Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Rainbow of Lagavulin

Lagavulin is a major distillery on the Scottish island of Islay. Its standard and quite popular bottling is the 16-year-old, which is a peaty whisky at somewhere around 40 parts per million of phenols. Lagavulin's house style is within a stone's throw of Laphroaig's, although that comparison might make some Islay lovers indignant. Lagavulin's style is perhaps even more austere and uncompromising. It was a sample bottle of the Lagavulin 16 that inspired me to write my first-ever review of a whisky. In that review I wrote:
It's notably lacking in some of the sweeter aromas, like caramel, although there is a little bit of vanilla in there to sweeten it up just a touch; as I progress through the dram, slowly, there's a build-up of a sweetness in the back of the tongue that reminds me of sweetened condensed milk. I don't get anything floral from it at all. I can imagine a little orange, or maybe bergamot, or cherry... there's just a touch of saltiness, and the flavor they call 'sea air,' the iodine reek of seaweed. There's something like black peppercorns.
After about another ten months of nosing and tasting whisky, I have to confess that at 43% ABV, the Lagavulin 16 no longer hits my palate quite like a freight train. I stand by most of what I wrote, but I'd tone it down it a little; the Lagavulin 16 is drying, but not "dry, dry dry." I called the palate "oily, with a smooth feel across the tongue, almost like cream or honey..." I would now add that it is actually a little too watery. Of the finish, I wrote "the sensation of peat, and even charcoal briquets and lighter fluid, sticks with me, and I notice it even more as I exhale... in fact, this dram makes me wake up feeling like I've spent the night face-down in a bog." I would now add that it is something almost like clove or pine oil is a bit numbing on the palate, and that tends to interfere with tasting the finer points of this whisky. This knocks it down slightly; other peated Islay whiskies don't have this effect on my mouth, it seems, or at least not to the same extent, even at high peat levels.

I originally gave it a 7.5 out of 10. Now I'd call it a B on my letter-grade scale. I don't think it is great, but only good. That seems to be a little heretical, since this whisky routinely gets very high reviews. I'd like to nose and taste a Lagavulin 16 at cask strength, or closer to cask strength.

And now Michigan has gotten some bottles of a 12-year-old Lagavulin, marked as a "Limited Edition," bottled in 2009 at 57.9% ABV, and so I get my opportunity to taste a Lagavulin at a much higher ABV. As you can see this one is lighter in color, and on the nose the smoke is fresher (the campfire is still smoldering and hasn't been put out yet). There are some different notes: shoe leather and overripe bananas, maraschino cherries and lighter fluid, pears and paraffin. The mouth feel is altogether creamier and more syrupy, hot in the throat but quite smooth. It's dry on the nose but fruitier on the palate, and some of that fruitiness lasts on the finish, as lingering lemon oil. That numbing quality is not so pronounced here. There are some intriguing coffee and cocoa notes that I don't taste in the 16. The Lagavulin 12 should also get credit for a nice fresh grainy barley chewiness on the finish. I find it better in most respects than the standard 16, and so it gets an A. The exception is that the smokey notes are not quite as developed.

When I first reviewed the 1993 Distiller's Edition (also bottled in 2009), finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks (a dark and sweet dessert wine), I wrote:
Unlike some other sherry-finished malts, this one does not remind me of maple or honey; it is not extremely sweet. The notes are more of dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots and even papaya, fig newton cookies, and blood oranges. It also has perhaps the faintest hint of sulfur. The flavor is very rich, and has a bit of mellowing biscuit maltiness that is very pleasant.
Jim Murray in his 2009 Whisky Bible did not rate this one very highly, on the grounds that the sherry notes and peaty notes tend to cancel each other out, and saying one would be "hard-pressed to find a Lagavulin this dull." I see his point, and I will agree with him to the extent that this is a much, much mellower dram. I find that I am a little ambivalent about sherry finishing, and this dram is a good example of why. While whiskies like the Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX and the Aberlour 12 seem to be fully structured and designed around the sherry, leaving the sherry notes and the bourbon cask notes in harmony, this one does seem like the distillery's character is a bit deadened by the extra sweetness. Peat and sherry aren't natural allies. There are some wonderful counterexamples: the Ardbeg Uigeadail gets it just right, but in that bottling the sherried Ardbeg casks are blended in with a very light and masterful touch.

There is some real interest here, though -- and the real story is the finish. In my original review I wrote:
Five minutes after finishing my last sip, I'm still tasting kumquat peels, a dry lingering driftwood smoke, tamarind, and peppered beef jerky. In fact, my impression of this whisky keeps going up as I experience the finish, and sniff the empty glass!
So on the whole I also rate this one a B. If the nose and palate matched the finish, this would be phenomenal whisky. I think the idea of a finished Lagavulin has great potential, although Pedro Ximenez may not be the right cask to use, the finishing period should perhaps be shorter, and the finished product should be bottled at a higher strength. Offhand, I wonder what Lagavulin might get from a Chardonnay cask, or even a white Bordeaux cask. I'd be happy to taste any of Lagavulin's experiments in this direction!

One final note: because the phenols specific to Lagavulin's wide cut tend to deaden the taste buds a little, if you taste these, I don't recommend tasting them back-to-back, or with another whisky. The second or third one won't get a fair shake that way.

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