Lagavulin (pronounced lagga-voolin) is a distillery on the western Scottish island of Islay. The majority of distilleries on Islay produce rich, smoky and complex single malt whiskies and Lagavulin is renowned as giving some of the best examples of these. The distillery is located on the south eastern coast of the island. Lagavulin was founded in 1816 by John Johnston and currently has a production capacity of just under three million litres per year. They have unusual pear shaped stills and they believe that a combination of these stills, a slightly lower peating level in their malted barley and one of the longest spirit distillation times in Scotland, give Lagavulin its own unique character and quality.
A ‘classic’ malt
Lagavulin release a very limited core range of three whiskies – a 12 years old cask strength which is released once a year, the regular 16 years old and a ‘Distiller’s Edition’ (a special release that is finished in specially selected Pedro Ximenez sherry casks). The 16 years old forms part of the ‘Classic Malts’ series. Diageo, the current owners, have chosen one distillery from within their portfolio to represent each Scottish production region and highlight whiskies that typify the style of each of these six regions. Lagavulin is the ‘Classic Malt’ representative for Islay. This 30 years old is a very limited edition that is released sporadically, when they have casks that are deemed to be of the suitable quality and age. As a result, bottles are very hard to come by (only 2340 in this release) and are very expensive at £750-850 each. This was last released a couple of years ago, at 52.6% ABV, and is the oldest official release from Lagavulin – we thank Colin Dunn from Diageo for supplying this sample for us to try.
Our tasting notes
The colour of this Lagavulin 30 years old is golden and the nose is expressive and unusual. It feels fresh and vibrant, especially when for its age. There is an initial aroma of ripe tropical fruit (predominantly banana and a hint of pineapple) and this is followed by a soft smokiness (think of tobacco smoke). These two main notes combine with a number of other aromas to give a wonderfully complex nose – these include tar, wood varnish, nuts (imagine toasted almonds), caramel, toffee, vanilla and some floral heather. The palate is rich but again surprisingly fresh and hot with a pepper/chilli-like heat. The smokiness is more evident here and increases with time, changing from the soft tobacco smoke to become more and more peaty. Again, there is an interesting combination of characteristics present – tar, coal, sweet caramel, vanilla, bittersweet wood spice (think of cinnamon and nutmeg), honey, a hint of antiseptic clove and an overly floral perfumed sweetness (imagine parma violet sweets). The finish is long, dry and complex, with the soft peat and tobacco smoke smouldering on and on. There is more tropical fruit sweetness coming through and plenty of spicy alcoholic heat.
What’s the verdict?
This is a multi dimensional whisky. The sweet, ripe tropical fruit notes seem to clash with the more bitter tobacco smoke characteristics through out – it certainly creates an unusual and slightly odd flavour profile that jarred with us a little and they don’t seem to sit together correctly. It also has a good vibrancy for something of its age and the high alcohol level helps with this. The addition of water makes the whisky sweeter, with more of the floral and tropical fruit notes coming out. It also softens the smokiness and makes it very tobacco-like (think of sweet chewing tobacco or snuff). A very interesting dram.