Of the eight, I visited six and a half. My malt marathon around Islay was hacked short with the missing experiences and lost drams coming from a couple of the island’s biggest and most well-known distilleries. Getting an inside look at all eight of Islay’s distilleries in one week requires the right contacts and precision planning, both of which I had, but also a bit of calendar luck. Sadly, this is where the bottom dropped out and my dream of “hitting the cycle” on Islay ended. I couldn’t wrap up my Islay posts without at least a few words about Diageo’s boys on the island: Caol Ila and Lagavulin.
With the Port Ellen ferry terminal currently shut down for renovations, all ferry-goers arrive on Islay at Port Askaig in the northeast. Less than ten minutes away hides the massive distillery Caol Ila (pronounced cull EE-la). During communication with Diageo prior to my trip, I was warned that Caol Ila was in the middle of renovations that would last six months, and that they weren’t accepting visitors. Fine, but I still wanted to see the place. My first attempt was aborted by a sign forbidding visitors past the initial driveway, and when I mentioned that I turned back here to some fellow travelers, I was roundly chided for being such a goodie two-shoes. I sulked in my dram and vowed to return.
On my final morning on Islay, I returned to Caol Ila and drove past the sign, following the hairpin road down to the water and a glimpse of the distillery. Caol Ila may not be the most well-known distillery on Islay, but it’s one of the biggest producers of Scotch whisky by volume in all of Scotland at 6.4 million liters/year. A full 95% of that production goes toward Diageo’s most famous blended whisky: Johnnie Walker (20% of Green Label is Caol Ila). The remaining 5% is bottled as Caol Ila single malt, a straw-colored and delicately delicious dram with noticeable but not overpowering smoke.
My fortunes were slightly improved at Caol Ila’s sister distillery in the south of Islay, Lagavulin (hence the “half” visit). Lagavulin (pronounced lah-gah-VU-lin) has a reputation for producing the richest malts in Scotland, and it seems to be the Scotch of choice among golf-, fireplace-, and cigar-loving silver foxes around the globe. My trip to Islay coincided with Lagavulin’s silent season, the time each year when the distillery does not produce whisky. Fortunately, the visitor’s center was open, and I was taken back into a luxurious dram room replete with leather furniture, bookcases full of old books, and an array of Caol Ila and Lagavulin whiskies.
I was joined by a quartet of tartan beret-wearing Americans and a couple of backpackers drinking their way around the island. I settled into a chair with a dram of Lagavulin Limited Edition, which is their Distiller’s Edition bottled at cask strength. There wouldn’t be a tour because of silent season, but eventually a tour guide named James (who also happens to be a stillman at Caol Ila) joined us and shot the breeze. Lagavulin’s whisky is known to be rich, oily, and robust with smokey, salty, leathery notes, and their stills play an important role in creating this flavor profile. The wash stills are onion-shaped while the spirit stills are short, fat-necked, and pear-shaped. They follow a slow spirit still run, meaning the heat is kept low so it takes longer to boil off the alcohol.
James gave us all the inside scoop on Lagavulin’s production, and happily sniped at other distilleries all in good nature. Unlike Caol Ila, 60% of Lagavulin’s production goes to their single malt and they’re aiming to increase that number to 90%. In terms of blends, Lagavulin is one of the key whiskies in the vaunted Johnnie Walker Blue. All the while the drams flowed freely. At one point, one of the backpackers inquired about a whisky on the table and James implored him to give it a try, just that he wasn’t pouring anymore drams. “Help yourselves,” he said.
And so the regret of missing tastes of Caol Ila’s and Lagavulin’s products was replaced by the regret of not remembering them. On the bright side, I’ve now got a great reason to return.