Friday was Bunnahabhain’s distillery day…

As far as Islay distilleries go, Bunnahabhain is perhaps the least talked about among the Scotch cognoscenti, and whilst this is entirely unfair (due to the quality of the spirit), it is unsurprising in many ways. For a start the whisky isn’t particularly peaty, nor is not subject to any wild experimentation during production or maturation, and overall, well, it’s decidedly gentle.

The distillery day was very well thought out, and they’d clearly gone to quite some effort to entertain the merry punters (unlike one or two other distilleries, who shall remain nameless). There was a masterclass held in the filling store led by Ian Buxton, the famed author of the recent “101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die” – a great read, and a wonderful opportunity for a little “spirited” competition between you and your whisky-loving amigos. There was also a cookery course, which made use of both Bunnahabhain and the wonderful blend, Black Bottle. This was led by Graham Harvey and Sheila McConachie, both of whom wrote “The Whisky Kitchen – 100 Ways with Whisky and Food”. We’ve spotted a new trend in writing, so we’re actually going to write our own book: “101 Ideas for Bestseller Whisky Titles”.

Look how dirty this still is. Dirty still.

There were some stalls run by the local community, which sold various craft and food items, and there were stunning scallops and oysters on offer, as well as the omnipresent Seafood Shack, which seemed to pop up at every distillery – it’s a small van that sold some of the finest seafood we’ve ever tried, including some frankly superb langoustines…

The musical accompaniment

Whilst we got to Bunnahabhain early, we were not early enough to beat the hardcore fans who had been queuing for quite some time to get the 2011 Feis Ile bottlings. Bah.

Still, not to be outdone, we got home and cracked open a 35 year old Bunnahabhain.

Bunnahabhain 35 Year Old 125th Anniversary

Nose: Rum and raisin ice cream. Peach melba and a bit of underdone bread and butter pudding. It ends on just a hint of fig compote.

Palate: Big fig on the front, loads of fruit in fact, peach, nice tobacco-iness, a little bit of olive oil, a slither of lemon peel, some Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut…

Finish: Just a hint of that coastal element which comes through at the end, with samphire coated in butter. Delicious, and toffeeyed too.

Overall: Characteristically un-Islay, but still brilliant. If we had to come up with one word to sum this up, we’d choose “Smooth”. With a capital “S”, and an extra “o”, and then a colon, a hyphen and a close brackets at the end. To show our happiness about the situation.

We drove over to Lagavulin, and met up with the distillery manager, Georgie Crawford for an exclusive interview…

An Interview with Georgie Crawford from Lagavulin

MoM: It’s very difficult to find someone who doesn’t like Lagavulin. Even people who really like Islay whisky may have a couple of distilleries on the island they just don’t like, but Lagavulin is beloved by all. Like a peaty Buddha. What makes it so universally popular?

GC: I think one of the main things is its wonderful peaty character, with this deep, rich, complex flavour as well. With Lagavulin are really moving into this richness, and if you took the peat away, it would still be a very big, rich whisky with all the nutty and fruity notes. The worst thing for us would be making a one-dimensional whisky that made people go: “Oh gosh, that’s really peaty!” Our whisky has all these different flavours which bring structure and complexity.

MoM: We had the immense pleasure of trying the Distillery-Only bottling for the first time this week. Is it essentially a re-casked Distiller’s Edition?

GC: Kind of… When we make the Distiller’s Editions we do it on demand. So we’ll ask our markets how many cases they want, and once we’ve got the orders in we work out the allocation of casks. We always tend to make a little more than we need, and we always have some left over, a remnant. What we generally do is put it into blank casks for storage purposes. The blank casks for the distillery only bottling were filled around 3 or 4 years ago after a bottling run of Distiller’s Edition…

MoM: When you say blank casks, do you mean they’ve been used before?

GC: Yes. They’re casks that have been used so many times they no longer adjust the flavour of what’s inside them. We would never use them as maturation casks any more, but they still have a use as storage vessels. We started to really look at what the distilleries could offer above the standard ranges, because we wanted to give something to people who came to the visitor centres and this is what we came up with. We came across all these blank casks that had been filled with remnants from previous bottling runs. With the Lagavulin it’s just the Distiller’s Edition that has then been bottled later, and although you shouldn’t really have a big adjustment in flavour there, you’re still going have some subtractive reaction through the wood and the charred layer over the years, so the result is a mellower version of the Distiller’s Edition with dryness on the finish.

MoM: And let’s not forget perhaps the most important bit, and that’s that it’s been bottled at cask strength!

GC: It is, but I don’t think it’s going to last that much longer! We’ve had a busy festival and the Summer’s coming up…

MoM: We hear you used to work at SMWS (the Scotch Malt Whisky Society), tell us about your time there.

GC: Yes, my first job in whisky was at The Vaults in Edinburgh. But I didn’t like whisky before and if, ten or fifteen years ago, someone had told me I’d be back on Islay and sitting in this office, I’d never have believed them! I ran bars and restaurants in Edinburgh and I always saw that as a virtuous job; entertaining people to earn your money. I went off traveling for a couple of years and then I went to the job centre in Edinburgh and lo and behold there was this job at the Whisky Society, and I’ll be honest with you, I went for it because it was advertised as closing at eleven every night. Before then, I was used to working ‘til two in the morning!

MoM: Having worked at SMWS, and now working at Lagavulin, do you and your team feel like you’re custodians of something?

GC: I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s our job to maintain the whisky, the brand, the heritage and we do feel like custodians.

MoM: As a part of that, you work for Diageo. During the festival we’ve noticed a little bit of animosity towards Diageo, perhaps a wee hint of “kick the big boy”. How do you feel about this?

GC: Well I’d never worked for a really big corporate company before, but I don’t shy away from saying I’m employed by Diageo, in fact I’m incredibly proud to work for them. Diageo really look after people, and they spot talent. I started off as a visitor centre manager at Talisker, and I was just incredibly passionate about brands and about whisky. They spotted me, and invested massively into me as person. Of course they’re going to get their work out at the other end for having done that, but it’s how they grow people … It’s the opportunities they offer.

MoM: This week we’ve come across people who say things like “why couldn’t you release a single cask bottling?” or “why couldn’t you just do this?” It’s only when you explain the implications of what that would mean and how much certain things would cost that they realise it’s not always so easy.

GC: That’s exactly the thing about it. It many ways, you could say that it’s better we’re making a product that’s accessible to everyone, rather than one for a very small niche market. It’s about getting the overall business, and the quality and price point of the product and how you portray it. It’s a very difficult part of the business, and we’re far removed from it here on Islay, but ultimately every single bottling we put out says something about the overall brand. For us, we want the liquid to speak loudest. If it’s going to go out under the Lagavulin name, it’s got to be representative of Lagavulin. If you put out products which taste different each time, the consumers can’t be guaranteed that they like the brand. They may like one or two bottlings, but not the brand as a whole.

MoM: It’s all a continuity of brand identity, although it can be important to give those 2 or 3% something different. They are a minority, but they are a very vocal one who have a huge influence within the industry. With that in mind how do you feel the Manager’s Choice bottlings went?

GC: I have to say I wasn’t very involved with those, as I was just moving out of Talisker when they began work on them. I think the Manager’s Choice range was us trying to fulfil the customers who wanted something a bit different from us, and it was an opportunity to showcase all our distilleries at once. You’ve got the ones which will obviously sell out quickly, for example Lagavulin, whilst at the same time it gives an opportunity for distilleries like Dailuaine, and some of the other, smaller brands to shine through.

MoM: Whilst on the subject, you mentioned how well the Lagavulin MC sold. That perhaps illustrates that there is the market for high end Lagavulin bottlings. Talisker and some of the other iconic Diageo malts have their high end bottlings such as the 25yo and 30yo, why not Lagavulin?

GC: If you knew at the beginning what your end product was going to be, you’d choose and fill your casks accordingly. If we were planning for a 30 year old, we’d perhaps use slightly more tired casks because that would give us a more even maturation, but sadly we never have that luxury, we don’t know at the beginning what it will turn out to become. The other side of it is we cannot make enough Lagavulin for the number of consumers out there, so we’re constantly bottling everything we have. Hand on heart I believe that one day Lagavulin could be the biggest single malt…

MoM: Especially in ten years when the market can support it. Within the last decade we’ve seen a huge shift in people gaining knowledge and understanding about single malts, and it’s still growing.

GC: That’s the thing. You start off with status drinking, and moving up, slowly understanding it, and finally you get to the connoisseur aspect of it. Europe is mostly in the connoisseur phase because we’ve been drinking malts longer. A lot of people who come to the whisky festivals are at that stage, and we want to keep them happy all the time. It’s understandable that people want the high end products, but going back to the 1980s, distilling across Scotland moved into four day weeks at a lot of sites, and even now we only do 2.2million litres a year here at Lagavulin [this sounds like a lot more than it actually is]. We still have a wee bit of a hangover after the ‘80s, and people often think we could grow beyond all belief, but we can’t.

MoM: Talking about increasing capacity, in the next couple of weeks Caol Ila will be closing down to get an upgrade. Are there any plans like that for Lagavulin?

GC: No, absolutely none at the moment.

MoM: We can obviously look back now with hindsight and say that if more casks had been laid down in the ‘80s we could do all these things now. What is the current thinking regarding the stock that you’re managing?

GC: Whisky, at every single point, whether it’s at the distilling point, or on the bottling line, it’s a “slow reaction” product to manager. If, for example, there’s a problem with the malt, you won’t necessarily find out ‘til it reaches the still, which is a week too late. It’s really difficult to actually know what will happen, and if you quickly react to current tastes, twenty years down the line you may live to regret it. Roseisle is an obvious example, and I think at the time there were people not necessarily understanding Diageo and what whisky is all about, and they were thinking “oh god, they’ll be closing the old places and people will be losing their jobs.” What they don’t understand is that 10 million litres is a drop in the whisky ocean at present, and it’s not as big, nor as frightening as you’d think and there are a number of distilleries out there who can put that out also. We’ll still have to make more liquid as a business and not just our company but industry-wide. We might not know today what it’ll ultimately become, but we have a far better understanding of cask management and maturation so when the time comes we should have a really good portfolio of liquid to be able to pick from.

MoM: The people who are coming to the Festival are mostly European, and they are used to single malt, and have more sensitivity to it. They don’t necessarily realise that this is the icing on the cake, and it’s the blends that are the bread and butter of Diageo.

GC: I think that’s where a company like Diageo really comes to the fore. We can focus on individual markets, and we can streamline and put our products into the right places. It always amazes me when products pop up which I didn’t even know we made. For example White Horse used to be everywhere when I was a child, but you don’t see it now. If you go to somewhere like Korea, White Horse is everywhere. Sometimes I’ll see something which I’ve never seen before, and I’ll ask where it sells and they’ll say “Venezuela” or somewhere else, and it’s all these things that many of the whisky connoisseurs just don’t see. The point is if it weren’t for some obscure blended whisky that only goes to Venezuela, alongside the obvious big blends, there wouldn’t necessarily be a need for Lagavulin. It’s an interesting payoff that you have to have, and because of this we can offer great whiskies which are incredibly fairly priced, sometimes even under-priced when you consider the whisky.

MoM: Do you think any of Lagavulin’s whiskies are under-priced?

GC: I think it’s very difficult to express to a consumer what’s inside the bottle without doing it in the obvious ways like making older whiskies more expensive. Age doesn’t always equal quality though, and I think the word “Lagavulin” on the bottle, no matter the age, is a sign that there is quality in the bottle.

MoM: So you’d say with Lagavulin, the brand is more important than the age statement?

GC: I think there is a balance. Lagavulin is a 16 year old because that’s the best age for it to be at to get the balance and the flavour profile we want. Yes it is a bit older than other standard bottlings on the market, but the quality is bang on.

MoM: Well you look at the 16 and the 12 which are both incredibly good whiskies, for us the 16 is a lot like curry [Georgie looks concerned at this point] whilst perhaps the 12 is more like going out to dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Both are great, and whilst the 12 may have an edge on the 16, everyone likes curry. They’re both in our top ten, but the 12 year old is in the top three…

GC: And what else are your favourites?

MoM: Top peaty whiskies? Ardbeg Uigeadail definitely. Laphroaig 25 Year Old, the last release they did which was just fantastic, and Talisker 21 year old. And what would be your favourite peaty whiskies? Taking Diageo out of the equation…

GC: SMWS always had the most amazing Caol Ilas – I know its Diageo but these were independent bottlings so I am sneaking them in! One of the things about Caol Ila was the descriptions and the pictures that SMWS did. There were a few bottlings which I contributed to the tasting notes for, and it was an amazing feeling seeing them and the Bob Dewar pictures done for them. There is one flavour I always get from Caol Ila, which is sugar mice. It’s that real icing sugar sweetness at the tip of the tongue, with that smokiness. And there’s a picture I always get from Caol Ila, whenever I drink it, which is a sugar mouse with its tail on fire! I’ve got quite a sweet tooth and Caol Ila is quite a sweet whisky. As for some other favourite peaty malts I love Ardbeg as well; Uigeadail I think is an amazing whisky. At the moment I have Blasda open and I like it as a pre-dinner drink. I was always a fan of Bowmore 17, and I loved the parma violet notes it had. Highland Park do a 15 in American oak casks, and I really enjoy that. And also Quarter Cask is a great one from Laphroaig.

MoM: Georgie, it was great talking to you. Thank you for taking the time to sit down and enjoy a few drams with us!

– The Chaps at Master of Malt –