By Scott Wright

INTRODUCING a debut single malt from a new distillery is an exciting landmark for a Scotch whisky producer at the best of times. To do so having nursed the development of that spirit through the challenges thrown up by a pandemic makes the achievement all the sweeter.

Lagg Distillery, the second and newest distillery on the Isle of Arran, says it has had a “phenomenal response” from those who have sampled its maiden single malt.

And distillery manager Graham Omand declared the excitement that is being generated by the three-year-old single malt has been “all the more special” given its gestation occurred amid the upheaval of a global health crisis that has touched all parts of society.

Lagg began distilling in March 2019, around 12 months before the pandemic took hold, and opened the doors to visitors the same year – a period hugely disrupted by Covid restrictions.

But things are a good deal brighter now, with the visitor attraction in the midst of its first full year of trading and its first whisky poised to officially be released in September.

The Lagg malt is heavily peated in style, and the spirit will be released in three separate, limited edition batches, as the distiller bids to protect stocks that it will need to satisfy future demand.

Members of the Lagg Cask Society, which was set up to give collectors the chance to purchase from an allocation of 700 casks set aside by the distillery, have already been able to buy the new whisky. Investment in some of the casks was split between syndicates of people, who will receive bottles when the cask reaches 10 years old.

The first casks, 500-litre sherry butts, were filled on April 10, 2019.

Visitors to the distillery, which employs about 30 people, from Europe gave a resounding thumbs up when they were given the chance to try the spirit at a recent whisky festival at Lagg.

“We have had a phenomenal response to the news that our first Lagg single malt is nearly ready for release,” Mr Omand, an Islay native, told The Herald.

“We’re delighted. The whisky world and especially our Lagg Cask Society members have shown tremendous enthusiasm to taste our first single malt.

“It has felt like a long time coming and yet no time at all. Since we opened our doors at Lagg three years ago, we’ve all experienced challenges in the wider world, and of course world events have made this a very difficult period during which to launch a new distillery and single malt.

“That’s why it feels all the more special to share this new release with everyone and celebrate the positive milestones we reach.”

Lagg Distillery was developed following a multi-million-pound investment by the privately-owned Isle of Arran Distillers, which has been making whisky at Lochranza on the north of the island since the mid-1990s.

The company initially planned to build warehousing and a craft distillery to work in tandem with the Lochranza operation for the site at Lagg, on the very south of the island. But its initial blueprint would change into something more ambitious.

Lagg covers more ground than Lochranza, and combines the distillery with a large visitor centre under a single roof. With more land coming with the deal than initially expected, an orchard was also planted, with a view to one day making apple brandy.

The company has invested heavily to highlight the history of Lagg and its long-standing association with the whisky industry – illicit distilling once took place in the 1800s – in the visitor centre.

“We invested a lot of money and built the first big visitor centre for the south end of the island,” Mr Omand said.

“There was really nothing down here of the scale that was a drawing point for people. We have a massive distillery and visitor centre combined down here – it is much larger than Lochranza in terms of footprint.”

Mr Omand said he has relished the opportunity to have witnessed first-hand the project come together.

He first joined the company in a role at the Lochranza distillery at the beginning of 2011, after graduating with an honours degree in biotechnology in 2010.

He had initially set his sights on a laboratory post within the industry, but when a distillery operator job was offered to him by then manager James MacTaggart he jumped at it.

At the age of 22, he found himself running a distillery over long and unsociable hours, which turned out to be “one of the best decisions I ever made”. He stayed at Lochranza until 2019, when he was offered the opportunity to look after Lagg.

Lochranza distillery is managed today by Stewart Bowman, formerly of Diageo, who had been working a he is pleased to have welcomed so many tourists to the distillery this summer, having endured so much disruption because of Covid in its short history.

This is despite the regular upheaval on the west coast ferry network, which is caused by the ageing fleet and the continuing delay in delivery of the new vessel, the Glen Sannox, to serve the island. Earlier this year , both the Lagg and Lochranza distilleries were forced to suspend production for a week because the company was unable to access raw materials, such as malt.

“We have enjoyed a very good summer so far with lots of visitors coming to visit us at Lagg, despite the challenges that we all face as islanders with our island location and the logistics of travel,” Mr Omand said.

“We have been especially pleased to add a whisky and chocolate tasting to our offering for visitors and it’s been very warmly received.

“This has been our longest period of being open and our first full summer season so far and it’s been wonderful to watch visitors discover our part of the island, many for the first time.”