Friday, 31 October 2014

Johnnie Does Lagavulin

Thursday 21 August 2014 - 9:30am

Price: £24.00

Proof that sundials work on Islay

Lagavulin 16 was the first peated whisky I ever got my taste buds around. I can recall the experience with absolute clarity and dare say I'll still remember it on my death bed. It was in a garish Luton casino on a night that was supposed to be Agent X's stag-do; he'd had a change of heart following a recent assassination attempt, although that's probably a story for another time.

I remember Cecil coming back from the bar with three glasses of what we called La-GA-vulin back in those innocent, halcyon days; with knowledge comes cynicism, it would seem. He has since told me that the woman behind the bar had to check with the manager before serving him as she wasn't sure if she was allowed to serve whisky without a mixer. Yup, it's a classy establishment folks, but I digress.

The first sip had barely touched my lips and I knew that this was the drink for me. Smoke, flavour, structure and a wonderful finish; I was hooked. Agent X screwed his face up and looked like someone had just kicked his dog and I don't know what was going through Cecil's mind but he didn't touch peated whisky for well over a year after that (he loves it now, for the record). To say I was excited to visit the distillery would be the biggest understatement since Oates' line before popping outside for a smoke.

No pipe and slippers?
Naturally, my excitement meant that despite the alarmingly early start time of 9:30am, we found ourselves at the distillery a good fifteen minutes before that. We were escorted into a reassuringly traditional lounge area, complete with peat burner and wingback chairs. Following the soulless sterility of yesterday's Caol Ila visit, this was just the ticket. Over by the window sat a few bottles and glasses, from which visitors are invited to pour a dram or two while they wait. Had this been an afternoon visit, I may well have made use of the opportunity, however I have a rule about drinking before breakfast on holiday and, once or twice, I've even kept to it.

The Tour

We were greeted warmly by our tour guide, Rachel, and escorted to the old kiln. As it happened, we were the only ones taking this tour, leading Rachel to ask us a few questions about prior knowledge so that she could skip over the kind of things we already knew and concentrate on some of the more obscure stuff. This meant that rather than feeling we were being talked at by someone just reeling off lines from a script, we had our own customised tour; a lovely touch.

Those of you who had the misfortune to be subjected to my Caol Ila rant will know that Diageo distilleries will not allow you to take photos. Rachel made this very clear from the outset, although almost apologetically. I dutifully tucked my phone away and pulled out my notepad.

No pictures allowed, so here's an idiot in a bunnet
Lagavulin, like many distilleries, uses a mixture of Optic and Concertina barely. Also, again like many distilleries, it sports a Porteus mill, this one from 1963. Porteus mills, so we were told, are so high-quality and low-maintenance that the company went out of business. The barley itself is brought in from the Port Ellen maltings, where it has been peated to 36ppm, and tastes startlingly similar to Lapsang Souchong tea when chewed.

The mash tun is made from stainless steel and is relatively new when compared to other distilleries. It takes in 4.4 tons of barley at a time and does this four times a day. Lagavulin houses 10 washbacks, although instead of Oregon Pine, these are made from American Larchwood and were installed in the 1930's. A quick taste of the wash reveals another hit of Lapsang smokiness but with the fruitiness you'd find at Laphroaig.

The still house contains four stills; two onion-shaped wash stills and two pear-shaped spirit stills. These were taken from the now defunct Malt Mill distillery (pretty sure I've got a bottle of that somewhere, ahem) and are used to distil the wash/low wines slowly, leading to a richer heavier spirit. Six distilleries in and I'm slowly getting to grips with this process, although I'm still convinced the occult has something to do with it. Before we knew what's what, the tour was over. Rachel led us over to the warehouse and bid us a fond farewell. This was where some chap called Iain McArthur was going to let us have a crack at a few of his casks. Apparently, he's worked at Lagavulin for quite a while.......

The Tasting

Iain shows us his wood
After being ushered into the warehouse and adjusting to the dim conditions, we could clearly make out that we were far from being the only ones attending this part of the experience. The room was packed with at least a dozen fellow whisky fans who had decided to forego the tour and jump straight to the tasting; that's bloody cheating, in my book.

To kick things off, we were handed a glass of new make spirit. After a little taste one of the group asked Iain the strength of the spirit. He took the opportunity to single us out as for the answer as we had just done the tour and, naturally, I got it wrong. In my defence, I gave the strength at which the casks were filled, but felt like a bit of a tit nonetheless. 

He proceeded to show us how whisky behaves at different strengths, gave us a bit of background on cask management, wood interaction and then promptly popped open the first in a long, looooong line of casks.

Iain McArthur: He gives good measures
After pouring the first sample, Iain gave us a few details about what we were trying, namely the strength, year and type of cask. I asked Iain if he could furnish me with the cask number and he afforded me a strange look. "In all my years doing this, nobody has ever asked me the cask number", he replied, although he kindly checked the cask over and read it out to me. This led to a nice American couple sat next to us leaning over and whispering "Why do you want the cask number?" Mrs S, well practised in fending off queries about my odd behaviour, launched into an explanation about lists of whiskies tried, reviews and blogs, etc. but the glazed eyes of the once-intrigued couple told me that all they understood was "total dork".  

The older, the better. Right?
The next hour or so was a blur of different barrels being popped open, valinches, drams and sarcastic comments about cask numbers from Iain. We went from 2004 through 1998, '93, and '82 and all the while I had my eye on one particular cask. This cask was so old and mouldy, the original markings had faded and a piece of paper had been used to preserve its details. This is, we were told, the oldest cask in the warehouse; the 1966 - cask 552, an ex-Johnnie Walker refill cask. Iain refused to tell us the strength of the liquid inside, suffice to say it was at least the minimum 40% required by law to be considered whisky. 

Let's just have a think about this for a moment. Last year, Diageo released a 37yo special release bottling of Lagavulin with a RRP of £1950. Here we have a cask of 47-48yo Lagavulin. I had no idea whether Iain was going to pop this one open and let us have a try but all the while he was getting closer and closer. Then he opened it and poured us all a dram. This was it, this was the pinnacle. It was insanely old, it was unbelievably rare....

....and it was painfully average.

During this series of distillery reviews, I've saved you the annoyance of tasting notes. This is mainly because I was having far too much fun tasting to write anything down, but also because a lot of the drams are cask samples that you'll only get at the distillery. Even then, the samples I got to try may not be the same you've tried/will get to try when you go.

I will, however, make one observation. Having tried the cask samples ranging from 10-48 years old, in my opinion, Lagavulin peaks between 16 and 21 years old. After that, although good whisky, you tend to lose that signature Lagavulin flavour. This isn't uncommon with peated whiskies. Some people will say that 18 and 25 year old Talisker is incredible; I personally think that by the time it hits 18, it has lost most of the spark and zip that makes Talisker, well, Talisker. I can still honestly say, hand on heart, that trying a Lagavulin of this age is a once in a lifetime opportunity and an incredible privilege. You should do it, if you get the opportunity.

Until we meet again......
After a quick trip to the distillery shop to stock up on liquid gold, we bade farewell to Lagavulin and started on the road to Bruichladdich. Mrs S spent the majority of the journey attempting to explain the reasons behind her evident dislike of 'that warehouse man'. 

"He's brash, cantankerous and arrogant.", she remarked. 

Pretty much three reasons why I took an instant liking to the fellow. I've also heard (from an 'anonymous' guide at another distillery) that he's quite the dancer when he's had a few.

To be continued..............


The Tour: B+
Again, a Diageo distillery so not being able to take photos was a bit of a drag. Despite it being 9:30 in the morning, Rachel was warm and welcoming. As there were only the two of us on the tour, she gauged our level of prior knowledge and pitched her spiel at the perfect level. She encouraged us to ask questions and didn't miss a step when faced with some of the more obscure/geeky questions. Fair play. 

The Drams: A
Lagavulin 2004 Warehouse Cask #7746 58%
Lagavulin 1998 Warehouse Cask #1712 52.4%
Lagavulin 1993 Warehouse Cask #4504 50%
Lagavulin 1982 Warehouse Cask #681 48%%
Lagavulin 1966 Warehouse Cask #552 ??%
Lagavulin 2014 Friends Of Classic Malts Bottling 48%
PLUS a free Glencairn glass.

Six drams and a glass for £24 is serious bang for your buck by most standards but when you consider that five of those drams were pulled straight from the cask, it's even better. Add to that the chance to try some seriously rare whisky (47/48yo Lagavulin is unheard of) and you're looking at pure whisky gold.

The Shop: A
Surprisingly good, given the limited core range. Standard 16, Special Release 12 and DE were all on show, as were the distillery exclusive Feis Ile 2014 and Friends of Classic Malts releases. I vaguely recall seeing some of the older, insanely priced bottlings tucked away behind glass too, if that's your thing.

The shop also had a range of non-whisky items, including some rather fetching bunnets. All in all, it's decked out rather well.

Overall: A
Some people say Lagavulin is going through a dip in quality, others profess it to be the king of Islay whiskies. Whichever camp you fall in, if you like the Lagavulin style, it would be a crime to pass up a chance like this, for a price like this. Great staff, loads of whisky and a well appointed shop. Simply unmissable.

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