Is there really anything ‘rare’ in the world of whisky today? A word that’s so overused that it’s almost lost all meaning? Well, yes, there is. Here’s something that is so rare that it transcends even unicorn status. It has nothing to do with marketing, and everything to do with passion. And it’s tiny. And it’s for sale.
The holy grail for real whisky enthusiasts is not some absurd marketing construct but rather Malt Mill, a tiny distillery built within the grounds of Lagavulin Distillery on the Isle of Islay, which operated between 1908 and 1962.
Malt Mill’s origins lay in a long running legal dispute between the Johnston family (owners of the neighbouring Laphroaig Distillery) and the Mackies, owners of Lagavulin. James Logan Mackie was one of three trustees (all Islay distillers) appointed to manage the affairs of Dugald Johnston, owner of Laphroaig, after his death in 1877. Mackie took responsibility for managing the distillery, and transformed it into ‘a very valuable and prosperous concern.’ His firm had also distributed Laphroaig since the 1830s and had invested both time and money to establish its reputation in Scotland, England and in colonial markets.
In 1888 Johnston’s beneficiaries alleged financial malfeasance on the part of the trustees, particularly Mackie (who counter claimed that he was owed significant amounts of commission on sales). It was this that transformed a friendly neighbourly relationship into a long running litany of litigation, which ended with Peter Mackie (Logan Mackie’s nephew and successor in the business) losing the valuable agency to distribute Laphroaig whisky in 1908.
Peter Mackie is casually dismissed as an ‘eccentric’ by many whisky writers. He was much more than this: he was a passionate and innovative distiller, blender and marketeer, a champion of quality, and a pioneer of the integration of scientific knowledge with the traditional methods of distilling.
Having taken over the family business Mackie created the White Horse blend and expanded its distilling interests in Speyside and Campbeltown. He was also, much to the dismay of those who had to do business with him, the original whisky maverick. So after yet more (unsuccessful) litigation with the Johnston clan (and not a little skulduggery) his response to the loss of the long standing agency was to build his own Laphroaig Distillery at Lagavulin.
In October 1908 Mackie announced in Ridley’s Wine and Spirits Trade Circular that he had ‘revived one of the five small distilleries, smuggling distilleries, that Lagavulin was once composed of’, and which had been until recently a Meal and Malt mill. Thus the distillery would be called Malt Mill.
The original malting and kiln had been retained, and only peat and heather bloom would be used to dry the Scottish malted barley. It shared a mash tun with Lagavulin. The new distillery’s two small pot stills were ‘the old fashioned shape which has made the last century highland whisky famous.’ Traditional worms were used to condense the spirit rather than new-fangled condensers.
The style of whisky was ‘very full bodied with a magnificent malty bouquet different from anything else in Islay.’
It would, he said, ‘make its mark as a blender’s whisky for top dressing.’ In other words a little would go a very long way in shaping the character of a blend of malt and grain whiskies.
In announcing that Malt Mill’s style of whisky would be unique on Islay Mackie was making it clear that he wasn’t trying to replicate the character of Laphroaig, rather for commercial reasons he wanted to produce a whisky that would be able to take a similar place in the whisky blender’s palette. It was Laphroaig’s ‘pungent character’ and ‘higher peat reek’ that made it, according to Alfred Barnard, so ‘largely sought after for blending purposes.’ The distiller at Laphroaig refused to enlarge the plant or change any equipment rather than risk altering ‘the character of this highly prized spirit’.
So, everything about Malt Mill was about being an old fashioned style of distillery, producing an old fashioned style of whisky.
Little changed at the Malt Mill Distillery over the next fifty years. ‘So thoroughly has Malt Mill been modelled on ancient lines’ wrote a trade journal in 1923, that it had ‘an almost a genuine air of antiquity’. In 1958 the original worms were replaced with condensers, but the distillery continued to make a small annual quantity of just over 500 butts a year, ‘with an unusually high peaty flavour’ as a result of still only using peat to dry its malted barley.
In December 1961 the Lagavulin still house was deemed to be ‘in very poor condition’, and it was proposed that the adjacent Malt Mill still house should be demolished, providing the new Lagavulin stills could make up for the lost volume.
The final filling of Malt Mill took place in June 1962. By February of 1963 the new Lagavulin still house was in operation and Malt Mill, with little ceremony or mourning, was no more.
Although Mackie had tried to market both Craigellachie and Lagavulin as single malts in the years leading up to the First World War there is no evidence that Malt Mill was ever bottled by the company. Fillings were advertised for sale in the distillery’s early years, but once the distillery fell under the control of the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) following its acquisition of White Horse Distillers in 1927 it seems that all the output was kept within the group for use, as had always been intended, as a blending whisky. Lagavulin was the preferred peated malt for White Horse (Caol Ila the preference of the Walker blenders) but the company, still largely autonomous within the DCL, produced other blends and brands, some of which carried the name of Malt Mill Distillery.
Blending houses with licensed distilleries rarely missed an opportunity to feature distillery names on labels – it helped persuade consumers of the authenticity of their product. But no one should assume that a distillery name on a label guaranteed that a particular whisky would be in a blend The name was on the label as window dressing, not as an early attempt at transparency (often quite the reverse). Nor should anyone be foolish enough to think that a distillery name on a label implied that, to use a professional term, ‘a good dollop’ of that particular make would be in the blend, particularly not with a peated whisky which rarely made up more than 4% of the constituent malts and grains.
The blend that has provoked most discussion among Malt Mill enthusiasts and dreamers is Mackie’s Ancient Scotch which was principally marketed in the United States as a 12 year old deluxe cousin of White Horse after the repeal of Prohibition, at a price at parity with Johnnie Walker Black Label.
After the Second War the blend was renamed Mackie’s Ancient Brand. It was withdrawn from the market in the mid 1960s. Early domestic labels for the brand showed the address as White Horse Distillers, Malt Mill Distillery, Isle of Islay, hence the excitement. The US labels omitted the distillery name, with the address simply given as White Horse Distillers Glasgow.
Nonetheless the belief is widespread that Mackie’s Ancient Brand, which appears somewhat infrequently at auction, contains some, or possible ‘a good dollop’ of Malt Mill. Naturally enough there are no blend specifications in the White Horse Distillers archives to confirm or deny this thinking. Having tasted Ancient Brand some years ago (courtesy of Serge Valentin) the author can confirm that it has a memorably unusual and fishy phenolic character, a view confirmed by the then Diageo blending team who were also generously given a sample to taste. Valentin’s own tasting notes describe it as ‘the peatiest blend I have ever tried…a very maritime kind of peat (fisherman’s nets), also coated with notes of honey…’ So perhaps Mackie was correct in thinking back in 1908 that Malt Mill would be perfect for top dressing a blend.
No one seemed to care much about Malt Mill back in 1990. It was just a yarn. Whisky collecting was, compared to today, in its infancy.
There was a sample of new-make spirit from the last filling of Malt Mill in June 1962 gathering dust in a cupboard in the manager’s office at Lagavulin. Port Ellen, it seemed, was the principal object of the enthusiast’s desire. But when Ken Loach came to make a movie about the rarest whisky in the world, he rejected Port Ellen in favour of a mythical cask of Malt Mill. The cask is the critical plot device in a charming coming of age comedy which among other things stars whisky writer extraordinaire Charlie MacLean as ‘If a cask were to turn up’, said Loach when the film was in production in 2012, ‘it would be worth over £1m’. One might think that rather cheap by today’s grotesquely inflated standards.
Early in the 1990s it became known to a handful of miniature bottle collectors that another small sample bottle, this time of mature Malt Mill, was in the hands of a former distillery employee on Islay. Distilled in 1959, the sample was drawn in 1969. A quest worthy of Arthurian legend led collector Mike Barbakoff to a meeting in a pub in Bowmore where the sealed sample bottle was handed over for cash. Subsequently Barbakoff and fellow collector Alex Barclay (a former President of the Mini Bottle Club), satisfied as to the authenticity of the sample, sent the sample bottle to James Macarthur, who (as they often did for club members), reduced the strength and produced just four miniatures which were bought by members of the club (including Barbakoff and Barclay). One of these four was sold at auction to noted collector Emanuel Dron in 2018.
‘…It fits the anecdotal character of Malt Mill as based on historical records, that is to say an uncomplicated and raw malt…saltier and brinier by the minute…clearly better than expected, according to the three of us, and certainly not the exotic side of Islay whisky. It started more like a grassier Laphroaig and then got a little tarrier, so more Lagavulin. But it did have its own style, it’s not a ‘copy’ of another distillery…rather dry, quite farmy, rural and definitely rustic, with obvious echoes of Mackie’s Ancient Brand/Scotch, that old blend that used to shelter a lot of Malt Mill…91 points (Angus 91, Emmanuel 91, Serge 90).’ You can read the full tasting notes from Serge Valentin and others here.
So that leaves three remaining miniatures of the rarest Scotch whisky in the world. And one of them, from the collection of one of the original four purchasers, is for sale.
Is this the rarest bottles of whisky in the world? A genuine taste of antiquity? An insight into what whisky tasted like not just fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago, but in the style of the mid nineteenth century that made, as Peter Mackie said in 1908, ‘highland whisky famous.’ A taste of something that only a handful of other people have enjoyed. And something that will never, ever, be repeated. That’s not as common as muck. That’s real rare.