Distillery Focus

All at sea (Lagavulin)

The Mystery Visitor travels to Islay and puts Lagavulin under the spotlight
By Mystery Visitor
They’ve built a splendid new reception area for the ferry traffic at Port Askaig since I was there last.The steep hillside has been cut back and the precipitous old road replaced with new tarmac – equally precipitous, but rather less alarming. The twists and bends have given way to a smooth and graceful descent that delivers you nicely to the door of the pub.But, arriving by night on the MV Hebridean Isles, this is still indisputably Islay. Gusts of wind and squally rain sweep over the deck and, as we pass through the Sound of Jura, hints of peat smoke drift on the wind to tell me we are nearing port.Despite the new building, and despite the pie and chips cuisine of MacBrayne’s ferry, it’s still an undeniably romantic landing.But, the vagaries of scheduling being my master, I now have to drive Islay’s length in an increasingly violent gale. Islay, it seems, is determined to shatter my elaborately constructed illusions.Next morning, however, dawned bright and clear with high clouds tearing over to Glasgow and Islay’s principal town, Port Ellen, sharp in the curiously clear island light. So I embarked on my trip to Lagavulin in high spirits.This, of course, is one of the island’s better known distilleries and, having been elected to Diageo’s Classic Six, the recipient of substantial largesse. Not that there was very much wrong with this robustly-flavoured single malt in the first place, but well-placed investment never hurt anyone.And that’s evident immediately you arrive. The road approaches the distillery quite suddenly, the buildings appearing all at once proudly purposeful, like well-drilled soldiers on parade. LAGAVULIN is picked out in stark black san serif letters on a low whitewashed wall. Not that you could be anywhere else, the distillery perched at the land’s edge, sea beyond and everywhere peat bog, yellow gorse and stunted trees.The tour runs along standard Diageo lines, with an admission charge of £3, discounted off shop purchases. It’s a pleasant, if undemanding, walk through the distillery from the front courtyard, where we admired nearby Dunnyvaig Castle in the sparkling light, to the concluding dram in the reception room, clad in traditional tongue and groove panelling.There were really only two surprises.Marjorie, our helpful and friendly guide, seemed at pains to show us the distillery’s computerised control system. It looked pretty similar to any other and this emphasis on high technology did rather jar, particularly when contrasted with the historical slant of the distillery guide.Marjorie herself was a fund of local knowledge and quite the statistician, keeping up a steady bombardment of capacities, volumes, production rates and other vital information. I don’t believe she was ever flustered, despite some obscure questions from one particularly persistent gentleman on our tour. She did however, surprise me (this is surprise number two) by pausing to point out a large gravestone on the wall of the filling store.This may well be a unique feature, and the story behind it is certainly worth hearing in person – so I won’t spoil the effect!After the tour we adjourned to a reception room for a farewell dram. A portrait of “Restless Peter” Mackie, in superb full Highland dress, kept watch over us. Afigure of seminal importance in Lagavulin’s story, indeed in the whole story of Scotch whisky, he was then sadly ignored and there was nothing to explain just why his portrait was accorded this entirely justified place of honour.Still, a similar fate befell Ozymandias.Given the things you don’t get at Lagavulin, such as a corporate video, pushy shop or intrusive gadgetry, the gentle pace of the tour was delightfully old fashioned in its approach. Like the whisky produced there, the Lagavulin tour is to be slowly savoured and enjoyed strictly on its own terms. Lagavulin Distillery
Port Ellen, Islay.
Guided tours by appointment, Monday to Friday.
Details: +44 (0)1496 302400
http://www.malts.com