THE LAPHROAIG LAGAVULIN BATTLE: PART 1
The name Laphroaig is Gaelic and means “The beautiful hollow by the broad bay”. Laphroaig is one of the oldest distilleries on Islay and this story shows that, despite whisky distilling being often romanticised, it was also a dangerous occupation.
Let me stress here that our Indian countryside was as neat, if not more than that of Scotland and interior England in those years. Real life photographs are undisputable proof. After the Scottish Civil War of 1745, three Johnston Brothers came to Islay, ostensibly for farming and the three occupied different parts of Islay. Two of their sons, Donald and Alexander, started their own
farms at Laphroaig around 1810 and started distilling soon afterwards. When Alexander died in 1836 Donald became the sole owner of Laphroaig. At that time the Campbells, who owned Donald's land, leased a plot to James and Andrew Gairdner who built a rival distillery next to Laphroaig. They installed two
experienced Clackmann distillers, James and Andrew Stein, to take charge.
Donald Johnston, owner of Laphroaig at the time, was deeply disturbed finding
out that the new distillery, Ardenistiel, proposed to use the same watersource.
Water that made a vital contribution to Laphroaig's unique character. Specially
when Donald was about to expand his business leaving him with inadequate water
Donald appealed to the judiciary re the probems he had with the sharing of the water supply and the fact that the expansion of his business wasn’t possible without proper water supply. The dispute lasted almost 6 years and ended abruptly when Andrew Stein fell ill with fever and died soon afterwards. His brother James, who couldn’t cope with distilling alone, stopped and moved to Port Ellen. In June the following year Donald himself died in a tragic accident at the Laphroaig distillery. It was a hard life in those times. ...and no Life Insurance in them old days!
|Laphroaig in 1887 with the ruins of Ardenistiel distillery in the right hand bottom corner|
The Ardenistiel Distillery was also known as Kildalton (1849-52) and Islay (1852). This distillery was taken over by Laphroaig in 1853.
Laphroaig became a successful whisky distillery and the neighbouring Lagavulin distillery sought to cash in on their neighbour’s success and built identical stills to try and get the same taste as Laphroaig. The Lagavulin distillery, however, got its water "from the other side of the hill" which was the reason for the different character of Lagavulin whisky and its failure in copying Laphroaig. It is also said that the location of the maturation houses from Laphroaig, being so close to the sea, make a difference in the taste.
‘Lagavulin, or “The Mill Hollow”, one of the oldest places of habitation in the island is situated on the margin of the sea, together with its picturesque surroundings, combine to make it one of the most desirable locations upon the island, so justly designated the Queen of the Hebrides.’
First we must say that the salubrity of atmosphere, good water, and the finest quality of malt have much to do with the production of Lagavulin whisky. Lagavulin has a high reputation both at home and abroad; as a single whisky its reputation is unique, and it is one of the few Highland whiskies that can be drunk alone.’ Alfred Barnard, pioneering Victorian whisky writer
These were Victorian times, and people who didn’t talk about drinking a great deal. Writing about the Highlands seems to have given people permission to write about drinking. And when they write about drinking, people seem to have been drinking Lagavulin.
The Lagavulin/White Horse association, made manifest by the painted equine emblem on the roof of the distillery, remains to this day: while most of Lagavulin’s production is destined for bottling as a single malt, it is still part of the White Horse blend.
‘Restless Peter’s reputation is coloured by some of his actions. Irked by the loss of the agency for neighbouring Laphroaig, he built a painstaking replica distillery within Lagavulin, using his knowledge of its operations and even poaching someone from the distillery two miles down the road to seal the deal.
But Malt Mill, as this early micro-distillery became known, didn’t produce Laphroaig. Or Lagavulin, for that matter. It was used in a couple of Mackie blends, particularly Ancient Scotch, as it had a very unusual phenolic character, very different to Lagavulin.
Used for blending and never – as far as we know – bottled as a single malt, Malt Mill ceased operations in 1962 and remains one of the more enigmatic ‘lost’ distilleries, epitomising the elusive nature of distillery character. It is also referred to as ‘a tribute to Peter Mackie’s bloodymindedness’.
Lagavulin is generally drunk throughout the island and is much prized by the inhabitants… Lagavulin whisky is sold largely in Scotland, England and the chief foreign markets, and is in such demand that the orders exceed the output, which reaches 100,000 gallons annually.
Lagavulin today, while dwarfed by bigger brands such as Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, is a stalwart single malt, a global favourite that was part of the sextet that formed the initial Classic Malts line-up. But why Lagavulin and not, for instance, Caol Ila?
‘Quality and reputation,’ responds an aficionado . ‘In the discussions that went into choosing the Classic Malts there were two or three factors in play. One would be quality and reputation – which is quite amorphous, but we all know which distilleries are famous and which aren’t. Then attractiveness: could you take visitors there? It would never have been Caol Ila.’
The deliberations fell short, however, on the matter of supply. Tying Lagavulin to a 16-year-old age statement didn’t help either – and the distillery has remained on allocation for much of its recent past. They never imagined that we would be selling 100,000 cases or whatever it is. In fact, ‘they’ wondered if anyone would want to drink Lagavulin at all. Delving back further into the 1980s when people were starting to agitate over the evident success of Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie, The Ascot Cellar collection (a Classic Malts precursor) included a 12-year-old Lagavulin – but only reluctantly. The old established DCL hands didn’t believe that people would drink Talisker, Lagavulin or Caol Ila. They thought all these brands were far too challenging.
In the end, a number of factors conspire to give a much-loved distillery like Lagavulin its special status: the liquid, without doubt, but also the place, the people and the history. And, in more practical and prosaic terms, its usefulness as both blending component and stand-alone single malt. This is the key to why Lagavulin (and Caol Ila) survived the cull of the early 1980s when Port Ellen didn’t. The DCL committee would have looked at a number of issues – the cost of alcohol insofar as they were able, the water supply (which wasn’t very good at Port Ellen), but the key was the recommendations of the blending committees. They asked which whiskies they wanted and which they didn’t need. Caol Ila and Lagavulin were very important. But if you’d asked people about Port Ellen even in the 1990s, nobody would have given a fig for it, and apparently it wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to work.’
And so, 200 years on from legal establishment, and considerably longer since distillation began at its location, Lagavulin remains, its buildings huddled into the dramatic landscape of the Kildalton coast in a romantic situation. The exigencies of the location make expansion problematic, although by no means impossible. Lagavulin is to some extent, trapped in its own history.
Often, Islay-whisky lovers face the question as to which of Laphroaig or Lagavulin distilleries is better. They are really close neighbours, about 1.5 km apart and make similar whiskies in re peat content, smokiness and a taste which wouldn’t be out of place in an apothecary’s stopshop. So such a question must needs arise. But there is no template for comparing this breed of whiskies, which have flavours and tastes from a different planet. Still, one may study their histories, which have quite a bit in common.
THEIR HISTORIES: A BITTER ISLAY RIVALRY
The histories of Lagavulin and Laphroaig are closely tied, with Laphroaig said to have been founded by the son of the founder of Lagavulin. They were both called Johnston, you see.
After the agency had finally run out in 1907, and with Laphroaig refusing to renew it, Lagavulin retaliated and blocked off Laphroaig's water supply, necessitating another return to court to sort out the rights. Laphroaig won this round, only for Lagavulin to pinch its distillery manager the following year and set about trying to create copies of Laphroaig's stills in a bid to make a spirit that would taste exactly the same. Fortunately, this attempt was not successful and today relations between the two great distilleries are rather more cordial.
Laphroaig distillery is an Islay single malt Scotch whisky distillery. It is named after the area of land at the head of Loch Laphroaig on the south coast of the Isle of Islay. A commonly suggested etymology implies an original Gaelic form something like "Lag Bhròdhaig" (the hollow of Broadbay). The name may be related to a placename on the east coast of Islay, "Pròaig", again suggested as meaning "broad bay". The distillery and brand are owned and operated by Beam Suntory, the American subsidiary of Japan's Suntory Holdings.
The Laphroaig distillery was established in 1815 by Donald and Alexander Johnston. In 1847, co-founder Donald Johnston died in dramatic circumstances and for the next decade Walter Graham, manager of neighbouring distillery Lagavulin, ran the company. Laphroaig returned to Johnston family hands in 1857 when Donald’s son Dugald gained ownership. The last member of the Johnston family to run the distillery was Ian Hunter, a nephew of Sandy Johnston, who died childless in 1954 and left the distillery to one of his managers, Bessie Williamson.
Laphroaig has been the only whisky to carry the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Wales, which was awarded in person during a visit to the distillery in 1994. The distillery identifies Charles by his title of Duke of Rothesay, as he is recognised in Scotland. The 15-year-old was reportedly the prince's favourite Scotch whisky.
Lagavulin is owned by Diageo PLC, the company formed by the merger of United Distillers & Vintners and Guinness. It was previously marketed under the Classic Malts range of single malts, which is now defunct. The standard bottling is a 16-year-old, bottled at 43% ABV. They also bottle a Distiller's edition, finished in Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks. Alongside these, they regularly release a 12-year-old cask strength version and various older and rarer expressions.
known for its producer's use of a slow distillation speed and pear shaped pot
stills. The two wash stills have a capacity of 11,000 litres and the two spirit
stills of 12,500 litres each. Lagavulin is almost exclusively matured in
ex-bourbon casks, meaning its robust, uncompromising smoke and salted-fish character
comes storming out of the glass unhindered.
Allocations of the standard 16 Year Old are never adequate to satisfy demand for the product, resulting in frequent shortages. Diageo solves this problem by also releasing a cask strength 12 Year Old almost every year, along with the vintage-dated Distillers Edition series, which has been finished in sweet Pedro Ximénez sherry casks and has won numerous awards in its own right. To mark its 200th anniversary in 2016, Lagavulin released an eight-year-old whisky that is very highly rated, as affirmed by The Whisky Exchange.
Its whiskies are made with water from the Solan Lochs, while the peat – so crucial to their distinctive flavour – comes from the extensive peat bogs in the west of the island. Its phenol rating is 35 ppm, like Laphroaig. This is a steep climbdown from the phenol count of 50 ppm right up to 1990, when it started to drop its ppm gradually to 35 by 1996. So, do cast your eyes about for a pre-2006 bottling, a tricky job, at best. That Lagavulin is a bomb, compared to today's 'mild' offerings.
There are four stills at Lagavulin, two of them pear-shaped in the style inherited from Malt Mill, which run for longer than any others on Islay. Lagavulin whiskies will be in the stills for more than five hours for the first distillation and more than nine hours for the second. This long distillation is said to contribute towards the whisky’s roundness and mellow edges.
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