Islay Letter – with Hugh Smith

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Lagavulin Distillery
Lagavulin is of the three distilleries operating in the Kildalton district of Islay and situated north of the village of Port Ellen. It stands in a scenically pleasing area and looks over the picturesque Lagavulin Bay and the ruined remains of Dunyvaig Castle, once a bastion of the powerful MacDonald Lords of the Isles.

The area was a hive of illicit whisky distilling before Archibald Campbell built a legal distillery on the Lagavulin site in early 1800s. This may have gone under the name of the Ardmore distillery and is likely to have been in operation up until 1821.

Local farmer John Johnston, whose family members were distilling pioneers, established Lagavulin in 1816, and nine years later took over the ownership of the other distillery on the site. A decade later he closed the Ardmore operation and died soon afterwards in 1836.

The distilleries were then purchased by Glasgow spirit merchant Alex Graham, who merged the two properties which then began to operate as Lagavulin in 1837.

In 1852, Alex Graham’s son, John Crawford Graham, took over and he continued at the helm until 1862 when the distillery was purchased by whisky blender James Logan MacKie.

His nephew, Peter J MacKie, eventually took over the production at Lagavulin and also held the agency at nearby Laphroaig. Peter, who was later knighted, was a go-getter extraordinaire and went on to create the iconic and world famous White Horse blend and was the co-founder of the Craigellachie Distillery in the heart of Speyside.

He eventually had to forfeit his Laphroaig connection mainly through his high-handed attitude which saw a number of litigations involving product and ownership issues.

His irritation at losing the Laphroaig agency led him in 1908 to build a replica distillery at Lagavulin which he called the Malt Mill. It operated until 1962 and although its aim was to produce the same character as Laphroaig, its close neighbour, it never achieved this end.

A rare bottle of ‘Malt Mill’ was recently unearthed to the delight of collectors and whisky connoiseurs, but, happily, it remains in safekeeping and uncorked.

A fictitious cask of ‘Malt Mill’ played a major part in the Ken Loach film comedy The Angels’ Share.

What was the Malt Mill now houses the distillery’s visitors’ centre and administrative offices.

In 1924, Lagavulin was taken under the wing of the White Horse Distillers before becoming part of the Distillers Company Ltd operations three years later. The DCL ownership lasted until 1986 when it was then taken over by United Distillers.

The distillery closed in 1941 and remained so until the hostilities ceased in 1945.

A serious fire within the building in 1951 caused extensive damage to the property which has been owned by the drinks giant Diageo since 1997.

Lagavulin is the only one of the island’s eight distilleries currently having a young lady in charge of the proceedings. She is local girl Georgie Crawford who has held the managerial reins since 2010.

Winning hoteliers
Congratulations are due to Ballygrant Inn and restaurant proprietor David Graham and his son Ewan who, in the face strong opposition, received the top award for their bar in the Best Craft Spirit Selection category at the 2017 Scottish Entertainment and Hospitality Awards ceremony recently held in Glasgow’s Merchant City.

The presentation ceremony was a glittering affair and topping the entertainment was singer Tony Christie who still remains unsure of the way to Amarillo!

Guests and customers were responsible for the initial nominations and the Ballygrant hoteliers are delighted with their success and grateful to their supporters.

The island hostelry has also enjoyed winning success in the National Pub and Bar Awards after being named county winners for the Argyll and Bute region.
They are also short listed for the Scottish Field magazine whisky awards and the overall national bar and pub awards. Well done and we wish you further successes.

Hugh Smith, 4 Flora Street, Bowmore, Islay PA43 7JX
Telephone: 01496 810658.