October 08, 2012

Lagavulin Distillery - slow production and good wood policy makes great whisky.

Just opposite the imposing white buildings of Lagavulin distillery, on a site with a history dating back to the 12th century, stand the imposing ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, once the naval base of The Lord of the Isles. It's hard to say which is the most impressive, so visitors to this part of southern Islay tend to drive to the same spot up the road and photograph both.
Lagavulin was the first stop on my tour of Islay's distilleries. I was hosted by David Woods, home brand manager, a knowledgeable man whose background includes some time at Bowmore, experience as an independent bottler, good knowledge of wine and a passion for food and whisky pairing.
Lagavulin and Caol Ila, which lies much further north on the island, are both owned by Diageo. Both distilleries obtain their malted barley peated to about 35ppm, yet the distillery characters are quite different. Two factors that David feels are vital to the ultimate flavours of the whisky are the shape of the stills and the wood policy. To use a wine analogy, Caol Ila is perhaps more Sauvignon Blanc like in character, a bit oily and more maritime in character. Lagavulin 16 year old, long one of my personal favourites, has been likened to a Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux, obviously an analogy more aimed at its elegance than its flavour.
Lagavulin 16 year old is the flagship product, one that's in great demand worldwide. The wood policy that David refers to is a key contributor to the consistency of the flavour and character of the 16 year old. The important maturation process uses 100% refill hogshead ex-bourbon barrels, first filled with grain, then another malt, then Lagavulin. The grain fill takes a lot out of the cask, which is part of the strategy. The distillery doesn't want overactive casks for the 16 year old.
95% of the 2.2M litres of whisky produced at Lagavulin goes to single malt, with the rest becoming a component of White Horse blended whisky. Apart from the 16 year old, the distillery also produces a cask strength 12 year old, which is less influenced by the wood, has a more significant peatiness and, according to David, a bit of saltiness as well. The Distillers Edition is standard Lagavulin, further matured for about 3 months in Pedro Ximenez casks to produce a whisky edged with sweeter, toffee notes.
As with all of the distilleries on Islay, there is an annual special bottling for Feis Ile, the Islay whisky and music festival in May. A specially selected  single cask produces a limited number of bottles which are generally snapped up on the first day of the festival, and are highly prized. Lagavulin distillery also sponsors the Islay Jazz festival in September and  produces a single cask, cask strength bottling for the occasion. Iain MacArthur, who has worked at the distillery for many years, selected the 2011, 17 year old sherry cask and, by all accounts, it was a stunner and one which has increased in value about 8 times - if you can find it.
As Iain also selected the cask for the 2012 bottling, I made sure that I stopped in at the distillery again at the end of the week to buy one of the rare bottles. I haven't opened it yet, but I'll report back in due course.
Lagavulin was licensed in 1816, although there is evidence of illicit distilling on the site since the 1740's. The eccentric Peter Mackie was largely responsible for spreading the Lagavulin word during the early 1900s. This same gentleman also opened Malt Mill distillery, one of many lost Islay distilleries and the subject of the current whisky movie - Angel's Share. Malt Mill closed in 1963 although it lives on as the Lagavulin visitor centre.
To start everything off, the peat for Lagavulin whisky comes from Castle Hill on Islay, where it has a high moisture content. In the kiln, higher moisture imbues more smoke into the barley in a  shorter amount of time. The distillery mills its own barley in a  1963 mill, and the resulting grist goes into the mash tun in 4.32 tonne batches with three hot water fills of around 21,000 litres at increasingly higher temperatures.
10 lovely larch washbacks, each with a capacity of 21,000 litres handle the fermentation of the wort, 5 hours apart, for a total slow fermentation time of 55 hours. We tasted some of the wash during the fermentation process and it had developed some nice citrus and tobacco notes on the nose, with both smokiness and sweetness on the taste. It's astonishing really to have that much character even before the liquid is beer-like.
The two wash stills are steam heated, hold 10,000 litres each and have steep lyne arms. At 10 1/2 hrs, Lagavulin purportedly has the longest distillation on Islay and one of the longest in Scotland, potentially building more character and contributing to the unique Lagavulin profile. The stillman takes a bigger middle cut than most distilleries, retaining more phenols and again aiming for the desired character.

After looking around the distillery, we headed back to the visitor centre to have a wee tasting. The new make spirit was tasty for a young thing. The nose was quite perfumed with nice smoke on the palate and more especially on the finish. I could drink this stuff, but was much happier to try the 16 year old next - fruit followed by smoke. David talked a bit about the double maturation policies for some of the Diageo malts Distillers Editions. They tend to be quite specific to provide clarity between the brands - Cragganmore Distillers Edition has an extra maturation in port casks; Lagavulin in PX sherry; Talisker in Amoroso; Clynelish in oloroso. We tried a 17 year old Lagavulin, double matured in PX sherry casks. It was delicious, with lots of sticky toffee, raisins and Christmas pudding character; then lovely smoke to follow up! David dug into his whisky and food passion pot and suggested serving it chilled right down to accompany a hot sweet dessert. Oh my!
Next up, we tasted some of the 2012, 14 year old Feis Ile single cask whisky, which had matured in a  fino sherry cask. This one was peaty all the way through and completely different in character. The 12 year old cask strength was lovely with a bit of water to soften it up. Iain joined us at this point and we took a wander into one of the dunnage warehouses, all damp and dank and cold. While you wouldn't want this flooring in your basement, whisky barrels love this stuff! Iain pointed out three casks each containing 550 litres and mentioned that the duty recently paid on the lot amounted to £18,033. He was quite specific!
In the warehouse, we tasted some really interesting whisky from individual casks - an 8 year old from a  bodega cask, already showing fine Lagavulin character; a 19 year old that was fantastic; and a 14 year old, which was smoother and softer than the 14 year old Feis Ile bottling I had tried earlier. Finally, I tasted from a 1966 cask, and a 1982 cask. I think the 1966 is kept there as an experiment, as it had lost character, aroma and flavour - definitely past its best. Iain agreed, although he did tell me in his lilting island voice that some of the ladies like that one. The 30 year old was in the category of "finest whiskies I've ever tasted" - superbly balanced, luscious, elegant - a fine product of a cold, damp place!
Can't wait to try that 2012 Lagavulin Jazz Festival bottle!
Next up - Bruichladdich........