We set out just after dawn. Our boots steadily scrubbing the well weathered pavement as we crossed the faces of the white wind-rattled harbourfront homes. The sun shone down gloriously from a pristine blue sky as we turned left onto Lennox Street, now heading uphill with a quickening pace. It was a perfect Islay spring day in every way imaginable, and yet somehow all of this was secondary to the destination.
There were just the three of us alone on that road. Marching over the hills; past the stone-walled fields; beyond Laphroaig. The only sounds: our footsteps, the wind, and the ocean. Then, past the old croft on the left, while rounding the bend to the right around the hill, it came into view. An alabaster visage as though conjured from a dream. Simultaneously surreal and hyper-real.
We had arrived at Lagavulin.
It may well be the most memorable walk I've ever made. For years I had dreamed of making it to this place and now that we were there, if time had stopped even that wouldn't have been slow enough for me to take it all in.
Long before the licensed distillery that stands there today, many monumental moments had come to pass here. The site itself is steeped in history, dating back to the 12th century when this bay and Dunnyveg Castle were home to the Lords of the Isles. It is here that one could even argue that the genesis of modern Scotch whisky was born after John MacDonald II, Lord of the Isles, lost his lordship over these lands to King James IV in 1493. After all, it was only the very next year that the first record of whisky was written.
After shaking off the initial awe and a knock on the door, we were greeted by Distillery Manager Georgie Crawford and the day began in earnest. Following a quick coffee chat in the lounge, we were exploring this hallowed whisky ground that links past, present, and future, at times subtly and other times with jarring efficiency.
Gone are the days of in-house floor maltings and crews of men swarming about attending to all the details of whisky making. The floor maltings are now the visitors centre; the crews, now solitary men operating a massive control panel working in shifts under Georgie's attentive watch. But all is not lost to modern technology. The Porteus mill, with its wood encased components and fire engine red metal frame, dates back to 1963. Georgie refers to it as "the most important piece of equipment I have to ensure efficiency", and it is in this mill that the malted barley from nearby Port Ellen Maltings begins its slow transformation into the iconic spirit so many know and love.
Following a 6-hour cycle through the stainless steel mash tun and a 55-hour fermentation, the wash meets copper in its cycle through the massive stills whose hulking bodies produce the phenolic new make spirit. The raw spirit somehow is redolent with pineapples, berries, and licorice, all dangling over the ever-present peat from the original malted barley. To trace this process through the buildings from beginning to end is to gain an appreciation for all the efforts of decades past while understanding the need for the automation now present. While it may indeed quash some of the romance associated with the making of malt whisky, one good whiff of the still house serves as a reminder that the machines may have replaced many men, but they have not replaced all elements of the craft; and if the smells still house don't finalize that notion, a good whiff of the new make most certainly will.
Beyond the monitoring station, through an open door, we could see the sea shimmering just past the verdant backyard, and beside this was our next stop: one of the old dunnage warehouses. Producing 3.5 million litres of bulk spirit each year, the distillery is home to 5,000 slumbering casks, with 2,500 more resting at the remains of the old Port Ellen distillery, and a further 4,000 ageing at Coal Ila in Port Askaig. Thankfully one can dig into two or three of the casks on site in the confines of these earthen floor buildings to truly bring the experience to life, as a warehouse tasting can be added to most tours for a mere £15, and it is highly recommended.
While the casks used in the warehouse tastings do change,the sheer joy of tasting whisky drawn straight from the barrel does not. On this day we were treated to the contents of three that will be reviewed another day: one from 2000, a sublime cask from 1993, and a truly intriguing expression from 1966 with its contents that seemed to reverse time and draw back to the core of the new make. It should be noted that the initial maturation of all of Lagavulin's modern-day expressions occurs in second-fill ex-bourbon casks, the first fill having been used to mature grain whisky for many of Diageo's blends. It is those blends, chiefly White Horse and the ubiquitous Johnnie Walker, that gobble up 20% of the distillery's annual output. Thankfully though the rest is laid down for single malt production, with 2% of that going to the angels naturally.
Upon finishing in the warehouse, it was back into the sunlight to relax with a final dram while trading distillery stories with our host and attempting to take in everything around us. Not unlike many of the great destinations on this planet, from the moment of arrival there is a feeling that time is whipping past too quickly for the person, while the place stands defiantly still. No matter how hard we tried, we knew that the glass would empty, the dram would end, and our time there would run out. We made the most of it by spending a little longer in the friendly confines of the visitors' lounge. Looking over the old pictures; reviewing and comparing notes; holding out as late as we could until the moment came to depart.
It was in that final moment that we undertook a decision that will remain with me for the rest of my life. Looking out across the bay at the ruins of Dunnyveg we determined that we would take our glasses and a special flask-borne gift from Georgie to sit in the sunlight at one castle while gazing back at the other. As we completed the climb to sit down on the plush grassy outcrop on the edge of the ruins we fell silent. The only sound: the waves crashing on the rocks below. Then slowly, with each sip of that exclusive 18 year old cask strength bottling created specifically for the Islay Jazz Festival, each of us in-turn began to chuckle. The revelation arrived wrapped in all that was that moment, garnished with every minute of our journey that preceded it.
This was a moment that grew to be missed the second it began. It was the perfect dram. Sublime in its contents, surreal in its feeling, while simultaneously surpassing every sentiment that could be verbalized. Simply put: it was wonderful whisky, shared with great friends, sipped at a special time in a singular place. Staring across the bay, my thoughts drew back across the thousands of miles we had traveled to be there. Over an ocean in the dead of night. Blasting through treacherously winding roads. The early mornings, and the late nights. All this I would do again at the drop of a hat just to revisit a portion of it.
For the better part of the next three hours we lapsed in and out of conversation, chattering like excited children one minute, only to fall silent the next. Never departing from the shared experience, yet somehow taking the time each needed to truly appreciate the magnitude of the moment. As we gathered our belongings and hiked back down the hill I vividly remember saying aloud "that was probably the best damn dram I'll ever have"; something I am even more certain of now.
Then, finally, with the day drawing into late afternoon we set off back to Port Ellen. I remember walking backwards at first in a vain attempt to hold on to the view of the distillery, and then Dunnyveg, for as long as I could. Arriving back in town an hour later, we were not entirely sure what to do with ourselves that evening. But I did become sure of one thing: this was not the last time I would be there. I will find my way back to Lagavulin someday.