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This week I mark my 200th review by revisiting one of my all-time favourite distilleries…
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 began to build the distillery as we know it today. Upon visiting the site and gazing at the huddle of white-washed buildings which stand in the shadow of the ruined Dunyvaig, one could almost be forgiven for thinking little has changed in the 200 years since it’s creation.
The distillery doesn’t produce the most extensive range of single malts but what owners Diageo do release tends to be of a reliably high standard. The excellent 16 year old is the supreme islay dram in the eyes of many and the intriguing 8 year old expression, released to mark the 200th anniversary in 2016 provided a slightly higher strength, yet affordable alternative. If like me however, you enjoy your whisky at natural cask strength, the annually released 12 year old is definitely the 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 the legendary, if diminutive figure of warehouse manager Iain McArthur. With more than 50 years working at first Port Ellen and then Lagavulin, there is surely no-one more qualified to lead such a tasting of this finest of Islay malts.
During a visit to the distillery in September of 2017, I was fortunate enough to enjoy the experience for myself. Our group was led through the distillery grounds before settling in a draughty warehouse and arranging ourselves into the seating provided. My eye was immediately drawn to the row of casks of varying shapes and sizes, which lay at the centre of the room. I was soon 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 a 5 to an incredible 35 years old and while each one was exceptional in its own right, a 19 year old, matured in an ex-sherry cask was, for me, the real standout. Here was one of those rare moments when one could enjoy a perfect whisky, in the perfect setting.
As for Iain, a more welcoming host and 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. Any one 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.
Value for Money: £80 may seem a little expensive for a 12 year old but alas, cask strength Lagavulin doesn’t come cheaply.
Where the 16 year old is dignified and regal and keeps its fire and brimstone in check under a degree of maturity, the 12 is an altogether feistier prospect which attacks the senses in a far more aggressive, yet no less satisfying way. This is Lagavulin in it’s rawest state. Spicy, smokey, oily… and bloody delicious.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this, or any of the 199 reviews which 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.