My Islay Trip Part 4 – Lagavulin

The day had started pretty miserably, big ominous black clouds and such. Today was the day I’d planned to visit Lagavulin and Ardbeg, which meant a 3 mile walk each way. Anyways I was not going to let the weather keep me from doing what I went there to do, so I packed up my rain suit and made sure everything was waterproofed and off I plodded.

IMG_20160708_094430Again I used the beautiful Three Distilleries path, going past Laphroaig and smelling the lovely smell of fermenting malt and the green field where I knew a humble little Israeli flag lay nestled in between some long grass. The path eventually ended as I came to some houses and up ahead I saw a large white structure with the words “Lagavulin” painted on a wall in black. As I arrived those ominous clouds started pouring down so I dashed inside.

I was welcomed by a quaint little wood paneled shop, really cozy. I was told I could wait in the lounge for my tasting to start, I was doing a warehouse tasting where we could taste some stuff straight from the barrel. I looked around the shop a little, they had some nice merchandise but very expensive, and the range of whiskies on sale was a bit disappointing, everything there was readily available on the retail market, and for a good deal cheaper than at the distillery too. After sitting in the really nicely decked out lounge a bit and helping myself to a few handfuls of malted barley from the big jar sitting on the table, I went to explore the grounds a little. This was my first encounter with the might corporate hand that is Diageo. I got told quite firmly that I’m not allowed to be wandering around and to go wait in the lounge.

After a little more waiting someone came through shouting that the tasting was beginning, it was a bit of a mess and we got muddled up with another group doing a distillery tour but eventually everyone got to where they were supposed to be. We were herded into the warehouse and seated on some fairly uncomfortable folding chairs facing some barrels, including one very old looking one with the date 1982 stenciled on it.

IMG_20160708_111040It was then that I recognised the plucky Scotsman walking about as Iain McArthur, the warehouseman at Lagavulin and quite a legendary figure in the whisky industry. Having worked in at the distillery for well over 40 years, he knows the ins and outs of all the casks in their stock, and is a fabulous guide for such a tasting. He’s also an excellent entertainer and works really hard to make sure everyone in his care has a great time.

Iain started drawing from the casks and we tried the Lagavulins in ascending ages until he eventually drew from the 1986 cask I’d been eyeing since we went in, here’s what I thought of them:

Note: I’m not using my usual scoring system of ‘Would I buy it’ etc. as these casks are only for the warehouse tasting and samples can’t be bought.

Lagavulin 2004 First Fill Sherry Cask

Aged 12 years. 52.5%ABV. Drawn straight from the cask.

Nose: Light smoke. Red fizzy drink. Cough syrup. Salt. Seaweed.

Palate: Salty peat. Jammy sherry. Charred wood. Dry wood.

Finish: Long. Dry. Fruit peel. Oil smoke.

This was interesting. It was far less smoky than the regular bourbon cask 12 year old, but far more heavy hitting than the 16 with really thick, oily, sherry notes. I liked it.

Lagavulin 2000 Refill Cask (Type not specified)

Aged 16 years. 54.6%ABV. Drawn straight from the cask.

Nose: Light smoke. Floral. Salt. Apple cider. Porridge. Ash.

Palate: Oily smoke. Rich porridge. Aromatic herbs.

Finish: Long. Dry wood. Bitter fruit. Wood smoke. Light cinnamon.

This was quite a malt centric one, probably quite a tired cask. Iain explained that these were used to beef up their expressions. Was drinkable, but I think it’s best used as intended, vatted with other more vibrant casks.

Lagavulin 1997 2nd Fill Sherry Cask

Aged 18 years. 57.5%ABV. Drawn straight from the cask.

Nose: Rich smoke. Varnished wood. Creme brulee. Cough syrup.

Palate: Oil smoke. Red fruits. Bitter. Dry wood. Menthol.

Finish: Long. Cough syrup. Cherry jam. Bitter wood.

This one was the closest to the classic Lagavulin profile we all know and love. All those lovely dark cough syrupy notes were there with the rich peat and fruits. Lovely stuff.

Lagavulin 1993 First Fill Sherry Cask

Aged 23 years. 53.6%ABV. Drawn straight from the cask.

Nose: Fruit cake. Raisins. Rich smoke. Jammy notes. Wood oils.

Palate: Rich wood. Oil smoke. Chewy sap. Citrus spray. Grapefruit. Bitter wood.

Finish: Long. Bitter coffee. Woodspice. Wood smoke. Slight ginger.

This was a lovely dram, and for a few brief moments, the oldest Lagavulin I’d ever tried. The sherry notes mixed with the older wood brought out those lovely rich wood oil and coffee notes, and there was still a decent punch to it too.

Lagavulin 1986 Refill Cask (type unknown)

Aged 30 years. 55.2%ABV. Drawn straight from the cask.

Nose: tropical fruit. Plum wine. Floor polish. Camphor. Pine needles. Light sandalwood incense.

Palate: Juicy fruits. Tar. Ash. Slightly bitter. Spicy.

Finish: Long. Cough syrup. Menthol. Smoke. Pine tar.

The peat influence was all but gone here, but it was a stunning whisky in its own right. Lovely older fruit notes and rich woods coming through.

With that out tasting ended. I was really happy to have tried such amazing whiskies and hear a talk from Iain about the distillery and what it’s plans are, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were on a bit of a production line: “In you get, here’s your booze, out you get”, as we were hurriedly herded out of the warehouse to set up for the next bunch, and with that it was all over and off we went. I had a lot more of a personal feeling at all 7 of the other distilleries so this was a disappointment.


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