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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Single Malt Report: Finlaggan Cask Strength


Yes, ladies and gents, I'm starting the year in style.  High proof Fin!  After reporting on the 40% ABV version of Finlaggan -- a malt best used for whisky hazing -- I discovered there was this 58% version being sold in Europe.  I was much too energized by this discovery.  What's better than a mouthful of dirty Fin, but a mouthful of hot cask strength dirty Fin!  [Note to self: Why does cask strength sound so similar to castrate?]  I almost bought a whole bottle, just because.  But then after the thrill wore off, I found out that Master of Malt was selling it by the 3cL sample.  A much wiser purchase.

As I mentioned in the Finlaggan Old Reserve report, the majority of folks who've postulated about its origin say that it's probably sourced from Lagavulin.  A smaller group thinks it's from Caol Ila.  Though Loch Finlaggan and Finlaggan Castle are located much closer to Caol Ila, I find little to no CI notes in the whisky.  Instead it seems much closer to the Kildalton malts down South.

Recently both Chemistry of the Cocktail and My Annoying Opinions did great writeups challenging the widespread belief that cask strength editions of whiskies are consistently better than the reduced editions of the same.  I really recommend you give them both a read.  They make a lot of great points and give us consumers something to think about.  But damn it, after reading those posts, I held this sample in my hand not sure whether this Cask Strength version of The Fin was going to be better or worse than the Old Reserve.
BottlerThe Vintage Malt Whisky Company
Style: Single Malt
Distillery: Lagavulin or Caol Ila
Maturation: probably refill ex-bourbon casks
Country: Islay, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 58%

The color is a medium amber with some light gold lingering around the corners.  The lightness of color gives me some hope due to what appears to be little to no caramel coloring.  The nose starts off with lots of pine sap.  And a bitterness, if one can actually smell bitterness.  Then dried apricots.  Quite some charred oak at the start but it disappears quickly.  On the whole, it is smoke free while the peat shows itself in that pine note.  There's also an odd but not off-putting synthetic plastic-like note, which actually grows as the oak recedes.  More air...  Nail polish, a hint of sulfur, and rye new make.  The palate is full of burnt.  Burnt grass, burnt hair, burnt barley.  Lots of mint.  A soft bitterness.  And more of that rye new make thing.  It finishes with charred peat and honey.  Maybe some grapefruit and yeast.  It gets ashier and bitterer with time.

Oxidation makes it grow younger.  And I mean REALLY young.  I haven't had much experience with malt new make, but I have had some rye and corn white dog, and I'm getting a lot of distillate in this whisky once it airs out.

Oh boy, a sewage note creeps into the nose.  Otherwise, more of the sharp piney peat.  More of the rye spirit.  Subtle stone fruits and dried lavender.  The palate remains lightly bitter.  The pine finds its way over here.  It's a little sweeter now with less of the burnt element.  A little smoke and some lemon rind.  The finish fades pretty quickly now.  Bitter peat moss, then a brief vague hint of the Old Reserve.

Adding water doesn't turn it into the Old Reserve, which plays well into Chemistry of the Cocktail's theory that different casks are used for CS releases versus reduced-ABV releases.

So is it better than the Old Reserve?  Yes.  Though that's not necessarily a big feat.  It does get a little soggy and slightly strange with added water, so I recommend it be tried neatly first.  The one element I noticed again and again is how much this felt like new make.  I've a had a few barely legal single malts before, but I'm not sure if any of them seemed this young, as in fresh off the still.

Even considering all that, it's less ugly and warped than the Old Reserve (nothing old or reserved about it), even though it thankfully hasn't been prettied up with oak manipulation.  Yet I wouldn't recommend anyone hurrying out to buy a bottle from Belgium.  Now let's see if I can find a sample of the 10-year-old Fin somewhere...

Availability - A few European retailers
Pricing - $60-$90, depending on shipping rates
Rating - 77


  1. The pine notes would make me lean towards Caol Ila. I got to try Lagavulin new make and it's actually really good stuff - lots of apple notes to counterbalance the peat - whereas Caol Ila new make was pretty rough and piney. The low oak impact would also jibe with Caol Ila, since they're using almost exclusively refill casks.

  2. The excess casks and the bad casks have to go somewhere to be bottled. I wouldn't even make too much out of the distillery since it may change from batch to batch and it may be that the juice is not the most representative - otherwise they may have kept it for themselves. Lagavulin is a big stretch - there are just not so many independent Lagavulins out there, especially not at dumping price. Caol Ila and Bowmore, on the other hand...

    I've also learned recently that Lagavulin has a farmy element, that I've discovered in some Lg bottles by TWE. I'm not sure if that's borne by your experience with the new make, Jordan. It would also explain why I thought that the Berry Bros Islay Reserve I had contained Ledaig - it was probably just the Lagavulin talking dirty.

  3. I actually see both of your points. No matter where this malt is coming from, it's likely to be lesser stuff; the whisky that's off brand or they won't be able to mix into their big batches. I've seen a few complaints that Finlaggan isn't what it used to be -- though I hear that about every whisky, whether right or wrong -- and it leads me to wonder if it used to be Lagavulin, but is now sourced elsewhere due to demand.

    1. The stat I was quoted when I was there was that 95% of Lagavulin's output is currently going to single malts. They don't have a lot of spare capacity right now.

    2. I can imagine. But now I'm wondering what they're putting into the White Horse blend? That's always been Lagavulin since it started 125 year ago.