When Arran Distillery opened in 1995, it was a trailblazer at the forefront of the current whisky boom in Scotland. It has since prospered and has positioned itself as an established brand, despite its relative newness.
Now the distillery’s owner, Isle of Arran Distillers, is ready for the next step. It’s bringing back whisky distilling to the southern coast of the Isle of Arran for the first time since 1837. The new Lagg Distillery sets out to produce a heavily peated whisky, with the ambition to rival the very best that’s coming out of Islay—the famed whisky island and home to many legendary distilleries.
Enter Graham Omand
Leading the charge is Graham Omand, the newly appointed distillery manager of Lagg Distillery. He has spent close to a decade as a stillman at Arran Distillery, under the guidance of his uncle, master distiller James MacTaggart. “When you’ve been around stills for long enough, you kind of develop a sixth sense about them,” says Omand. “I sometimes joke with people and tell them: when you work with stills you can smell a problem before you ever see or hear it.”
Graham Omand / Photo Credit: Lagg Distillery
While Omand loves all whiskies, growing up on Islay instilled an appreciation and affection for peated whisky in particular. “A lot of my family work in distilleries,” he says. “When certain family members would come home their clothes would smell of peat, and when I drove around the island you’d smell peat. My old high school, Islay High School, is only a couple of buildings away from Bowmore distillery, so every Wednesday when the peat kiln was fired up, the village would get a nice blow of smoky flavoring. It was just ingrained from the get-go.”
Modern Distillery, Traditional Methods
Lagg Distillery opened to visitors in June. Those making the journey will encounter a modern distillery, employing traditional production methods. The grass roof will be similar to The Macallan’s new distillery, and reminisces a rolling hill shape. When the grass grows it will blend into the surrounding hills, limiting the immediate impact such a large building would have on the beautiful environment.
Construction at Lagg Distillery / Photo Credit: Lagg Distillery
At full tilt Lagg Distillery is capable of producing 700,000 liters per year; modest compared to some of the bigger Scottish distilleries. But the distillery plans to ease into things. That first year of production, the staff will just do a few shifts a week in search of the preferred flavor profile.
A Heavier, Rustic Whisky Planned
Lagg Distillery’s whisky will sit at the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared to Arran Distillery’s, which Omand describes as, “a very nice, easy-going, delicate, estery whisky.” Lagg whisky is going to be more extreme. “The stills are designed for a much heavier and denser, almost earthy and rustic spirit. Something that is far more oily in comparison to [Arran Distillery],” says Omand.
Inside Lagg Distillery / Photo Credit: Lagg Distillery
The wash still is quite bulbous, very much onion shaped. Meanwhile, the lyne arms on both stills are pointed at a lower gradient into the condensers. That means the spirit doesn’t need to fight as hard in terms of reflux to get over and down into the condenser. They’ll be retaining a lot of the more sulphury and heavier notes as a result.
“You can only prepare for so much when creating the stills,” Omand explains. “But you just never know what you’re going to get in the end. We’ve designed the stills a certain way, because we’re after a certain spirit. But in the end how much pressure we put on the stills and how much we push them and how much heat we drive through them, will also determine the spirit we’re producing.”
Building a new distillery from the ground up is a dream come true for Omand, who describes himself as one of the luckiest people he knows. “There are so few people I can think off that will ever get the experience of being able to start and manage a brand new distillery from scratch. That freedom alone is keeping me up at night, that’s how excited I am.”
“The first cask filling is what I probably look forward to most. When we produce the first spirit, that’s great. We’ll probably first be picking around a bit: nosing, trying a few samples and trying to work out the cut points. There’s so much involved. But when it comes down to it, when I see it in the cask, that’s the legacy, that’s the first of the Lagg. I can’t wait until that moment.”