Islay whisky holds a very special place in the heart of the single-malt lover. On this tiny island on the west-coast of Scotland, with a population of just over 3,000 people, lie some of the most acclaimed distilleries in the world.
One such distillery is Lagavulin, and I was lucky enough to discover more about it on a recent trip to celebrate their 200 year anniversary.
For those who haven’t heard of Islay (pronounced eye-lah), it is a mecca of whisky production, with people travelling from all over the globe to absorb some of its charm, which naturally, includes tasting lots of whisky.
In recent years, the demand for single-malt, as opposed to blended whiskies, has exploded tenfold, with production on a steep rise, and the potential establishment of three new distilleries on the island in the near future, too.
The Lagavulin Brand
Admittedly, I’m not a whisky buff, but I do adore a dram at almost any opportunity, so the chance to get deep into the heart of Lagavulin, a whisky that was one of the first single-malts I tasted some ten years ago, fills me with anticipation.
Arriving into Islay airport one blustery, sopping-wet day, I realise the charm of this barren, wind-swept island, immediately. There’s an energy that propels something magical into the air, and something magical in the ground beneath my feet, too.
What makes Islay whisky so rich is the peat underfoot, a soil-esque fuel-source that has a distinct aroma when burnt, and which is used to smoke the barley malt used by the island’s distilleries.
The Lagavulin distillery is, perhaps, one of the most famous on the island, and an awe-inspiring spot that resonates Scottish charm.
In fact, as far back as 1880, when renowned Victorian whisky writer, Alfred Barnard, visited Lagavulin for the first time, the distillery has been held in the highest regard.
Barnard noted that Lagavulin was “exceptionally fine” and “one of the most prominent” distilleries on the island. As such, Lagavulin has released a special, limited edition bottling of its 8 Year Old to honour Mr. Barnard on company’s bi-centennial anniversary.
“We want people to drink it, celebrate it and enjoy the 200 year anniversary”, said Georgie Crawford, Distillery Manager. Over dinner, we hear from Dr. Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach, who delves into the rich history of Lagavulin.
Officially registered in 1816, the true Lagavulin roots run back to 1742 — the whisky created in the exact spot that the distillery now stands traced as far back as the Lord of the Isles, c. 875.
In fact, just in front of Lagavulin, you can see the remains of Dunyvaig Castle, a fortified naval base once used by the Lord of the Isles.
The heritage of a whisky like Lagavulin is something to behold, and fascinating to hear about in more detail. But what I’m itching to discover is how the whisky is created, and what gives Lagavulin the refined, smoked maple taste that is so instantly recognisable.
How is Lagavulin Whisky Made?
Georgie Crawford begins the tour by showing where the malt, which has been processed and smoked at the malting factory in Port Ellen, some 20 minutes away, is deposited.
From here it travels into a mill, which grinds the malt to remove the husks in preparation for mashing. In the mashing process, Georgie explains how the malt is added to warm water to begin the extraction of the soluble sugars.
Over many hours of mashing, the dissolved sugars, a liquid which is now called ‘wort’, is drawn off through the bottom of the mash-turn and passed into enormous wooden caskets called ‘washbacks’, where yeast is added to the wort and the fermentation begins.
After many more hours, the resulting liquid, called ‘wash’, is ready, with a low ABV (alcohol) percentage of around 5 – 10%. The process up until this point remains reasonably universal throughout the whisky industry, but where the individuality comes is during the distillation, where the wash is passed through the copper stills, with each still varying in size and dimension in each distillery.
Through a series of heating and condensation, the wash is turned into ‘low wines’, before running through a second still for its second distillation. From here, there are three categories of alcohol produced, the ‘foreshot’, the ‘heart’ and the ‘feint’.
Both the foreshot and feint aren’t suitable for casking and are recycled into the next batch. Only the heart, which is typically around 65-70% ABV, is extracted and transferred to casks for maturation.
Only at this level does the process make sense, but the technicality and precision of the distillation is a highly guarded secret. With Lagavulin, the smokiness of the peat is what most consider its defining note.
Interestingly, during the malting process, the barley is not heated by the peat itself, but instead the peat is burned away from the kiln, with only the smoke pumped through for absorption into the malt.
The New Age of Whisky Making
What I learn about Lagavulin is not only its rich heritage and exceptional flavour, but also its dedication to sustainability. Georgie explains that the distillery recycles everything, and there is a zero waste policy.
Every part of the process, from the tons of water to the waste-malt is recycled either back into the system, or out into other industries, and the peat itself is a semi-sustainable fuel resource in its own right.
Not only is it sustainable and economic, but the industry also adds to the 100% employment rate on Islay. Lagavulin, it appears, is much more that just a whisky manufacturer — they are, in fact, embedded into the local community.
So, for a brand that is, officially, 200 years old this year, Lagavulin whisky is surely one of the finest out there. Not only is the taste exquisite and the heritage unrivalled, but the company itself is a fully functioning economic hub.
And what’s more, it lies in some of the most stunning scenery in Great Britain, with unrestricted views across the wild sea to Kintyre.
Lagavulin Whisky 8 Year Old, £50.95 For more information visit malts.com