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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Islay Jazz Festival: Day Two (plus a wee exclusive)

It’s been a few months since returning from the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival, which took place 17th – 19th September 2010. Two days of music and whisky is always welcome in my world and some of the acts that I discovered on that that trip have since become regular tunes on my iPod; like a good holiday when you make ‘proper’ friends with people you actually stay in touch with. It is these factors that tend to make a holiday take that leap from “good” to “great”. For this reason alone, I would heartily recommend music lovers to make the journey over to Islay for this years festival, but more about that later on.

With a little over six months since my trip, what better way to celebrate than to gather some friends, musicians and general whisky lovers in an upper room in East London to chat music and drink some whisky. I say whisky but we were focusing on one specific distillery for the evening, Lagavulin.

Not known for an enormous range of bottles (if Bruichladdich is the Picasso of Islay then Lagavulin must be Van Gogh) with a small core output, it was almost a shock to have managed to gather 11 different bottles of Lagavulin in one room. A mix of Own Bottlings (12 Year Old, 3 different 16 Year Olds from different years, Distillers Edition, Distillery Only Bottling, Friends Of The Classic Malts Bottling), through to some independent bottles, most of which won’t (can’t?) state their contents is Lagavulin. Occasionally you come across one which can state its origins, such as the Elements Of Islay Lg1 and Lg2, which are gems and should be considered as great bottles to buy and drink.

One of the main incentives for getting these bottlings together for the evening was to try three different Lagavulin 16 Year Olds from different years, side-by-side. Every distillery will try and produce a consistent product but, as with any artisanal product, this isn’t always the easiest of tasks. Producing a consistent New Make Spirit goes a long way to consistency, but once you’ve left the task of maturation up to Mother Nature, Things Have Changed as Bob Dylan once sang.

Let’s have a look at how these three compare:

Lagavulin 16 – 1996 – 70cl – 43% Vol

Lagavulin 16 – 2008 – 70cl – 43% Vol

Lagavulin 16 –2010- 70cl – 43% Vol

Nose: The first thing to state is that these are all unmistakeably Lagavulin 16’s. We are not looking at big differences here, but small details which give the whiskies their own personality, but only by the smallest of margins. The 1996 has a mossier and softer-peated nose than the 2008 and 2010 editions. The 2008 has more stewed fruit than the 2010, which is the most robust of the three, with the biggest spirit hit.

Palate: This is where the differences really come in to play. The 1996 is quite sizably smoother on the palate (this is spirit that would have been produced as far back as 1980, if not the late 1970’s) with the 2010 being much zestier and almost lemony at times. The 2008 sits somewhere between the two, but leans more heavily in the direction of the 1996, with soft peat notes. The 1996 and 2008 are more like wholemeal brown bread, the 2010 is more like sourdough; zestier and more lively on the tongue.

Finish: Again, the same theme; the 1996 has loads of coffee notes with digestive biscuits. The 2010 has all of this, but underpinned with a zest, like someone has added a touch of clear apple juice or a zested a lime very briefly over the top. Once more, the 2008 sits more akin to the 1996 but the coffee is more mocha and dark chocolate than straight dry, dark coffee.

Overall: A fantastic comparison which threw up more differences (albeit each one small, but with a fair impact on the overall effect) than we though. If I had to choose one, it would be the 1996, although the 2008 comes pretty close. Good job they're all our bottles, so we get to take them all home! Funny thing is, I’d never have picked out the zesty nature of the 2010 until I was comparing it against the two others. It’s amazing what you can find when you really look!

(FYI, if you want to know the bottling year of your whisky, there is usually a code printed on the back of the bottle.. It might be hard to find, but it is usually there somewhere. To decode it, do some Googling!)

Two of the more unusual bottles which graced our tasting were the Friends Of The Classic Malts bottling; a 1995, 12 Year Old, First Fill Sherry at 48% and the Distillery Only Bottling, NAS, which weighs in at 52.5%, bottled in 2010. We have it on good authority that this offering is an enhanced version of the Distillers Edition, matured onward in yet another cask from the Pedro Ximenez which constitutes the Double Matured moniker of the Distillers Edition bottling. So let’s have a look at these two as well:

Lagavulin – Distillery Only Bottling – NAS – bottled in 2010 – 52.5% ABV

Lagavulin – Distillers Edition – 1990 / 2006 – 16 Years Old – 43% ABV

Nose: similar noses of very rich fruit cake, rum and raisin chocolate and apricots soaked in brandy. A dash of water to the DO bottling, to level up the ABV’s, reveals this nose to be slightly more complex, with Seville oranges added to the apricots and a whisp of wet sand and dark chocolate in there too.

Palate: Both offer baked banana, crystallised ginger and candied orange segments dipped in chocolate. The Disitllery Only bottling has an extra level of smoothness to the palate, like a strawberry crème chocolate from a selection box. Sweeter than the DE, which offers more wood spices, cardamom and fennel.

Finish: Neck and neck, both landing with a peat and spice edge, in classic Lagavulin manner.

Overall: You can tell the additional maturation of the DO bottling over the DE, but the differences are subtle, like the re-cut version of Star Wars once Lucas was able to show explosions in higher definition...

For a long time the DE was my favourite whisky in its price range. Still very much rate it, but have found myself hugging the 16 over the DE nowadays; less sweet, slightly more delicate, soft peat in the 16 which really hits the spot for me.

Onward to the Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2011: Dates for the festival this year are the 16th – 18th September with the full line up to be announced very soon. However, one thing we can reveal is that there will be an exclusive Lagavulin bottling available only to ticket holders, this year. We don’t know what it is, how much it will be or when it will be available (during the Jazz Festival, one would imagine) but if they maintain the consistency of the official bottlings we tried on our night, gig-goers will be in for a real treat...

I'm sure you'll be able to find out more information and book tickets here: