Lagavulin 21, Old and New

Lagavulin 21Today I review a whisky I never thought I would get a chance to taste: the already legendary first release of the Lagavulin 21. And if that weren’t enough I chase it with a briefer review (and smaller sample) of the second release of the Lagavulin 21. The first bottle is long gone from general circulation. I think it cost $300 on original release in the US. That was too rich for my blood at the time (though I didn’t even know about it then); still is, but not unthinkable for a special bottle. Now, of course, it’s going for 3-4x that price if you can find it. Why all the fuss? Well, partly because there are so few official Lagavulin releases (and even fewer named indies) and partly because there are very, very few that are solely matured in European oak ex-sherry casks; but mostly because it was acclaimed upon release as one of the great malts of the contemporary era, garnering scores from the likes of Serge Valentin that are normally reserved for Bowmores and Springbanks from the 1960s and Broras from the early 1970s.

At the time that this was released (2007) it was said that this was to be the last all ex-sherry Lagavulin. But a mere five years later Diageo brought out another Lagavulin 21 from ex-sherry casks as part of their 2012 special release. It also received glowing reviews, albeit not as rapturous as those for the original release. This one hit the ground in the US in the neighbourhood of $500. Too rich for my blood again, but this time thanks to the boys at Whiskybase, who promptly made samples of all the 2012 special release bottles available at reasonable prices, I was able to score a 20 ml sample. And I finally had a sparring partner for a larger sample of the 2007 release that I’d acquired a few months prior from a very generous whisky geek in the UK who was willing to include it in a larger swap we coordinated very complicatedly. (It may hurt some people’s feelings to see the Laga 21 poured into a repurposed mini bottle with a raggedy sticker on it; the important thing is that it was eventually poured into a glass and then into my mouth.)

I sat on both for almost a year; I’m not entirely sure why. Nor am I sure why I suddenly decided to drink both now. Maybe it was the shock of learning that this year’s Diageo special release will include a Lagavulin 37 for almost £2000.

Lagavulin 21, 1985 (56.5%; matured in European oak/sherry casks; from a sample received in a swap)

Nose: Honey, caramel, leather and polished oak. Then comes the peat, mossy and leathery: like walking on a damp forest floor in late autumn. Smoke too, but it’s from a fire burning far away in the distance. Gets increasingly coastal with time–briny sea air, kelp. And the smoke gets closer as well. The sherry is somehow both evident and discreet at the same time–there’s a toffee sweetness that’s woven in with the salt and moss but it’s like a carpet on which the peat and smoke are dancing. With more time the smoke and toffee/raisin notes integrate and concentrate quite wonderfully. It’s a cliche to say that one could nose a whisky all night, but I could nose this whisky all night (if I could stay up, that is). There’s the slightest hint of struck matches but it’s kept in check by light soy sauce and beef stock and a touch of old-school shoe polish (yum!)–at the very end it’s almost cloyingly, sticky toffee-sweet (almost like it had been aged in a PX cask) with some sweet pipe tobacco in there too. A tiny drop of water or two brings some pine to the party but you could do well without. [And just when you think there couldn’t possibly be anything more, on the last 10 ml–nosed alongside the next one–there’s some roast duck with sticky plum sauce.]

Palate: Oh, my lord, this is good. Far peatier and smokier on the palate from the get-go than on the nose; but again, it’s hard to extricate the peat/smoke from the leather and salt and beef stock and dried shiitake mushroom liquor and the light hints of tangerine peel and the camphor and the Sichuan peppercorn and the toffee. It seems impossible that so many bold flavours should all get their chance to speak and yet be in such balance, but they are. With water there’s an added spiciness and a slight amplification of the sweetness. [The last 10 ml, tasted without water, are almost impossibly sticky and sweet.]

Finish: Goes on forever. May still be going on by the time this post is published. At least I hope it will be. Much more tar here than on the nose or palate. Long after the last swallow there’s deep smoke and raisiny sweetness in my mouth.

Comments: It is very rare, especially for a cynic like me, to read superlatives about something and then to find when you experience it yourself that it lives up to the hype. This whisky is one of those instances, and I’m very glad to be able to say it. By the way, I wrote the preceding sentences before even taking a sip. If the already outstanding palate had matched the nose stride for stride I would have had to create a 95-100 point category for this review.

Rating: 94 points.

Thanks to Steven R. for the sample!

(I recently got to try a Laphroaig 27, 1980 from five oloroso casks, while tasting which I said to my friend Rich (who’d generously poured it and some other fabulous whiskies for me), “End of whisky”. This Lagavulin 21 says, “Not so fast”. I now say, “I cannot believe my fortune” as I have an invitation from Rich in another couple of weeks to taste these two (and many of those previously mentioned other fabulous whiskies) alongside each other. If I contrive to catch a cold before that evening I will have to destroy the universe.)

Lagavulin 21, 1991-2012 (52%; sherry cask matured; from a purchased sample)

Nose: Much more subdued than the previous one but that’s a hard act to follow. Salt and ham and ink and a drier smoke and then there’s some sherry sweetness, but not very much. There’s some leather here too but far less forest floor; more iodine and pine and some chocolate too. The leather intensifies with time as does a salted-caramel note. This is less smoky but not less peaty; there’s far less toffee here. With more time there’s some dark plum syrup here too but not quite as decadent as in the other.

Palate: Beef stock, some toffee, salt, some minerally smoke. Not very medicinal. Oh hold on, the iodine’s expanding after a few minutes and this is beginning to taste a bit like the Lagavulin 16 from 5-6 years ago on steroids. (That’s a good thing.) But altogether, it’s a dryer and more austere affair than the 1985. The mouthfeel is not quite as viscous either.

Finish: Long though not as long as the other. As on the palate, drier smoke and some increased leatheriness.

Comments: No rating as this was only 20 ml but this is rather excellent too, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of the older issue. I have to say that this one tastes 21 years old whereas the other tastes like it was closer to 30. I have no idea if there were any changes in the distillation regime at Lagavulin between 1985 and 1991. Maybe there was something different about the casks that went into this one. More fino and amontillado here perhaps? Or maybe it’s just the reduced strength. Anyway: I’d probably have waxed rhapsodic about this one too if I’d drunk 50 ml of it and not right after that exquisite 1985 (and I didn’t have enough to try it without and with water).

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