Lagavulin, The Lord of the Isles: A Spirit Created with Sea and Smoke
Distillery Spotlight: Lagavulin Distillery
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
Lagavulin Bay (Image Source: The Independent)
Lord of the Isles
Off the west coast of Scotland lie the Southern Isles, a cluster of islands encompassing the Isles of Islay, Arran, Skye and Ardnamurchan. There was a time when these islands were de facto ruled by powerful Lords of the Isles who projected naval power and, with their fleets, fiercely asserted their independence from Scotland.
Still watchfully guarding Lagavulin Bay are the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, an old naval base of the medieval Lord of the Isle. The feudal Lords’ days are evidently over. In the place of these Lords are the equally intense and self-assured whiskies from Lagavulin and its cousins.
Within the genre of smoky whiskies, Lagavulin is quite inarguably hailed as the critic’s choice, the archetypical Islay single malt, and in the sense today’s Lord of the Isles.
A tale of two distilleries
Officially founded in 1816 by John Johnston, Lagavulin’s actual founding date is closer to the 1740s when unlicensed distillation was commonplace. The distillery was built on the south of Islay with not much land space but a breath taking view over the Lagavulin Bay.
Lagavulin whiskies are made with water from the nearby Solan Lochs, while the peat, that is crucial to the distinctive beach bonfire flavour, is taken from the vast peat bogs in the west of Islay.
The distillery has a love-hate relationship with the nearby Laphroaig distillery which was coincidentally founded by Donald Johnston, the son of Lagavulin’s founder. The flavour profile of Laphroaig was thought to be desirable or complementary, and Lagavulin frequently bought Laphroaig’s whiskies create blended whiskies. After Donald Johnston fell into a boiling vat of fermented malt, the Lagavulin management saw this tragedy as an opportunity to lease the Laphroaig distillery for a brief period of time.
Both distilleries later engaged in a spate of bitter litigation triggered by Laphroaig’s refusal to continue supplying the other. In a questionable scheme, Lagavulin poached Laphroaig’s distillery manager and replicated Laphroaig’s stills in an abortive attempt create an identically-tasting whisky. The result did not match because the water and peat used was not the same as Laphroaig’s – we will revisit the implications of this below.
As fate would have it, Lagavulin had to focus on its single malt (rather than blends). Yet this approach of remaining faithful to its distinctive character ultimately planted the seeds of its success. The distillery was later handed over to the alcohol beverage giant, Diageo plc, which since 1987 has been marketing Lagavulin as the quintessential Islay malt amongst the core Classic Malts of Scotland selection.
Low altitude peat
Men harvesting peat in Islay (peat is a mixture of soil and decomposed vegetation trapped within wetlands and formed after thousands of years.) (Image Source: Whisky Advocate)
The secret to why Lagavulin failed in its mischievous bid to replicate Laphroaig lies in the character of the peat used by Lagavulin.
“Malted” barley is the most important raw ingredient of Scotch single malt. During the malting process, barley is induced into germination by soaking in water until tiny white sprouts emerge. The distillery staff would halt this process swiftly by toasting the barley in an oven. At Lagavulin, as with other traditional Islay distilleries, peat is burnt as fuel to toast the barley. This imparts a bold and distinctive smoky flavour into the barley often reminiscent of iodine, tar, bacon and soot.
Image Source: Whisky Advocate
Here is where the peat from Lagavulin differs from Laphroaig: Lagavulin obtains its peat from a bog at a much lower altitude compared to Laphroaig’s peat bog. Due to its lower altitude, Lagavulin’s bog would have spent a millennia below sea level, collecting seaweed and other organic material from the sea. The result is a this: the typical Laphroaig has a grassier, mossy and sooty peatiness, whereas Lagavulin offers a more maritime character with much more brine and iodine. While Laphroaig could be compared with burnt grass and moss from the land, Lagavulin is closer to a campfire on the seashore.
Distillation for richness and smoothness
Next, the distillation process at Lagavulin is designed to create a heavy, rich and intensely sweet spirit.
The four stills at Lagavulin distillery (Image Source: Days Out Scotland)
We have covered how Glenmorangie’s tall stills prevent heavier compounds to be collected in the distillate. In contrast, at Lagavulin, the stills are designed in a way to allow heavy and rich compounds to easily carry over the neck of the stills and be collected as a heavy and rich spirit.
During the second round of distillation, the spirit is put in a smaller still with the heat turned down to a soft simmer for well over 9 hours. The small still makes it easy for the heavy and rich compounds to carry over into the spirit. The low heat enables there to be maximum reflux and contact with the copper walls of the still – pulling out the sulphur created during the fermentation process. This long distillation period results in the whisky roundness and mellow edges.
Ex-Bourbon cask maturation
Very rarely are sherry casks used for Lagavulin’s traditional range despite the tendency for the rest of the industry to be in love with sherry. Following distillation, the spirit is matured only in second-fill bourbon casks. This enables the distinctive coastal smokiness and salted-fish character to come through.
The younger expressions tend to be quite fiery and intense with very huge maritime smokiness and sweetness. As a Lagavulin ages, the fiery temper mellows out to become much more well-rounded, complex and elegant.
Lagavulin’s iconic flavour profile
The robust Lagavulin 16 Years Old (Image Source: Boozeat)
Lagavulin signature style is influenced by its use of low-altitude peat, small stills, slow distillation process and purely bourbon casks. The result is a rich, meaty and intensely sweet whisky well-balanced by aromatic smoke of a briny maritime character somewhat reminiscent of seaweed and salted-fish.
The typical Lagavulin expressions tend to have the following taste profile:
- Deep amber
- Robust and complex
- Beach bonfire, tobacco
- Dried fruits of raisins, prunes
- Touch of woodiness and black tea
- Rich and lightly oily
- Well-rounded with mellow edges
- Rich sweetness with brown sugar, molasses and dried raisins
- Intensely but well-balanced smoke
- Light brine, kombu (Japanese seaweed) and salted fish
- Long, complex, fading smoke and seaweed
The Islay region is famous for its smoky whiskies. Yet given the diversity of character within the region, it would be reductive to cast Lagavulin as the representative for the Islay family.
A bottle of Lagavulin is intense, self-assured and makes no apology for staying true to tradition in style and flavour. In our experience, younger expressions tend to be quite intense in sweetness and smokiness (e.g. the Lagavulin 8 Year Old). However, with just a little bit more patience and a few more years of maturation, the fiery temper mellows out to become very well-rounded, complex and elegant.
The 16 Year Old sets a very high benchmark for a core expression. Its production is never sufficient to quench the thirst for it, and we often see shortages in this category. Presumably to cope with this happy problem, Diageo frequently releases the Cask Strength 12 Year Old, along with the multiple award winning Distillers Edition series, which has been finished in sweet Pedro Ximénez sherry casks.
An excellent companion with richly flavoured foods, consider having Lagavulin alongside charcoal grilled meats or some intensely-flavored Roquefort blue cheese.
Image Source: Pinterest (My Mojo 🔴)
Our favourites are:
Entry Level: Lagavulin 16 Years Old; Lagavulin Offerman Edition; Lagavulin 200th Anniversary 8 Years
Moderate: Lagavulin 21 Years Old; Lagavulin Lagavulin 20 Years Old - Feis Ile 2020
Top Shelf: Lagavulin 200th Anniversary 25 Years; Lagavulin 30 Years Old
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