16th January 2012: The first time I stepped onto the Isle of Arran.
It was a university meditative retreat to the village of Lamlash, with a good bit of exploring the island as well. My first memory is seeing the island across the Firth of Clyde from somewhere above Ardrossan. We had driven up, and I had taken a minibus driving test whilst at university to be able to help with the drive from Cambridge. These days, I drive non-stop from Norfolk, setting off the earliest at 11 PM to arrive in time for the 7 AM ferry.
Back then, everything was new. I was taking a chance with a friendly but unfamiliar group of fellow students and our lovely university chaplain Nigel, who organised the annual trip up North, and introduced the island – and all its unexpected joys – to multitudes of students year-on-year. I looked across from where our minibus was parked and there, in the distance, in some form of twilight was a jagged, snow-capped island.
With the benefit of hindsight, it must have resonated to some deep part of my soul that was calling out for an island escape: somewhere without mobile phone signal; with crystal-clear streams; without essay deadlines; with golden eagles… the list could go on. One element that I was not looking for then was whisky. I had not developed the taste for anything close to an appreciation of single malt then; my dad had always offered it up in an evening, but it had not appealed to my palate.
A few days of sunrise meditation, walks up the Glenashdale Falls, and trips over to Holy Island off the shore of Lamlash followed, and we found our group driving into the car park of Lochranza Distillery in the early afternoon. I had never visited a distillery up until this point. Curiosity in abundance, I remember walking into the Visitor Centre Shop, past the reeds and waterfall display that used to greet the entrants to the Distillery in those days.
Inside the Distillery shop: a dizzying array of bottles. On the higher shelves were bottles of the Open Day 2011 bottling and companion Gordon’s Cask 2010 bottling. Displayed up on the top shelf of the shop, in rosewood boxes and attractive gold leaf effect text, these bottles were priced roughly around £125 per bottle.
I remember thinking, “Wowsers ! I cannot afford anything like that as a Uni student. What a price for a bottle of whisky!” In the end, I purchased a 20cl bottle of a Pinot Noir Wine Finish to share with my Dad when I next got back to my parental home. We both very much enjoyed that bottle a few weeks later and the rest – as far as it goes with Arran Whisky, and whisky drinking in general with me – is history. I became a bona fide convert to anything and everything Arran would release.
Now fast forward ten years – gulp – and multiple releases later I looked back on those initial exclusive releases I saw sat on the top shelf in Lochranza. I tried and enjoyed both, have a bottle of each in my long-term collection, and recently bought another of the Open Day 2011 at auction, to bring up to this year’s Malt and Music Festival 2022 (back after an absence two years due to the pandemic). I will open this bottle and share with many friends – new and old – and revel in something quite wondrous and special that can only be found at these kinds of events.
In the time that has passed since that first visit, Isle of Arran Distillers has opened a second distillery down on the south end of the island in 2019. I was lucky enough to visit early this year and have a chat with Head Distiller Graham Omand about how everything was progressing at the new site, and what lay in store for Lagg Distillery in 2022 and beyond.
Malt: Hello Graham, last time I was here we were talking outside about orchards but let’s go inside, into the stillhouse, for the main element of your job here at Lagg Distillery. Tomorrow is the third anniversary at 14:35 of the first middle cut. Cast your mind back for us to 2019; what was that moment like?
Graham: It may not sound that romantic, but that moment reminds me of hi-vis vests and hard hats on a construction site. The building was still technically under construction at that moment, so I was still under the thumb of the site foremen, working in a very hot stillhouse in the middle of March, covered head to toe in hi-vis, with my head in a spirit safe! It was quite an experience.
Malt: How long did it take to get that point where you decided “OK this is going to be our middle cut?”
Graham: That took nearly two weeks. On the 19th March 2019, this was our first trial of that specific middle cut. The first foreshots was generally quite low, as it takes a while to build up the low wines and feints. It was still caskable spirit technically, James (MacTaggart) and I were just trying different cuts at the time that were coming through.
Malt: Does any of that original middle cut find its way into casks? Or were you purely experimenting and that then gets poured away?
Graham: It was re-distilled when we had settled on our recipe.
Malt: And then what was the date that the first cask was filled?
Graham: The very first cask was filled quite a bit later on, because we were only distilling every two days. We were under quite a strict regime whereby we could only work under certain specifications, because the site was still full of builders. April 10th 2019 was when Cask #1 was filled at Lagg. There was quite a big filling on that day. A lot of the spirit we produced up till then had been slowly sent down to the sprit tank in Warehouse #1. As we refined the cuts we were looking for, they got mixed together, so we got a picture of exactly the style of spirit we wanted over those first few weeks.
Malt: What barley and yeast strain were used for that initial run?
Graham: Concerto barley and M variety yeast strain from Kerry Group.
Malt: Has that stayed consistent over the last three years?
Graham: Yes, we still use Kerry variety yeast, we have just adjusted the strain to incorporate an MX variety, which is a slightly faster variety. As production has increased, we’ve had to change the fermentation time slightly. What this new strain does is it still gives us the same style of flavour, but it allows for slightly quicker fermentations for some parts of the working week. Ensuring nothing is getting over or under fermented, and a balance is found.
Malt: On an emotional level, what did it feel like when you’d picked that middle cut and then saw it going into a cask for the first time?
Graham: One of our Project Managers at the time was in the back of the stillhouse, showing some guests around. He looked over at me and saw me jumping around the spirit safe, very excitedly, and he said to our guests: “Oh there’s the Head Distiller, he’s in his element and so, so happy!” I didn’t realise at the time they were all there. I got a flavour of the middle cut and thought it was fantastic, it stood out. I had been gathering different cuts up till that point – five minutes in, 10 minutes in, 15 minutes in – collecting small samples in little glass bottles. And this particular mix and ratio of the samples I tried and thought: ah now that’s good! I sent it off to James and was really pleased with how it all blended together.
At one point on the condenser there were nearly 30 little bottles all lined up, with hastily written notes on each. That’s how I knew if I was taking the foreshots or feints too early, by analysing them all. If I got a bit of a feinty note, I would try the next day at 62.5, then 63.5, maybe then the foreshots instead of half an hour in, try them at 25 minutes in, or 40 minutes the other way. I was just trying to find that right balance for what we were looking for with a heavily peated spirit.
Malt: And when you found it, it was like Mario hitting that gold block above his head! So this room has been in existence now for three years. Has it all run as expected, or have you ironed out kinks over those years?
Graham: There’s not a single person who’s ever worked in a distillery would ever tell you that everything always works perfectly. There’s always little issues and tweaks that can improve efficiency. It took me about two years to get the distillery running to the most efficient state you find it running in now.
Malt: What the original capacity for when Lagg first started distilling?
Graham: Our first target was 250,000 litres of pure alcohol for 2019, but the capacity of the distillery is around 750,000 litres.
Malt: So it can get up to that capacity like its sister distillery Lochranza did before over time?
Graham: Yes, if we were distilling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with our four 20,000 litre washbacks, and our current two stills, we figure it would be around 750,000 litres per year. But as you know, we’ve got room for expansion here in the stillshouse. There’s space over by the Lagg Cask Society Owners Wall of Fame for four extra washbacks, and room in front of our stills here by the window for two extra stills. It gives us the option to double capacity when the time is right. I was still working at Lochranza when we doubled the still capacity there and it was tricky; they had to rip up the floor and the frame around the stills and take everything apart. Here, we just need to take out the window, everything has been futureproofed from the get-go.
Malt: Is that partly down to having the team in place that saw that happen at Lochranza?
Graham: Ha, yes, a few of us saying “Right, we’ll never do it that way again!”
Malt: Let’s walk over to the Wall of Fame and take a look at the Lagg Cask Society owners. Is it all full now?
Graham: Yes, all 700 casks have now been sold. I’ve had people come in and look for their name and spent nearly 30 minutes looking. The centre of the wall features the earliest cask owners, with the top and bottom featuring the latter folk to get their cask.
Malt: Great to hear it’s all fully signed up to now! Let’s move to somewhere slightly more peaceful: Warehouse #1. I see lots or casks in this warehouse; what’s the process of selecting casks for the first Lagg Whisky release? Are you earmarking casks that you think will be suitable or do you have a definite picture that you want to paint?
Graham: We have a definite picture for the first few releases this year. It is currently confidential, but all will be revealed soon.
Malt: We are roughly three weeks away from those first casks of spirit turning three years old and becoming legally defined as whisky. Are there any tax implications that change in a bonded warehouse from storing whisky as opposed to maturing spirit?
Graham: No, even though it’s technically not a whisky according to Scotch Malt Whisky Society, it’s casked as a whisky. It doesn’t change at a certain age.
Malt: What type of casks are predominantly stored here in Warehouse #1?
Graham: We have a good cocktail of casks here. It’s our operations warehouse, with half of the warehouse storing casks on a racking system. This racking was specifically designed for ease of access and use. Predominantly it’s used for the Lagg Cask Society’s 700 casks, which gave us roughly another 1,200 spaces, so with that we’ve decided to store special casks and vattings here, along with a bit of space for Lochranza’s special casks too.
Malt: Is this like Warehouse #6 at Lochranza, the diddy little one?
Graham: Yes, a racking system like this is perfect for finishes. The last thing you want to do is create a finish, palletise it, stick it in the corner of a warehouse and not be able to access it for 9 months as its been buried behind other casks. The first 10 rows here are all Lagg Cask Society and then beyond that your specialist and unusual casks.
Malt: Is that where your Calvados Project casks are sitting?
Graham: Yes, and various wine casks like Amarone and Sauternes. Over on the left-hand side of the warehouse we have a bit of a dunnage system, storing at the moment a majority of Lochranza casks. They’ve been juggling a lot of space issues at Lochranza recently, so now we’ve got more space down here, we can share warehouse space.
Malt: You mentioned that to us last year that the whole site was initially planned for warehousing.
Graham: Yes, initially that was the idea and then we realised we could make a small craft distillery here, and then small quickly became big. The casks over here spent the majority of their lives in Warehouses 1 and 2 at Lochranza, which are also our dunnage warehouses at that site. Some of these casks will hopefully find their way into future bottlings of our White Stag releases, and special annual release, that kind of thing. A lot of the are 1996, 1997, and 1998 casks, some good age to them. Sherry Butts and Sherry Puncheons.
Malt: What does it mean to you to know that very shortly you’re going to have Lagg Whisky as opposed to just Lagg Spirit in some of these casks?
Graham: It’s been the quickest three years of my life. I remember the day we filled Cask #1; it was myself and two of the warehousemen. It’s gone in a blink of an eye. Let’s go and have a look at that cask in fact.
Malt: Is Cask #1 at Lochranza still in existence in some form?
Graham: It is, I know where it is, but I can’t share that information. Unlike Cask #1 here at Lagg which we’ve guaranteed will be bottled in 2029, something that I’ve never heard of happening before in the industry. It will be bottled and go to the Lagg Cask Society as a thank you for believing in us, and for being friends of the company.
Malt: Since last July I see you’ve added three more warehouses on site. How much extra capacity does that give you, and how long do you think that will be enough storage capacity for the two distilleries?
Graham: Each of those warehouses, if they’re full to the brim, will probably give us close to 7,000 barrels of storage space each. So, you’re looking at an extra 21,000 casks we can store thanks to those new warehouses. It sounds like a lot, but bear in mind that Lagg Distillery alone will need space for around 5000 casks per year if we keep ramping up production. So, we’re projecting those new warehouses give us ample space for the next three to four years at max.
At the same time, we’re always emptying casks too, it’s a delicate balance. You ideally want a scenario where you’re filling and emptying of casks are almost identical. There was a point at Lochranza where we greatly saw an increase in sales, which saw our 10-year-old whisky increase in sales. It was about 10 years ago when Lochranza first ramped up production, so we’re able to quite comfortably supply lots more of the 10-year-old release now.
Malt: Maybe a 14-year-old release again at some point?
Graham: I couldn’t possibly say, though I do miss it on our visitor centre shelves.
Malt: It’s gone from being the affordable bottle you could always find on a visit to the distillery, to being the one you see on auction sites with a bit of a cult following now.
Graham: It has quite a legacy as it was one of James Mactaggart’s flagship first bottlings. The 10-year-old came out before James joined, which he then adapted to his tastes. But it was the 14-year-old that allowed him to plant his flag with the distillery.
Malt: Now you’ve had three years of the site being open, what are you noticing with the type of visitor making the journey to the south end of Arran? Is it still lots of first-time visitors or are you starting to now get repeat visitors?
Graham: It’s a mixture of both; a fair number of our White Stag community pop over regularly and I’ll get a phone call in the office to pop down and say hi and catch-up. The island is also ideal for family holidays where folk like to come over every year and end up finding themselves back here at Lagg, not just because of the whisky, but the site is beautiful, you get a lovely lunch, a great tour, and the staff are all so friendly.
Malt: Are you noticing that by having the business here in the south end you’re bedding in working relationships with the local farmers and folk considering a job here after they’ve left school?
Graham: We’ve got a good relationship with farmers all around; we supply them with draff and they supply us with barley. We also have two uni students who come and work for us every set of holidays they get; they’re coming back again this year. It’s great as they’re coming to work in an industry that they might want to further their careers in after university. Us being here means less people need to necessarily leave the island to get that first job in a career they might wish to pursue in the whisky industry.
Malt: It sounds like a fantastic first job to have! My first jobs were on farms, a petrol station, and in a supermarket. I’d have loved to add a distillery to that list.
Graham: Mine was as a KP in a local hotel and a supermarket too, we all have to start somewhere.
Malt: Shall we look into Warehouse #4 as well, that’s one that is palletised?
Graham: So, this warehouse has a combination again of casks from Lochranza and Lagg stored in it on pallets. It should be able to stored nearly 7,000 casks in total. LG casks are Lagg on the left, and LO are Lochranza casks on the right. Warehouses 5 and 6 are empty at the moment, but Warehouse 2 and 3 are already full to the gunnels.
Malt: It’s quite something, it makes you feel very small stood here amongst these thousands of casks. What happens when all these warehouses are full, where do you store your future casks then?
Graham: It’s going to be time to look out for more space on the island then. Growing up on Islay, I heard from my Mum and Dad that there was a point where you couldn’t even give away farmland as no one wanted to be farmers. Now, it’s a different story and every square acre is sought after.
Malt: 2022: the year of inflationary pressure and supply chain issues. How is it affecting Isle of Arran Distillers?
Graham: The supply chain is a bit of a challenge right now, and that’s not just being felt by us, it’s being experienced by every single person in the industry. There are just a lot less containers of barrels available right now. Everything’s getting held up in ports, with things not getting loaded on time because of COVID-related issues. The barrels are still out there, you just can’t get them to where you want them in time. You have to plan ahead as best you can. It’s the same for a lot of fellow independent producers. Our key suppliers are all very apologetic, and we’ll all have to work through it. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve not had any shutdowns or severe shortages because of it as myself and my colleague Stewart up at Lochranza are always thinking two steps ahead.
Malt: I’m pleased to hear. So, what’s to look forward to at Lagg Distillery in 2022?
Graham: We have some very special releases coming up to celebrate our three-year-old whisky. I can’t give any more information yet, but it’s nearly here and I promise you won’t be disappointed. We’ve got some really special things in the works to celebrate this year.