If you go to Islay, go in autumn. A chill is sliding across the bay as the afternoon autumn light pours across the island like molasses, enveloping the oddly treeless landscape. The smell of peat is everywhere, seeping through the water, the land, the air, the whisky: quietly, deliberately. You don't even notice it after a while. The aroma of smoke clings to you, curls around you, reminding you of where you are.
It is late in the afternoon when I arrive at Lagavulin distillery, a collection of white washed buildings burrowed into the land close to the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle. The distillery stands confident, rooted to the edge of the bay and certain of its place. It too is deliberate.
The history of whisky production has soaked into the land here. There has been distillation on this site since 1742, with 10 illicit stills operating in the vicinity of the current Lagavulin distillery by the late 1700s. By the 1830s the only two distilleries remaining nestled into the shoulder of the bay amalgamated to form Lagavulin. As with most distilleries on Islay, Lagavulin's fortunes have been bound with that of blends: the familiar story of the interdependent relationship enjoyed by most single malts with blends.The blend in this tale is White Horse, brought to market by Peter Mackie in 1890. This blend contains the smoky warmth of Lagavulin malt at its heart to this day.
The same Peter Mackie was responsible for the construction of the Malt Mill distillery in 1908, motivated largely by spite (and perhaps to fund the court costs of his forays into litigation with his neighbour Laphroaig). Until 1907 Lagavulin had acted as agents for the sale of whisky made by their Kildalton Coast neighbours but a change in Laphroaig policy meant that this lucrative agency would cease. Litigation ensued for Lagavulin: firstly on a matter of contract, and then subsequent to their loss of this case, a return to court to defend against a charge of blocking Laphroaig’s water supply. Unable to gain satisfaction from the law lords, Peter Mackie engaged in what may be described as early corporate espionage in an effort to to avenge himself on his neighbour. He used his intimate knowledge of Laphroaig distillery to build a new distillery with the intention of making a malt whisky identical to Laphroaig and overtake its market share. He was ultimately unsuccessful in his endeavour, despite both poaching Laphroaig’s distiller for his new distillery and commissioning replicas of the Laphroaig stills; a lesson that whisky is not simply a formula, but more than this: it is the essence of the place it is made.
Speaking with Georgette Crawford, the distillery manager at Lagavulin, this very sentiment arises again. I approached her with the intention of discussing the technical aspects of the distillery; armed with a brace of questions peppered with queries of fermentation times, capacity, cask source. Like Lagavulin, Georgette is of Islay, and she articulates clearly the intimate relationship that the whisky has with this island, the place it is made. She speaks about Lagavulin with affection and respect, but without myth or marketing spiel. She is matter of fact. Speaking to Georgette one thing is clear: leaving phenol parts per million, cut times, still shape aside, what is important is that Lagavulin tastes like Lagavulin. It sounds like a tautology, but it is not. Tradition matters here. This is the ‘quiet man’ of Islay: a malt that doesn’t announce itself. It is a whisky that lets you come to it, sure that you will in time. Lagavulin is confident of its place in the world. It is a mature spirit and a mature brand. Georgette is kind, but firm: “It is not about the box, not about the packaging. It is about the quality of the liquid, every time.”
"Peat is everywhere, seeping through the water, the land, the whisky: quietly, deliberately"
This quiet confidence of Lagavulin is everywhere in the distillery. The standard expression (a loathsome phrase!), part of the Diageo Classic Malt series, lies for 16 years in oak, so the conversation between the wood and the spirit is a lengthy and in-depth one. But this unhurried, deliberate approach begins before the spirit touches the cask. The fermentation time is 55 hours, allowing some elegant floral flavours to develop in the wash, but not letting them run rampant. They remain grounded by the hefty earthy pungency of the grain, malted at Port Ellen maltings nearby (Lagavulin’s floor maltings were dismantled in 1974). Following the scent of smoke through to Lagavulin’s still house, the room is dominated by its four stills: two wash, two spirit. At 30 minutes its foreshots run is not as long as some of its Islay neighbours, but the flow of the spirit is slow, the copper having plenty of time to condense the flavours, resulting in a confident, bold flavoured new make spirit.
We are met at Warehouse Number 1 by Ian MacArthur, warehouseman with Lagavulin for 40 years. He is standing in front of half a dozen duty-paid casks. Without ceremony or announcement he is about to show us how Lagavulin comes to be Lagavulin. We start with the heady new make, fire giving way to a waft of smoked sea salt. As we progress through to an eight year old cask, a ferny softness begins to develop, and an elegance born of the wood influence.
It becomes obvious that we are journeying ever closer to the essence of the whisky, its heart. There are no twists, there are no surprises, there is simply the path, well worn, and we are led by Ian, sure of foot, confident of his spirit and our destination. We move on to a 10 year old cask, where a sweetness develops further, then 14: oatmeal and fruit start to show beneath the smoky mantle, all the while striding firmly towards the 16; the flagship.
The flavour profile of Lagavulin is slowly being revealed with each dram, its DNA unfurling.
The tasting ends with a stunning 30 Years Old, which I would happily wear as cologne: it is nutty, rich, luscious and that ever present smokiness curls in at the end to caress.
I feel like I have glimpsed the heart of this distillery. As I leave the warehouse with the late October light beginning to fade, its haunting length reverberates like a bell tolling across the bay, the smoke coiling around me, the very essence of Lagavulin.
Sweet, black treacle, pharmacy jellybeans, soot.Palate:
Lively, astringent, depth is smoke, vegetable oil being over-heated in a deep fat fryer.Finish:
Heady, breathy, peat lingering.
Lagavulin8 Years Old, ex Sherry Cask, from the cask 57.6%Nose:
Not a huge nose, hints of molasses and ash.Palate:
Spicy, Sweet, not overwhelmed by smoke, elegant overall.Finish:
Spicy, peppery, nice juicy length.
Lagavulin10 Years Old, refill cask (1st fill was Port Ellen), from the cask 56%Nose:
Complex, soot, ash, a bushﬁre near the ocean, smoked trout.Palate:
Smoked almonds, molasses, soot, but delicate.Finish:
Long, breathy, smoke lingering.
Lagavulin14 Years Old, ex Sherry cask, from the cask 56.4%Nose:
TCP, Underberg (German digestive bitters), vegetal, fennel seed.Palate:
Spice (especially cinnamon quills), fruit, Buerre Noisette, ferny, herbaceous as well.Finish:
Elusive smoke, spicy length.
Lagavulin30 Years Old, ex Bourbon, from the caskNose:
Heather, celery, nutty, nougat, honey.Palate:
Luscious, juicy, orange pekoe tea, tannic. With a drop of water the peat comes through, really delicious.Finish:
Smoke comes through at the end, sneaking in, but ﬁrm. Haunting length.
The Solan Lochs.Stills:
2 x wash stills and 2 x spirit stills.Capacity per year:
2,500,000 L (pure alcohol) or 3,925,000 L (into wood).Yeast:
Port Ellen high smoke (36 PPM).Fermentation:
4.4ton mash/55 hours.Casks filled per week:
315 Hogshead or 160 Puncheons/Butts. Majority of filling is done off the island in Diageo’s mainland facility.Warehousing:
Three warehouses on the distillery site.
Casks also stored in the nine Port Ellen warehouses and in Diageo’s mainland facility.
Lagavulin Distillery, Port Ellen, Isle of Islay, PA42 7DZTelephone:
+44 (0) 1496 302 749
Open 7 days a week all year.
Closed for Christmas and New Year.