|Delivering malt to the distillery|
|Lagavulin's water source is so peaty that it's brown by the time it gets to the distillery|
Lagavulin has two pairs of wash and spirit stills, which are built such that they will largely concentrate the constituents of the wash rather than separating them, like many other stills. They are short, squat, and bulbous, with steeply descending lyne arms. Lagavulin also loads their stills nearly to capacity and uses a fairly short foreshots cut (72-70%) - this is also a much lower maximum proof due to the lack of reflux - with a fairly broad spirit cut (70-62%) that dips down into what many other distilleries would consider feints. These features and procedures mean that there is very little reflux or copper contact during distillation, which produces a spirit that has significant amount of both foreshots (fruity esters) and feints (phenols, fusel oils). This gives Lagavulin a significant depth and breadth of character, but also usually requires that it be aged for a fairly long time to really hit its stride, since the esters and fusel oils need time and oxygen to covert into more pleasantly flavored compounds.
|The docks that used to service the distillery before roll-on ferry service became available|
After the tour wrapped up, I trooped down to one of Lagavulin's warehouses for a very special tasting. That will be a post of its own, but suffice it to say that it was an experience.
Somewhat tipsy after half a dozen cask strength drams (I repeatedly told people that part of the reason I was biking was that that way I was only a threat to myself), I set off further down the road towards Ardbeg, the last of the Kildalton distilleries on my itinerary.
The first order of business was getting some food into myself. Thankfully Ardbeg has a nice cafe inside their visitor center, which was rebuilt from one of their old malting kilns. After a pleasant lunch and a chat with a local couple who used to live in the PNW, I set off with a small group for our tour of the distillery.
Neil led us into what used to be one of Ardbeg's malt bins, which are now no long used. We began with a bit of history, describing the ups and downs in the distillery's fortunes. We spent some time discussing recent history - the rescue of the distillery from outright ruin in 1997 when Glenmorangie purchased it and the changes wrought since Glenmorangie was brought into the LVMH fold in 2004. From there we walked through the old malt bins.
After talking about the difficulties and near tragedies of working in the old kilns and malt bins, Neil made was I thought was the most incisive point of the whole tour - that "there are no stories" attached to the newer, more efficient equipment. Old methods were significantly more labor intensive and produced much more batch variation - for instance, peating used to be assessed 'organoleptically', i.e. by tasting the malt to decide when it was done - but the new equipment has largely removed the human element from the production process. Malt is now purchased at spec (55 PPM) from Port Ellen, delivered to the malt bins by truck, then fed into the mill and mashed automatically. Speaking of their mash tun, Ardbeg is in the peculiar situation of having left their old cast iron mash tun in place, then inserted a new stainless steel one inside it.
This bothered me a little bit - if you're going to upgrade to stainless steel, then just do it, don't try to hide behind the old façade - but ultimately it's a quibble. However, one nice feature of the new mash tun is that it automatically cleans itself - distillery workers no longer have to climbing inside to wash it out by hand.
Ardbeg does keep one piece of tradition by using wooden washbacks. These are about the same size as Lagavulin's at 23,500 liters. Fermentation has become shorter by about ten hours since the early 2000s, coming down to a more 'standard' 55 hours with a strength of 8% ABV. I do have to wonder if this change has been part of why Ardbeg's spirit has become less complex - there's less time for the yeast to develop flavors, instead focusing on converting the starch into alcohol, which will produce fewer interesting side-products during fermentation. Each washback holds enough wort for two wash still charges - half is taken out, then the second half is removed five hours later after the first wash still run.
|The view out of the room where the washbacks are located is rather nice|
Ardbeg, as with most distilleries, proofs their new make spirit down to 63.5% and fills most of it into first and second-fill ex-bourbon casks. Smaller amounts are filled into sherry casks and French oak casks, for their Uigeadail and Coryvrecken expressions. Displaying the influence of Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden, a variety of other casks, such as marsala, fino sherry, and French wine casks are also used.
|French wine casks with their distinctive hoops in the foreground left and stacked up in the middle right|
|One example up close|
Once again fairly tipsy, I departed from Ardbeg. I briefly considered continuing down the road to view the Kildalton Cross, but thought better of it, given that it had been a long day and the wind was still blowing rather hard out of the west. That made for a slow trip back to Port Ellen, but I got there without too much trouble. I made a fairly early night of it, knowing that I had to get most of the way around Loch Indaal the next day.