The first three miles east from Port Ellen on the A846 are as close as it comes to pilgrimage for lovers of smoky whisky. One mile out sits Laphroaig. You go another mile and arrive at Lagavulin. One more mile and you are at Ardbeg. Whitewashed buildings, pagoda roofs, the ocean just beyond—if you’re lucky, the smell of peat smoke will be in the air. Even if you haven’t halted along the way you may well be feeling exalted by the time you arrive, a few more miles up the road, at the ruined church in whose cemetery stands the Kildalton cross. (If you go the other direction out of town you’ll come across another ruined church, the old Port Ellen distillery). But if you have stopped to spend some time at Lagavulin with Iain “Pinkie” McArthur, you will certainly be feeling the spirit quite strongly by the time you get there.
Here is a Lagavulin bottled for the Islay Jazz Festival in 2015. This is a completely separate event from the recently concluded Feis Ile, taking place in the autumn rather than the summer. This year’s festival is from September 15-17 (and here is last year’s program). I’m not sure if Lagavulin is the only distillery that does an annual release to mark the festival (in addition to their Feis Ile release), but I can’t off the top of my head recall Jazz Festival releases from any other distilleries. It is sponsored by Lagavulin but events happen at other distilleries too. Anyway, there also does not seem to be as much mania around these Jazz Festival releases as there is around Lagavulin’s Feis Ile releases. Indeed, plenty of bottles of the 2016 Jazz Festival release were available at the distillery when I visited earlier this month—I’m not sure how they survived the onslaught of Feis Ile auction flippers. Continue reading →
Here is a review of the sixth release of Lagavulin in the Whisky Exchange’s Elements of Islay series. I’ve previously reviewed the Lg1, Lg2 and Lg5, all of which I liked very much (Lg3 and Lg4 somehow escaped my notice). As with all Elements of Islay releases, this has no age statement—and like all recent Elements of Islay releases, this was far more expensive than the early releases in the series were, just a few years ago.
This has been sold out on the Whisky Exchange’s website for a while but as of a month and change ago there were still a number available in their Covent Garden store. I purchased it there for everyday drinking while in London and have in fact already disposed of the bottle (these notes were written up last week). Which means I need to get another heavily peated whisky for the next five weeks. Continue reading →
I ended 2016 with a review of a Laphroaig; let’s start 2017 with a review of a Lagavulin. This is the 2013 release of their annual Distiller’s Edition. It comprises malt distilled in 1997, matured for 16 years and then finished for an unspecified period of time in Pedro Ximinez sherry casks. Until the release of the Lagavulin 8 I would have said that officially released Lagavulins were as close to a guarantee of excellence in the Scotch whisky world as you can hope to find; and the Distiller’s Edition has always helped keep that average up. It basically drinks like a more heavily sherried version of the regular 16 yo (dependably excellent in its own right) and is one of the best examples of the marriage of heavy peat and sherry that is widely available—perhaps even the best. I reviewed the 2009 edition three years ago and rather liked it. It’s taken as many years for me to get around to opening this bottle and I can tell you right away that I liked it just as much. It is a liter bottle, purchased in Duty Free (back when good deals on very good whisky were actually available in Duty Free), and I’ve much enjoyed the time it’s taken me to drink it down. And despite being bottled at 43% it has stayed remarkably consistent over the life of the bottle—this review is taken from the bottom quarter. Continue reading →
This is the fifth release of Lagavulin from The Whisky Exchange’s Elements of Islay series. These are 500 ml bottles with periodic table of element style names that refer to the distilleries (though you’re supposed to be coy and not take the identities for granted). The early entries in the line came out together at a steady clip some years ago (and I purchased most of them) but I lost sight of them in there somewhere. I reviewed the Lg1 and the Lg2 relatively early in the life of the blog but I never saw any sign of the Lg3 or the Lg4. Given how much I liked those early entries in the series when I had a chance to grab a 2 oz sample from a bottle split I went for it. This has received a heady score from Serge Valentin on Whiskyfun and so I’ve particularly been looking forward to it. Having started the week with an outstanding peated malt from Islay it’ll be nice to end it with another one as well. Then again Serge liked the recent official 8 yo quite a lot more than I did... Continue reading →
The Lagavulin 8, which has only just begun to arrive in the US, was released this year as part of the commemoration of the distillery’s 200th anniversary. It’s not the only bottle they released (there was another, much older and much more expensive) but these days you do have to appreciate a reasonably priced 8 yo, especially from Diageo. It’s an 8 yo because it commemorates Alfred Barnard’s visit to the distillery in the late 19th century—he apparently sampled an 8 yo when there. It is said to be a limited edition, by which Diageo means that they released only 20-30,000 bottles or so of it. The label and box say nothing about the casks used to mature the whisky this was made from; for what it’s worth, while many marketing images make it look bright orange, the colour of this whisky is in light white wine territory—whoever adds the caramel colouring to the Lagavulin 16 might have got a day off when they made this one. Continue reading →
As a fan of the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition—the regular Lagavulin 16, “finished” for a few more months in PX sherry casks—I’d often wondered what it would be like at cask strength. Thanks to this release, which was available at the distillery only, I am able to find out. Sort of. It’s not the same age as the regular Distiller’s Edition (which, as noted, is 16 years and a few months, usually): this was spirit left over from the 1991-2007 Distiller’s Edition that was left to mature for a few more years in refill casks. Or so I’ve gathered from this account from someone who tasted it at the distillery in 2011—other sources are either vaguer or present different accounts (see WhiskyNotes, for example). I’m inclined to believe the person who got the story directly from the distillery manager though. And, no, I didn’t get the bottle at the distillery; a friend who procured a bottle was kind enough to share. Continue reading →
I’ve reviewed the Lagavulin 16 before. That was from a bottle released in 2012. As I’m constantly annoying people with my skepticism about narratives of decline, when the opportunity came to review a more recent issue, I couldn’t turn it down. As it happens, this sample is from the legendary merchant of doom, Michael K., and so we can at least argue about the exact same whisky if we happen to disagree. I’m not sure, actually, if he’s already reviewed this one—but I’m going to avoid looking so as to not contaminate my own take. I am also going to avoid looking at my previous set of notes till I’ve finished the review. It may well turn out that I produce a near identical description. If so, I’ll post this anyway. You’re welcome!
Let’s stick with Lagavulin but let’s take the exclusivity factor down a notch or two. Unlike the Feis Ile bottles, the Lagavulin 12 CS is not exactly hard to find—there are more than 31,000 bottles of the 2014 release.
I’ve previously reviewed the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 editions of the Lagavulin 12. As I’ve noted before, along with the Caol Ila Unpeated, the Lagavulin 12 is one of the few value propositions in Diageo’s annual slate of special releases. For some reason it’s not an universally loved expression but I’m yet to taste one that I did not like a lot. I’ve managed to get a bottle every year since I came to know of it (2009) and hope to get my hands on the 2014 release as well (I’m not sure if it’s in the US yet). I do have a bottle of this one too but as I’m trying to keep my number of open bottles under control I asked my friend Patrick for some from his recently opened bottle when we last exchanged samples. Continue reading →
No, I didn’t go to Feis Ile 2013, and no, I didn’t buy a bottle at auction. This sample comes to me from my friend Rich who acquired a bottle somewhat complicatedly. It was purchased at Feis Ile by one person, passed on to another who lives in Canada, who then brought it down to other parts of the US from where it eventually made its way to Minnesota. All I had to do was go to a tasting in St. Paul last month featuring sherried malts and wheedle Rich into sharing a sample of it (it was one of the featured malts at the tasting and I knew I wanted to review it at leisure for the blog as well).
Feis Ile (in case you don’t know, this is the annual, week-long, festival of Islay distilleries) is something I’ve always wanted to attend, but the reports of queues of hundreds of people trying to get into every distillery are off-putting. I’m not a big fan of crowds. Still, if ever I go to a whisky festival it will be this one. The festival bottles are always very tantalizing, especially as only a small number of the distilleries make any of those available more generally. And the Lagavulin bottles are always the ones I crave the most. Quite apart from anything else, they’re sold at very reasonable prices. This one, for example, was about £100. That might seem a lot, and it is in the abstract, but full-term sherried Lagavulin is not easy to come by and when you look at the price asked for the most recent edition of the Lagavulin 21 it does seem like a very reasonable price. Say what you will about Diageo, at least they’re not gouging the faithful who’re willing to make it out to Islay in May. Continue reading →
A true classic, the Lagavulin 16 was the first bottle of whisky I spent more than $50 on. And after my first sip I was so utterly disappointed I’d thrown my money away on a whisky that smelled and tasted as nasty as it did: a rotting, mossy tree trunk with a nasty tonic from my childhood thrown on it—that’s what I remember thinking after my first sip and sniff. How I’ve changed in a decade. Whether Lagavulin 16 has or not is a more controversial matter. There are those who insist it has and not for the good—it’s always hard for me to extricate this sort of a judgement from a more general expression of belief in whisky entropy (“everything changes for the worse”); on the other hand, there are those who say it has maintained its quality and general profile over time. I am in the latter camp but I grant that I have not tasted a Lagavulin 16 bottled since 2008 or so. Well, this bottle—which belonged to a good friend who left the country and also left some bottles for a couple of us to split—is from 2012. Continue reading →
This is the last in my long, drawn-out vertical of Lagavulin 12 releases from 2009 to 2012. At the tasting with friends back in September when we actually drank all four head-to-head-to-head-to-head the group was unanimous that this was the one that was a bit of an outlier as the peat seemed a little “dirtier” or farmier. Let’s see if that holds up two months later or if that note seems less pronounced when the whisky is tasted by its lonesome.
Lagavulin 12 CS, 2012 (56.1%; from my own bottle)
Nose: Nope, this is still farmy. Iodine, kelp and lots of lemon. And lots of briny green notes too: olive brine, rotting kelp. Gets rather salty very quickly. A touch of creamy vanilla too with time but you have to work to find it. With a lot more time the farmy note dissipates somewhat and now there’s a distinct cereally character, with the lemon-olive thing right below it. With a few drops of water the creamy vanilla expands and there’s a bit of a smoky lemon curd thing going on. Continue reading →
Lagavulin 12 CS, 2011 Release (57.5%; from my own bottle)
Nose: Very close to the 2010, with lemon, cereally peat and whiffs of gasoline leading the way. Deep inky sweetness below that–iodine and mercurochrome and gauze bandages. Some fruit too–grapefruit? melon?–and sharp, acidic smoke. With more time there’s a leafy, humusy quality and some green olive brine too. The lemon turns to lemon peel and gets more intense; some almond oil too. The cereal never goes away though. Water pushes the lemon back and there’s more of a straight ahead medicinal peat blast now.
Palate: Acrid smoke and lemon do battle, and battle to a draw. Salt after that and then more lemon and then the inky sweetness. More aggressive than the 2010 at full strength. With time the smoke is not as aggressive on initial entry and the (bitter) lemon becomes the top note and the medicinal notes (bandages, iodine) arrive much earlier. Much more phenolic now. Water makes the palate brighter and a bit sweeter–still very phenolic though and the smoke expands again. Continue reading →
This is the second entry in my ongoing, slow-motion Lagavulin 12 vertical. The first is here. Let’s get right to it.
Lagavulin 12 CS, 2010 Release (56.5%; from my own bottle)
Nose: Cereally, lemony peat. But beneath the soft cereal note there lurks a pungent, iodiney (iodinesque? iodinysian?) beast that is waiting to punch you in the nose if you get said organ too close to it. And this beast has been chomping on some rotting kelp. After a few more minutes though the beast calms down (I really regret starting on this metaphor, can we agree to abruptly let it go now?) and there’s a very nice deep, organic sweetness that emerges (“organic” as in sweet, rotting organic material) but it’s accompanied by salt crystals. With more time, the lemon, the organic sweetness and the salt are in perfect balance and there’s also strong whiffs of gasoline. It gets sharper with time and there’s more aromas of bandages etc. in an old-timey doctor’s office. I realize I haven’t actually mentioned smoke, but there you are. Gets sweeter again much later and there’s some vanilla fighting its way out too now. With water the lemon intensifies and turns to citronella. Continue reading →