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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Single Malt Report: Lagavulin 16 year old

Yes, I've made it this far without reviewing any official Lagavulins.  But now, to celebrate the 250th whisky reviewed on Diving for Pearls, I bust out a threesome of 'Vulins.

Today, #250 will be Lagavulin 16 year old.  Sample courtesy of Florin!

I will admit here that I have never owned a bottle of Lagavulin 16.  Instead I've only enjoyed it via other people's generosity or via buying a pour at a bar (back when it wasn't $20 a pop).  This wasn't due to any preference against Lagavulin.  I really didn't go peat moss crazy until 4 or 5 years ago, and then in the past three years I've been reducing my Diageo product patronage to zero.  But Lagavulin 16 is always of a reliable quality.  Some reviewers deem it an all-time classic like Highland Park 18.

Yet many of those same reviewers will admit that Lagavulin 16 has undergone some changes over the past decade.  Some years were deemed a little grittier and rawer, other years sweeter, other years oakier, other years smokier, other years sherrier.  We all have our palate sensitivities, but there may be something to the more recent claims of changes.  Around nine years ago, Lagavulin cask maturation moved from Islay to mainland Scotland, thus perhaps temperature, humidity, and climate differences in warehouses resulted in shifts in character.  In 1997, the distillery ramped up production to meet with increased demand, so starting with the most recent bottlings you may be drinking whisky from stills that were pushed harder than they were in the past.  (Here are some links with some of these discussions: WhiskyMag forum chain, WhiskyWhiskyWhiksy chain, Driscoll, David OG.)

This sample came to me in 2012, so it's from spirit distilled before Lagavulin distillery changed their processes.  I will say there is definitely some sherry lurking within...

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: THEM!  :)
Type: Single Malt
Region: Islay
Maturation: likely a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks
Age: minimum 16 years
Chill-filtration? Yep
Caramel coloring? Yep
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The color is DiageoGold™.  I always found some sort of cinnamon thing going on in Lag16's nose, and happily it showed up on cue with this sample, this time reading as cinnamon sticks.  There's more peat moss here than in the palate, and it's joined by creme brûlée and vanilla pudding.  Then there's some Super Ball rubber and grapefruit, along with a little bit of sherry and golden raisins.  After 20+ minutes of air, much more citrus shows up.  It gets sugary and mossier.  Some caramel sauce as well.  The palate leads with boat diesel exhaust and charred fish.  The loch's on fire!  Then comes honey, wood smoke, and a veggie note that's not dissimilar to sautéed kale.  Maybe a little black pepper (though it's no Talisker) and pencils.  Very tannic on the tongue.  The finish is sweeter than the palate.  Smoke and charred meat, along with a tart candy tingle.  It's long-lasting considering the ABV and filtration, but its make up is mostly smoke.

(A thing of note: I finally bought a glass eye-dropper.  Previously, I'd been using small spoons to apply water to whisky.  But now I'll never go back.)
With just a few drops of water the whisky undergoes one heck of a transition.  In the nose there's a flood of sherry notes.  Oloroso sherry, dark dried fruits, cherries, and milk chocolate.  The cinnamon sticks are still there.  New notes of sawdust and leather couch.  But the more water drops, the more sherry shows up.  The palate gets much sweeter and meaty.  Sugar, caramel, and oranges.  It's still smoky, but the moss element grows as does some bitterness.  It finishes very tartly and dry.  Smoke, coffee grounds, and dark chocolate.

This is very good whisky.  If new and future bottlings do change, I hope it is not for the worse.  I may not wish the best for Diageo, but I don't like seeing whiskies lose their mojo due to financial decisions.  If you're a peated single malt lover and haven't tried Lagavulin 16 yet, then I'd recommend doing so.  If you can find it at a bar for $15-or-less, I'd suggest trying it that way rather than forking out larger sums for a blind bottle buy.  Maybe you'll fall in lust with it as many have or maybe you'll stay with your current favorites.

As for me, I find it of similar quality to younger official versions of its neighbors, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.  And it actually isn't that much of a step above Caol Ila 12.  I think the watering down, coloration, and filtration prevents a proper presentation to what should be a gorgeous middle-aged Islay.  (And may I be the 10,000th person to request a 46%ABV NCF version?)  But as I said before, it's still very good.  Quality and bold character still sneak through all of Diageo's manipulation.  And the fun shift that added water brought gives it a couple extra points in my book.  I can't promise there will be any sherry notes in future bottles nor do I have any idea how loud the peat will shout.  But hopefully it remains recognizably Lagavulin.

Availability - Most larger liquor retailers; also Costco has good deals once in while
Pricing - $65-$100, yes it's that wide of a swing
Rating - 88