The Legend of Lagavulin: How the Empire Was Built

If William Wordsworth’s spring-time cuckoo did swoop over silent seas, among the southernmost isles of Hebrides, and returned with stories of an unknown land, it’d perhaps sing of Kildalton, of the ancient cross that stands covered in moss and preaching, of the ramshackle bunch of distilleries scattered in the ‘hollow by the mill’. And, this is where our story begins.

A Hebridian Tale…

Lore has it in 1742, a bunch of moonshiners scampered about in the fabled lag a'mhuilin, in Islay, Scotland. Far removed from the public eye, ten small, and illicit distilleries would make the golden tipple, becoming the origin of what was to become one of Islay’s oldest distilleries. John Johnston, a local farmer with unmatched love of whisky decided to take charge, and in 1816, refurbished the old building standing in the hollow to establish the Kildalton Distillery. In about a year, Johnston would go on to build the second distillery, and name it after the land it stood on, Lagavulin. Johnston was the first legal distiller to have stepped on the soil of the hollow.

Two for Company…

Johnston’s love child was to gain company soon. As if taking cue from the ten illicit distilleries that stood in the area, a certain Archibald Campbell opened a smaller distillery by the name of Malt Mill in 1817. But, Malt Mill was not to remain standing for long. Within a few years of being built, in 1837, Malt Mill became one with Lagavulin. The distillery grew in name, and fame and prospered under the aegis of Johnston’s shrewd business farsightedness.

A ‘Change’ling…

Shortly after Johnston’s death in 1836, a spirits merchant from Glasgow, Alexander Graham came to the helm of Lagavulin. This flagged off a series of change of hands that would decide the fate of Lagavulin, taking it to soaring heights, and swooping lows. In less than 30 years, the distillery would come under the joint ownership of James McKie and Captain Graham. James’s nephew, Peter Mckie was the one to have steered Lagavulin to prominence and during the 1890s. ‘Restless Pete’, as his staff fondly nicknamed him made Lagavulin a much loved household name. Pete was the one behind restoring the adjacent old distillery buildings to glory, and bringing Lagavulin’s first companion’s memory to life, by naming the refurbished buildings Malt Mill.

War and Whisky…

A sea of change later, in 1939, with the Second World War looming large over Europe, Lagavulin started employing women workers, for the men were fighting in the war. As radical as the practice might have been, women in whisky distillery was not to continue for long. The war escalated rapidly, and by 1941, Lagavulin had to be shut down. As the war strife ended, the distillery slowly came to life, and in 1962, the still house was rebuild, almost from scratch, for bombings during the war had wrecked Johnston’s beloved distillery. Malt Mill, being the true companion it was, proved to be a friend in need useful once more. Stills from Malt Mill were installed inside the renovated Lagavulin Distillery.

The Empire Strikes Back…

The distillery stood the ravages of time, and yet churned out some of the finest single malts of Islay. Aged for no less 16 long years, Lagaluvin single malts have a characteristic peatiness, with a unique tang of iodine. All the blood, sweat, and tears over the years since its inception has shaped one of Islay’s oldest distilleries to perfection. So much so, that Lagaluvin is now one of the well-loved single malts in the world of whisky. Some say empires are not built on sand, but some empires are built on hollows, and how!

 

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