in the finish. Almost as good as my first few bottles from the 1990's.
Score: 91 points - a sight for sore eyes (or, in this case, a smell for a sore nose...)

Lagavulin 1990/2006 Distillers Edition (43%, OB, Pedro Ximenez finish)
Nose: Surprisingly light and fruity start. In fact, it's extremely fruity. Is this actually Lagavulin?
Leather but no peat. Ah wait, now the organics drift to the surface. The profile is very pleasant.
Hey, now the fruits are back. Strawberry? Water melon? Can too much development be a bad thing?
Taste: Smoky, rather than peaty, especially towards the finish. Great mouth feel but little complexity?
Score: 86 points - highly recommendable, but not every thing's perfectly integrated. Very hot at just 43%.
In fact, after half an hour I was leaning heavily towards 87 points, my score for last year's batch.

Lagavulin 16yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2003)
Nose: Gently sherried. Then some peat. Aaah... More peat. Fabulous organics as well.
This needs a few seconds. Wow! I love it, I love it. Amazing complexity with time.
Taste: Not as powerful as the nose. In fact, it starts out rather weak. Smoky. Sherry. Salt.
Then the peat comes marching to the front, together with wood and something medicinal.
Score: 88 points - the same old story; based on the nose I'd go for a score in the 90's. Unfortunately, it loses just a few points on the palate. Too bad, but it's still a killer malt. Even more important, the 'slide' of Lagavulin seems to have stopped. It's no longer the stellar malt it once was, but solid competition for the Laphroaig 15yo.

Lagavulin 1987/2003 Distiller's Edition (43%, OB, Pedro Ximenez finish, code lgv. 4/491)
Nose: Leafy, then peaty. Leather. Polished oak. Really needs some time before it reveals its full glory.
Something dangerous lurking beneath the surface, but not terribly expressive.
Well, wait a minute... After a time the organics and 'barny' aroma's grow more powerful.
Second sampling: Aaah. Lots of lovely organics in the nose. Leather and a hint of smoke.
Amazing complexity when you give it time. Mocca. Peat. Sweat. Surely worthy of 90 points.
Taste: Gentle tea bitterness at first, then a little smokier. It feels a little uneven on the palate.
Smoky, but not well integrated. Gritty, dry and fairly bitter.
A significant disapointment after the impressive nose. The palate pulls it down quite a bit.
Score: 87 points - not quite as much as I expected after the amazing - read 90's - nose.

Lagavulin 12yo Special Release #1 (57.8%, OB, Bottled 2002)
Nose: Very odd. Sourish. Very alcoholic. Glue. Too harsh to detect anything pleasant.
Maybe this one would have improved with time but I couldn't be bothered. Too crude.
Second sampling: Wow! Lots of organics in the nose and a peaty punch on the palate.
Taste: It seems very sweet, but maybe that's the alcohol again? Peat maybe? Dry.
I seriously misjudged this on my first try. This has both raw power and refinement. Xlnt.
Score: 90 points - without a shadow of a doubt, I was seriously misguided during my first try.
 

And there's more to tell about Lagavulin...

These were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Lagavulin Scotch whisky I've tried over the years.
Besides, these tasting notes only reflect my own, personal opinion; your tastes might be different from mine.
Fortunately, you can find the scores and tasting notes from up to two dozen other whisky lovers in the 'Malt Maniacs Monitor' - an independent whisky database with details on more than 15,000 different whiskies from Scotland and the rest of the world. Visit the Lagavulin page on the MMMonitor and select 'scorecard view' if you want to know how other whisky lovers felt about the dozens of Lagavulin expressions that were released in recent years. However, if you'd like to learn more about whisky in general (and single malt Scotch whisky in particular), you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky (10 chapters filled with everything you need to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky) or the mAlmanac (sort of a rudimentary whisky shopping guide.) 
 

My 'amazing discovery' of single malt whisky started in 1991 with a bottle
of 16 years old Lagavulin. It took me more than a decade before I finally
managed to visit the Lagavulin distillery on Islay where this incredible
single malt whisky was made. The distillery was founded in 1816 on the
South shore of Islay, also known as 'Kildalton'. The Lagavulin distillery was
built a year after neighbours Laphroaig and Ardbeg and almost a century
before the Malt Mill distillery was erected on the grounds of Lagavulin.

Founder John Johnston was an entrepreneurial type; less than a decade
after he built Lagavulin he also bought the neighbouring Ardmore distillery
(not to be confused with the Ardmore distillery in Speyside). They stopped
production at Ardmore in 1835, after which it was combined with Lagavulin.

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The Lagavulin distillery was acquired by John Crawford Graham in 1852 and passed on to James Logan Mackie & Co. in 1867. In 1878 James Logan Mackie employed his nephew Peter Mackie who took over the management and ownership of Lagavulin after James Logan passed away in 1889. Peter wasted little time and launched the White Horse blend for the export market just one year later in 1890.
Incidentally, it wasn't until 1901 before Lagavulin became available to connoisseurs within the UK.
 
The White Horse blend (of which the Lagavulin single malt whisky has been an important component since the beginning) was only one of the first major sucesses of Peter Mackie.

Lagavulin 12 years old malt whisky

Peter Mackie has caused his fair share of controversies too, though...
The biggest of these may have been the construction of the Malt Mill
distillery in 1908, largely out of spite. The reason for this was a change
in policy at the nearby Laphroaig distillery. For many decades (since
1847) the owners of Lagavulin had acted as agents for the Laphroaig
distillery, selling the whisky that was produced there. However, in the
year 1907 the owners of Laphroaig decided they felt ready to start
selling their own whisky by themselves.
 
Sir Peter Mackie didn't take kindly to the news that his lucrative role
of agent for Laphroaig would come to an end. After the courts allowed
Laphroaig to dissolve the agreement, Peter Mackie had an impromptu
dam erected that blocked Laphroaig's water supply. The production
ceased and once again the quarreling neighbours ended up in court.
There, Peter Mackie was ordered to restore the original situation.

Sir Peter Mackie had to comply, but despite his noble title he kept plotting his revenge
on the people of Laphroaig that had scorned him. He tried to take over the distillery on
several occasions and when that didn't work he built a new competitor on their doorstep.

Lagavulin distillery, old postcard

In 1908 he built the Malt Mill distillery.
As an ex-agent for Laphroaig, Peter Mackie knew the
technical set-up of the distillery intimately. Putting
that knowledge to good use (well, evil use actually),
he commissioned a coppersmith to construct two
stills that were virtual replica's of those at Laphroaig.

Peter Mackie's goal was to make a malt whisky that was exactly like Laphroaig, so he could simply push it from the market. That never really worked out as Peter had planned it, but Malt Mill remained in production until 1960. The 'malt mill' equipment was finally removed in 1962 when Lagavulin was rebuilt and the old buildings of Malt Mill distillery were integrated with those of Lagavulin. When you're in Lagavulin's visitor centre you're actually at Malt Mill.

But look at the time - it's time to wrap up this profile... So, here are the highlights & lowlights in Lagavulin's history since it was integrated with Malt Mill. The floor maltings were closed in 1974; since then Lagavulin obtains its malted barley from the nearby Port Ellen maltings. The distillery had a difficult time during the 1980's and for most of the decade the distillery only operated for two days a week. Production was increased again in 1991, but for a while stocks of the 16yo expression were limited. Nowadays the stock problem seems to be solved and quite a few different expressions are available, ranging from a 12yo (bottled at cask strength) to a 30yo 'ultra premium' release.
If you ask me, the familiar 16yo and 'Distillers Edition' releases still offer the best value...

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