Doing different at Arran's Lagg Distillery

Doing different at Arran's Lagg Distillery

Almost a quarter-century after launching its first distillery, Isle of Arran Distillers opened a second facility on the Scottish island – and the little sister is very different to her predecessor

Distillery Focus | 11 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Moa Nilsson

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In 1995, Lochranza Distillery, the first legal distillery on the Isle of Arran in 150 years, was opened by Isle of Arran Distillers. Production started in June of that year and its first whisky was released in 1998 (Scottish actor Ewan McGregor was invited to open the first cask). Over the next two decades the distillery and its whiskies grew in popularity, eventually leading Isle of Arran Distillers to the decision to open a second distillery on the island. Unlike Lochranza, this new distillery would be dedicated to heavily peated spirit with an experimental focus.

 

Like many other parts of Scotland, illicit distilling and smaller hidden stills would not have been uncommon on the Isle of Arran during the early 1800s. However, caught by problems including the difficulty of transporting goods and equipment on and off the island, the distilleries disappeared until, by the mid-1800s, none remained. One of these was the original Lagg Distillery, which shut down in 1840 due to transportation issues, poor management, and competition from larger distilleries on the mainland. 

 

Distillation returned to the island when Lochranza, previously known as the Isle of Arran Distillery, ran its first new make through the spirit safe. In 2017, construction began on a sister distillery 25 miles away from the first, by the village of Lagg on the southern tip of the island. Two years after construction began, the distillery and visitor centre opened its doors and the first middle cut of spirit was recorded at 2.35pm on 19 March 2019.

 

The decision to open the second distillery was made to allow for greater production levels and increased storage and to welcome more whisky visitors to the island. As the peated Machrie Moor releases, distilled at Lochranza, had been a popular addition to the portfolio it made perfect sense to dedicate Lagg Distillery to producing a rich, earthy, heavily peated whisky (the phenolic content is 50ppm), in contrast to the style of spirit usually distilled
at Lochranza.

 

Having the intention of producing heavily peated whisky from the start allowed the team to design the distillery with this in mind. In August 2018, a pair of custom-made copper pot stills from Forsyths were installed, designed to suit a distillation with heavily peated malt. The pair consisted of one bulbous onion-shaped wash still with a capacity of 10,000 litres and one spirit still, lamp glass shaped, with a capacity of 7,000 litres. The distillery features a semi-lauter mash tun which can take four tonnes of grist per mash and produces a cloudy wort for the four traditional Douglas fir washbacks and the 72-hour fermentation that awaits. Three warehouses have been constructed on-site with a combination of palletised and racked storage. The building has been designed to fit into the surrounding Arran countryside as naturally as possible. It features a Bauder sedum blanket ‘green roof’, comprising a variety of sedum species such as mosses and grasses which will allow the roof to change colour with the seasons. Even the outline of the building itself is designed to mimic the shape of the island’s southern tip.

Lagg Kilmory Edition. Credit: Isle of Arran Distillers

Graham Omand has been working with Isle of Arran Distillers since 2011, initially as a mashman and stillman at Lochranza before stepping up to the role of distillery manager at Lagg. He is not just overseeing whisky production but also a couple of experimental endeavours unique to Lagg. One that may bear fruit – quite literally – is the distillery’s apple orchard. Around 2,000 apple trees were planted in 2020 with the hope of producing cider and brandy, as well as allowing future guests to go for a stroll through the orchard when they come to visit. Omand has done research into apple brandy production at different UK sites to learn more and see what the Lagg team might be able to do with their apples. They’re also in talks with an Ayrshire-based cider producer who would be willing to press the apples and ferment the juice to create a small-batch distillery-exclusive product, but as the trees are still young, this project is a few years away from being enacted.

 

If or when the distillery has this apple brandy in stock, Lagg hopes to use the brandy casks for whisky maturation, one of a variety of casks the distillery plans to use. So far, the inaugural releases and core range have utilised ex-bourbon, oloroso sherry, and ex-Rioja casks ranging in size from firkins to barrels and hogsheads. A Calvados cask project involving both Lagg and Lochranza is also underway; in February 2021, 20 French oak ex-Calvados casks for each distillery, sourced from Christian Drouin, were filled with 50ppm peated spirit from Lagg and unpeated spirit from Lochranza. Only time will tell when these casks are ready. Alongside maturation casks, the distillery also plans to experiment with peat sourced from a variety of locations and the phenolic content of the barley malt.

 

The use of peat is not the only aspect that sets Lagg Distillery apart from its big sister Lochranza. They’re also located in two different whisky regions, despite only being 25 miles apart and on the same island. Lagg is considered a Lowland distillery whilst Lochranza belongs to the Highland region, as the line that separates the two regions runs straight through the Isle of Arran horizontally. Interestingly, this makes Lagg the only Lowland distillery located on an island.

 

This is a very exciting year for Lagg, seeing the launch of its first core-range single malts: Kilmory Edition and Corriecravie Edition. The Kilmory Edition, named after the parish in which the village of Lagg is situated, has been matured entirely in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels. The Corriecravie Edition was initially matured in ex-bourbon barrels then finished for six months in ex-oloroso sherry hogsheads sourced from Miguel Martín in Jerez. Corriecravie takes its name from a hamlet just northwest of the village, in an area that would have been home to illicit stills producing the infamous ‘Arran water’ back in the early days of distillation on the island.

The Kilmory Edition will retail at £49.99 and the Corriecravie Edition at £64.99. Both are non chill-filtered and bottled with natural colour.

Looking at the fermenters at Lagg Distillery. Credit: Isle of Arran Distillers

Lagg’s main experimental focus will be around peat in its whisky production. The peat for the core releases is sourced from St Fergus in the northeast of Scotland. So far, the distillery has experimented with the phenolic content used in production and has distilled unpeated malted barley as well malt at 15ppm, 25ppm, 30ppm, 35ppm, 40ppm, 50ppm, and all the way up to 90ppm. Omand has high hopes about the high ppm levels. “The 90ppm is entirely Arran barley grown in the adjacent field to Lagg Distillery.  The few people that have been able to try it have all agreed it’s one of the nicest expressions of Lagg, so we’re happy to continue making this a yearly week-long production tradition. We hope to have an opportunity to try more locally sourced peat or coastal peat – it’s proving harder than thought but it’s something we’re excited to try.”

 

The core releases, just like the inaugural batch releases that went on sale in late 2022, are being sold in a bespoke bottle designed by Stranger & Stranger; it features a design which pays homage to the location of the distillery and takes inspiration from the surrounding natural environment.

 

The bottle is made using tinted glass, with a slightly green hue that is supposed to reflect the landscape and waters around the distillery. Instead of a cork there is a rounded wood closure, a modern take on coastal driftwood. The island’s mountain peaks and surrounding terrain are also depicted through an embossed line around the bottle. The font on the packaging has been hand-painted, and the label brings thoughts of the oily nature of the soil as well as the hard and sometimes dirty work of the peat cutters.

 

For a distillery whose name (in English) means ‘to fail to keep up with others’, Lagg doesn’t seem to have any problem fronting development and experimentation. The distillation happening on the south side of the Isle of Arran will definitely be an interesting one to keep an eye on.    

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