A drink with… Georgie Crawford, Lagavulin
Lagavulin’s distillery manager, Georgie Crawford, on the challenges of meeting demand, landmark anniversaries, young whisky and the magic of Islay.
*This feature was originally published in the March 2017 edition of The Spirits Business
How did you get started in the industry?
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 clearing up the bottles, 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 then joined Diageo at Talisker Distillery on Skye in 2007. I have now been back at home on Islay and at Lagavulin since 2010. When I came back I probably didn’t imagine I would be still here in 2017. However, now I can’t imagine not being here.
Have you ever encountered prejudice as a female distillery manager?
I am fortunate that I have never encountered this personally, and although I am proud to be Lagavulin’s first-ever female distillery manager, there are so many more women who work in the industry now. At Diageo, 17% of the overall workforce in malt distilling is female, and 40% in management roles. Also a quarter of all our apprentices are female, which is fantastic. The number is increasing and set to continue to do so.
Why is Islay so special for Scotch whisky production?
Islay Scotch is iconic – the peaty flavours are recognisable worldwide and immediately transport the drinker to Islay. Everything about Islay is special, from the sea, to the people, to the landscape. Islay is a very fertile island; barley and peat naturally live here so it was a natural fit for our ancestors.
How did it feel to be involved with Lagavulin’s 200th anniversary special releases and celebrations?
I feel so honoured. As well as the 8 Year Old and Lagavulin 1991, we also launched Lagavulin 25 Year Old, which is a special recognition of the contribution the Lagavulin distillery managers have made crafting the whisky over the years. I feel proud to be part of that legacy.
For some, Lagavulin 8 Year Old was quite a surprise. How important is younger whisky to the industry?
The bicentennial activities started with the launch of a special limited edition bottling of Lagavulin 8 Year Old in honour of Britain’s most famous and first-ever whisky writer, Alfred Barnard. In the late 1880s, Barnard sampled an 8 Year Old Lagavulin during a visit to Islay, describing it as “exceptionally fine” and “held in high repute”. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, eight years old was considered to be a venerable age for Scotch whisky. This is a memorable bottling, and an interesting side-by-side comparison with its 16-year-old sibling. One great benefit of releasing a more accessibly priced whisky, such as the 8 Year Old, is that we are finding people are opening the bottles, rather than storing them. It also means people are enjoying it with us here at the distillery – we love having a dram with our visitors.
What are the greatest challenges you face in your role?
Meeting the demand for Lagavulin has always been our biggest challenge. It has always been strong and has always exceeded supply. We have a great team, which today is working at full capacity. By taking every opportunity available to us to maximise output and with careful stock management, we are able to match a little more of the demand. We’re constantly striving to be as efficient as possible to meet this incredible demand.
What do you love the most about being distillery manager of Lagavulin?
As Lagavulin’s distillery manager I get to make a great product that creates conversation. I don’t think there is another distilled product out there that allows such conversation between its consumers. We host events here where people who have never met before come together, and after a shared whisky experience or tasting have become firm friends.
What has been the most important thing that you have learned during your time in the industry?
I’ve learnt so much! I think what stands out to me is that it’s as much about the people and the place as it is about the process; the ‘who’ and ‘where’ is as important to creating a beautiful whisky as the ‘how’. That, and the fact that no matter what happens in the production, it won’t be the first time it has happened. There are a lot of previous learnings to take into account when you are part of something that has been happening for 200 years.