The early bird catches the worm. It’s day five of Tales of the Cocktail 2016, and the penultimate sessions have just wrapped up. An 8 AM alarm clock rings—what? In New Orleans?–to taste precious Cognacs from 1975, 1969, and oh… 1914, aged for 72 years. But that’s a story for another post. A brief spell back in the hotel room would be luxurious. Idly flipping through the options for the final sessions of the event, I suddenly froze: The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar! Having visited Lagavulin on Islay just six months earlier on my fiftieth birthday, I feel a connection to the distillery, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to go to this session. My Tales media credentials had been great the past five days, getting me into sessions by way of the standby line, after all the paying ticketholders got their rightful first shots at the good seats.
Reading the Lagavulin session description again, I realized to my concurrent joy and dismay that it’s an Exclusive Tasting session. These are the crème de la crème of Tales events. Costing in the $130 range, they’re limited to just twenty people and sell out fast, sometimes even during the Tales365 presales, before they open to the public. The spirits at these sessions are exceptional and very hard to come by. Given Lagavulin’s popularity with the whisky crowd, it was a foregone conclusion that all the tickets had been sold. And who drops $130 on a ticket and doesn’t go?
Still…it’s Lagavulin. I had to try. With an hour to wait, I was the first person in the standby line. Countdown to ten minutes to go, the doorperson started admitting ticketholders and Diageo employees. All visible seats slowly filled until none remained, my hopes dwindling alongside them. Then, a miracle! One person didn’t show, so one person in the standby line gets in. ME!!!! The hour-long gamble having paid off, I dart to the front of the room (and the one open seat), taking a spot next to fellow Seattle whisk(e)y aficionado and expert Jamie Buckman.
Seated at the presenter’s table are the perfect trio to give a talk entitled “The Ultimate Lagavulin Seminar”: Dave Broom, Ewan Morgan, and Dr. Nicholas Morgan. Dave, of course, is a very well-known and widely respected spirits writer who won not one but two Spirited Awards last year at Tales for his work. Ewan is the national director for Diageo’s Masters of Whisky, essentially a roving band of whisky brand ambassadors. (Unfortunately, shortly after Tales, Diageo let it be known that they intend to dismantle the Masters of Whisky program, as least in its current incarnation.) And “Nick” Morgan is a former historian who’s now Diageo’s Head of Whisky Outreach. And as we soon learned, Nick is a born storyteller.
Lined up in front of Ewan and Nick are seven bottles. To the untrained eye, they might just be described as “some old, and some with no labels.” But to an aficionado of Islay whisky, it’s a glorious sight of exotic and rare offerings. Even better: Directly in front of each attendee are seven nosing glasses with precious drops of liquid poured from those very bottles.
Dave kicked off the presentation, introducing Ewan and Nick and teasing us with what was to come. Ewan took over for the next few minutes to provide the basics of Islay whisky production. I’m sure everyone in attendance knew the ins and outs of whisky-making by heart, but it would be odd to not include it in a session like this. The majority of the time was filled by Nick’s colorful storytelling of Lagavulin’s 200-plus year history, interspersed with the occasional diversion to nose, sample, and discuss the precious tastings on our placemats.
I won’t attempt to recount the entire history of Lagavulin here. It’s already been done many times. But I did jot down notes about interesting things I didn’t know already:
- For a number of years early in their existence, Islay distilleries paid less in the way of taxes than whisky distilleries elsewhere in Scotland, helping them to get a firm business footing.
- Prior to 1816, there were a number of illicit distilleries around the Lagavulin location. In 1816, they joined together and went legal.
- Peter Mackie, renowned distillery manager around the start of the twentieth century, created Scotland’s first laboratory to study whisky chemistry.
- Due to a dispute with nearby Laphroaig in 1908, Peter Mackie built a second, smaller distillery within Lagavulin, staffing it partially with employees lured away from Laphroaig. Dubbed “Malt Mill,” the distillery’s purpose was to emulate Laphroaig’s style and steal its business. Fifty two years later, having not succeeded in displacing Laphroaig, Malt Mill was closed and its buildings folded back into Lagavulin.
- Prior to Lagavulin being the revered name it is today, the distillery was best known for making much of the White Horse blended whisky sold to the world.
- Prior to 1945, all the production steps (mashing, fermenting, and distilling) were done sequentially from start to finish before starting the next batch. After 1945, the distillery switched to continuous, simultaneous execution of all steps.
- In the beginning of the 1900s, Islay was a major tourist getaway for Scots from the mainland.
- Lagavulin peats their malt to 35 PPM.
- Using a cloudy, less-filtered wort leads to nuttier whisky, while a clear wort yields fruitier tones.
As for the tastings, I confess that I didn’t take anything resembling tasting notes, as I didn’t want to miss any of the stories. Thus, I can’t provide you a blow by blow, other than to say that they were all compelling, and some sublime. How’s this lineup for a Lagavulin lover?
- 1948 White Horse: Contains Malt Mill distillate. 35 percent ABV.
- 2016 Feis Ile 18 Year: 6000 bottles made. 49.5 percent ABV.
- Lagavulin 8 Year cask strength: This new mainline Lagavulin 8 year is bottled at 48 percent ABV. But for our session, we got a special cask strength version: 57.5 percent ABV.
- New make spirit: Straight off the still. No aging. 63 percent ABV.
- Lagavulin 12 Year, from the 1970s: The precursor to today’s Lagavulin 16 Year. 43 percent ABV.
- 1995 cask 3326: An unreleased special cask, selected from the warehouse for its exceptional flavor. 45.2 percent ABV.
- Lagavulin 37 Year: Distilled in 1976. The retail price for this bottle is around$3200 US (!); 51 percent ABV.
With three Scotsmen telling stories about a whisky they love, the session ran way over time. Not that anyone cared – there was a lot of whisky love in that room. And how often do you have the chance to drink a dram that would be in the $800 range if you ordered it at a bar? Nick closed out the session by reading a story that Diageo’s legal department wouldn’t allow him to publish – the legal risks included something about encouraging binge drinking. The story concerns a minister from the distant past who was sent to Islay and soon enough found out he couldn’t keep with the whisky consumption of his flock. The final line, which brought thunderous applause: And Mr. M’Coll has to go as a warning that Islay ministers must be of equal drinking capacity with their parishioners.