Whisky Magazine Issue 11
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What makes Lagavulin great? Dave Broom goes in search of answers at the home of one the world's most elusive malts.
The first sight you get of Lagavulin from the rolling road from Port Ellen is of a place which looks more like an austere, whitewashed Scottish baronial castle than a distillery; the sort that the writer R.L.Stevenson would have one of his heroes face some dreadful peril in.
There is something enigmatic about the building, as if it is trying to mirror the ruins of Dunyveg Castle that guards its rocky bay. It is clear that this is a place of ancient power; the castle itself is central to Islay's history. Not as mystical as the island's mythic heart at Finlaggan, but the centre of its former military might, the place where the Lords of the Isles could assemble 1,000 Ileachs [Islaymen] and set off to war on the mainland.
Lagavulin, you see, is more than just a whisky, it is a force, a strange entity. You will never fully crack its secrets, but as with any malt worth its salt, there is more to the dram than just saying how big its stills are, or what kind of wood it is aged in. The mechanics are interesting, but there is another reality behind that which taps into its place of birth, resulting in the whisky becoming a symbol of the place, greater than its environment.
Even thinking that you can start to unravel Lagavulin's secrets in the distillery is wrong. To try to understand it as a whisky you have to go to Port Ellen maltings. Most visitors to the island speed by the massive blue-sided building on the outskirts of the town. OK, so they are maltings, the real action takes...