Islay has been cradle to many things, early Christianity for one. But it is in malt whisky distilling that this fertile island, some twenty miles by twenty-five, has found its modern vocation. Here, in the still mainly Gaelic speaking community around Port Ellen, on the island’s south eastern shores, twelve men today craft pungent, dark Lagavulin™, made on this historic site at least since 1816.
The sea has shaped everything here. A narrow fringe of mica schist and hornblende provides coastal relief from the Dalradian quartzite of the hills above, providing Lagavulin with its romantic bay and the offshore island of Texa.
Above all, Islay means peat. Miles and miles of peat bog in the west of the island provide the raw material whose influence so characterises the south eastern Islay malts, of which Lagavulin™ is perhaps best known. Lagavulin’s™ richly peaty process water runs down the brown burn to the distillery from the Solan Lochs in the hills above the distillery. Though it shares a coastline with two neighbouring distilleries, former owner Peter Mackie took pains to ensure that Lagavulin shares its water with no-one. Rights over the water course and the surrounding land were hotly contested in his day; his persistence secured Lagavulin’s legacy.
The barley used to distil Lagavulin™ is malted at nearby Port Ellen and has a strong peat aroma – it has perhaps twenty times as much exposure to peat smoke as a typical Speyside, Cragganmore. Fermentation of the barley is a slow process, too. Between 55 and 75 hours are taken for the full peat-rich flavour of the locally-malted barley to come through.
The four stills at Lagavulin, two of them pear-shaped in the style inherited from Malt Mill, take this peaty wort and give it all the time and care it deserves. Following the original practice, Lagavulin™ receives the slowest distillation of any Islay malt – around five hours for the first distillation and more than nine hours for the second is the norm. This long distillation is often said to give Lagavulin™ the characteristic roundness and soft, mellow edges that devotees rightly prize.
There’s nothing rushed about Islay, nor is there about Lagavulin™; before being bottled, the malt spends sixteen unhurried years breathing the sea-salt air of Islay, mainly in refill European oak casks kept in traditional white-painted warehouses by the sea shore. Long fermentation, long distillation and long maturation together ensure that Lagavulin develops all of its long, rich, peaty character. It’s is a spirit that likes to take its time. The definitive Islay malt demands nothing less.