Interview with Lagavulin Distillery Manager Georgie Crawford

Lagavulin Distillery Manager Georgie Crawford (photo credit: Diageo)

The bicentennial celebratory release of Lagavulin 25 year pays homage to the distillery managers that helped shape its history and its whisky.  That being the case, I thought I’d reach out to current Lagavulin Distillery Manager Georgie Crawford via email with a few questions.

Georgie, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. To start off, tell me a bit about how you got started in the business, and how your journey led to your current job as Distillery Manager of the Lagavulin distillery.

I grew up firmly within the drinks and service industry and that’s really where my journey started. My parents had a pub here on Islay when I was growing up and we used to earn our pocket money by doing the bottling up, working in the kitchen and helping around the place. When I left full time education I ended up in Edinburgh where I started managing bars and restaurants. In 2002 I started a job at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and was bitten by the whisky bug, I went on to manage a whisky shop in Speyside and then joined Diageo at Talisker Distillery on Skye in 2007.

I have now been back at home on Islay and at Lagavulin since 2010. Coming to Lagavulin has been like being reconnected with a big extended family you didn’t realise you had. Everyone looks out for each other and is genuinely interested and passionate about the product we make here, which I love.

The distillery is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary of (legally) distilling whisky. The celebratory bottlings include an 8-year and a 25-year. The former pays homage to the whisky Alfred Barnard drank back in the late 1800s. The 25-yr is a tribute to the Lagavulin distillery managers over the years. Expand on that, and tell me what it means to you.

 This Lagavulin 25 Year Old release is a special recognition of the contribution the Lagavulin distillery managers have made in crafting Lagavulin across the years. Lagavulin is treasured around the world as one of the most special Single Malt Scotch Whiskies and this is the first 25 Year Old release to be matured exclusively in sherry casks.

200 years ago, John Johnston & Archibald Campbell oversaw the first new make spirit distilled. Since that day the distillery managers have carried on the Lagavulin legacy alongside a hard working team of characters. From the peat cutters to operators, engineers and warehousemen and many others involved, this group of passionate people have helped craft Lagavulin into the world class spirit that it is. I am very proud to stand amongst them.

Describe the new 25 year old whisky. Maturation, number of bottles, etc. Was putting together just the right blend of casks and ages difficult?

The 25 Year Old is aged in 100% sherry casks and is Natural Cask Strength. We have produced 8,000 bottles and its amongst the oldest whiskies released by Lagavulin.

We took samples from a large number of casks to ensure that the few selected for marrying for this bottling showed off Lagavulin at its best at this age. It’s a great liquid we are very proud of.

Are there any special events happening at the distillery for the 200th anniversary?

There have been a wide variety of events at the distillery this year as well as further afield. We understood that not everyone was going to be able to join us at the distillery so we created 360 videos which are available to view on that not only show you around our production areas but also the great views from the distillery into the beautiful surrounding landscape.

 For those who have already and might still be able to visit before the end of the bi-centenary year we have created a special sensory tasting which dives deep into the complex nature, flavours and aromas of Lagavulin.

You live and breathe Lagavulin. Which expression is your personal favorite?

If I am out in open spaces I love an invigorating 12 Year Old from a hip flask. If I am at home in front of my peat fire on a wet and windy night, I love nothing more than the warmth of the Distillers Edition, on the other hand if I am looking to introduce people to Lagavulin who have never tried it before then Lagavulin 16 Year Old is the best option.

Can you give us any hints as to what we might expect from Lagavulin in the coming months?

We have the launch of the 25 Year Old happening which is keeping us very busy in the visitor center. There is one more exciting piece of news about a legacy which will have impact well beyond this year, watch this space!  

Thanks so much to Georgie, Lia, and all who helped make  this interview possible.

A Chat with Dr. Nick Morgan and a Lagavulin 8yr Review

This year mark’s Lagavulin’s 200th anniversary.  Recently at Tales of the Cocktail, I had a chance to chat with Dr. Nick Morgan, Diageo’s Head of Whisky Outreach, about the three special anniversary bottlings expected this year.

Ewan Morgan and Dr. Nick Morgan at Tales of the Cocktail

Ewan Morgan and Dr. Nick Morgan at Tales of the Cocktail

“Our intent was to have a special bottling.  Special in terms of the liquid, special in terms of the pack, and special in terms of the story we can relate somehow to the anniversary,” Morgan said.  “We wanted to make this accessible to as many people as possible.”

The first of the three bottlings is an 8-year-old whisky matured exclusively in ex-bourbon American hogsheads.  “When we started looking at it, the obvious way to go would be to do a non-age bottling because that gives you lots of flexibility to produce something affordable and really nice using young casks and old casks.  That’s what Diageo does.  We know how to blend stuff.  But then we felt that if did a non-age Lagavulin, we would upset the really vocal people in the internet whisky world.  That means instead of them saying ‘this is great,’ they would complain,” Morgan explained.

So they started looking at an age-stated whisky.  “One of our archivists said Alfred Barnard tasted an 8-year-old when he visited Lagavulin distillery.  I said ‘great thinking.  That’s the story.  That’s the liquid.”

Though famed whisky writer Alfred Barnard sampled an 8-year-old whisky when he visited the Lagavulin distillery in the late 1800s, don’t expect the anniversary bottling to be the same.  Morgan explained, “we are very clear this is not the whisky Sir Alfred Barnard would have tasted because he would have got it straight from the cask.  It would probably be far more phenolic, and so on.  So it’s not a recreation, but for the anniversary I suppose it’s an homage.”

Tasting the 8-, 12-, and 16-year expressions was a treat.

Tasting the 8-, 12-, and 16-year expressions was a treat.

So how is the new 8-year old?  Watch my video below where I compare the 8-, 12-, and 16-year expressions, or read on for my full tasting notes.

The nose comes across as bright, with sweet malt, peat and orange.  There is a light touch of salted caramel.  On entry, a blast of wood smoke hits the palate, followed by a pineapple, orange, tweeted malt and a tinge of vanilla.  The finish is long, sweet and smoky.  This whisky, though smokier than the 16-year, comes across as more vibrant, giving us more of the distillery character.  It is very well made, extremely tasty, and should appeal to fans of Lagavulin.  Pick up a bottle before it disappears from shelves for good.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  8.5/10

Also expected this year is an already announced 25-year-old bottling, and an even rarer single cask bottling.  Dr. Morgan said the latter release will most likely be sold by one retailer with “global reach.” The single cask is drawn from a sherry butt, and all proceeds will go to Islay-based charities.  “Hopefully it’ll make a difference and leave something behind from the anniversary,” said Morgan.  This bottling is expected to cost £1816.

Thanks to Dr. Morgan for sitting down to talk Lagavulin with me.  Also thanks to Diageo for the samples of the 8- and 16-year old Lagavulin.  As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.


A Chat with Chef Tory McPhail

Tory McPhail, Executive Chef of Commander’s Palace

One of the events that will forever be etched in my memories is Diageo’s Spirited Dinner I attended at Commander’s Palace.  Each year during Tales of the Cocktail, one night is reserved for spirits companies to have a dinner and spirit (or cocktail) pairing at a New Orleans restaurant.  Several of these happen all across New Orleans.  When the Tales schedule went up, there were a few Spirited Dinners I had my eye on.  Some of these are invite-only, and some require a ticket purchase to attend.  The one at the top of my list was put on by Diageo.  They collaborated with Commander’s Palace Executive Chef Tory McPhail to come up with a dinner that paired with some of their 2015 Special Release Scotch Whiskies.

Some of the night's whisky selections.

Some of the night’s whisky selections.

I recently sat down with Chef McPhail to talk about the dinner in a little more depth.  Here are some highlights from our chat.

“For us, cocktails here in New Orleans are such a huge part of our culture.  At Commander’s, it’s a big deal as well,” said McPhail.  Food and wine pairings are common for Commander’s Palace, but this is their first whisky pairing.  “To have an opportunity to do this with some top shelf, really rare Scotches is a thrill.”

The evening's menu.

The evening’s menu.

McPhail told me he is normally a rum guy, but he enjoys all spirits.  So when Diageo initially contacted him about a whisky dinner, he jumped at the chance.  “They sent me 9 or 10 amazing whiskies (the 2015 Special Releases).  Tasting some of the flavors, be it chocolate or leather or brine, or what have you, it was pretty neat to create a menu based on what I tasted at the bottom of the glass.”

We talked about the third course, a Cypress & Sugarcane Smoked Breast of Duck paired with Brora 37 year. “I found the Brora 37 very unique.” McPhail recalled.  He wanted to pair those flavors with something special.  He said of the meal, “We brined the duck breast in molasses, brown sugar, red chili flakes and salt, then smoked them in cypress that we had upstairs. A buddy of mine is a woodworker, and thinks the cypress was milled in the late 1800s.”

A twinkle hit McPhail’s eyes when the conversation turned to history.  He gleefully continued, “Commander’s Palace was built in 1893 and that time NOLA was expanding very rapidly.  They cut down the cypress forest in what is present-day Mid City, around Bayou St. John. A lot of that wood went towards building houses in the late 1800s. We estimate a lot of those trees to be around 400 years old when they were cut down.  My buddy took that wood out of attics in Mid City after Hurricane Katrina. That wood’s been sitting in my buddy’s shop for 11 years drying. He saved me all the cypress from that time period specifically for Commander’s Palace, and that’s what we used to smoke the duck.”

Cypress & Sugarcane Smoked Breast of Duck, paired with Brora 37 year.

Cypress & Sugarcane Smoked Breast of Duck, paired with Brora 37 year.

Then I asked about the beef short ribs, and its Cuban tobacco infused sauce.  “I knew I had the dinner coming up, and I had the unique opportunity to travel to Cuba,” he said.  “I’m a geek for food history, especially love Spanish food. We had the opportunity to see the largest settlement outside of Spain in the new world. There were already 30,000 people living in and around Havana by the time the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. I brought back a bunch of Cuban cigars, and one was reserved for the sole purpose of being in the sauce for the short ribs for the Diageo dinner. So that was cool.”

58 Day Dry-Aged Waygu Beef Short Rib "Grilles & Grits", paired with Port Ellen 32 year

58 Day Dry-Aged Waygu Beef Short Rib “Grilles & Grits”, paired with Port Ellen 32 year

Finally, Chef McPhail talked about the chocolate dessert paired with Dailuaine 34 Year.  “I think whisky is so complex. There are so many nuances. It’s a really unique, artisanal product. Chocolate is the same.  So I chose six chocolates from around the world from some of the leading chocolate producers. We did a tasting of all of them, and I wrote down the nuances like I did originally for the whiskies. We laid them left-to-right on the flavor profile. As you taste the whole thing and taste the different scotches that were left, I wanted people to really get a flight in the progression of flavor.”

A Comparative Tasting of the World's Best Chocolates, paired with Dailuaine 34 year.

A Comparative Tasting of the World’s Best Chocolates, paired with Dailuaine 34 year.

When I asked about his overall feeling of the dinner, he smiled and said, “I walked away feeling very proud. We’ve never done a scotch dinner like this before. It’s Tales of the Cocktail! We have all these important friends coming in. For us to be able to do a menu like this plus have them bring very special whiskies is just really really cool.”

His favorite whisky of the night? “The Cally 40 year really stood out to me.”  Good answer Chef… Good answer.