There are distillery tours and then there are the great distillery tours that defy reasoning. These become memorable for a variety of reasons. The whisky itself could be the key component, or in my experience a marvellous guide, full of anecdotes from a bygone era. The setting itself, or that moment of sunshine could play a part alongside the comradery of a group of strangers; a band of brothers and sisters united by their love and appreciation of whisky.
n reality, it could be any of these reasons or a combination. A great and therefore memorable tour are often organic and not as a result of a heavily scripted and choreographed routine from a well-trained guide. That’s why many Diageo and Chivas tours fall by the wayside. A great tour is far more effective than any brand ambassador, as flushed by the experience, attendees will spread the world much farther than many promotional campaigns.
For the record, I should mention some of my own memorable tours. Many of these are on Islay, with Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Laphroaig springing to mind. I’d also include Ardbeg in the list, but my only tour was a private one, which isn’t representative of the general offering. The current tour option at Ardbeg has been prompting negatives comments from friends recently and the same logic applies to word of mouth, whether it is positive or negative. Further afield, there are delights to be had at Ballindalloch, Deanston, Daftmill, Edradour, GlenDronach, Glen Garioch, Glengoyne, Highland Park and Springbank. I’m sure you have your own personal favourites as well for a variety of reasons.
Then there are the tour options with several of the above offering enhanced experiences above and beyond the norm. A famous example of this – if not the most famous – is the Lagavulin warehouse demonstration often hosted by the resident legend that is Iain MacArthur. During this experience that rewards those that reach Islay, you’ll be taken through a series of whiskies drawn from the casks sitting right in front of you.
Being in the presence of casks within a distillery is always a treat and memorable moment. To then include such an iconic distillery as Lagavulin, with its world-renowned 16-year-old expression and a series of rarely seen cask strength samples – this is the whisky nirvana to many. Add to the mix the guiding hand of a legend such as Iain, who celebrates 50 years in the industry in 2020 and the historical setting? That’s a recipe for success, but more importantly, memories that any attendee will treasure.
My irregular tasting sidekick, Rose, was fortunate recently to make this pilgrimage to Islay, mainly for Bruichladdich lets be said, but she was wise enough to include Lagavulin on her list and the warehouse demonstration. A bonus was that her and John were the only ones on the tour that afternoon. Not being a massive fan of the inferior 8-year-old, I often have to take this on the chin in good humour. When asked for a summary of the tour Rose simply commented on the lovely guide before handing over these samples for my own pleasure. A wonderful gesture and one that I’m thankful for, as I’ve never taken the warehouse demonstration with Iain. Of all the tours I still want to take in Scotland this is top of my list.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to explore these exclusive whiskies, but rather than just quaffing these in private, I wanted to share the experience with the many Lagavulin fans who visit MALT on a regular basis. This one is for you and don’t ever say I don’t take one for the team, ok?
Lagavulin 7-year-old 61% – review
On the nose: Sweet peat and grapefruit, followed by apples and Kiwi fruit. Somewhat closed and shy overall with a touch of iodine, cauliflower and celery. Water reveals gem lettuce, smoke and lime.
In the mouth: Fairly tame it must be said and peaty but no real development – is this the 8-year-old in disguise? There’s tarragon, melon and lime towards the finish. Let’s try some water. Better with a sweet peat and more citrus flavours and ripe apples with a chalky finish.
Lagavulin 21-year-old 52% – review
On the nose: Rum fudge, brown sugar and a Highland toffee bar. Chocolate followed by mushrooms and some dried fruits with a seasonal Christmas twist. There’s also liquorice and water showcases red apples and a stewed black tea.
In the mouth: Balanced and very earthy. More brown sugars, toffee and roasted coffee on the finish. Brown cap mushrooms and rubbed brass. Water unlocks a wet tweed or hemp fabric dynamic, a touch of salt and burnt brown toast.
Lagavulin 21-year-old 1997 52.4% – review
Colour: A light haze.
On the nose: Initially understated, very much so. Then a dirty vanilla, a touch of peated water, resin, stewed apples, mace and spent black tea leaves. Sugar cubes and the sense that time is beneficial. Water reveals a chocolate brownie and kindling.
In the mouth: Cardboard and an earthy quality with some soot. Vegetative and gorse follow with a chalky nature and lemon. Oily and the peat is still pugent after 22 years. Water lightens the funk and brings salt, vanilla and a lingering smoke on the finish.
Lagavulin 22-year-old 52.9% – review
Colour: Diluted peat.
On the nose: A drying smoke, salty as well and a twist of lime. Grapefruit with apples and a creaminess coming through. Taking us towards vanilla, pine cones, white grapes and a hint of vinegar. Water showcases vanilla marshmallows and lemon zest.
In the mouth: A murky peat, charcoal and a vegetative aspect. Sandpaper, a wet tweed or fabric aspect, limescale, dirty vanilla and pine nuts. Smoked bacon that’s been well fried. Water opens up a new salty dimension, cardboard with a mineral finish.
Lagavulin 26-year-old 49.8% – review
Colour: Apple peel.
On the nose: A spent firework and memories of a dead sparkler from my youth. A peaty sweetness enhanced by the sherry bodega cask. Roasted coffee beans, aniseed and not majorly expressive. Woody, some chocolate, fudge and kindling. With water apples, lemon and vanilla bring a more approachable dynamic.
In the mouth: A little sweeter than anticipated. Smoky and then the peat kicks in with ham hock and spiciness with cloves almost a mulled wine vibe. More black tea leaves and pink peppercorns with water revealing sweetness, shortbread and pastry.
An interesting experience, especially sitting at home with these samples. The warehouse is always my favourite part of any distillery tour. The promise of forbidden fruit and a magical atmosphere. Perhaps the setting distorts the quality of the whisky? Arguably, drinking from the cask has its limitations given the temperature and the air thick with life. The whisky is only a part of the equation on this Lagavulin or any warehouse tour. The setting and guide transport you to another place. The gateway that only exists in that setting at that point and time. That’s what’s missing when I compiled these notes.
There’s a lot of hype around Lagavulin. It’s always a solid whisky, but I do feel the peat-heads can go a little overboard at times, which is just human nature. Noting the behaviour of the sherry-heads and the Bruichladdich-lost-their-heads brigade underlines this belief.
Clearly, the 7-year-old is the stepping stone and jumping right into the ’20s reveals more, well, just detail really. Can I also say it’s great to have Lagavulin in its naked form? No master blender tampering and most important of all; no bloody artificial colouring!
In saying this, the older casks have subtle differences but are much of a muchness. I’m not smelling or tasting a huge varied range. Lagavulin knows its home turf and it seems keeps within the walls of its well-maintained fortress. Nothing wrong whatsoever with this, but I do think maybe the sweet spot for a Lagavulin is in the teenage years? I’ve had some mighty older releases during my whisky journey; a few crackers, yet I’m also questioning is Lagavulin as strong as it once was?
As for the tour, I’m sure we’re all in agreement that this is an experience we must all visit Islay to try for ourselves.
Photographs and samples kindly provided by Rose aka From Where I Dram.