The village of Lagg, in Kilmory parish on the southern tip of Arran, might seem like a secluded and peaceful little backwater. But appearances can be deceptive.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Kilmory was a hotbed of illicit distillation, and its spirit – known at the time as “Arran Water” – was as highly esteemed as anything emerging from Campbeltown, Islay or even Speyside.
The island’s concentration of stills in this part of the island was due to the availability of barley and a steady supply of water. Casks could be floated down Torrylinn Water at Lagg to be smuggled to the mainland in small boats, under cover of darkness. It was a risky business, carried out by locals desperate to find a way to boost their earnings, pay their rent and no doubt enjoy a tipple themselves.
A DREADFUL SCUFFLE
The Book of Arran, a comprehensive volume of history and folklore published in 1910, records an incident on 25 March 1817 when an excise boat spotted some smugglers attempting to leave the south end of Arran with a shipment of casks on their vessel. There were chased back to the island and the whisky seized, but before the excisemen could return to their own boat with the casks, a group of islanders gathered and attacked them, in a bid to rescue the whisky.
“A dreadful scuffle ensued”, according to the history, in which two men and one woman were shot dead. At his trial in Edinburgh that September, exciseman John Jeffrey was found not guilty of murder, the jury declaring that his actions were “absolutely necessary to defend the lives of those who were under his command”.
The risk to life and limb from distilling had diminished within six years, thanks to the introduction of 1823’s landmark Excise Act that sanctioned the distilling of whisky, for a licence fee of £10 per year. Within two years of that, a legal distillery had been established in Lagg, producing around 100 gallons (450 litres) of whisky a week and distilled using the locally grown bere barley. Becoming legal didn’t appear to be a particularly good business move, however – within 15 years it had closed down, and whatever distilling continued in the area reverted to being illegal.
RETURN OF LEGAL DISTILLING
Fast forward almost 200 years, and legal distilling has finally returned to Lagg, thanks to the vision of Isle of Arran Distillers. Master distiller James MacTaggart has temporarily left his base at the company’s other site, at Lochranza in the north of the island, to escort us to the new distillery, along with Isle of Arran Distillers managing director, Euan Mitchell. From the ferry in Brodick, we turn left then wind and twist our way along the circumference of Arran’s south coast. James steers the company minivan around the bends with the air of someone who has memorised every bend in the road – and with an urgency to show off the new structure to his audience.
It’s certainly worth the journey, as the distillery is finally revealed at the end of a remote track. It sits proudly on a promontory on the southern point of the island, with views across to the distinctive volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig, the Kintyre peninsula and even the Northern Irish coast beyond.
Even more impressive is the dynamic shape of the structure, with a roof that zigzags across the horizon, and a glass-fronted stillroom that reveals two copper stills through the first window, and the sea on the other side of the second one. The distillery’s distinctive shape has been inspired by the island’s own profile, with a roofline that evokes the mountain peak of Goatfell in the north to the dip of Glen Rosa in the middle and then a gentler aspect to the southern side of the island. If Arran is often described as “Scotland in miniature” for its combination of Highland and Lowland geographic characteristics, then the distillery itself is something of an “Arran in miniature”. It’s an imposing statement of a building, but thoughtfully softened within the environment by the use of a blanket of sedum vegetation on the roof.
The zigzag shape of the distillery roof is even reflected in the design of the three nearby warehouses, already home to whisky distilled at Lochranza and with a first batch of ex-bourbon casks ready and waiting for Lagg’s new make spirit.
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Our timing is perfect. While the finishing touches are still being made to the distillery’s exterior and interior, the stillroom has just started running – and the initial feedback from distillery manager Graham Omand is very encouraging.
“This has been a big week, running the stills for the first time, but I’m very happy with the new make spirit we’re getting,” he tells us. “We’ve got a little bit of work to do to find the right balance, take some of the feintiness out and land on the right cut rate, but we’re almost there.”
The young Islay native certainly seems to be relishing the opportunity to take charge of the new distillery, having served his apprenticeship under his uncle James’s watch for the past eight years at Lochranza.
“Taking my first job at Lochranza was the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says. “There’s an art to distilling that I’ve learnt there and now I’m getting the chance to put my own stamp on the whisky we’ll be creating at Lagg. It’s an amazing opportunity and I absolutely love it.”
A NEW TASTE OF ‘ARRAN WATER’
The whisky itself will be entirely different from the lighter, unpeated style that is typical of the Lochranza distillery. Lagg’s spirit will reflect the heavily peated character that defined the original “Arran Water” from this part of the island, with a phenolic content of 50ppm (parts per million). The style of the Forsyths stills also reflects the character that Lagg is aiming to produce, with short, bulbous bodies and lyne arms angled downwards towards the condensers to decrease the amount of reflux during distillation.
“The level of phenols combined with a different style of stills should give us a heavier, oilier spirit,” says James, whose enthusiasm for the mission is clearly as fresh as the day he entered the whisky industry on Islay more than 40 years previously. The distillery also gives the company the opportunity to explore different styles of peated whisky.
“We have a clear idea of what the core product is going to be in terms of the spirit, but there’s also an opportunity to experiment with different factors,” Euan Mitchell tells us.
“The south end of the island is traditionally where a lot of the distilleries were located, and they produced a very heavily peated spirit, so it seemed like the natural place to be, in terms of wanting to create this new Arran peated single malt. But we can grab this opportunity with both hands and experiment, so we’re planning on looking at different sources of peat to see what impact that has on the spirit, using a variety of different cask types, exploring how we can run the stills differently – lots of different things, so it’s a really exciting time.”
While steam rises from the mashtun and the wash is bubbling in the necks of the new stills, the rest of the site is a hive of activity and noise as the final plans fall into place ahead of the distillery opening in May.
Visitor traffic is clearly going to play a hugely important role at the distillery, just as it has at Lochranza since it opened. With that in mind, Faye Waterlow will be relocating to Lagg and bringing all her experience – having started on the day Lochranza’s visitor centre opened in 1997 – to her role at the new distillery.
“You learn a lot over the years about how you’d like things to work with a visitor centre and with tours, and when Lagg was being planned I was delighted to be involved and was asked what I’d like to see in the new building,” she says. “I’m happy to say my entire wishlist was granted!”
Lochranza currently hosts around 100,000 visitors a year, and is hoping to welcome a similar number to Lagg, with whisky fans and island tourists able to purchase a special two distillery ticket to give access to both sites.
With every detail designed to be “Instagram” ready inside Lagg distillery, visitors are in for a treat on their tours. The exterior views aren’t too bad either. We look forward to returning to sample the whisky.
Check out Unfiltered’s visit to Lagg distillery on the Society’s YouTube channel, SMWS Silverscreen
This in-depth feature is from the May 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership