My wife allowed for a two-day honeymoon detour to Islay to experience the “whisky coast.” For those new to the blog, three of our favorite whiskys, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin are on the southern coast of Islay, a small and sparsely populated island on the west coast of Scotland. My wife and I toured the three distilleries, but did not have time to work our way north to Kilchoman, which comes highly recommended by its three senior neighbors to the south. Although the camera was not working during this part of the trip, I will put down my mental notes of what I found interesting or surprising at the three distilleries.
The first distillery we visited was Lagavulin, simply because we arrived in the late-afternoon, when Laphroaig and Arbeg had already shut down for the night. I was surprised to find that the Islay distilleries seemed to interact more as colleagues than as market competitors. This might have something to do with the fact that only 3,000 people live on Islay, but the tour guides were not shy about explaining the differences between the three brands in a wholly positive light and encouraging us to visit their neighbors. I think that pooling their marketing power into the “whisky coast” probably helps tourism and peat-loyalty rather than brand-specific loyalty but this was definitely a pleasant and welcome surprise.
Each of the tours had different strengths and weaknesses, which meant that we were still learning and seeing new things through the end of the third tour, something which really surprised my wife. If you have the opportunity to visit Islay, I would strongly urge you to see all three distilleries.
Lagavulin’s visitor center was probably the least commercialized of the three. The visitor’s center was decorated in a manner reminiscent of a rural great-grandfather’s house. The room could comfortably hold between 10 and 15 people, had a low, white ceiling, plaid chairs, antique furniture, an old, model sailing ship, and a few shelves of classic, but well-worn, books. Upon entering the room, I instantly looked at my wife with the hopes that she might find the room attractive and decorate our apartment accordingly. She quickly shot down that hope but promises to model my future study (when we build a house) after the visitor’s center, so that’s a net-win I guess.
The highlights of the Lagavulin tour were the washbacks. Washbacks are where fermentation occurs in the distilling process. They house the water, which has previously been soaked in grist, and yeast. Lagavulin’s washbacks are made from Oregon pine, and initially appear to stand about five feet high, that is until you realize that the washbacks extend below the metal-grate floor for another 20 feet before coming to rest on concrete. Lagavulin will open the washbacks up during tours so that visitors can compare the different stages of fermentation and the foam and heat it creates.
One of the washbacks had just finished fermenting and the tour guide asked my wife and I if we wanted to try a “Lagavulin beer” (after the washback stage the distillery has basically created a beer without hops). I was really skeptical but the tour guide took our hesitation for a “yes” and lowered a big metal pitcher into the washback and handed it to us to try. It was surprisingly tasty (my wife says she almost liked the beer better than the whisky) and it was interesting to see how much flavor makes it into the whiskey before distillation and aging.
Lagavulin’s biggest problem right now is demand. Everyone from the tour guide to the guys running the stills seemed concerned about how quickly the supply was being bought up, and unfortunately there is no quick-fix on the horizon (nothing is quick when you have to plan 16 years before your product hits the market). Lagavulin operates its distillery 24/7 and runs its equipment to capacity. The distillery has just two sets of stills (it’s a “baby distillery” as Lagavulin calls it) and expanding would mean adding at least another set of stills, several washbacks, and potentially another mash tun, undoubtedly a multi-million dollar investment. Such an overhaul would basically double the distillery’s equipment, quite an undertaking of capital, especially when you consider the additional buildings needed for the equipment.
Even if Lagavulin could come up with the capital to double production, the shortage of usable barrels for aging would be problematic. Lagavulin purchases American whiskey barrels and then rents them to another Scotch distillery for exactly one more use before using them itself so as to soften aging’s effects on the whisky. Expanding production would require purchasing barrels and renting them out years before the equipment could even be added. High demand is a nice problem to have considering the industry’s struggles in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but it might mean that Lagavulin’s price-point is about to increase.
Lagavulin’s stills were also incredibly interesting to watch, mainly because the arms of the stills were tilted downward in an effort to help the alcohol condense as quickly as possible. Lagavulin believes that physical contact with the copper still smooths the taste of the alcohol and removes a bit of the peat flavor. By manipulating the arm angle of the still, Lagavulin is able to begin with the least amount of peat (between Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig) at the beginning of the process in terms of ppm but retains the most peat throughout the distilling process. This explains why Lagavulin has just as smokey a finish as Laphroaig despite using much less peat.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the Lagavulin tour and came away satisfied that the brand will continue to see immense success for the foreseeable future.