Sunday, October 6, 2013

Distillery visit - Lagavulin

Welcome to Lagavulin

Lagavulin has long been one of our favourite single malts.  It is one of a handful of whiskies that got us interested in whisky around six years ago.  The 16 years old expression is widely regarded as a classic of the smoky, peaty style and is revered the world over. Therefore we were delighted and excited when we recently received an invitation to visit the distillery and the island of Islay for the first ever time.  It was an invitation that we were not going to turn down ...

The island of Islay (pronounced eye-la) is famous for its whisky and is home to eight single malt distilleries.  As a result it is seen as a 'Mecca for whisky lovers' and many undertake their own personal pilgrimages.  Islay is particularly associated with the smoky, peaty style.  This stems from when the only form of fuel on the island, and indeed the rest of Scotland, was peat.  Peat is soil that has been compacted over thousands of year and is traditionally cut in April and May each year and left to dry out over the Summer, before being burnt as a fuel during the Winter.

Lagavulin Bay and Dunyvaig Castle

Lagavulin (pronounced lagga-voo-lin) was founded in 1816 by John Johnston and is located in the hamlet of the same name on the south eastern coast of Islay.  It is currently owned by Diageo. The name translates as 'mill by the bay' from the local Gaelic dialect.  The site of the distillery was formerly a mill, which used the same water that still runs past and is used by Lagavulin today. The bay in question is the picturesque and compact Lagavulin Bay and this is dominated by the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, which dates back to the 13th century.

Georgie (second left) welcomes the group

The guide for our tour was Georgie Crawford, a local Islay girl and Distillery Manager of Lagavulin.  During the tour, and speaking to her afterwards, the pride of working at and running the distillery is evident.  We kicked off with a walk down a cute little pathway alongside a fast flowing stream that offers a vista through to Lagavulin Bay.  This took us to the mill room, which is home to a classic red Porteus Mill.  These are found in many distilleries across Scotland and are renowned for their reliability.  Lagavulin's has been there since 1963.

The Porteus Mill

The malted barley used at Lagavulin comes from the Port Ellen Maltings, which is located on the island just a few miles away.  It is also owned by Diageo and is the only commercial malting facility on the west coast of the UK, producing malted barley for most of Islay's distilleries.  This is all in the peaty style and the specification for each distillery is different.  The malt for Lagavulin is prepared to a specification of 35 PPM (phenol parts per million - for an explanation of this measurement, click here).

The mash tun

We moved upstairs to see the large steel mash tun.  The room is steamy and humid.  Here 28 mashes per week are completed with each one lasting six hours.  Each mash sees 4.4 tonnes of milled malt, known as grist, steeped in 21,000 litres of warm water.  This extracts the natural soluble sugars in the grist which have been created in the malting process.  The resulting sugary liquid is called wort.  Unlike most distilleries that we have visited to date this water is constantly sprayed on, rather than being drained and refilled at a higher temperature.  This process is known as sparging.

The washbacks

Next stop was the fermentation room, which is always one of our favourite areas in a distillery.  For us it is where the whisky making process really comes to life.  Lagavulin has 10 wooden washbacks and each holds one 21,000 litre batch of wort.  Each washback is at a different stage of the required fermentation process and these are six hours apart.  The fermentation time at Lagavulin is 55 hours and we got to try some that was around the 48 hour mark and 8% ABV.  It tasted sweet, fruity and peaty with a creamy mouth feel, like a smoky version of a weißbeer.

Karen has a go at the wash

Lagavulin has a number of quirky elements to it and one of these is an innovative way of controlling unwanted visitors.  As we left the fermentation room our eyes were drawn to the statuesque figure of an owl sitting on top of one of the washbacks.  This had been installed to frighten off the birds who try to nest in the roof of the room.  Georgie remains sceptical as to whether it works - she told us a story of visiting the room early one morning and finding an offending bird sitting happily on the owl's head ...

The local pest controller

The still room

The still room at Lagavulin is impressive.  There may only be four stills but they feel enormous when standing underneath them.  The reassuring whirr of the stills dominates the room.  The stills are an unusual pear shape, especially the spirit stills, and they are unlike any that we have seen to date.  There are two wash stills, where the first distillation takes place, and two spirit stills where the second distillation happens.  The wash stills have red markings and the spirit stills are blue to distinguish between them.  Lagavulin has a long distillation time of 10 hours and this produces the distillery's distinctive heavier spirit.

A spirit still door

As in all distilleries, the new make spirit is collected through a spirit safe.  At Lagavulin this is a lovely antique one and the new make spirit is collected at 68-70% ABV.  Staring at the spirit flowing off the stills was hypnotic and got us wondering just how many litres of Lagavulin have gone through it over the years.  The distillery has a current annual capacity of 2.5 million litres and a decent percentage of that is now earmarked for single malt release.  The new make is filled to casks after mild dilution at 63.5% ABV.

The spirit safe

Lagavulin has limited space for warehousing and just 7,000 casks are stored at the distillery.  The rest are stored either in the old warehouses of the former Port Ellen distillery about 3-4 miles away or in large Diageo warehouses on the mainland.  The warehousing may be limited but is iconic - the whitewashed wall is adorned with huge black letters spelling out the distillery's name, looking over Lagavulin Bay and out to the Atlantic Ocean.

The view from Lagavulin pier

Standing on the pier, it was a sight that will live long in the memory despite almost being blown away by the stiff breeze. The pier has been recently rebuilt but was originally the main way to reach the distillery - everything they needed at Lagavulin, including barley, would have been brought in by sea with the whisky leaving in the opposite direction.

Our tasting tray of joy

The final part of our tour was a tasting and this was hosted by David Wood, the Visitor Centre Manager for Diageo's two distilleries on Islay (Caol Ila being the other).  As mentioned earlier, Lagavulin is one of our favourite single malts so this meant that we were in heaven.  We sat in one of the dunnage warehouses and were presented with six expressions of Lagavulin - the new make spirit, classic 16 years old, 2012 Jazz Festival bottling, 2013 Feis Isle bottling, 2013 Jazz Festival bottling before finishing in complete nirvana with the 21 years old.

What a great place Lagavulin is.  Considering the popularity of the brand and its standing as a premium single malt, Lagavulin manages to retain an old fashioned charm for the visitor.  If you look a little deeper below the surface there is evidence of the advanced technology being used, but this has been sympathetically integrated.  This is demonstrated by the fact that the distillery is operated by just one person for most of the production time.

Sunset at Lagavulin

The beautiful seafront location in which Lagavulin is built contributes hugely to the sense that you are 'somewhere different and unique'.  It feels almost magical.  All of these factors, plus the warm welcome and huge amount of information that was given to us, contributed to one of our best distillery visits to date.  Our visit has only strengthened the feeling that Lagavulin is one of our favourite single malts and we hope that it is not too long before we are back there again ...

Consumer tours details
Lagavulin offer three different tours - the 'Distillery Tour' (£6 per head including a tour and a sample of the 16 years old), the 'Premium Tasting' (£15 per head with five samples of different Lagavulin expressions, including the new make spirit) and the 'Warehouse Demonstration' (£15 per head and hosted by Lagavulin's Iain MacArthur - this involves sampling direct from the casks in a warehouse, with an explanation of the different types of wood used).

All tours include a complimentary glass and a £3 off voucher, which can be used when purchasing a 70cl bottle in the visitor centre shop.  The distillery is open all year, with the exception of the 'silent season' when it is closed for essential maintenance.  For opening and tours times, plus other information please visit

All images are © Whisky For Everyone, except 'Karen has a go at the wash' and 'Georgie welcomes the group' which are © Pat Roberts. 

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