When on Islay one of the must-do tours is the warehouse tasting at Lagavulin, especially if Iain “Pinkie” McArthur is hosting it. This year will mark his 45th year in the whisky industry and during that time he’s probably forgotten more about whisky than some of us will ever learn in a lifetime. He’s fun, engaging and famous for baptising people with Lagavulin when sloshing it around after pouring from the casks. But this article is not about the warehouse experience – it’s about the whisky we (my two brothers and I) got to taste in the summer of 2014. I was the designated driver so I decanted most of what I was served into sample bottles and tasted them later on.
10yo “Baby Lagavulin” from an ex-Sherry cask (Hogshead?)
Colour: red copper
Nose: Young, a bit harsh and spirity, peat smoke, hints of dried fruits in the background. With water: Sweeter, less peaty, still young-ish in style
Palate: Alcoholic, strong, some new make still to be detected? Bonfire smoke. With water: Less intensity, still young and metallic, more sweetness and fruits in the background
Finish: Coating, sweet, phenolic, lingering for some time, not overly complex
Verdict: Very young, really “baby” Lagavulin – too young to “die”.
16yo Lagavulin, 2nd Fill Sherry cask
Nose: Light citrus, peat smoke, menthol, harsh alcohol, pears, green apples, malt, toffee, ground coffee. Very light in style. With water: More darker notes appear. Cocoa, raisins, dates – yet still light in style.
Palate: (with water) Sweet, toffee on bonfire, well-integrated smoke, cherry, raisins, figs, coffee beans, slightly bitter (tannins).
Finish: Throat-coating, medium-intense smoke, quite sweet, some wood spices, lingering for a good length of time.
Verdict: Still a bit young and alcoholic on the nose, but sweeter and more challenging on the palate. A “wild child” – or, rather, teenager.
21yo Lagavulin, 2nd Fill Sherry Cask
Colour: Dark Gold
Nose: Dark and rich. Creamy. Citrus and oranges on the nose, tight in style, in line with the previous ones. Bonfire smoke, dried plums, raisins and figs.
Palate: Sweet and chewy, toffee, honey, oak spices, bonfire smoke and some cold smoke, cloves, a wee bit bitter, teeth-coating.
Finish: Sweet, spicy, cold smoke, lingering
Verdict: More complex, sweeter, much more oak influence than in the 16yo yet the Lagavulin signature is still recognisable.
32yo Lagavulin, Dewar refill cask
Colour: Light Gold
Nose: Bonfire peat, burnt vanilla pudding, toffee, ground coffee, spices, good alcoholic kick, nuts. Quite complex.
Palate: Phenolic, smoky, alcoholic first impression. On the second taste it’s spicy, less sweet than the nose. Mouth-coating, waxy, interestingly some elements I got to taste in the new make still carry over (once you’ve tasted it, you can’t un-taste it…)
Finish: Very rounded, coating, oak-spicy, nutty, sweet with phenolic smoke
Verdict: A kicking, lively, well-aged Lagavulin. Can I get a bottle of this?
1966 Lagavulin, bourbon cask #552
Colour: bright gold
Nose: Very mellow and light, much less intense peat smoke, oak spices, vanilla sweetness, nuts and slightly floral notes
Palate: Oily, waxy, not overpowering oak spices, toffee and ginger sweets, very mellow and rounded with a well-reduced smokiness.
Finish: Oily, throat-coating slightly salty, sweet, not much peat, noticeable but not overpowering oak influence, lingering pleasantly for a very long time.
Verdict: Very soft and subtle on the nose with a hugely reduced smoke level. Much more engaging and interesting on the palate.
My favourite of all the whiskies we sampled clearly was the 32yo, it had the best balance, still enough signature smoke and you could still taste the character and influence of the raw distillate, the cask didn’t completely overpower it. The oldest dram, from 1966, was also really good, but at that age it was already losing the typical Lagavulin character and smokiness. Iain liked to call that one the “ladies’ dram” 😉
All in all a very interesting experience, tasting Lagavulin from several decades and experiencing how their spirit needs a long maturation until it’s ready. Which is probably the reason why their standard bottling is still the 16-year-old, the oldest standard bottling in the market I know of.