Lagavulin – An Inside Look

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Lagavulin distillery on the island of Islay.

You’d like to think that on the one and only occasion of your fiftieth birthday, you’d have the luxury of waking up and lolling around in bed until you’re damn well ready start the day. Alas, on the occasion of my fiftieth, I faced the incessant chiming of my iPhone, willing me to action at 7:30 AM after all too short a slumber. In any other circumstance I’d hit the proverbial snooze button. But on this day, I was instantly on full alert: Time to get up, race downstairs, enjoy a hearty traditional Scottish breakfast by the fireside at our charming wee hotel, and be off. For today is the day I’ve anticipated for years – a visit to the powerhouses of peated single malt whisky: Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig, situated in an erstwhile row along the southern shores of Islay. Lagavulin will be our first stop.

Lagavulin has been around for 200 years—let that sink in a moment. The distillery gives its starting date as 1816, just a few years prior to the Excise Act of 1823 that touched off the modern era of Scotch whisky distilleries. However, it’s quite likely that “unsanctioned distillation” was going on at the Lagavulin site prior to 1816. Today it operates as one of the flagship brands of UK-based Diageo, the world’s largest spirit company. Lagavulin’s flagship expression is their 16 year, although there’s also the recently released 8 year (200th anniversary),  a 12 year and various special releases.

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Planning your Scotch Whisky Distillery Pilgrimage

If you’re a fan of Scotch single malt whisky, and really, why wouldn’t you be, a visit to the distilleries of Scotland increases your appreciation by an order of magnitude. Having recently completed a ten day trek through Speyside in the Scottish highlands, as well as the island of Islay, Mrs. Wonk and I agree it was the trip of a lifetime. While writing my earlier Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit article, I realized I had a ton of distillery visit planning trips to share, so I wrote this post to focus on those topics. A special bonus is that Mrs. Wonk joined me in writing this. She always handles the high level logistics of our trips (planes, hotels, etc…), and she’s a top notch writer with even more experience than I. You can find her insights in the second half of this post.

When planning a Scotland journey, the time of year when you visit matters a great deal. Summer may be ideal in terms of weather, but many distilleries aren’t distilling in the summer months—so there is less activity to see. During the spring and fall seasons, the most popular time to take on distillery visits, popular locations are often overwhelmed by visitors, yielding less than optimal conditions to linger a bit, meet the still operators, or maybe get a peek at something not on the usual tour.

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Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit

In January 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I crossed the pond to spend eight days the Islay and Speyside regions of Scotland, visiting as many whisky distilleries as possible during an all-too-brief visit. We battled snow, hail, fierce winds, flooded railway tracks, comically narrow roads, and tire-killing curbs. In the end, it was the trip of a lifetime, visiting thirteen distilleries and experiencing profound moments several times per day. Over the next dozen or so posts, I’ll share the stories of each distillery through words and photos.

On Islay:

In Speyside:

We also made appearances at Ardbeg and Aberlour, but circumstances prevented a full tour.

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Cocktail Obsession – Banana Stand, From Seattle’s Rob Roy

As someone who spends, shall we say, significant time in bars, fatigue from parsing ingredient lists on cocktail menus is an occupational hazard. So many Old Fashioned variations, so many twists on a daiquiri. No slight to the actual drinks, but a recipe that’s completely from out of left field is a rarity – that’s something I gotta have! The Banana Stand at Seattle’s Rob Roy absolutely falls into that category.

The Banana Stand is the brainchild of Zac Overman, a Tiki savant and recent transplant to Seattle — score one for us! Monday nights at Rob Roy are known as Tangaroa Roy–a celebration of Tiki, with anything but traditional Tiki classics. The Banana Stand made its first appearance at a Tangaroa Roy that happened to coincide with Seattle’s Women Who Love Whiskey anniversary party. Zac created a custom menu heavy on the whiskey, and The Banana Stand practically leapt off the page at me. Laphroaig? Crème de Banane? An automatic yes!

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London Underground: Stepping Back Through Spirits History in the Cellars and Back Rooms of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

The framed letter on the wall reads:

“Dear Sirs,

TITANIC

Referring to your shipment by this steamer, it is with great regret we have to inform you that the Titanic foundered at 2-20 a.m. 15th instant, after colliding with an iceberg, and is a total loss. Details of shipment are shown at foot.

Yours faithfully,

For WHITE STAR LINE.”

We’re standing in 3 St. James Place, the London store of Berry Bros. & Rudd, purveyor of wine and spirits to the British Crown since 1760. The family-owned company can trace its history at this location back to 1698, when it was established just footsteps from St. James Palace, the onetime residence of kings and queens of England. Today Berry Bros. & Rudd are very much an international enterprise, selling wine from around the around, as well as high-end spirits, which include their own Berry Bros. & Rudd label. Their cellar in Basingstoke, Hampshire, currently holds close to nine million bottles of wine, so no small operation here!

Doug McIvor, who holds the title of Spirits Director for Berry Bros. & Rudd, is very generously giving Mrs. Wonk and me a private tour of the No. 3 St. James complex, including their very old original cellars. (Henceforth I’ll use BB&R as shorthand for their full name.) During our preliminary small talk before the tour, I asked Doug about what his job entailed. One of his duties is tasting and selecting spirts still at the distillery for their eventual use in a BB&R labeled release. Doug quite obviously has a Scottish feel about him (born in Scotland, moved to England at age 11) so I mentioned that it must be fun for him to travel around Scotland sampling whisky straight from the cask. He laughs –“That’s the romantic view of what I do.” He’s more likely to do his spirits tasting at his desk, as distilleries usually ship him barrel samples in small bottles, a process I got to experience firsthand a bit later.

Our tour started by stepping outside to the front of the festively decorated storefront – the decorations fresh from Christmas just a week prior. Doug begins by pointing out the gate to St. James Palace, less than a block away. In the distant past, wine from the BB&R would be carried through underground tunnels to a locked subterranean palace gate; after departing, staff from the palace would appear and move the wine and spirits inside to the palace, completely from prying eyes and possible thievery at street level. He also mentions that in the days before running water, royalty would occupy one of the several palaces along the Thames until the sanitary conditions became off-putting, then migrate to the next palace, presumably leaving the staff to clean up behind them.  Thus the nearby proliferation of palaces in the neighborhood, assuredly with better plumbing systems these days.

Balance scale for weighing customers at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Above us hangs a painted black sign, similar to others on English pubs and shops, this one featuring the image of a coffee mill. The sign hearkens back to the early 1700s, when the grocery at 3 St. James (started by the Widow Bourne, progenitor of the BB&R family) became a coffee merchant. The original sign was stolen not too long ago, and a hefty reward (a case of BB&R champagne) was offered for its return, but the offer wasn’t taken up, so what hangs above us now is sadly a reproduction.
A few steps to the left, we turn down a small passageway between 3 St. James and the adjoining building, but immediately pause to read the plaque commemorating the establishment of a legation (an embassy) from the Republic of Texas (then an independent country) to the Court of St. James, aka the British Crown, between 1842 and 1845. Continuing to the end of the passageway, we find ourselves in a courtyard ringed by other small buildings, residential and commercial, similar to the one we exited. We are standing in Pickering Place, London’s smallest public square. All of the buildings surrounding the square are owned by BB&R.
Doug McIvor showing us the customer weight recording books.
From the courtyard, we head back into the storefront where we marvel a bit at the Titanic letter. A few feet away, a human-sized balance-arm scale sits; a tray of metal weights on one arm, on the other what appears to be an uncomfortable sitting bench for one. And in fact, Doug tells me, this is exactly what it was once used for–after it was no longer needed as a coffee scale. He then leads Mrs. Wonk and me over to a small bookcase holding nine red leather-bound books, and selects a volume. Doug opens to a random page and explains that customers of the store we’re standing in would come here to be weighed and have their measurements recorded in these volumes—as it was not common practice for medical doctors of the day to have scales in their offices. One volume is dedicated exclusively to ladies – very important to keep that information separate, you know. Famous people who appear in the books include Lord Byron (early 19th century) and the Aga Khan (early 20thcentury).
The cellars at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Doug then grabs a set of keys and down  the narrow stairs we go, into the original BB&R cellars which today still hold thousands of bottles of wine and spirits, some probably unimaginably rare, not to mention expensive. Modern equipment works to keep humidity and temperature at a hospitable level. The cellars are the interconnected basements of the multiple Pickering Place buildings we saw above, so the overall effect is of several connected rooms at slightly different levels. Dusty bottles are everywhere, some behind metal gates, but most easily touchable if we so dared.
Doug McIvor shows the wine course room at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
In the midst of all this dusty history, it’s a bit jarring to come across one reasonably modern room with rows of tables arranged to face a large video screen at the head of the space. This is the training room where BB&R teaches wine courses, everything from basic wine appreciation to master sommelier training.
Napoleon Cellar at Berry Bros. & Rudd
Another set of stairs takes us even deeper below the store to a room filled with large brick pillars supporting a low vaulted ceiling. This is the Napoleon cellar, named after Napoleon III who used these cellars to hold secret meetings while he was in exile. Countertops and cases line the room’s perimeter, filled with extremely old, obviously handmade bottles, a museum of sort. Running down the middle, and nearly the length of the room is a giant banquet table. BB&R hosts company events here, and for a modest fee, you can hold your own private party here as well.
The room were Cutty Sark was conceived, at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back up at store level, we step through a locked door at the back and into a quintessential British parlor. Old books, black & white photos, and bottles are everywhere. A small fireplace is lit, which keeps the room warm. This is where Cutty Sark blended whisky was conceived in 1923, partially in anticipation of the eventual end of prohibition in the US. At that time, BB&R was doing booming business in the Bahamas, a popular stop for smugglers bringing liquor into the US during prohibition. By the 1970s, Cutty Sark was the largest selling brand of blended whisky in the United States, and was contributing the vast majority of BB&R’s spirits (non-wine) revenues.
Today, Cutty Sark is no longer in the BB&R portfolio. BB&R, seeing the potential decline in blended whisky sales due to markets focusing on single malt scotch as well as increased competition, decided to sell the high revenue generating Cutty Sark brand in 2010 and use the profits to refocus BB&R on premium spirits. Part of this strategic shift included buying the Glenrothes distillery, which makes the whisky in Cutty Sark. Another substantial deployment of the proceeds was purchasing a forty percent stake in AnchorBrewer and Distillers, a San Francisco-based distiller and importer of many highly-regarded spirit lines, currently including Luxardo, Glendronach, Nikka, and Tempus Fugit.
Antique, handmade bottles at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Today, BB&R and Anchor carry each other’s product lines, on both sides of the pond. Thus, the product lines that BB&R directly owns are available here in the US, including The King’s Ginger, The Glenrothes, Penny Blue rum, Pink Pigeon rum, and Berry’s Own private label — whisk(e)y, rum, cognac, etc. I’m immensely excited to have these spirits available here, and in fact it was BB&R/Anchor partnership that led to our private tour. The Anchor PR folks had traveled from San Francisco to hold a portfolio tasting at Westland Distillery (also part of the Anchor portfolio) here in Seattle. I got to chatting with Georgiana Green, one of their senior brand managers, about rum, and when I mentioned I would be in London a few months later, she told me I absolutely had to get a tour of BB&R and the cellars. A big thanks to her for making this happen!
Just a few of the available spirits at Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Back in the storefront area, with the tour concluding, Doug asked us if we wanted to taste some rum. But, of course! We moved to one of the store’s display rooms, lined with bottles from across the BB&R portfolio on display. He brought out a small package with several small sample bottles. The first four were cask samples of the four rums from the Medine distillery in Mauritius, selected by Doug and comprising the fourth batch of Penny Blue rum. A fifth bottle held a preview of the final blend of those rums. (I’ll save a writeup on this for a future post, but I will say it’s quite good.) Next, we tasted a cask strength, 66% ABV sample from Barbancourt in Haiti. And saving the best for last, Doug brought out a sample of the Exceptional Cask 1977 Jamaican Overproof rum, aged for 35 years and bottled at 121 proof. It was quite simply exceptional. At only £495, or about US $750, Mrs. Wonk had to keep a watchful eye on me to make sure I didn’t reach for my credit card. The agony of leaving without it!
The tour of BB&R was easily one of my top highlights from our two week European tour. Doug McIvor is a wealth of spirits information, a wonderful tour guide, and a generous host. If you find yourself in London, I highly recommend visiting the store, including a walk to Pickering Place. Even if you don’t get the private tour, it’s something not to be missed!

A good post on the impact of environmental conditions on barrel aging of whiskey

A nice, easily readable post for folks curious about whiskey over on DrinkSpirits this morning. It talks about barrel aging of whiskeys, the difference between Scotch and Bourbon aging, and how environment matters more than the number years in a barrel. Plus, empirical proof! The Buffalo Trace folks aged the same distillate for an identical length of time in three different locations in their aging warehouse, and got very different results which you can buy and taste for yourself.

Among the key points of the article:

  • Bourbon (i.e American whiskey) must be aged in new charred oak barrels, whereas Scotch is aged in previously used barrels, often bourbon barrels. Yes, we Americans ship a lot of our used barrels overseas for use in aging other spirits.
  • Bourbon usually reaches optimal flavor somewhere around 8 years, whereas Scotch takes several years longer.
  • Kentucky has much wider temperature variation than Scotland. Bigger temperature swings mean the whiskey expands/contracts more, thus passing through the wood in the barrel more.
  • Just because it’s aged longer doesn’t mean it’s better. You can over-age.
As you can imagine, the same environmental considerations apply to rum, which ages in a very hot Caribbean environment.

A fantastic infographic on Whisk(e)y types and brands

I’m all about categorizing, comparing and putting things into a structured view. It helps me understand more, and it’s easier to add incremental new knowledge as I learn new bits and pieces. The world of spirits gives me plenty of opportunity for practice. One of the more densely populated kingdoms is whiskey. It can be a real challenge trying to keep straight the difference between Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye, single malt, single mash, and on and on and…

Recently Fastcodesign.com did a very detailed infographic on the topic of Whiskey. While it won’t explain the stylistic difference between different brands, it does a nice job of laying out the major categories and sub-categories and mapping them to specific brand families and labels. While a small legend would be helpful and the “leaves” can be small, I think you’d be hard pressed to make a better chart yourself. Check it out:

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3028917/infographic-of-the-day/the-wonderful-world-of-whiskey-in-one-boozy-chart