The journey back to Islay

Colin Hampden-White talks to Georgie Crawford, manager at the Lagavulin Distillery. The interview originally appeared in issue 2 of Whisky Quarterly magazine.

Was that your first contact with whisky?

- Before the Malt Whisky Society, even though I had been working in bars, I wasn’t keen on it at all. I knew how it was made. Coming from Islay, we went to distilleries on school trips as a kid. There were no cinemas, galleries or museums for the children so they did trips for kids out to the distilleries. My uncle was also the distillery manager at Bowmore and I remember him taking me round. Whisky is in the blood if you’re from Islay, if you live on the island no doubt your friends or family or both will be working in or around whisky. My parents owned a pub, so a lot of the people coming to the pub worked at the distilleries and a lot of the conversation would be about whisky, so whisky was all around me growing up. When I had my interview for the Whisky Society, it was old-style interviewing, so we just sat around a table chatting. We were sitting in the vaults and had this conversation about previous experience and I got that feeling that everything was going well and Annabel Meikle went off and poured me a whisky and put it down in front of me. I thought, I’m not going to get this job because I’m going to throw up (she laughs) But it was a very nice Rosebank which was a very good introduction to single cask, cask strength whisky. So it really was from the Society forward. Once I had started at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Every week we would have Charlie MacLean doing tastings and Jim Swan was in every week. It was an incredible learning experience, being surrounded by people who have now moved away from there, people like Annabel Meikle. She is now one of my best friends. Both our careers have gone in two different ways. I remember when I was first there, thinking: I want to be Annabel Meikle. She has now Coming from Islay, we went to distilleries on sn school trips as a Kid set out on her own and taken her rightful place amongst the likes of Dave Broom and Charlie MacLean and that has been incredible for her. Working there opened my eyes to variety. Malt whisky drinkers tend to like variety. They might have a couple of regular whiskies on the shelf, but try many other things. But they will always say “there is this whisky on my shelf for the end of the night” and we’ve been fortunate that Lagavulin 16 is very often one of those whiskies.

Can you describe your day at work?

- First thing in the morning, we go down to the control room and have a conversation with the guys about what’s been happening. This is especially important on a Monday morning if I haven’t been there over the weekend – having a look through the books, seeing how the fermentations are getting on. Seeing how the dips on the stills are looking, you can get a good feel for whether there are any issues. One of the big things we have is automation at the site which allows us to trend, so I’m able to pull up graphs of everything that’s going on through the site and see if we have any anomalies. The other big part of the job, which doesn’t normally get talked about, is how the plant the whole site is running. I’ve just had a conversation with the operator about the fact the boiler was off for two hours last night, so it’s not just about the production but how the plant itself is running. That’s how the morning goes. There is always a mass of emails. I then look at the details of production, for example when it’s starting to get colder, the river water is a different temperature and thus processes will need to change. There is also a huge amount of compliance with regards to HMRC Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and we no longer have an excise man that sits at the site. We are self-regulating, so checks on casks and stock taking is done, security and that sort of thing. Another massive part of the job is health and safely compliance. What we are doing here is making a volatile alcohol so there is a lot of work that we do around the safety of the site. We make sure the plant environment is safe and the people working there are safe, like reducing CO2, checking pressures on boilers. We have just come out of our “silent season” where we are shut down for maintenance; a lot of the job is maintenance of the site. We also do a lot of planning, including for next year’s projects. We start to have meetings on projects which won’t start to be installed for 12 months. Continuous improvement is important. What we want to have is best practice at the site. The heart and soul of what we do at the distillery doesn’t change, but we can do it more efficiently or control it. For example, the mill grinds the grain 28 times a week and it’s done that since it was installed in 1963 when the merge between Maltmill and Lagavulin happened. That basic task of grinding doesn’t change how we are able to control that mill today. Interaction with that mill is entirely different because we can do it from a distance. We make sure we have the best technology at all times in the plant. There is no average day. In a morning I can be talking to people like yourself. As the year goes on, there are projects like the Jazz Festival or Fies Fies Ile, so there can be a mix of strategy, future strategy and day-to-day stuff. It’s certainly not about sitting around in Tweed jackets, smoking pipes.

What makes you more happy as a distillery manager - keeping the flagship products at the same high level or making unique special editions?

- That’s a difficult one. The product new make spirit we are making is absolutely consistent no matter what cask it is going into. This is done so that in maturation, the small anomalies of the cask are then able to give us these unique differences. The most important thing for me, like Diageo’s motto “every day, every way”, is that as many people in every corner of the world can get their hands on Lagavulin, and that will generally be the 16 year old. We are now in a position that we haven’t been for many years. In fact is was around 16-17 years ago, that the production level went up, so there is now more 16 year old available. That is a great place to be in, because we will never make enough as the demand requires. But because of changes made all that time ago, the growth in Lagavulin is there. Consumption of Lagavulin as a single malt is increasing at twice the rate of peated malt and that’s possible because of the increased production. It’s lovely to do the small runs for the Feis people, reward people for coming all the way to Islay and that’s amazing, but for me it’s really about making sure that product gets out to as many people as possible. They may never set foot in Scotland or Islay, but they will still be able to drink Lagavulin.

Why is a 16 year old the flagship expression of Lagavulin? This whisky is slightly older than the fkagships of other distilleries...

- It was a 12 year old and I think one of the factors in that move to 16 was because it was part of the Classic Malts created in 1987. They were looking at the variety of styles and ages and maturations and at that time we decided to move Lagavulin to a 16 year old. I think partly for that range to have diversity but I think also, if we compare Caol Ila and Lagavulin distilleries side by side, we use the same malt, we use the same yeast, it is the same rain that falls on the island, but we have two very different products. A large part of that is the size and shape of the stills. At Caol Ila, you have a much taller still which allows a lot more reflux and a lot more interaction between the vapour and the copper to make a much lighter, purer style, whereas at Lagavulin, you’ve got a flatter still with a very angled lye pipe on it, which means that we get as much copper interaction there, so we’re making a slightly heavier character spirit. So it makes sense that it takes that bit longer in maturation to balance out that character with the wood. Caol Ila’s standard bottling is 12 years old and Lagavulin’s is 16. 16 just seems to really, really work for Lagavulin.

What sets Lagavulin spirits apart Irom other Islay whiskies?

- We own the maltings here in Islay and the other distilleries take in whole or part, the malt from the maltings. One of the key things is that we are getting different phenol levels coming out to the different distilleries to ensure our own uniqueness. That is a part of it. Our second distillation, when we are making the final spirit, is about 11-12 hours. That’s incredibly long. The heart of the run is about four and a half hours. You can have in other distilleries secondary distillation which is five or six hours long. I think the main difference in our spirit (because whisky is different, in a sense, as it has been matured) comes from the end of fermentation. This is where most of the flavour is created and the distillation is about fine-tuning that character you’ve got at the end of fermentation. We’re not adding any huge changes in flavour, but are fine-tuning Consumption of Lagavulin as a single malt is increasing at twice the rate of peated malt 15 Homeland For us, the second maturation is about adding a layer, but not smothering the product with the interaction of the copper and this is where the unique character comes in to Lagavulin 16. The peating levels are important, the fermentation times are hugely important and distilling fine-tunes it. All these things create great balance.

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