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Cask Strength Lagavulin
Lagavulin bay is said to have housed as many as 10 illicit stills in the 1700s but it wasn’t until 1816 that a man by the name of John Johnston purchased a license and established the distillery we know today. Upon gazing at the huddle of white-washed buildings that stand in the shadow of the ruined Dunyvaig, one could almost be forgiven for thinking little has changed in the 200 years since its creation.
The distillery doesn’t produce the most extensive range of single malts but what owners Diageo release tends to be of a reliably high standard. The excellent 16-year-old is the ultimate islay dram for many and the intriguing 8-year-old, released to mark their 200th anniversary provided a slightly higher strength, yet affordable alternative. If like me, however, you enjoy your whisky at cask strength, the annually released 12-year-old is one to look out for.
Cask strength Lagavulin can be magnificent and visitors to the distillery can see this for themselves by taking part in one of the regular warehouse tastings hosted by legendary warehouse manager, Iain McArthur. With more than 50 years working at Port Ellen and Lagavulin, there is surely no one more qualified to lead such a tasting.
During a visit to the distillery in September of 2017, I was fortunate enough to enjoy the experience for myself. We were led through the distillery grounds to the draughty warehouse, My eye couldn’t help but be drawn to the row of casks that lay at the centre of the room. Soon I was watching with mouth-watering anticipation as Iain began to pull an array of drams from the oak and pass them around the room. The samples ranged from 5 to 35-years-old. Each one was exceptional in its own right, but a 19-year-old, matured in an ex-sherry cask was the real standout for me. It was one of those all too rare moments when you’re able to enjoy the perfect whisky in the perfect setting.
As for Iain, a more welcoming host or better spokesperson for Lagavulin you will not find. The man is as much a part of the distillery as the famous red chimney that stands alongside it.
I am often prompted to dwell on the fond memory of that warehouse tasting when I sit down with a dram of Lagavulin these days. Anyone will do, but none is more effective at bringing it all flooding back than the cask strength 12-year-old. This 2015 release is bottled at a fairly substantial 56.8% and retails in the UK at around £80 a bottle.
Smell: Peat Smoke & Salty Sea Air – the essence of Islay in a glass. Bonfire Smoke with Vanilla Cream, Lemon and even a touch of Banana.
Taste: Sea Salt and Pepper, Vanilla and Cream with Salted Caramel, Liquorice, Oak and Smoke. The peat fire seems to build and build and lingers long after the whisky has gone. Takes kindly to a few drops of water.
Thoughts: £80 may seem a little expensive for a 12-year-old but alas, cask strength Lagavulin doesn’t come cheap. Where the 16-year-old is dignified and its smoke seems somehow sophisticated, keeping the fire and brimstone under a degree of maturity, the 12 is an altogether feistier prospect that attacks the senses in a more aggressive, yet no less satisfying way. This is Lagavulin in its rawest form. Smoky, spicy, salty… and bloody delicious.
*Sadly, the price of this release seems to have increased quite dramatically in recent years. At £80 it was a great buy, I’m not sure about paying £125 for it, though.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this, or any of the 199 reviews that came before it. Your continued support has made this an incredibly rewarding experience and I hope to carry on for another 200 reviews and beyond.