The White Horse. The words alone evoke vast imagery across novels and cinema—I’ll give you a minute to let your imaginations wander. In Scotland, however, it is associated with the White Horse Inn in Canongate, Edinburgh, which was owned by the Mackie family from 1650 until 1917. And like the hobbits arriving at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, this is where our adventure begins. In 1861, James Logan Mackie founded the eponymous James Logan Mackie & Co., which in 1862 went on to purchase a stake in a tiny distillery on the island of Islay. You might have heard of it—Lagavulin? James Logan Mackie eventually joined up with his nephew, “Restless” Peter Mackie, who spent his time travelling to Islay to learn the art of distilling. And thus Mackie & Co. was born.
The White Horse name was trademarked soon after and the company took an interest in the newly-founded Craigellachie distillery (eventually acquiring full control in 1919). Mackie & Co also bought Greenlees & Colville Ltd, which owned a little distillery called Hazelburn in Campbeltown (until it shut down in 1925). Shortly thereafter the company sold off its non-core assets and eventually became White Horse Distillers Limited. “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.” Or in this case, ended up as all things do in whisky, as part of the Diageo group. The company was dissolved in 2010, but with that brief snapshot, one can see how White Horse (which many people today may not have heard of) has left its fingerprints all over whisky history.
One of the remaining tangible mementos from the brand is the White Horse blended whisky, which was noted for its use of Lagavulin. This blend won blended whisky of the year in 2006, according to a certain Whisky Bible (why does that keep coming up in these reviews?). Jason has done a pretty comprehensive review of the blended whisky, here.
So, we’re going to move swiftly onwards along our meandering path. Although it only operated two days per week in the 1980s, the distillery managed to survive the cull that was that dark decade. It was at the end of the 1980s that the distillery changed its standard bottling from a 12-year-old to the 16-year-old we have known in recent history (though the 12-year-old was re-introduced in 2002 and is also a quality bottling). Throughout the 1980s and very early 1990s, Lagavulin maintained its association with White Horse Distillers, and this relationship was clearly marked on the labels and bottles from that era.
There are a few distinguishing features if you’re looking for a bottle and want to double check for authenticity. Look for the 1816 and ISLA on both sides of the label in gold lettering. Also look for the royal seal stating, “By appointment to her majesty the Queen…”. And perhaps most telling, look for the “White Horse Distillers Glasgow” at the very bottom of the label.
Now, this article is not meant to take anything away from the core range Lagavulin 16-year-old bottling, which is a classic bottling that is reasonably priced and readily available on the shelves of whisky bars great and small. But if you’re the type of person to ask, “Do you have anything that is like Lagavulin 16 but not actually Lagavulin 16?”—well, my friend, keep reading.
I will digress briefly to say that this is not one of those reviews for a bottle you’ll never be able to try. Like delving into the tomes archived in Rivendell, it’s interesting to read about a 1950s Glen Grant or 1970s Bowmore, but realistically, what is the likelihood that our circumstances and wallets are such that we’d be able to find and buy such a unicorn bottle? While this may not be the easiest to find, there are certainly bottles scattered out there.
Lagavulin 16 Year Old (White Horse Distillers) – review
Colour: Amber resin
On the nose: Sweet peat smoke. A gentle bit of pipe tobacco slides in. Sea salt, brine and a bit of tar—almost rubber hitting the tarmac on a coastal airport. All of this complemented by the sweet complexity of the light red fruit and menthol notes.
In the mouth: Smooth yet oily. Hits the palate with a crash of dark chocolate, orange peel and coffee icing. A touch of crème caramel, cinnamon and vanilla crescendos into the peat smoke flavours. This never overpowers the dram but instead works together in a delightful harmony. A longer finish, nicely bringing out the citrus and a few earthy notes, while the smoke continues to operate in the background.
In case it wasn’t clear, I thought this was absolutely delicious. This is a great example of a classic Lagavulin 16, but with a twist. It’s from another time, demonstrating the character of the distillery and its journey. It is an excellent example of learning from our history, as well as an enjoyable experience, for no other reason than that very binary purpose of why many of us explore a variety of whiskies – tasty or not tasty. This one definitely falls in the former.
The real intrigue in this tasting was where the tasting notes took diverging paths. This White Horse edition has an extraordinary depth of flavour, and it is that complexity that sometimes could end up as a cacophony of notes, but manages to avoid the discord and come together perfectly. The intensity of the smoke that might otherwise be jarring is endlessly supported by the remaining flavours, specifically those sweet and sherry notes (like how one’s gardener might support you in a quest, for example).
These days you will see these bottles bouncing from auction to auction, slowly creeping up the price scale, tattered box and all. Do you really care about the box, though? Just buy it and drink it; if not, you will be missing out. The other option? Someone with Smaug-loads of money will just end up hoarding these bottles in their Lonely Mountain treasure room.
So, I hope you enjoyed what has been another stop on my adventure through the world of whisky. Traveling this path of new and exciting whiskies has its trials and triumphs. But, remember, “not all those who wander are lost”.
Photograph from the Whisky Exchange.