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The Man Who Made Lagavulin

The story of 'Restless' Peter Mackie, a man whose lifelong love affair with Islay Malt Whisky saw him pioneer the marketing of Lagavulin, making it and White Horse famous around the world.

THE STORY OF ‘RESTLESS PETER’

In the nineteenth century, a whisky distillery that wished to succeed needed all its stars aligned. Fine stills, natural ingredients and a good workforce, of course. Appreciative customers and a route to market, naturally. But also, and vitally, a champion who would spare no effort to drive sales and spread the good word.

In many a whisky success story, you find such a man (or woman, such as Elizabeth Cumming of Cardhu). But in Lagavulin’s case, even though steady progress was achieved by founder John Johnston and his successors, the Graham family, that drive was largely absent after the distillery’s first sixty years.

Lagavulin tiles

One day in 1878, a boat docked at Port Ellen on Islay and all that changed. Peter Jeffrey Mackie was just 23, and he stepped ashore and into history.

Some years before, Glasgow merchant James Logan Mackie had taken control of Lagavulin, in partnership with Captain Graham. But Mackie had no son and heir. He had probably already decided that his nephew Peter was to be that man, so he had better learn the secrets of distilling. Where better than at Lagavulin?

Peter began a lifelong love affair with Islay on his first visit. Returning to the firm’s base in Glasgow, he soon began to expand its business by marketing Lagavulin more widely as a single malt (a “single” or “self” whisky in the parlance of the time) and later, by developing new blended whiskies.

Lagavulin Black and White Distillery

In 1884 he opened a sales office in London and by 1887 he had registered the trademark Lagavulin Straight Scotch. That same year the visiting whisky writer Alfred Barnard could remark that “the annual output is 75,000 gallons, and the make is held in high repute”.

After 1890, when Peter became a partner and the name of the firm was changed to Mackie and Co., he created White Horse, a blended whisky heavily dependent on Lagavulin that was to make the firm’s fortune in export markets – particularly, South Africa. Like his contemporaries James Buchanan and Thomas Dewar, he was soon successful with his new blended whisky brand.

Mackie’s White Horse Cellar, to give it its early name, was so called after a famous old inn adjacent to a long-held Mackie family property in Edinburgh’s Cannongate. Though its later 1901 launch on the home market was a disappointment Mackie opined that this was because the reason was not quality, but public ignorance of its excellent qualities (almost 75% of the blend was malt whisky; Mackie always insisted on quality). They had not, he said, “calculated the immense sum required for advertising”.

Lagavulin lock up 2

It wasn’t only what Peter Mackie did that mattered. It was also how he did it. A sign in his Glasgow office that said TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED gave a clue to his questioning demeanour and to Allen Andrews in his book The Whisky Barons he had ‘A puritanism of thought which impelled him to pursue his logic to the end of the argument...’

Here was a man not afraid to state his opinion. Never was this better demonstrated than in 1909, when Lloyd George put up the duty on spirits by almost a third. Here’s Mackie, quoted in a recent piece by author Gavin Smith.

‘The whole framing of the Budget is that of a faddist and a crank and not a statesman. But what can one expect of a Welsh country solicitor being placed, without any commercial training, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a large country like this?’

To his loyal workforce Mackie was simply Restless Peter, a man who was seemingly never idle. He pursued life in the smallest detail, evidenced by odd schemes such as BBM – ‘Bran, Bone and Muscle’ flour – which was made in the Glasgow premises and which his employees were ordered to use for baking!

Lock up 3

His attention to every aspect of the distillery’s efficiency and tireless promotion of its high quality whisky saw sales of White Horse and Lagavulin rise, first to 24,000 cases in 1896, then to 190,000 by the outbreak of war in 1914. Domestic and overseas sales alike were no doubt boosted by the granting of a Royal Warrant in 1908.

He found time to co-found and buy other distilleries – Craigellachie received great investment; a half share in Cragganmore came quite late in his life, and he owned Hazelburn in Campbeltown. But a more unusual establishment appeared at Lagavulin itself.

The Grahams, and later the Mackies, had always held the sales agency for neighbouring Laphroaig. When its owners decided they would like to sell their own whisky and challenged the contract successfully, Peter first reacted with petulance, damming Laphroaig’s water supply.

Forced at law to desist, in 1908 he decided to make his own Laphroaig, building a small distillery named Malt Mill in old buildings on the Lagavulin site, hiring Laphroaig staff to run it and firing the stills using only peat. Malt Mill ran until 1960, though it seems never to have damaged Laphroaig’s sales...

Lagavulin exteriorMackie had four children, and intended his only son, who was also named James Logan Mackie and who joined the firm in 1914, to succeed him. It was not to be, for he was killed on active service in Palestine in late 1917. His father was said never to have recovered from the blow, although he was if anything even more active after the war ended.

To diplomat and author Sir Robert Bruce-Lockhart, Mackie could be summed up as ‘One-third genius, one-third megalomaniac and one-third eccentric.’ That eccentricity found a new purpose outside the world of whisky when this landowner and keen Unionist raised cattle on his Ayrshire estates and sent them to Rhodesia in 1918 to help establish a breeding programme there. He even financed an anthropological expedition to Uganda, both of these schemes being cited when he was knighted in the Birthday Honours list of 1920.

The firm was renamed White Horse Distillers immediately before Mackie’s death in 1924; White Horse survives to this day, and with Lagavulin is perhaps his greatest legacy.

Ian Crammond - Quote

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