Islay Distilleries #6 of 8: Lagavulin – The Classic

by Oliver Klimek on May 20, 2010

So far I haven’t covered the three southern Islay distilleries yet that are locacted very close to each other. But it was not so much for dramaturgical reasons. As I was staying in Port Ellen, I wanted to see the northern distilleries first that pose more logistics problems for someone  without a car.

Many whisky lovers have stated that Lagavulin was their gateway drug into the single malt universe. This also is true for me. Probably the reason is that it is very different from standard blends or Glensomething supermarket malts but still has a certain roundness that is not as potentially off-putting to novices as other peated malts.

Lagavulin is located right between Laphroaig and Ardbeg, probably about a mile away from both. In a way, Lagavulin is quite the opposite of Caol Ila although both are owned by Diageo (“No photographs please, it’s the company policy, sorry”…). Many distillery buildings are old and small,  and the visitor centre located in the main office building has a very charming old-fashioned interior.

A fact that some of you might not be aware of is that on the grounds of Lagavulin there was second distillery until 1960, named Malt Mill. As the distillery grounds are not very large, it is quite hard to imagine how it might have looked in the past. What is now the main offfice building once was the maltings and kiln of Malt Mill.

When I arrived to book the afternoon tour, staff were a bit reluctant to put me in because they had already more than 20 reservations. This would have been me “tour record”, but as it turned out, part of them cancelled and some others were late, so in the end I had he luck to be given a one-on-one tour by one of the friendly guides. What a difference!

There is not too much to tell about what I saw on the tour, especially without any additional pictures. But there a few noteworthy facts anyway. Firstly, Lagavulin’s malted barley is the tastiest of all the distilleries that give you a try of it. They should fill it into bags and sell it as a snack. The combination of the slightly sweet malt with peat smoke is quite delicious.

Notable as well is the shape of the spirit stills. They are rather short and almost conical, their lyne arms have distinct down bends. This means that there is not much temperature induced separation between lighter and heavier components but also rather little reflux into the pot. The result is a full bodied spirit rich in higher order aromatics. An last but not least, Lagavulin have a very beautiful spirit safe on an old fashioned wood counter.

The shore of Lagavulin Bay is quite a remarkable sight, mainly because its nice view on the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, the former naval base of the Lords of the Isles. In fact the view was so beautiful that I forgot to turn around an make a picture of the waterfront warehouse.

Unfortunatley, no glimpse into one of the warehouses was given. Lagavulin store their casks on the premises as welll as in Caol Ila and Port Ellen. Contrary to their colleagues up at Caol Ila, Lagavulin produces 95% for single malts, the remaining 5% will go mostly into the White Horse Blend and a fraction will make its way into the Black Bottle.

At the end of the tour, visitors are led into the lounge room back in the visitor centre. Although the main hallway of the offices cuts right through it, it is the most comfortable place to have your free tour drams (the 16yo and the Distillers Edition) of all Islay distilleries. Comfy chairs and a fireplace invite you to relax with your drams.

All Diageo distilleries have a quite conservative bottling policy, so the number of official Lagavulin expressions is rather limited. And just like at Caol Ila, where the 18 yo is being discontinued, legendary old bottlings as the 21 yo or the 25 yo are long gone and not likely to be replaced very soon. Innovations are to be found only on the younger side of the age spectrum like the 12 yo cask strength. It seems the distillery has its troubles to keep up with the demand for the 16 yo so they can’t really afford to set casks aside for older expressions. Even some reports about shortages of the 16 yo could be heard in recent years.

Distillery buildings around the back yard

The ruins of Dunyvaig Castle

The pagoda

What's a car like that doing in a place like this? (Lagavulin village)


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