What it Means to Turn 200: Lagavulin Celebrates Its Bicentennial Anniversary

A white distillery that overlooks the ocean.
For 200 years, Lagavulin has captured the essence of the tiny Scottish island of Islay, where the distillery looks out over the ocean and ruins from centuries past. Photos by Jake Emen.

Two hundred years ago, John Johnston founded a Scotch whisky brand on the tiny Scottish island of Islay that captured the essence of its place. Since its inception, Lagavulin has been heralded as one of the finest Scotches on the market, with notes of sea salt, smoke and peat that tell distinctly of its origin. The iconic Islay Scotch whisky brand is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year by continuing to honor its heritage while also forging a path to the future.

The ruins of Dunyvaig Castle jut out into the water and keep silent vigil beside the Lagavulin distillery. The castle speaks to a history that stretches back even farther than the distillery, likely to the 12th century. As for the whisky itself, historian David Campbell indicates that what would become known as Lagavulin Bay was perhaps "already a center of whisky production in the early 17th century."

Step off a boat and down the dock at Lagavulin, take a deep breath and let the salty ocean breeze resonate. Whisky's in the air, and it's as if it always has been.

"We have eight distilleries on this little island," says Georgie Crawford, Lagavulin's distillery manager and Islay native. "Why would that be without such a deep history of it here?"

Castle ruins on the ocean. Beside the Lagavulin distillery, the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle jut out into the water.

A drive around the island reveals one distillery after another, nestled into its surroundings along with outcrops of homes, shops and restaurants. "Wherever there is a distillery there is a community around it," she says. Islay isn't simply a place where whisky is made, it's truly at the center of the entire island and at the heart of its people. For Crawford, she embarked on her whisky career elsewhere before being able to come back home, landing what she calls her "dream job" at Lagavulin.

"There's something about this place that makes it special," says Crawford. "Very serene, very spellbinding … also very challenging and uncompromising." It's a description meant for the island's climate, which also neatly applies to the whisky that's made there.

At Lagavulin, "the people, the place and the passion" were always at the center of the distillery’s purpose, says Crawford. "The people who work here today carry the same spirit."

Of course, while the basics of whisky distillation and passion for the craft have remained constants, technology has changed radically along the way. The sheer size and scope of the industry is also far different, as are the economic forces surrounding it.

As Lagavulin looks ahead to life after 200, Crawford realizes she's in an important position. "Identity is something we have to safeguard," she says.

Even while safeguarding that identity, though, the brand must also be willing to innovate and stay fleet-footed. They must release new expressions, streamline production and meet changing consumer interests. It will take vigilance to stay competitive within the shifting marketplace, where there's a constant influx of new distilleries on the horizon. In the modern day market, Lagavulin must now compete with huge growth of American whiskey, surging production in Ireland, and the meteoric rise of Japanese whisky.

A woman behind many tasting glasses of whiskey. Georgie Crawford is Lagavulin's distillery manager and an Islay native. She is tasked with the important challenge of maintaining Lagavulin's identity, while also forging a path for the future.

One way the distillery seeks to move ahead is by maximizing its efficiency in as many ways as possible. This is not only for squeezing out every last drop of whisky that they can — they're basically already operating at their max production of 2.5 million LPA per year — but also to leave a smaller footprint.

"Where we can, we'll be as a green as possible in the distillery," says Crawford. Water piped in for cooling and condensing is sent right back out to its source after usage. Spent water used to sparge during the mashing process — essentially rinsing sugar from the mash — is recycled to be used again with the next batch. As is common practice with many distilleries, spent mash is then sold as animal feed.

Lagavulin completes 28 mashes per week, the most of any Diageo-owned distillery. Again, it's about maximizing production and improving efficiency at Lagavulin, which, while quite large, is still relatively modest in size compared to some of the Scotch industry's behemoths. For instance, nearby sister distillery Caol Ila has over 2.5 times the production capacity.

At Lagavulin, they have two identical sets of wash and spirits stills, and beyond eight days per year spent on regular maintenance, they are always churning away. Holidays and all, the whisky keeps getting made. Consumer demand waits for no one.

Day after day, batch after batch, there's a rhythm to the motions of any distillery. Here, the rhythmic beat of production was first laid down two hundred years ago and has been ingrained into each generation of caretakers since, as days turned into months, decades into centuries.

The exterior of a Scotch distillery. The Lagavulin distillery is as stunning as their Scotch is smooth.

Lagavulin's latest whisky is also a look back

Lagavulin is unleashing a new expression to market this year, an 8-year-old single malt. In a time when it seems as if the majority of Scotch brands are removing age statements, Lagavulin is adding one. It's a younger expression — Scotch age labels under 10 are quite uncommon — but it's proudly labeled, nonetheless.

The release is intended in part to be a historical throwback, appropriate for a bicentennial anniversary. In the 1880s, British whisky author and expert Alfred Barnard visited over 150 distilleries while working with Harper's Weekly Gazette, literally stopping at every operational facility across Great Britain and Ireland. These visits formed the foundation of his book, “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” published in 1887. During his myriad adventures, Barnard actually cited Lagavulin as one of the few of its time which was able to successfully turn out quality single malt spirit, as opposed to producing whisky solely for usage in blends.

"So we created something that would be of the style of that time," says Crawford. "We're incredibly proud to be releasing this in our anniversary year."

Bottled at 48% ABV, Lagavulin 8 is lighter in character compared to Lagavulin 16, which is the brand's standard. It still carries campfire and peat, but it's a bit more restrained and delicate, also showcasing honey and fruits, with salt and seashell on the nose.

Production may be essentially maxed out and there are no shortcuts to getting whisky to market. As such, Lagavulin 8 is a careful construction. Half the age can't mean half the taste or quality.

"The 8 year old is absolutely the DNA of what we make in just the right balance," says Crawford. Indeed, tasting the 8 in tandem with its mainstay older sibling, the 16, offers the perfect opportunity to see how intertwined the two are. Fewer years in the barrel simply highlights a different part of a shared core character.

That core character is the taste of Lagavulin. It's the dock leading out into Lagavulin Bay. It's the ruins of Dunyvaig. It's the people of Islay.

Jake Emen is a spirits, travel, and food writer who's been published in USA Today, GQ, Vice Munchies, Roads & Kingdoms, and elsewhere. Follow him on the socials at @ManTalkFood.

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