My wife was kind enough to indulge my whisky obsession and not veto my idea to make the trip to Islay, aka Whisky Mecca, during our trip to Scotland. She said that I could go to as many distilleries as I could fit into three days on Islay. Well, the joke is on her because the answer to that question is 7 in what turned out to be quite the whirlwind tour beginning on a Friday and leaving on the first ferry out on Monday morning!
Let me start by saying that getting to Islay isn’t that easy. It’s not super hard, but simple it is not. Once you’ve arrived in Scotland you have two options to get to Whisky Mecca: Take a small regional flight or drive and take the ferry. The flight, while perhaps more direct, is more expensive and more crucially imposes a strict limit on how many bottles you can take home with you (talking with other fellow devotees who have taken the flight before, I believe the airline restricts you to 3 or 4 bottles). The ferry option is great if you’re willing to rent a car and to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Assuming you have a designated driver, renting a car and taking the ferry also has the added benefit of making getting to and from distilleries much easier, and you have no limit to how many bottles you can ultimately take off the island (except for how much money you allow yourself to spend). You can take public transit while on Islay or hire a taxi, but this is either not super convenient or gets expensive rather quickly. Suffice it to say, the combination of convenience and flexibility tilted our decision in favour of taking the ferry to Port Ellen.
Port Ellen, and Islay, in general, is a rather small place with not a lot of places to find accommodation, not a wide variety of restaurants and not a huge selection at the grocery store(s). But it is quite magical to be there and for me just setting foot onto Islay was a dream come true.
This trip did take a bit of forethought and so we made sure to nail down reasonably priced accommodations well in advance of stepping off the ferry. In regards to tours, you need to book in advance. It’s fairly easy to get onto standard tours of the distilleries as they are held a few times throughout each day, up to every hour. These standard tours which, generally, include a dram or two from a distillery’s core range and a quick walk by the Mash and Still houses, are fairly basic and don’t really let you taste the good stuff or to even take a nitty-gritty to look at the whisky making process. Don’t get me wrong, seeing where your favourite spirit is made and distilled is an amazing experience but these standard tours tend to be fairly whitewashed and corporate. For me, getting to sit in the warehouse, or take a tour that really let you get into the heart of the distillery as well as sample some amazing stuff straight from the cask was a priority. And in order to get the exact tours, I wanted I had to arrange things ahead of time, either through email, phone call, or reservation system. Diageo tends to be more low tech and you can either email requesting times of tours still available or call in.
Unfortunately for me, Lagavulin’s legendary Warehouse Demonstration is only held on weekdays and was full when I emailed to inquire about available tours. But I gave them a frantic call and begged for a spot, which they graciously made room for me and wrote my name into their reservation book (a literal notebook and pencil is how the distillery staff manage their tours; you show up, give your name and pay once there).
As soon as I sat down in the Warehouse it hit me that I was finally on Islay. This feeling of euphoria was helped by the fact that my flight to Scotland arrived an hour and half late, allowing us just enough time to pick up the rental car before they closed, driving through the night to get to the ferry terminal through pouring rain on winding, twisty and treacherous Scottish roads in which I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of me. Suffice it to say, I needed a drink and Lagavulin delivered the goods on a cold, rainy and windy day at 10 am.
Arriving at Lagavulin and entering into the Visitor Centre/Souvenir Shop, felt like I was stepping into an old English Country Club; wood floorboards, wood shelves and walls painted green and white. I checked in, paid the 50 pounds for my wife and I and went to check out what was for sale. Noticing the various branded jackets, hats, glasses, I gravitated to the various bottles on offer. On top of the standard lineup up of the 8, 12, 16, Distiller’s Edition, also available were the 2017 Distillery Exclusive, the 2017 and 2018 Jazz Fest Bottles, the 2018 Feis Ile, as well as the 200th anniversary 25-year-old. Hearing that the 2018 Jazz Fest bottle had just been released that very morning, the very nice staff offered to get me a sample. I took my sample and wandered into the sitting room to enjoy my dram. This room was a little crowded with other visitors eagerly awaiting their tours but looked to be one of the most comfortable sitting rooms you could imagine, with a fireplace, lots of stuffed leather couches, rustic wooden side tables and the same green and white colour scheme.
I had a few minutes to enjoy my dram before Chris, our guide, announced that our 10:30 am tasting was to begin and to follow him outside. Chris lead us outside and down a winding path towards the water, which lead to the warehouse where our tasting was to be held. As I stepped out of the heavy drizzle and through the wooden sliding doors, I was excited to find that none other than Iain McArthur in the flesh was there to greet us!
Once we had taken our seats, which were arranged around the 6 casks in the middle of the space that had been cleared in the warehouse, both Iain and Chris started to pass around these neat resealable cans of water, as well as the little-branded nosing glasses that were ours to keep. As I took my can of water from Chris, I inquired about driver bottles for my wife, shortly after Chris came around with a case of little bottles and was gracious in allowing us to take as many as we’d like.
From there the tasting began. Chris would valinch the whisky straight from the barrel and then put it into an unlabeled Lagavulin bottle with a standard bar spout. He would then go around the circle of chairs pouring each person a very healthy amount of whisky. Of the 5 tours/tastings I was lucky enough to book, the Lagavulin was was probably the best value. 6 drams straight from the barrel for 25 pounds is hard to beat. Unfortunately, it was also the most rushed as the tour lasted only an hour. I was able to take the notes below, but a combination of still having a Bruichladdich tour later that day, as well as not wanting to just chug the samples, I made great use of the sample bottles. So without further ado, here is what I tasted.
2018 Jazz Fest Bottle (it was originally supposed to be the 2018 Feis Ile bottle, but because the Jazz Fest was released that very morning, they made a slight change and we were some of the very first people to ever try this) –
Matured in first fill American Oak barrels, refill American Oak hogsheads & European oak puncheons.
Nose: Peat and barley sugar, typical Lagavulin candied citrus.
Taste: Explosion of peat, more barley sugar, brine, olives, hint of tar, charred apple skins
Near Perfect distillation of Lagavulin spirit.
Finish: Coastal sea air, minerality, citrus rind oil.
Notes: I wish this wasn’t NAS and would have appreciated more information. The sherry really doesn’t come through. It’s still quite a good dram but the value proposition isn’t great at 99 pounds.
2012 (6 Years Old) – 61.0% – Bourbon Cask
Nose: Young vibrant peat, watered down lemon juice, pepper.
Taste: Pepper, grass, olives.
Finish: Smoldering oak, white pepper.
Notes: Very reminiscent of the 8-year-old expression available now.
2012 (16 Years Old) – 51.8% – Bourbon Cask
Nose: Olives, Japanese cheesecake, green leaves and brine.
Taste: Apple skins, great viscous mouthfeel, hint of smoke orange, oyster brine.
Finish: Smouldering peat, Apple chips, white pepper.
1998 (20 Years Old) – 52.0% – Sherry Butt
Nose: Candy tape, red liquorice, light brine, Hubba Bubba.
Taste: Hubba Bubba, char, oak, light peat, smoked oysters, a spritz of citrus.
Finish: Smouldering, more artificial red fruits.
Notes: Love the interesting sherry notes, and the first dram of the session to really make me perk up.
1997 (21 Years Old) – 52.4% – Hogshead (Refill cask which came from another distillery but previously held bourbon. Referred to as refill since the distillery didn’t get it first fill)
Nose: Brine, molasses, play-doh, orange zest, oyster brine. Quite a gentle nose, clay.
Taste: Clay, oak, citrus, Hubba Bubba, sea breeze, wet leaves.
Finish: Smoldering leaves, pepper, old wet oak.
Notes: Very good but I liked the 20-year-old more due to the more unique notes.
1993 (25 Years Old) – 49.2% – one of the casks that went into the 200th Anniversary 25-Year-Old – Sherry Cask
Nose: Mineral, far-off forest fire, salt spray on the beach, peach pits, bit if new leather, bubble gum.
Taste: Ancient fire pit, vague fruits, Durian.
Finish: Oak, powdered sugar, smouldering coals.
Notes: I had high hopes for this one, but I don’t think the 5 minutes remaining in the allotted hour did this one justice. I think it needed a fair amount of time to open up.
The Warehouse Demonstration was fantastic, everyone was in a great mood and a fellow patron even decided to sing a song dedicated to Iain. While it was a bit too rushed, sitting in the Lagavulin Warehouse after the ordeal it had been just to get to Islay, I couldn’t have been happier. This first experience was dream come true and a check off the bucket list, and I still have 4 more tastings to enjoy while on Islay. We thanked Iain and Chris, took our nosing glasses and samples, and made our way back to Port Ellen to have lunch at the Islay Hotel before making the drive out to Bruichladdich.