The first three miles east from Port Ellen on the A846 are as close as it comes to pilgrimage for lovers of smoky whisky. One mile out sits Laphroaig. You go another mile and arrive at Lagavulin. One more mile and you are at Ardbeg. Whitewashed buildings, pagoda roofs, the ocean just beyond—if you’re lucky, the smell of peat smoke will be in the air. Even if you haven’t halted along the way you may well be feeling exalted by the time you arrive, a few more miles up the road, at the ruined church in whose cemetery stands the Kildalton cross. (If you go the other direction out of town you’ll come across another ruined church, the old Port Ellen distillery). But if you have stopped to spend some time at Lagavulin with Iain “Pinkie” McArthur, you will certainly be feeling the spirit quite strongly by the time you get there.
So it was for me on my first full day on Islay.
After a disappointing outing at Talisker, as soulless an experience as you might expect to have at a Diageo distillery, I had braced myself for more disappointment at Lagavulin. The Talisker tour having turned out to be everything I was warned it would be, I did not sign up for the distillery tour at Lagavulin—the same people who said the Talisker tour was likely to disappoint had added that if you’ve done one Diageo distillery tour you’ve done them all. I’d also seen reports that the staff at Lagavulin were disinterested to the point of being unfriendly. I am happy to report that what I experienced at the distillery was instead one of the highlights of my whisky career.
The good vibes started from the moment I entered the visitor centre. Well before disclosing that I was a paying customer—about to embark on the Warehouse Experience—I asked a cashier if there was somewhere I could get some water for my family (who were going to spend the hour I was going to be at the distillery walking to Ardbeg and back). He disappeared into the back of the building and came back bearing an armload of bottles of water and told me to take as many as we needed. This attitude was not the exception: everyone at the distillery was genuinely warm and seemed happy to see the visitors, whether they were signed up for tours or not, whether they were buying anything or not (and it must be said it was the same at all the other Islay distilleries).
After paying the £23 for the Warehouse Experience (I’d sent in an email a few weeks prior to make the booking but only received the confirmation the day before) I browsed the visitor centre/shop briefly. It’s much smaller than at Talisker or Oban (more on Oban soon, I promise) and far less shiny and theme park’ish. As you’ll see from the pictures below it’s altogether more quaint, the aesthetic far more mid-20th century. They do sell merchandise other than whisky but the shop seems very much like an add-on to the distillery rather than the intended focus of most visitors’ experience. If you are signed up for a tour you’re encouraged to go to the back of the visitor centre where there is a sitting room where you wait for your tour to start. This is a very charming space, cosy and warm. Old photographs convey the distillery’s history more evocatively than the huge displays at Talisker and Oban, the displays of bottles compete for attention with shelves lined with books. Sitting here, I felt happy before the Warehouse Experience had even begun.
Of course, I felt even happier once the Warehouse Experience had begun! More on that below this first slideshow which gives you a look at the distillery grounds and the inside of the visitor centre.
And so, the Warehouse Experience. This is offered five days a week but is led on only two of those days by one of the icons of Lagavulin, warehouseman Pinkie McArthur, who has been at the distillery for decades now. I was fortunate enough, through no planning on my part, to be there on one of those days. I’m not sure what the experience is like on the other days but I have difficulty believing it could compare. You know from the moment Pinkie greets you warmly in the sitting room and calls the group together that you’re going to have a good time. We were a fairly large group, some, like me, first-timers on Islay, some who were at Lagavulin for the 8th time. All of us were excited as Pinkie led us, past the Malt Mill sign to Warehouse No. 1.
In the center of the warehouse were six casks on their sides, and in front of them an upright cask serving as a table. As we settled in we were handed Lagavulin nosing glasses and Pinkie went around, greeting everyone; in some cases, greeting old friends. For the next hour he had us eating out of the palm of his hand as he joked, teased and dispensed Lagavulin lore—and to those he knew or took a shine to he dispensed increasingly dangerous amounts of whisky. On this point I should note that while it is true that Pinkie now has an assistant who pours each whisky, there was no sign on that morning that this was done with a view towards minimizing the amount of whisky poured. Perhaps because I made Pinkie laugh a few times, perhaps because I was seated with a group of jolly Swedes who were old-timers, I received increasingly generous pours as the hour went on. (I should also note that those who were driving were given tiny nips of each whisky and given the rest to go in little plastic containers.)
What were those pours of? Good question! Proceedings began with pours of the Feis Ile 2017 bottling. After that Pinkie drew from a cask of 5 yo whisky to give us a sense of Lagavulin when it is only just barely legally whisky. This was followed by a 13 yo from 2004, a 19 yo from 1998, a 24 yo from 1993 and a 35 yo from 1982—these were all sherry casks. I am going to spare you descriptions of the whiskies because unlike some I’m not good at taking notes on whisky in such conditions. I also wanted to focus on the entire experience and not on sitting quietly and trying to tease out the nuances of the whiskies. To some extent then, you might say that perhaps the whiskies were wasted on me. So it goes. I can tell you that other than the 5 yo (which was rough and new makey) they were all excellent—my favourites being the 19 yo and the 24 yo. Take a look at the pictures below and scroll down for a little more on the experience.
Okay, so what was I doing if I wasn’t giving my attention over entirely to the whiskies? Well, I was listening to Pinkie talk about Lagavulin and about the whiskies we were drinking; I was laughing at jokes that I might not find as funny in other circumstances; I was chatting with the jolly Swedes I was sitting next to (who in an incredible coincidence had only ever met one person from Minnesota before and that turned out to be someone I drink whisky with a few times a year); I was taking my turn sucking whisky out of a cask through a valinch (thankfully, unlike some of the others who were called up to do it, I didn’t make a hash of it and get made fun of by Pinkie); and I was getting a little bit tipsy (I was glad I’d eaten a large breakfast). I’m not going to try to explain what made all of this so much fun because it’s not really possible to get that across, not for me at any rate.
All I can say is that if you go to Islay before Pinkie retires (which will be sooner rather than later) you should try to do the Warehouse Experience with him. If like me you’re inclined to think of distilleries as the property of anonymous corporations whose only interests are efficiency and profits, meeting people like Pinkie (and others at Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Bowmore—to name only the distilleries I spent substantial time in) will remind you that they’re also often run and staffed by people who feel a deep connection to their histories and a genuine appreciation for the whisky they make and sell.
Oh yes, speaking of selling, the Warehouse Experience at Lagavulin is not an example of Diageo squeezing out as much profit as they can. I paid £23, which is less than I would have paid at a bar for the amount of the 24 yo that I was supposed to have been poured (I was given about twice that amount and even more of the 35 yo). I would estimate that the retail/bar value of what was actually poured was close to £200. And how can you put a price on an hour with Pinkie McArthur?
Up next on the distillery visits front: the promised quick looks at Tomatin and Oban. And then a more detailed account of the Distiller’s Wares tour at Laphroaig.