Lagavulin Lover's Lament

Here we have another one of these moments when I feel like I’m just gloating, but from what people tell me they enjoy reading about this sort of thing so here goes. A few months ago, I sat down with my fellow LAWS members to examine one of my favorite distilleries. K&L has always had a tumultuous relationship with the little “hollow by the mill”. We are constantly struggling to remain competitively priced on the very important Lagavulin 16 year old. Considering it’s now available at many big box retail outlets, this hasn’t been an easy goal. When David and I first visited the distillery 3 years ago, our loyalty status in hand (you may not be surprised to learn that our Diageo Loyalty Status is “Loyal”), some sort of scheduling mishap left us without an appointment. We were kindly invited on the public tour with several large Scandinavian gentlemen, but knew better than to subject the unsuspecting public to a painfully long tour with the two Davids. Needless to say, we were not happy and we turned to this very venue to express our displeasure. Diageo was more than apologetic and in retrospect I fully understand how incredibly difficult it is to keep their billion moving parts in sync. When we returned to Scotland last year, the distillery was VERY ready for us. It is truly a magical place. The short squat stills churning out that oily peaty gold. The babbling brook that feeds the perfectly whitewashed distillery. Tasting this whisky right out of the cask with one of Scotland’s great whiskymen, it was truly a dream come true. But every dream has a dark side.

Let me preface the following with a little personal information. Lagavulin has always been a sentimental favorite of mine. I cut my teeth on the 16 year old. I’ve always revered it as one of the most important malts available and still believe it to be one of the great values in whisky today. That’s why it was so important for us to truly understand this distillery. When we finally did get to sit down with the distillery manager, we realized that our romantic image of this historic place had very little to do with the distilleries current goals. Today, a Diageo distillery’s goal is efficiency. How can we get the most out of our mash, our stills, and our casks? This comes with the obvious caveat that quality is never to be compromised, but I have true concerns about how recent changes in the name of efficiency will affect the product in the long run.

One stark example of our different points of view (Diageo vs. K&L) was simply our terminology. There is some controversy over what percentage of Lagavulin is aged in sherry butts. When we walked into the warehouses, we noticed almost exclusively sherry butts being aged onsite. When we mentioned this revelation to our hosts, how we were excited to finally know the truth, they corrected us. These were not Sherry Butts so much as they were European and American Oak Casks that happened to be in the shape of a sherry butt. This distinction was made to emphasize the practice of wood reconditioning. Basically, when they reuse certain barrels at Diageo, they will strip the wood and retoast the barrels. So, in effect there is very little sherry influence left in these oak casks despite the fact they almost certainly once held sherry. These barrels throw more tannin than a standard refill sherry butt, but are significantly less vinous. European Oak tends to throw spicier flavors and a deep color, while American oak is known for its sweetness, vanilla and lighter colored tannin.

This strategic technique was a point of great pride for our hosts, not only because it saved them money, but also because it was ecologically more advantageous. The goal is to have casks that last as long as it takes an Oak tree to grow (approximately 100 years) an admirable goal, but perhaps the least romantic thing I’ve ever heard. We always talk about wanting first or second fill barrels, but these guys are figuring out how to use a barrel 8 or 10 times. IN another example, the use of industrial yeasts and maturation were points of great honor for those running the distillery, for us they just seemed unnecessary. Of course, Diageo have hired experts to evaluate the spirit during every change at the distillery and to mitigate whatever effects technical changes might have on the whisky. What many people don’t realize is that Lagavulin still plays an integral role in Diageo’s blending program and it is therefore subject to the same rigorous standards of efficiency as all Diageo’s Single Malts (with the exception Oban, which has the surprising distinction of being Diageo’s only distillery used exclusively for Single Malt production).

So, you may ask, how the hell do I reconcile my love for this special distillery with the image that they so effusively project? All you have to do is drink a bit of this stuff and the paradox seems to vanish into thin air.

Luckily, the boys at LAWS put together this outrageous tasting to really reaffirm our willingness to pull the wool over our eyes when necessary.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old “White Horse” circa 1990 43%

Here is one of these much sought after “White Horse” bottlings. Perhaps it’s the 20+ years in bottle, but this is exactly what I like when I taste Lagavulin. On the nose, we have a very subtle struck match (the good kind of sulfur or is that phosphorous, eh?), a spicy ginger note, a very clean earthy peat, and an all encompassing sweet saltwater taffy backbone, which makes me feel like I’m standing outside some large scale candy factory. Palate: This is spicier than I remember modern Lags to be. It alternates between the peppery spice, ginger, roasted pine nuts, resin, and green apples. The richness is impeccable with only the most subtle hints of peat smoke stretching into the long finish.  Oily, spice, fruity, rich. To bad this one is quite rare, 'cause I could drink it every day.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old circa 2005 43%

This is a bottling that I’m very familiar with as 04-05 was my Lagavulin lovin’ heyday.  Here, despite Diageo’s best efforts to remain consistent we see some clear stylistic change. More peat up front than the White Horse (perhaps attributable to bottles age). Powerful black pepper and none of the spicy ginger that I loved in the last one. All around more phenolic and dryer, although it’s not one of these acrid peats. It’s earthier and nuttier than say the medicinal style from the distillery right down the road. Still a great whisky.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old circa 2012 43%

Well, this is the big rich powerful 16 year that I was expecting. A few significant notches up on the peat scale than the last two (perhaps there is some OBE here after all). It’s got more of the acrid smoke and less sweet earth. Salted nuts, burning coal, much more oceany stuff, more clear cut than the others. One might say one dimensional, but I think it’s just louder in general.  Still a great whisky, but it’s definitely a departure from the white horse style from 20 years ago.

On to the 12 Y.O. Special Releases. I’ve always been a huge fan of these yearly limited releases.  These are bottled at cask strength and usually aged in American oak barrels (not ex-bourbon, ex-sherry American Oak. Or is it? You see?)I’m a huge fan of these cask strength limited releases. I like Lagavulin in the buff! I’m happy to constantly repeat the reason why the 12 yo is more expensive than the 16, because it’s just so darned delicious. Let’s take a look at a couple of relatively recent releases.

2008, Lagavulin 12 Year Old “Special Release” 56.4%

This is exactly what I like about the 12 year. It’s the prettiest sucker punch you’ve ever seen. Power and finesse. Nose: wafting peat smoke, fresh pomace fruit, ocean air, crushed rocks and a sort of nougat/vanilla sweetness on the backend.  Palate: Power, mouth puckering intensity, vibrant smoke and oily texture, ultra fine unadultered spirit. With water it gains sweetness, but stays clean as a whistle. No dirty smoky here just pure peat and clean fruit. A really serious whisky.

2010, Lagavulin 12 Year Old “Special Release” 56.5%

I was expecting this to follow the trend of younger bottlings showing more peat up front, but this goes the other way. Less on the fresh smoke, more on the embers, coal, and earth, but at the same time sweeter and more voluptuous. Not as ultra clean as the last one, but maybe more complexity? The phenolic intensity hides some of the fruit we saw on the ’08, but I still get that almond, marzipan sweetness. Altogether harder and more serious.  With water it just expands. It’s a pretty hefty boy this guy.

2012, Lagavulin 12 Year Old “Special Release” 56.1%

Somehow these three do remind me slightly of the progression of the 16 yos, although in reverse. Now we’re moving somewhere much more herbal, more sweetness, more “bourbony” altogether. Much more dark smoke, soot and powerful tarry stuff, but it stays fresh with a generous briny side. Plenty of sweetness on the palate to balance these darker flavors as well as acidity (I wrote “sour/tart”, but in a good way)! This works well with the building sweetness. These 12 year old’s are totally worth $100.

Onto the big boys

Lagavulin 25 Year Old Distilled 1977 Bottled 2002 57.2%

An old glory that’s become very expensive. Dense Umami meaty flavors, struck match, roasted herbs and warehouse floor. Great complexity but rather dirty on the palate, wet peat, moss, shellfish, sherry funk, fruit cookies (Pepperidge Farm Veronas?), all of which I love. I find it to be incredibly well balanced. The finish is sweat highland herbs, heather, chocolate, and texturally very rich. If you’ve got bankroll you should probably start looking for this before it’s gone for good.

Lagavulin 30 Year Old Bottled 2006 52.6%

This is one I’ve always wanted to try. Heard good things, very excited. Wow, that ginger note from the White Horse is back. I’m totally in love with that flavor. Cake frosting, tangy peat smoke, Christmas cake.  All this on the nose, implying richness and great complexity to come! On the palate, the texture is much lighter than expected. The peat is hidden somewhere behind some spiny oak staves, but a bit of water brings it out. Unfortunately, that’s all it brings out. The finish was shorter than expected, but with a soft pleasurable peatiness. Don’t get me wrong it’s really delicious stuff, just not AS delicious as I was expecting. Maybe it was my high hopes, but I would not be happy spending the money on this, although others did like it more.

Lagavulin 21 Year Old Distilled 1991 Bottled 2012 52%

Everybody was clamoring for this one. We got 3 bottles or something. Here is one of them. Nose: Well here is that sherry that everyone was wondering about. Not just “European Oak,” but nutty sweet sherry. It must be sweet oloroso or PX. Strong earthy peat, with almost no briny saltiness on the nose at all. On the palate dense dried fruit, baking spice, orange liqueur and butterscotch. It all finishes drier than expected which I think helps to hold it together. It’s not a knock you down dead classic, but it’s pretty serious stuff despite the high price tag.

Lagavulin 21 Year Old Distilled 1985 Bottled 2007 56.5

I’m not sticking my neck out by announcing that this is one of my all time favorites. Let’s do some formal notes so you know how I really feel. This was aged in European Oak with Sherry! YAY! Specifics are so important. N: The depth of flavor is not matched by any of these other malts tasted today. While I was expecting the 30 yo to come closest only the 25 truly holds its own against this magnificent beast. Deep funky sherry, some of that wonderful fino flor mushroom flavor, which combined with peat usually reminds me of cured meats. We’re moments after a large fireworks display, breath deep. On the palate it’s as rich as remembered. Herbal, sweet and savory. Powerfully viscous and chewy, a bouquet of herbs – all varieties available! Builds into a crescendo of briny fruit, and spicy smoke. I’m sweating and crying softly to myself.

There were some others, but this is the important stuff. Keep an eye out this Friday we’re going to hammer through the important PLOWED Society bottlings. These famous bottles include the sought after Ardbeggeddon, Broraggeddon, as well as some choice casks from Laphroaig, Springbank, BenRiach, and Port Ellen. Considering we finished the Broraggeddon last time we opened it, I think I’ll be taking a cab home.

 -David Othenin-Girard

David Othenin-Girard