Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lagavulin 16 year

stats: Single Malt Scotch, Islay, 43%, $70

It’s a tale that is often recounted in Scotch Whisky lore; that of replacement stills being exact copies of the originals, right down to having the dents faithfully replicated. I’m very doubtful of the aforementioned being a common occurrence and repetition of this dubious narrative only helps to propagate the fanciful notion that single malts are an unchanging commodity.

Many factors are at play when it comes to the evolving flavor profiles of single malts. I’m going to explore several of them in my next post, but today I’d like to focus solely on the stills.

It does make sense to try to keep the stills’ characteristics a constant, and perhaps over the last century there’s been a distillery manager or two who were lacking in self-confidence to the point of requesting that the coppersmiths recreate random indentations. But surely I could also find an example or two of stills that had been replaced with ones of a dissimilar design.

Once again, I’ve led myself down the path of excessive whisky research.

I started with Talisker, remembering that they had switched over from triple distillation to double distillation in 1928. That alone is a pretty radical shift, a simultaneous change of the stills would be logical. But I soon discovered that this was not the case. Two new stills were added to the original three some time between 1885 and 1928 (I’m assuming a second wash still and a second intermediate still, with the original spirit still running double duty). When they switched to double distillation, they just started running the two intermediate stills as spirit stills (I believe they were identical in size and shape to the original spirit still), giving the current setup of three spirit stills and two wash stills. The still house was destroyed by fire in 1960 when spirit boiled over onto the burning coals below. It took two years to rebuild, but the five brand new stills were faithful reproductions of the ones that had been lost.

Caol Ila was my next suspect: when I was researching my recent post on that distillery I came across the fact that many connoisseurs find a clear distinction between the whisky made there before and after the distillery was completely rebuilt in the early 1970’s. I suspected that the stills had become much larger to increase capacity at that time. But here too my guesswork came up short. It turns out that in spite of changing nearly every other aspect of the distilling process after the rebuild, the six new stills were exact replicas of the original two that had been decommissioned.

With a little further digging I finally came across something that sounded promising with Tobermory. Records dating to 1885 show that the distillery had two stills, the wash still with a capacity of 11,500 liters and the spirit still at 7770 liters. The four current stills date to 1972 and have capacities of 18,000 liters and 15,000 liters. Not only were the new stills much bigger, the they had gone from a wash still that was almost 50% bigger than the spirit still a wash still that was 20% bigger than the spirit still. That difference would definitely have an effect on the spirit, but as I read on I learned that the distillery was closed from 1930 to 1972 and stripped of most of its equipment during that time. With a gap of 42 years between the old and new design of the stills, I don’t think this is quite the evidence I was after.

Then I found what I was looking for at Oban. After a four year closure, from 1968 to 1972, the still house was rebuilt and the two original stills (with capacities of 4544 liters and 2272 liters) were replaced by two much larger stills (19,000 liters and 8000 liters). I believe this was done because they desperately needed to increase capacity and had no room to expand (steep cliffs rise right behind the property and a crowded city had grown around the distillery). It looks like they used the space available as effectively as possible by quadrupling the size of the stills instead of replacing the original two with eight copies, which simply would not have fit.

And now on to the example that I sort of knew about all along: Lagavulin. When I toured the distillery last year I noticed some historic photos hanging on the wall of a hallway in the visitor center. There were a few images of the stills dated to 1905, and they looked quite different than the current pots. Technical information about the equipment a distillery has used through its lifetime isn’t typically available in abundance, but after scouring through many sources I was able to come up with enough to paint an interesting picture of how Lagavulin’s stills have evolved over the last few centuries.

First, there’s an interesting little story which must be told, as it is integral to what I’m about to discuss. Laphroaig, which is located just a mile down the road from Lagavulin was a fairly small operation at the start of the 20th century. As such, they had contracted Lagavulin to act as their sales agent. This was a lucrative concern for Lagavulin, so it is understandable that the owner, Peter Mackie, was upset when Laphroaig decided to handle their own sales in 1907 and had a court dissolve their agreement. First Mackie had a dam built which interrupted Laphroaig’s water supply. The courts soon ordered him to restore the waterway. After a few failed attempts to takeover Laphroaig, Mackie decided to copy their whisky in an attempt to drive them out of business.

In 1908 he built a distillery named Malt Mill in a few of the older buildings of the Lagavulin complex. He commissioned replicas of the Laphroaig stills, and even hired away some of their staff. As well as the equipment and processes had been copied, the whisky just wasn’t the same, possibly owing to the fact that the distilleries had different  water sources. Laphroaig thrived and grew, and surprisingly Malt Mill continued to make whisky for more than 50 years.

Back to the stills of Lagavulin, in the 1820’s the wash still was 372 liters and the spirit still was 114 liters. That is tiny in comparison to any modern distillery. By 1887 they had grown to 5450 liters and 2950 liters.

We know that the wash still was replaced in 1892, because there is a record of the old one being sold to the new Balvenie Distillery. I couldn’t find any information about the size of the new still, but I can’t see why they would have gotten rid of a still that was in good enough condition to be used in another distillery unless they were replacing it with a bigger one. If that was the case, I’d imagine the spirit still would have been upsized at the same time.

The next record of a change that I could find was from 1962. This was when the Malt Mill Distillery closed, and at the same time a new, larger still house was built at Lagavulin. The two Malt Mill stills were moved there, joining the two Lagavulin stills. At that time the Lagavulin stills were reported to have capacities of 10442 liters (wash) and 6583 liters (spirit). The Malt Mill stills were said to have been much smaller than Lagavulin’s, but I’m unsure of the date of that statement. We do know that Malt Mill only produced 1/5 as much whisky as Lagavulin in 1908.

The next big change happened in 1969. The information that I found is written in a way that is a bit convoluted, but my interpretation of what I read was that all four stills were decommissioned and four new stills were installed at this time. Two wash stills at 10,500 liters capacity each were made to resemble the recently removed Lagavulin stills which were onion shaped, and two spirit stills at 8000 liters capacity were made to resemble the old Malt Mill stills which were pear shaped. This is backed up by the statement on Lagavulin’s web site that two of the current stills are “pear shaped in the style inherited from Malt Mill”.

Next, I started to scrutinize the images I had taken of the two historical pictures of Lagavulin’s stills, mostly trying to see how they differed from the current ones. And that was when I made a rather shocking discovery; the stills in the two pictures are not the same. It wasn’t obvious right off because one photo looks at them straight on and from above, while the other looks at them from below and off to the right. The sizes look different, but it’s hard to tell as only one picture includes people, providing some sort of scale. The pots in the vertical picture have a more angular design, and the ones in the horizontal picture have a more curved profile. Also, rivet patterns don’t match up, and the pipes and other fittings connected to them look different as well.

My first thought was that maybe one of the pictures was misdated and shows the pre 1892 stills. Eastman’s Kodak camera, the first to use film, had been around since 1888, so this would possible, at least from a photographic standpoint. But after further consideration, I think a more likely scenario is that both photos are misdated; if they are from 1908 rather than 1905, then one picture could be of the Lagavulin stills and the other of the Malt Mill stills. This certainly makes sense when you compare them to a recent still house picture. Two of the stills have a shape similar to the current wash stills and the other two have a shape similar to the current spirit stills.

The pot stills employed by Lagavulin have changed (both in size and shape) far more over the lifetime of the distillery than I had anticipated. There are records of Lagavulin being bottled as a single malt as far back as the 1880’s (it was an 8 year old in those days). Surely, the whisky has evolved right along with the stills from which it emanates.

All of that research has left me in need of a drink; I think a sample of the current incarnation of this iconic single malt is in order.

The color is a dark brownish-amber, hinting at a strong sherry cask influence.
The nose is full and peaty, but not overpowering. Baked fruit and coastal notes are also at play, but overall the aromas are earthy and dry.
The body is thick and viscous, and on the palate it almost seems docile up front with roasted nuts, leather and cinnamon dusted baked apples keeping the smoky elements in check. But the peat keeps coming in waves, making repetitious sustained attacks and building in intensity as the other flavors diminish. After singing its solo, the peat finally relents and eventually fades, well into the incredibly long, dry finish while a subtle floral note adds complexity.
The whisky somehow manages to be robust and elegant at the same time.

I imagine that the 8 year old from 125 years ago would have been vastly different, yet unmistakably Lagavulin.

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