Friday, December 30, 2016

Lagavulin, Distillers Edition vs. 12 year cask strength

stats:
12 year (2015 release), single malt Scotch, Islay, 56.8%, $135
Distillers Edition (2016 release), single malt Scotch, Islay, 43%, $100

I was fairly excited by the prospect of Lagavulin’s 8 year old, 200th anniversary bottling and the opportunity to compare it to their flagship 16 year old. One thought that crossed my mind was to hunt down a bottle of 12 year Lagavulin and taste all three together to get a sense of the age progression.

With the 16 year at 43% abv, the 8 year at 48% and the 12 year at cask strength (usually around 57%), I’d have to make some adjustments. My plan was to bring the latter two down to 43% with the addition of precise amounts of distilled water. Cask types represented another variable; the 12 year is aged exclusively in American oak ex-Bourbon barrels, but the 8 year and the 16 year both see a small percentage of Sherry cask whisky in their vattings. Lagavulin is known for working with fairly heavily used casks though, so I wasn’t too worried about this added influence.

I had seen Lagavulin 12 year on liquor store shelves in the past, but not too recently. I did recall seeing it in the New Hampshire state liquor stores in the $90-something range, maybe about three years ago. Knowing that it is part of Diageo’s annual group of special release bottlings, I figured it would make an appearance some time in the fall as they all come out together at that time of year. I kept checking the New Hampshire liquor commission website to no avail, then started checking some of the bigger stores in the greater Boston area. When it finally popped up in a few places I was kind of shocked to see it going for $135 to $140.

I thought there might be a bit of special-release price gouging going on, so I was holding out that it would appear at a better price in NH, where prices are very likely to be close to the msrp. No such luck – it never showed up there and a little research revealed that the price of this bottling had gone through a series of increases over the last four years. I understand that whisk(e)y prices are going up all around, but sometimes as a consumer you just have to take a stand on what you are willing to pay for something. For me, this was one of those times. This particular whisky was just not worth that much money to me.

Hoping to make lemonade out of lemons, I went with “plan B”; a quick trip up to Montreal, which was long overdue anyway, where I could sample Lagavulin’s 12 year cask strength as well as their Distillers Edition, without having to buy a whole bottle of either. Diageo started producing the Distillers Edition bottlings of their original six “classic malts” (Lagavulin, Oban, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie and Talisker) in the late 1990’s and included them in their annual group of special release whiskies. Caol Ila and Clynelish were added to the DE offerings in 2006, as was Royal Lochnagar in 2008. The Distillers Editions of Clynelish and Royal Lochnagar were discontinued after 2012, however.

Each of the DE bottlings starts off as the same whisky (in terms of maturation) as the flagship bottling of its respective distillery. It is then re-racked into some type of fortified wine cask for a finishing period of six months to two years. Different types of finishing casks are used for each brand, but they do not change from year to year. In the case of Lagavulin, Pedro Ximenez casks are used and the finishing period is on the shorter end of the aforementioned range.

After a short walk from my conveniently located hotel in Montreal’s Latin Quarter, I bellied up to the bar at Pub L’Ile Noir and ordered the Distillers Edition Lagavulin. This was the latest release, having been distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2016.



The nose is dark and brooding with plenty of depth. The peat smoke aromas are densely packed, but not too assertive.
It’s full-bodied, and some dark, fruity sweetness from the PX casks does come through on the palate, but it’s really well balanced by the dry, earthy, mineral-driven coastal character.
The peat smoke builds through the mid palate, and then rides along in slowly fading waves as it moves on. Floral notes emerge late in the finish, rounding things out.
This is an interesting take on the Islay classic.

Next, I moved on to the 12 year cask strength Lagavulin which was last year’s release, having been bottled in 2015 at 56.8%.



The peat smoke on the nose is relatively assertive, but a briny, coastal edge and floral / grassy notes come through as well.
A blazing inferno of fiery peat smoke jumps out immediately on the palate. Some secondary flavors dance around on the periphery, adding complexity, but this is really all about the smoke-laden peaty intensity.
It evolves nicely, becoming drier with burning spice notes as it evolves through the long, smoldering finish.
I could add a few drops of water, but I won’t; it’s a wild ride, but an enjoyable one.

Not quite ready to move on to dinner, I decided to have one more whisky. It can be hard to turn back once you’ve gone down the peat road, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the relatively new Laphroaig Lore. I was ready to sit back and sip rather than scrutinize and take notes at this point, but I will say that it was quite exceptional.

I had opted for the ½ pour option with all three drinks, which I have a sneaking suspicion is a bit more than half of L’Ile Noire’s standard 1.25 ounce pour. Factoring in the favorable exchange rate, my tab came to about $22 plus tip. I think I made the right choice in taking a little road trip instead of adding to my bloated whisky collection for this post.

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