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  1. #1
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    Lagavulin 16 years old

    Jeff suggested I give some information and personal taste notes on this classic whisky of Scotland which some of us tasted who attended the recent Sampler in Bardstown. This whisky is made on Islay, a remote island off the Western coast of Scotland. Other distilleries on Islay include Bowmore and Ardbeg.

    A signature of Islay whisky is it tends to be very well peated - not all is, but that is the signature. Peat (a kind of soft form of coal, it looks like fudge when cut from the ground) is burned to dry the barley malt and its rich smoke infuses the malt and enters the spirit. At one time, all Scotch whisky tasted like this but with the development of modern transport, this flavour (while it characterises most malts to a degree) is today at its most robust on Islay and by common agreement Lagavulin is one of the biggest-flavoured of the bunch.

    On the mainland, malt whisky often evolved into a fairly delicate, brandy-like drink (e.g. Glenlivet, Balvenie, Macallan). With the development of modern methods including transport to ship coal, less and less peated malt was used to make the drink, the peat was increasingly dispensed with in favor of coal and later electric heat in Speyside and the Lowlands distilleries. Probably due to their remoteness, the Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries retained the traditional big peaty character which (to a good degree) makes scotch what it is. This is an acquired taste but many people come to enjoy it.

    Lagavulin is marketed in a hard-to-find 12 year old version (drier, lighter than the 16) and 2 versions of the 16 year old. One is finished in Pedro Ximinex sherry casks (a rich sweet Spanish wine) and the other may employ some sherry cask aging but is not as sweet. The Pedro Ximinex version is called Distiller's Edition. Both are excellent. The one we tried in Bardstown was the Distiller's Edition. It is heavy-bodied with a huge "peet reek" as the Scots would say. It is sweetish, perfumed from the rich sherry (violets, Turkish delight) with a deep, persistent smokiness. Also, it seems to have salty and "seashore" edges which may reflect the effects of local weather on maturation (the warehouses are right by the coast in many cases). It is an unusual taste but one can see that without the offset of the peat smoke, the drink would be blander and indeed some malt whisky can be said to be bland today. What made it "Scotch" (as I said, and in my view) was the effect of the smoke on the palate.

    Small amounts of Islay and other smoky malt whiskeys are added to almost all blended scotch to impart some of the flavour, but often in very small amounts. Johnnie Walker has a good Islay flavour in my view, especially the Black Label. While the flavour of malt whisky of this type is very assertive and completely different from Bourbon, one can see certain analogies. In Bourbon, the rye element in the mash (where rye is used) adds complexity to the taste, as does the char flavour from the barrel. In Islay scotch of the Bowmore, Lagavulin or Ardbeg type, the complexity derives from the adjunct of rich peat and sherry flavour to the malty sweetish barley spirit. So both drinks can become fine spirits through achieving complexity but do so in different ways. (Although I always felt the burned wood taste of some old Bourbons is quite akin to the peat smoke flavour of certain malts. I have said earlier I believe early U.S. whiskey makers may have charred the barrels inside to obtain in the palate the smoky tang they recalled from Scottish whiskey - many of those whiskey makers were Scots immigrants or the families of whom were not long in America from Scotland or Scottish-influenced Northern Ireland).

    For those who want to try other peated malts, I recommend the 10 year old Ardbeg which has a classic lemony/smokey character. Bowmore is good too, it has a smokiness which is sometimes called "fern-like" and may derive from the sandy, crumbly peat used to smoke the barley malt. It took me many years to acquire the palate for Islay whisky. I enjoy Lagavulin but only occasionally, it is too "big" for me as a regular dram of scotch whisky. I am not knocking non-, or little-peated malts, many have their charms and virtues, but to me Lagavulin is THE traditional malt scotch whisky and likely defines what most malts were like 50 and 100 years ago.

    I welcome other views.

    Gary

  2. #2
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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    Thanks for the lesson Gary As someone who knows little to nothing about scotch, I wanted to hear what an enthusiast might think about this one. I am relieved to know that this is an aquired taste, as I thought something might be wrong with me after my initial tasting. What I remember most about the small dram I tasted was an almost overpowering taste of iodine. Is that a taste that you would characterize in here Gary? Wanting to possibly give Lagavulin another try I looked for any variety at the Shopper's Village tonight, but non was to be found. Is the Lagavulin relatively hard to find?

  3. #3
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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    Iodine certainly is a term used to describe a Scotch whisky such as Lagavulin which shows maritime influences that likely derive from maturation by the seacoast. (This is a large subject, some people think sea salt gets into the peat, and therefore into the whisky, from lashings of the sea and its mists on the peat fields, and there are other theories to explain the iodine or camphor flavor of some Islay whisky). Not all Scotches that are peated show the iodine flavor. Laphroig famously does, so although its 10 year old is another classic whisky of the peated type, you may want to try Ardbeg which has a good smokey character but is less iodine-like than Lagavulin or Laphroig. Lagavulin is considered in short supply and that is why it is hard to find. I would try Bowmore 12 or 15 year old or Ardbeg 10 year old to see what other versions of the Islay character are like. They are very good unto themselves. Bowmore comes in a whole range of iterations (e.g. Bowmore Darkest, which has heavy infusion of sherry cask-aged whiskies).

    Gary

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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    this flavour (while it characterises most malts to a degree) is today at its most robust only on Islay
    As an addition to that comment, I'd like to add "The Talisker" which is also an island scotch albeit not from Islay but from the Isle of Skye which should also be included in any discussion of heavily peated malts. Having loved most of the recent Islays at one point or another (except Port Ellen which I have not had the pleasure to explore) I've often skipped up the coast to Skye because Talisker has to have one of the longest "finishes" in any malt. This makes it a great buy, because you get more out of a dram!.

    Gary, have you tried the Bowmore 17, which I believe to be a better pour than the 15.

    IMHO a good "introduction" to the Islay style is the recent bottlings of Bruichladdich (Brook-laddie) which is one of the less peated Islay malts, but a good place to start wandering down that smokey road. Avoid Laphroaig until you're ready for what it has to offer. It's best appreciated once the palate is ready... any sooner and it will scare you away forever.

  5. #5
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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    Jeff,

    The Lagavulin is in short supply and not always on the shelf. The 16 yr old is the one you would find, but it is now sells at a premium.. There is a new cask strength Laphroaig 10 ( 57.3% ABV ) which I found but haven't tried. The Bowmore Darkest I am currently enjoying. It is
    medicinal with a sherry influence. You should be able to find it and for some reason it is often discounted.

    It is not unusual for me, at home, to first have a bourbon, then switch to a scotch. Just a change of pace.

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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    Gary, have you tried any of the other Distiller's Editions (Talisker, Cragganmore, Oban)? I'd be interested in your impressions. I passed up a couple of bottles of the Distiller's Lagavulin last year and now regret it, as I haven't had the opportunity to try it. The Talisker (Amoroso finished) certainly tames the beast, but is lost on the Cragganmore. (When I heard it was going to the gazebo, it was almost the catalyst that got me back to KY)

  7. #7
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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    Dave or Gary,

    Are any of these "Distiller Editions" available in the USA ? If not , pleeease bring some with you in September.

  8. #8
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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    All good points and I fully agree. Talisker is a fine dram, well-peated but not iodine-like, a good choice for those who as you say wish to explore the smoky road. I like all Ardbegs, the 17 year old is very good and the extra age tends to dampen down the heavy smokiness of the younger dram.

    Gary

  9. #9
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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    Avoid Laphroaig until you're ready for what it has to offer. It's best appreciated once the palate is ready...
    Ah, but once your palate is ready, I would highly recommend trying to find some Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength (57.3%). It is THE Laphroaig, IMHO. It will soon be available in the US for the first time. If you see it, buy it.

    As for Port Ellen, I have tasted some excellent expressions of this malt...and one or two that were good, but less impressive. Sadly, this distillery was closed about two decades ago, yet its influence survives in the maltings they continue to operate and which supplies malted barley for the remaining Islay distilleries.

    Another Islay malt no one has mentioned is Caol Ila. This one's a little harder to find, as prior to a year or two ago, it was only available as a single malt via independent bottlings. Anyhow, Caol Ila can produce some peat monsters the equal--or superior--of Ardbeg or Lagavulin. I recently finished a bottle of Caol Ila 12yo Unchillfiltered from Signatory that blew me away. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society also has offered some young Caol Ila bottlings that were quite tasty, as well.

    Lagavulin 16yo was my Number One malt for a few years. It stills ranks Top Five in my book. I haven't tried the new 12yo Cask Strength version, but I understand it's not quite as good as the standard 16yo. It's also my understanding that this 12yo was released as a stop-gap measure, filling a possible void in the market until more of the 16yo stock can mature.

    SpeedyJohn

  10. #10
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    Re: Lagavulin 16 years old

    Sorry, can't help you with US availability. Sadly, the Lagavulin and Oban are VERY scarce in these parts, and the Cragganmore and Talisker appear to be almost gone as well. Ontario may be different, however.

 

 

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