You might think that life at Lagavulin today is easy. As all the stories from the old days tell you, whisky was a man’s work back then. As in, days of sheer, hard physical toil heaving sacks of barley and coal, lighting fires under the stills and keeping them lit, getting into them to clean them, judging when things were ready by eye.
Nowadays, it’s all computers at any distillery, people think, with a tiny crew in which women and men work alongside one another. Machines to load the barley, and clean the stills. Machines to lift the casks, trucks to bring the barley, tankers to take some of the precious nectar of Islay away to be filled and stored.
The thing is, though, it’s not easy. Not when you have a 200 year legacy to maintain and fewer hands with which to do it. Not when the world wants more than you can produce, but the last thing you want to do, is let standards slip. Not when you have to think carefully about the last small detail, in a way they wouldn’t have needed to, back when.
In the old days, the stories say, the men (and they were all men then, and men will be men...) enjoyed many a dram on duty. Not today. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, and that’s the way the islanders stick together, and look out for one another. With that, a lot can still be done, and it is.
Evidence for that cohesion is easy to come by. As an outsider, you soon notice that no-one on Islay will tell a story that might, however lightly, hurt someone you call a friend, because everyone is your friend. The same goes for the way an Islay native handles secrets, which is to keep them. Why? You know you can’t tell anyone on Islay because the minute you do, you’re telling everyone on Islay...
But we digress. We were talking of how you make things better, when you have a golden legacy to protect, in the 200th anniversary year of its creation.
Ask Georgette Crawford (Georgie, to one and all), who has been manager here for almost six years. “The biggest challenge we have at the distillery,” says Georgie, “is the fact that the sales at Lagavulin will always outstrip the production level we have with the footprint of the buildings and the process that we have here.”
She can be proud, then, that her team has made more Lagavulin each year in every year she has been there bar one, and even that doesn’t really count because there was quite a lot of maintenance work done during a longer than usual ‘silent season’.
In all that time, the team’s main goal has been to get as much as possible in cask, so that future supply is improved. We shouldn’t be alarmed about quality, though. This isn’t a case of a smaller chocolate bar, or a reduction in ingredient quality. Rather, the effort all revolves around an unlikely sounding jargon word: “optimisation”.
Georgie gives a simple example of how a small change can be enough to produce an measurable dividend: “By just adding in eighty kilos (to each mash) within the mash tun, we managed around an extra two to three weeks production that year...” By my maths, allowing for a silent season, that’s around 4-5%.
Other things they’ve been concentrating on have included a big project in the still house around vapour losses. Just for health and safety reasons any vessel in the still house must vent to open air, but that actually meant that at certain parts in the process, Lagavulin itself was being lost to the atmosphere. This was a whole new way for the angels to get their share, and you could really smell it. So the team duly went to work on the still house venting system and its pipework.
The happy result is that each year, something like seventy five thousand bottles of Lagavulin that were being lost before are now being saved for our enjoyment. With a gain like that, it’s small wonder the project is on-going!
Improvement in every last small detail, of course, is not only to do with the liquid itself. Over in the Visitor Centre, Marjory Orr is dealing with more visitors each and every year. And what they want to hear about is changing too, as Lagavulin becomes more and more famous and folk arrive from around the world wanting to know every last detail about the stills, say, and the people.
In her eighteen years at Lagavulin, Marjory has seen visitor numbers shoot up from maybe 4000 a year to four or five times that number. With those numbers, as she says, “You have to be passionate. If you don’t like working with people, this is the wrong job.”
Someone else who has grown and refined his own contribution to reflect visitors’ own enthusiasm is warehouseman Iain MacArthur, forty-five years a whisky man and all of them on Islay, at Port Ellen and since, at Lagavulin. Nothing a visitor asks seems to be too much trouble for this kind, funny and patient man, who seems to embody the warmth of the islanders. As he says “it's nice to be nice isn't it? And we were, we were appreciating them coming and we were nice to them, and they were always coming back.”
For all of these folk and others on the team, it’s not about doing things the same way, nor about doing them differently. It’s about doing them in a way that adds something. Inch by inch, day by day.
It’s easy to see a parallel here with the British success at the Rio Olympics. Maintaining the level achieved at London 2012 came not from a single big win but through a series of optimisations, from an athlete’s diet to the shape of a cycling helmet. Lagavulin is a multiple gold medallist. Staying out front takes hard work.