It’s the Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 Day 2: Lagavulin! To mark the occasion we’ve got news on the distillery’s activities, an exclusive bottling, and the story of how the Smoky Cokey cocktail won over the hearts and minds of the whisky-drinking public.
It’s Day 2 of our Master of Malt Islay Festival 2021 and we’re virtually stopping by the legendary Lagavulin. It’s known for its picturesque distillery, celebrity fan base, and an array of intense, rich, and smoky drams that have won numerous accolades over the last two centuries or so. Lagavulin is a fundamental part of Islay’s whisky heritage and attracts a huge number of visitors each year, not just at festival time. And while we can’t be there in person today, there’s still plenty happening at the distillery…
What’s going on today
Today it’s Lagavulin day and to celebrate from 7pm the Lagavulin Distillery warehouse will play host to an evening of performances by Scottish singers, Joy and Andrew Dunlop and the Niall Kirkpatrick Ceilidh Band. Attendees, who can tune in to the virtual event via the Lagavulin Facebook page, will witness an adventure on Islay’s surrounding sea, a hike around the island showcasing its scenery, and a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of warehouse manager Iain McArthur, as well an exclusive first look at the festival bottling. Speaking of which…
The distillery exclusive to look out for is:
Lagavulin Fèis Ìle 2021 – 13 Year Old. A bottling matured in refill American oak casks and finished in high char Port-seasoned casks, there’s just 6,000 of these being released with an ABV of 54.4% at £160 per 70cl. They’re available to purchase at Lagavulin Distillery and online on malts.com from 1 June with a pre-sale for subscribers at 2pm (BST) 31 May.
Meanwhile, we’ve got a trio of daily deals to snap up. Lagavulin 16 Year Old, Lagavulin 8 Year Old, and Lagavulin 2005 ( bottled 2020 ) – Pedro Ximenez Cask Finish Distillers Edition are now all on sale. And while you’re reading be sure to check out our 2019 interview with former distillery manager Colin Gordon and our Islay memories playlist on Spotify to get you in the festival mood!
The Smoky Cokey: an unlikely success
Mixing booze with cola is nothing new. People have long paired rum or Jack Daniel’s with the classic fizzy drink. But a single malt like Lagavulin?
Yes, we’re looking back at the surprising story of how Smoky Cokey became a fixture of Fèis. For those unfamiliar with it, the Smoky Cokey is essentially a Highball made with Lagavulin (8 or 16 Year Old, dealer’s choice) and cola. Given the whisky’s status as a serious drinker’s dram, a purist’s choice, it’s not a combination that you would ever expect to see. It sounds almost sacrilegious, like the kind of drink that would cause Nick Offerman to stare at you sternly if he saw you order one, reducing you to a blubbering mess begging for forgiveness for your transgression.
Most people agree that the Smoky Cokey originated from an experiment Dave Broom conducted in his excellent 2014 book, Whisky: The Manual. In a quest to find the perfect mixer for each Scotch, he tried numerous different whiskies with drinks like green tea, soda, and cola, finding the latter paired perfectly with Lagavulin. It was a bold statement and a big deal. One of the most respected whisky writers in the world has just backed the strangest of horses. And people were forced to consider that he may just have a point.
Colin Dunn: cocktail pioneer
Diageo whisky ambassador Colin Dunn is probably the other figure most associated with the serve. He has been a regular at Feis Ile since 2000, which means he’s had plenty of festivals to prepare for. Every year he looks for something fresh to bring. He’d already begun experimenting with serving Lagavulin with food and thought that mixing it would be the logical next step. After reading Whisky: The Manual, he had the ideal serve to test this theory.
While at Lagavulin Distillery with guests prior to the festival, Dunn did something of a trial run. He popped 35ml of Lagavulin 16 Year Old in a Martini glass and topped it up with cola he’d allow to turn semi-flat to lose some of the bubbles. He put them on a silver tray, went out to Lagavulin pier, and gave the cocktail to his guests. “The first gentleman said ‘wow, what do you have in this, Punt E Mes?’ That opened my eyes to its potential and how receptive people can be if they don’t know what they’re getting,” recalls Dunn.
Sensing an opportunity, he enlisted the help of Alessandro Palazzi of Duke’s fame to help create a menu of Lagavulin drinks to demonstrate its mixing potential. “Introducing Lagavulin in cocktails was a big challenge back then. People wanted it neat. Acoustic. But Alessandro and I wanted it to make it electric,” he says. Their menu included a Negroni in which Lagavulin replaced the gin, a smoky Old Fashioned with Tabasco, and a Smoky Cokey, as it came to be known.
It took a while to take off
The reception was good, if a touch slow. When Dunn would go to bars and order the Smoky Cokey, many would insist on serving the cola and Lagavulin separately. But word spread, and in an age where playing with whisky was becoming increasingly popular it soon developed something of a cult following. Over the last few years its reputation has continued to grow and it’s now a common sight at Lagavulin Day.
Which raises the question, why does it work? Dunn believes that cola’s slight bitterness, minerality, and sweet notes work in harmony with earthy, damp, and muscular whisky. Compared to a traditional whiskey and coke, usually made with bourbon or Jack Daniel’s, Lagavulin adds a layer of complexity and intensity as well as some savoury qualities to balance the sweet vanilla and spice of the soda. It’s an unlikely success and yet it totally makes sense. It’s Daphne and Niles. And like any good marriage, it becomes a thing of its own instead of two other things just plopped together. It’s sacrile-cious, and for every purist that’s outraged by it, there are many new drinkers who adore it. Dunn wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Scotch is about innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship,” Dunn says. “Distilleries like Lagavulin have been evolving since its creation. Whisky is not supposed to stand still. You simply don’t know if something will work until you’ve tried it. I can tell you now the team who worked at the distillery absolutely loved it, as did some of their parents and grandparents who had worked at the distillery and made Lagavulin decades ago. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you. It works because thousands of people tell me it works”.
Making whisky accessible
The unlikely duo now represents something of a triumph for broadening horizons and reconsidering the stuffy and backward notions that Scotch whisky, and in particular Islay whisky, can’t be playful and fun. We should celebrate the Smoky Cokey’s ability to make a powerful and occasionally challenging dram accessible to those new to Scotch.
And it’s so delightfully simple. You truly only need Lagavulin and cola to make it. A wedge of lime or orange would work nicely as a garnish, and if you’re a true maverick you can go all out and ice cream to make a Floaty Smoky Cokey. But other than that there’s really no rules. You can use Lagavulin 8 or 16 Year Old, you can play with different premium colas and you can adjust the measurements as you see fit.
Dunn says to experiment and see what works for you. “My suggestion is to get a glass of Lagavulin 16 and then make a Smoky Cokey in another glass. Nose the straight whisky, then nose the cocktail. Take a sip of each, but don’t just swallow, give them a moment to compare the two flavours. Then you can adjust based on what you like”. Personally, I find the below works well.
However you make it, it’s the perfect drink to toast a remarkable distillery. Slàinte mhath!
How to make a Smokey Cokey
35ml of Lagavulin 8 Year Old or 16 Year Old
A bottle of high quality (or just your favourite) cola
Wedge of lime
Add the Lagavulin to a glass (again, go fancy or as simple as you like) filled with lots of ice and then top with cola. Stir, then add a wedge of lime if desired. Enjoy.