A clickable table of contents!
Part 1: Lagavulin Distillery Tour
Part 2: Quick Facts!
Part 3: Warehouse Demonstration
Part 4: Warehouse Whiskies
Part 5: Lagavulin 34 year old 1982 single ex-Dewars cask
Part 6: Parting Thoughts
Lagavulin Distillery Tour
July 12th was a very whisky day. It began at 9:30am when Kristen dropped me off at Lagavulin distillery. I had booked both the regular distillery tour and the "Warehouse Demonstration". The first thing I noticed was that the distillery shop was the most mediocre one I'd ever seen, and that includes all of the tiny US craft distillery shops I'd been to. There were no distillery exclusives nor anything that couldn't be purchased at any random retail shop. In fact, I'm not entirely sure what purpose the tiny shop served. There were many people attending the tours while I was there and no one purchased anything.
The tour itself was the most impersonal one I experienced while in Scotland. I don't remember the guide's name and I'm not certain he even told us. We weren't allowed to take any photos during the tour, which was weird because there's nothing abnormal going on at the distillery and there's no way anyone could recreate the Lagavulin spirit at home by utilizing distillery photos. So the only distillery photo I can share with you is the one above. Yes, it's "Agavulin" distillery because that little house blocks the "L" from almost every angle.
As per the distillery website: "This tour of the process at Lagavulin Distillery includes a dram of one of our core range and a complimentary glass and a voucher for £5 off the purchase of a 70cl single malt." I received none of those things. Then again, they forgot to charge me for the tour.
Lagavulin gets their malted barley from the Port Ellen maltings a few miles down the road. Though they "try to use Scottish barley", they do tend to get the majority of it from Britain, Sweden, and Italy. It arrives three times a week, peated to 34ppm from 16 hours of peated drying.
Like many of Scotland's distilleries, Lagavulin utilizes a Porteus mill, a large red steel box that hasn't broken down since it arrived in 1963. The perfect milled grist ratio for their wort is 70% grit, 20% husk, 10% flour. Too much flour and things start to get sticky and gummy.
They apply at least two rounds of hot water to make the wort. The first water is 64ºC, the next ones range from 71ºC to 82ºC. The resulting wort is usually around 70ºC, then they cool it to 18ºC-20ºC before they apply the yeast in the washbacks. They do four rounds of this wort process each day.
They have ten washbacks made of larch wood. They (not sure if it's a person or an automated process) fill each washback 3/4s of the way up with wort, then add 80 liters of liquid yeast. The fermentation lasts 55 hours, resulting in a 8-9%abv wash.
Their bizarro stills are quite a sight to see. I wish I could have taken photos. (Here's another site's image.) Because there are no reflux bulbs, the stills look like lumpy upside-down ice cream cones. In fact, I'm sure they all have slightly different shapes. Meanwhile the lyne arms abruptly drop downwards. Taking these structures into consideration, and the fact that they fill the stills to 90%, the result is a dense heavy spirit. Probably the exact opposite of Glenmorangie.
The first distillation results in low wines of 25-26%abv. The heart of the cut they're looking for in the second long distillation is 68-69%abv.
All cask filling is done in Fife on the mainland. So, no, there's no magical Islay sea salt air massaging all of Lagavulin's barrels. They have 7000 casks in modern warehouses on site, 6000 in warehouses at Port Ellen Maltings, 3000 in Caol Ila's warehouses, and 234000 on the mainland.
And, yes, it's all very 21st (or late 20th) century automated. More tech, fewer hands, seems to be the goal.
Ah, the real reason I went to Lagavulin. If you read other older reviews of the warehouse demonstration, it sounds absolutely dreamy with five to seven 30+mL pours of single casks and a chance to taste Lagavulin's new make, courtesy of Iain "Pinky" McArthur (48 years working at the distillery). But, to quote Robert Zimmerman, things have changed.
Iain told us, before the event started, that "Health & Safety" now forces him to have an assistant accompany him to do controlled pours. And by controlled pours, I mean <15mL pours. And, no new make. In place of the new make, one gets a <15mL pour of the 8yo, something one can get at every decent bar in the country. I don't know if "Health & Safety" is a government branch or a Diageo unit, but no other cask tasting I went to in Scotland had the same restriction. Though I appreciated hearing Iain openly mocking these changes, it still was a letdown. Because one cannot buy a bottle of any of the casks one tastes at the demonstration (again, the only cask tasting I went to with this restriction), the demonstration serves only as an educational experience. Yet it's debatable how educational a 10-15mL pour can be.
Iain was a great host, always irreverent, always blunt. He said he would have preferred the 8yo to have been released at cask strength. And he told us that every Lagavulin whisky was chillfiltered, including the cask strength 12 year old. His energy and humor partly made up for the changes to demonstration and distracted this drinker from the fact that since Iain's audience filled every last space, Diageo grossed around £700 during that hour. To put that in perspective, in 2013 your £15 ticket bought you 10-15 UK (or 6-8 US) units of alcohol, while, in 2016, your £23 now gets you 3-4 UK (or less than 2 US) units of alcohol. I am not insensitive to the need for safe drinking, but this represents a 475%-600% devaluing of the visitors' money.
All the whiskies were very good, as I'll detail below, but I had somewhere (better) to be towards the end so I bottled up my final pour and split before I found out whether or not I'd get the £5 voucher towards the lamest distillery gift shop on the planet. I bottled up the final pour. Who would have known that whisky would have been the highlight of all things Lagavulin...
Lagavulin 8 year old - Allow me to point you towards my review of this very whisky. My opinion of it remains the same.
Lagavulin 12 year old 2004, 1st fill ex-sherry cask, 52.5%abv
Nose - Mint and milk chocolate, subtler peat and smoke notes than expected
Palate - Nice, lightly bitter, fruity and loaded with almonds. A long finish.
Lagavulin 14 year old 2002, refill cask, 54.6%abv
Nose - Anise, green herbs, black berries
Palate - Big and nutty, with toffee pudding and toasty peat.
Lagavulin 18 year old 1998, 2nd fill ex-sherry cask, 57.5%abv
Nose - Really young and (what I imagine would be) new-makey. Apples, mint, chocolate, and a hint of anise.
Palate - Lots of pepper and sugar. Cinnamon candy and slivovitz.
There was barely any color to this 18yo. That must be one dead cask.
Lagavulin 23 year old 1993, 1st fill ex-sherry cask, 56.4%abv
Nose - Fruit cake, toffee, and vibrant peat.
Palate - Yum. Fruity, herbal, bitter chocolate, dried fruit, and rich peat.
This one was a significant improvement over the other three casks.
Lagavulin 34 year old 1982, ex-Dewars cask, 55.2%abv
Stunning, regal whisky. This could easily stand up to all of Laphroaig's famous long-aged releases with all its grace and power. Despite its color, this is not naked spirit. The oak, while present, works in harmony with the spirit, framing and highlighting its best characteristics. It's a whisky that needs to be savored and appreciated slowly, so I'm happy I took this sample back with me. The 5 minute window during the demonstration wouldn't have been enough time for me to appreciate this excellent cask. Giving this liquid a numerical score feels even sillier than usual, so here's a Grade Range: A.
(For another review of (I think) this cask, see Jordan's post here.)
I didn't leave Lagavulin totally disappointed. I recognized it to be a once in a lifetime experience (not just because I won't go there a second time) and fairly educational. It was once I started comparing it to the rest of the tours and demonstrations I went to during my trip that the near complete lack of effort on the part of the distillery (and its parent company) became clear. Iain McArthur was the only person putting any effort into the experience. The rest of the humans, from top to bottom of the latter, seem to know they needn't be bothered to do much for the visitors' money, because we keep arriving at the front door. And I guess I could just chalk up my £23 to paying for the 10-15mL of the divine 34 year old cask, but I can't write off everything that came before it. Aside from Iain McArthur, the experience felt, like everything else in Diageo's single malt production, automated.
If you keep your expectations in check, and if you just want an opportunity to be at Lagavulin, and if they are still pouring from the 34yo cask, then I can tepidly recommend a visit. But if you're looking for an amazing, fulfilling, or even welcoming experience, you may want to look elsewhere on the island. As for me, I don't regret doing the tour, but I sort of wish I'd have gone to Kilchoman instead.