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.
Driving from our hotel in Bridgend to Lagavulin provides with us our first daylight view of the island after a late arrival on the evening ferry crossing the prior night. In the cold, windy, overcast January morning, the dominant colors are muted greens and browns. Vegetation is literally everywhere, but most of it hugs the ground; trees are few and far between. Other than a few short stretches through the villages of Bowmore and Port Ellen, most of the drive is through flat peat bogs stretching for miles. At times there are no visible reminders of civilization, save the narrow lane we’re traveling over and the occasional stone house set off the roadway. Reaching Islay’s southern coastline, we turn west and head through gently rolling hills, the omnipresent green of the vegetation occasionally interrupted by craggy rocks. (And sheep. Lots of sheep. Islay’s human population of about 3,000 residents is highly outnumbered.) Due to the recent winter storms and blustery winds, the ocean, a few hundred yards away, seems particularly angry.
To no great surprise to anyone who knows me, we arrive a few minutes early. The parking lot is small, holding no more than twenty cars–no huge busloads of tourists like at The Macallan. While waiting for visitor’s center to open, I use the time to snap obligatory selfies in front of the starkly white buildings punctuated by the tall, red smokestack. A small bridge leads from the parking lot to the visitor’s entrance, crossing a stream rushing headlong toward the distillery below. Eventually the visitor’s center door pops open and we’re let in. After a short wait, easily filled by browsing the small gift shop, we’re introduced to warehouseman Iain McArthur, who will be our guide today. Iain is a legend at Lagavulin, having worked there since 1970, making his tenure 46 years at the time of our visit. Or in terms of the day, CocktailWonk was four years old when Iain spent his first day of employ at Lagavulin.
Lagavulin offers a number of different touring options. Our visit, set up by Diageo’s fabulous PR folks, is called the Warehouse Experience. This particular tour is unusual in that it reverses the typical tour order, starting first with an extensive tasting session in a dunnage warehouse, followed by a somewhat shortened distillery walkthrough which itself was reversed from the usual order.
On this cold, January day there were four of us in the aging warehouse, which is most definitely not climate controlled. It’s a low slung, dirt floored affair giving the impression of stone-walled barn from the distant past. We sit in folding chairs on a patch of concrete, leaving our jackets on to preserve what little body heat that remains. In front of us is a series of barrels, each end painted with a year from the somewhat distant past, as well as a hard-to-miss “duty paid” label. The contents of said barrels are what we’ll be sampling. Behind them are dozens more casks on their side, stacked no more than two high. Lest you think these barrels are all that’s in reserve, have no fear. These are only a tiny fraction of the Lagavulin’s stockpile. There are plenty more barrels stored elsewhere on the island, as well as on the mainland.
After Iain explains a bit of his long personal history with Lagavulin, he passes around a sheet listing what we’ll be tasting today. And oh, what a list:
- 2004 (11 year old)
- 2002 (13 year old)
- 1998 (17 year old)
- 1993 (22 year old)
- 1982 (33 year old)
Yowza! That’s quite a lineup, and one you won’t find on the shelves of your local liquor store, or maybe even your favorite whisky bar. Moving through the casks with plenty of time to savor each, Iain does a great job of explaining exactly what we’re tasting. To withdraw the whisky from a cask, he uses a valinch, a yard-long metal tube with a pointed end. Small holes in both ends make it function as a giant straw. One end goes into the barrel bung hole, and you suck on the other end like a straw. After drawing up a sufficient amount (but no “accidental tasting,” please), you put your thumb over the hole and pull out the valinch, depositing the contents into a nearby cylindrical beaker like a giant whisky eyedropper.
Each of us was given a small Lagavulin branded Glencairn glass to taste with. The pours of each whisky are well-beyond generous. At a minimum strength of 53 percent, finishing even a single sample will do you in for the day. However, there’s no need to finish each sample—and don’t dare think of pouring it out. We were provided with small plastic lidded containers and a Sharpie marker—our first experience with whisky “to go.” . Whatever we didn’t consume, we simply saved for later–appropriately labeled, of course.
I was beyond excited to be trying a 33 year Lagavulin that day. But even that was a sideshow to what happened midway through the tasting. Mrs. Wonk volunteered that it was my fiftieth birthday, and Iain, with a gleam in his eye, told us to follow him a few rows back in the warehouse to a barrel labeled “1966 Lagavulin.” Jaws drop. He hands me the valinch and has me pull out a bit. My valinch technique needs work, and more than a few drops didn’t make it into the beaker (cheers to that dirt floor), but eventually extracted enough for each of us to enjoy a decent dram of fifty year Lagavulin. Happy birthday to me!
A second minor miracle also happened during the tasting. Mrs. Wonk has no great love for the smokiness of peated whisky, though she has given it more than a few tries. (In fact, she is fond of describing peated whisky in this manner: “Take an old leather boot, toss it on a smoldering campfire of burning peat, then scoop up all the embers and suck on them.”) She’d been worried about insulting our various Islay hosts and feigning pleasure during the countless tastings to come. But on that cold January morning, something clicked. Being on Islay, with the brusque salt air and the lingering tendrils of peat smoke, made the smoke a non-issue. For the rest of the trip she happily consumed heavily peated whisky with gusto. Of course, once back home, her ability to tolerate peat completely vanished yet again. When in Rome, as they say… I guess we’ll just have to go back!
Into the Distillery
Tasting completed, and with everyone more than slightly, er, warmed up, we walked down to the rocky shoreline and soaked in the experience of standing next to the iconic, Lagavulin emblazoned white warehouse building. If you look at a map, you’ll see that the distillery is actually situated in a tiny bay, making it an ideal location for smugglers in the years prior to the 1816 legal distillery founding. A few hundred yards down the shoreline, we spy a few houses alongside the shoreline. A short dock allows small craft to navigate right up to the distillery. A short distance past the end of the dock, at very tip of one side of the bay, you can see the last decaying bits of Dunyvaig castle, built in the 12th century.
After a few minutes, the chilly wind took its toll (and nearly Mrs. Wonk’s hat), so we headed in to see the distillery. Our first stop (and again, reversed from the usual sequence of events) is the still room. Lagavulin has four pot stills – two wash stills at 11,000 liters each and two spirit stills at 12,500 liters apiece. A set of steps leads to a raised platform that provides easy access to the openings, however we weren’t allowed up onto the platform.
It’s easy to identify a Lagavulin pot still, as they’re quite squat and pear-shaped, unlike almost any other single malt distillery. The particular shapes of these stills would ordinarily lead to a very “dirty” output. Generally speaking, tall, thick necks creates conditions for optimal separation of desired and undesired congeners; a short, squat neck like Lagavulin’s is exactly the opposite. However, the Lagavulin distiller’s slower than normal distilling cycle aids with the separation, partially offsetting the effect of the squat neck.
Across from the row of stills is the large spirit safe. To the left of that is the control room, a 12 foot by 12 foot office where several distillers watch over the operation of the distillery via a bank of computer monitors. The distillers weren’t particular busy when our little group dropped by, so they graciously explained what they do and some of what we saw on the monitors. As a software engineer, I immediately recognized it as graphical process control monitoring software. Lagavulin runs around the clock, and with only four stills, it’s vital to keep things running smoothly and efficiently. The management setup at Lagavulin was among the most modern we saw the entire trip.
Mashing and Fermenting
Bidding adieu to the distillers, it’s up a flight of stairs to the mash room where we check out the giant metal mash tun. Looming overhead are enormous bins of malted barley. Lagavulin doesn’t do their own barley malting at the distillery, as they own a much bigger dedicated facility, Port Ellen Maltings, just down the road. In addition to supply the Diageo distilleries on the island (Lagavulin and Caol Ila), they also sell to most of the other Islay distilleries.
A short distance from the mash tun is a room with ten 21,000 liter wood washbacks, also known as fermenters. Iain bounces from washback to washback, sliding open a slot on the top to peer in and see what state the fermentation’s in. Some are just getting underway with vigorous bubbling, while other have subsided, the yeast having just about completed is work. Finally he finds one at the end of the cycle and drops a cylindrical metal vessel on a chain down into the liquid, pulling up a sample of extra foamy distiller’s beer for us to sample. It’s around 8 percent ABV, and not particularly unpleasant, but honestly I’d rather it go on and be distilled rather than consuming it as is. With the stills, mash tun, and washbacks photographed extensively by yours truly, our tour came to a close.
Compared to other distillery visits, our experience at Lagavulin was long on warehouse time, shorter on distillery time. There are a number of different tours available, however, so your experience may differ than ours, depending on which tour you take. I’ve seen several reports that Lagavulin prohibits photography inside the distillery buildings. However, I cleared everything with the Diageo PR people in advance and was able to snap away, taking care not to use my camera flash inside.
Iain was an absolute gem as our guide, regaling us with stories both old and new in his charming Scottish brogue. A personal favorite was his retelling of Nick Offerman, in character as Ron Swanson, visiting Lagavulin and enjoying more than a few tasty drams. Seriously though, search YouTube for “Ron Swanson Lagavulin” and settle in with a dram to watch his video canon.
Before reluctantly departing for our lunch date at Ardbeg, I made a final pass through the gift shop, picking up a special edition bottled for the 2015 Islay Jazz festival. Although I purchased it with the plan of enjoying it sooner rather than later, it’s already tripled in value in the few short months since we returned. As the first whisky distillery I visited on my landmark birthday, Lagavulin was everything I hoped it would be, and more. I’m already plotting and counting the days till I return.