The first expression in our peaty Island series is an old gentleman, Lagavulin. I’m starting here because I think ‘Laga’ is a damned fine whisky and, though a bit pricey, represents a benchmark for quality and complexity. It’s well-finished and very smooth despite the smokiness of the peat. They achieve smoothness and a full flavor without using sherry casks, and here is where the extra years in the barrel make a difference: most of its competitors (Islay whiskies) use a 10-year-old as their main expression. The extra six years Lagavulin spends in cask mellows the smokiness and allows lovely aromas to work in from the wood. You pay for that aging of course, this is about $90 a bottle in my area.
The distillery benefits from local heritage; the town was long time a capital for the Lords of Islay (until they weren’t) and from there they sent troops off to fight Robert the Bruce. The official (legal) distillery was established a year after nearby Laphroaig’s in 1816, though as with many other distilleries, there are records of illicit distilling in the locale.
You have to look around a bit for the Lagavulin website, as Diageo’s website (they being the parent company) doesn’t list Lagavulin on its page of brands. A search of the Diageo site comes up with virtually nothing. But go to http://www.malts.com and you’ll see Lagavulin nestled there with its sister brands with the tagline “The biggest. The most intense.”
Well, it is intense, but we’ll hold judgement on the ‘most intense’ tag until we’ve finished the series on island whiskies. Suffice to say, though, Lagavulin 16 is powerful stuff. But like the best peated whiskies, it’s got a well-rounded character that presents fruit as well as smoke. You would think sweeter aromas would be at odds with the phenolic component, but it works. In Laga’s case, the fruit is prunes and smoke on the nose, and candied cherry syrup as it first hits your palate. The cherry fades to vanillas and malt then iodine, tar, and smoke, with a touch of bitterness throughout to keep it adult. It is, for a peated whisky, easy to drink, as my neighbors illustrated when I was mad enough to bring a bottle to the block party. But you’ll know you’ve had a glass for an hour afterwards, as it leaves as much smoke in your mouth as a puff of a good cigar.
To continue that analogy, you’ll find yourself reaching for the smoking jacket when you snuggle up to a bottle of Laga 16. It has an old-school vibe going that makes me feel like some silver-haired denizen of a country club. And I’ve never set foot in a proper country club. It’s got gravitas.
Lagavulin 16-year old Islay single malt, 43% ABV
Nose: Mineral (peat), sherry, prunes, smoke and two-day-old seaweed.
Palate: Cherry syrup with moderate peat, vanilla and malt with a hefty but not overwhelming smoke. Fades to iodine and tar; lots of mellow oak throughout, very well balanced.
Finish: Very long with lingering phenols, more oak and a touch of cinnamon.
Bottom Line: Wasn’t there a TV ad once* with Catherine Deneuve where she said ‘expensive, but worth it?’ Well, that’s Lagavulin. I wouldn’t suggest it for your first peated whisky, but once you know you like them, for that one you save for particular indulgences.
*Yes, long ago…probably back in the 60s!