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. Anyway, 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 supply.
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”, is one of the oldest places of habitation in the island, and its situation 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.’
The Lagavulin story begins, as so often in tales of Scotch whisky, with smuggling and illegality. Lagavulin is the oldest distillery on Islay, the business having been actually commenced by a smuggling fraternity as early as the year 1742 in about 10 separate bothies in the bay.
Lagavulin only went legit in 1816, when the various enterprises were combined into not one, but initially two distilleries, operating side by side and owned by the same family, the Johnstons. The second plant, confusingly named Ardmore, ceased production shortly afterwards.
‘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.
When Lagavulin came under the control of Peter Mackie in 1878, he clearly wanted to celebrate the fame of his distilleries, as well as creating the White Horse blend. These were the only two brands of Scotch Whisky that USA allowed entry during its infamous Prohibition Era, doled out as a medicinal prescription by doctors.
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’.
Mackie’s reputation as an eccentric is only part of the story. He set up the first lab for whisky quality, and he was obsessed with whisky quality and consistency. And Lagavulin reaped the rewards.
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.
It’s a question almost every Islay fan asks themselves at some point in their whisky journey: Laphroaig or Lagavulin…which one is better?
Is there a definitive answer? Yes, there’s some juicy stuff we can explore over the next minute or two:
For the sake of any comparison, let’s get a few obvious things out of the way first:
- · Both whiskies come from Islay, and yes, they are next door neighbours, just one mile apart from one another.
- · They both make heavily peated, smoky, medicinal whisky.
- · Laphroaig is owned by Beam Global (now Suntory!) and Lagavulin is from the Diageo stable, one of their original “Classic Malts”.
- · The flagship expression of Laphroaig is the 10yo, whilst the flagship expression of Lagavulin is the 16yo. Thus, any comparison of the two main combatants has to take into account a six year age difference.
- · There are numerous core-range expressions of Laphroaig available (e.g. Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, PX Cask, and older variants such as the 18yo and 25yo).
- · For Lagavulin fans, the core-range alternatives are much thinner on the ground – depending on which market you’re in, you may be able to source the Distillers Edition version and/or the 12yo Cask Strength expression.
- · Laphroaig is pretty easy to find amongst the independent bottlers. Lagavulin, on the other hand, is a little scarce amongst the IB’s.
To be frank, no one can possibly assert that distillery “X” is better than distillery “Y”. We can certainly discuss which one we prefer, or which one tickles our tastebuds more than the other. We can even play the emotional angle and declare which distillery we warm to most or feel a stronger allegiance to. But, in the context of whisky, “better” is a hugely personal and subjective measuring stick, and I’m not not in a position to declare one better than the other. It’s really about which one is better for you.
Making broad, sweeping statements about certain distilleries or whiskies is increasingly fraught with danger these days, as there seems to be an exception to every rule. (For example, you can’t make the simple statement that Ardbeg peats its malt to 50ppm phenols, when it simultaneously produces heavier peated expressions (Supernova) and lighter expressions (Blasda)). But I’ll make a few generalisations now, blurring a line or two.
Generally speaking, Laphroaig peats its malt to 35ppm. Officially, that’s the same as Caol Ila and Lagavulin. However, long term Lagavulin fans would be aware that Lagavulin used to peat much higher than this – for a good stretch back in the late 20th century, it was typically around 50ppm. The decision to reduce the peating level back to 35ppm was made in the mid 1990’s, and so over the last 5 years or so (as the casks containing lower peated spirit have reached 16 years old), the vattings for each release have been carefully blended to manage the transition, so that Lagavulin fans don’t wake up one day and notice a sudden change! What I’m saying, however, is that if you can compare a Lagavulin purchased today with one that was available on the shelves, say, 6 or 7 years ago, you should notice a difference.
Of course, the malt’s simple phenol rating in ppm is only one contributor to a whisky’s final style and flavour, and there are many other influencing factors. The best way to appreciate this is to look specifically at Lagavulin and Caol Ila for a moment. Both distilleries use precisely the same, identical malt, sourced and peated to the same specification, and produced at the same maltings, i.e. Port Ellen. However, the two whiskies share very little in common when it comes to the final flavour, and – to the palate – one tastes peatier than the other, even though they both started with malt that was peated to the same level. Why is this? The answer is a little scientific: Lagavulin ferments for 55 hours, Caol Ila for 80; Caol Ila’s stills are tall and plain, Lagavulin’s are described as “plump”; the stills at Lagavulin are charged to 85-95% capacity, Caol Ila to 50%; Lagavulin takes a wider cut of the spirit run, from 72% ABV down to 59%, Caol Ila collects just from 75% down to 65%. I appreciate these are dry statistics that may not interest all readers, but they go a long way to explaining why the flavours and textures from each distillery are so markedly different and why one is peatier than the other. (Bear in mind that we haven’t even put the spirit into wood yet, and we know that the cask will contribute around 60% to the final flavour in the whisky).
So it is for these reasons and more that Lagavulin and Laphroaig will always offer you a different experience, even though they both use malt with similar peating levels. But it’s worth exploring the differences in their peat, also: For starters, Laphroaig’s barley comes from three sources: roughly 15% is malted at the distillery in the traditional way, using local, Laphroaig peat. (More on that in a moment). Of the remaining 85%, the majority comes from Port Ellen, and some from Crisp Maltings on the mainland.
And this is where the principal difference between Lagavulin and Laphroaig is discernible on our palate: Malt made at Port Ellen uses Lagavulin’s / Diageo’s peat, which is dug from a bog at a very different location and altitude to Laphroaig’s peat bog. The peat bog at the lower altitude, which in millennia past may have been below sea level, has a much brinier, seaweedy composition than the peat from the other field. So if you’ve directly compared Lagavulin and Laphroaig and felt that one seemed more maritime-like, with perhaps a saltier tang or a more seaweedy undertone, then this might well explain it. (So which distillery owns which peat bog? Taste the two whiskies and tell me what you think!)
And so, ultimately, it comes down to what floats your boat. At 10 years old, the Laphroaig is a bit more vibrant and energetic. At 16 years old, the Lagavulin is slightly more refined and genteel (noting that peatiness diminishes with time in the cask). To my palate, Laphroaig offers a green, mossy bonfire smoke and a sweeter malt, whereas Lagavulin offers a drier, toastier, more maritime experience. I honestly can’t tell you which one I prefer, because my answer will change each time, depending on the day, the weather, the mood I’m in, and other variable parameters.
So let’s answer the very original question: Which one of these is better? Whichever one is within arm’s reach. There…I’ve said it.