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Friday, 2 March 2012

Lagavulin : Whisky With Friends

Recently I had to send a bottle of whisky to the Bishop of London. In with the delivery, I wrote a small note on how the Cleric might wish to interact with this particular spirit. My advice was thus:

“There are four ways to drink your whisky and only one of them is correct:

1. Neat. As nature intended.

2. With a tiny teaspoon of water. This lowers the ABV and releases some of the flavours

3. With a block of ice.

4. With friends.

You may choose to drink this whisky any one of the ways listed in 1, 2 and 3. That is entirely up to you. I’m giving you total freedom and permission to drink this how you like, within those boundaries. However, number 4 is a must.

Whisky is a convivial drink. It is a conversation. It gives and you should give back to it. The best way to have an experience with whisky is to share it with other people, especially a whisky as good as this.”

This is true for all drams. Some may taste better with water, others neat. But all, without exception, taste better when shared with friends. And so it was that last week, I took a detour home from a trip to Orkney to spend some time in Glasgow and then Islay sipping whisky with friends.

However, the bulk of my friends, my life and my community are all much further south, down in London and on Monday morning I found myself driving past Lagavulin distillery at 5am, to make an appointment to be in London to meet with some friends (and make some new ones, too) for a tasting of... yes, you’ve guessed it: Lagavulin.

The good people at The Whisky Exchange had invited Diageo’s Scotch Whisky Ambassador Colin Dunn along to walk an audience of around 60 people through some of the distilleries regular releases as well as a some recent expression now very much on the ‘endangered whiskies list’. As if this wasn’t enough, TWE proprietor and heavy-weight of the whisky world Sukhinder Singh supplied two bottles of rare Lagavulin for the evening, bottles very much classed as ‘extinct’ within the whisky world. Well worth a 5am start, me thinks...

Having spent a few days leading up to this tasting at the home of peated whisky, it was always going to be a challenge to get enthusiastic about dropping my suitcase off and hopping on the 155 bus up to London Bridge, swapping the beauty of rural Scotland for the, erm, ‘personality’ of Elephant & Castle roundabout; the fresh air for the fresh attitudes; isolation for industry. Arriving weary and tired, it wasn’t long before the company and the liquid on offer provided me with a much needed energy boost...

The line up for the evening was simply jaw-dropping. Before we got going, a small sample of new make spirit greeted us; strong, peated and warming, this was the opening chip in what was to be a long and successful stay at the table; a night where everyone left a winner.

Aside from a dash of white spirit, the opening dram of the evening was the expression that people will be most familiar with when it comes to Lagavulin, the 16 Years Old. We’ve said it here before, but this, along with the Balvenie Double Wood, is one of the greatest standard whiskies available for under £45 (it’s a shame that this is now a touch over £40) and often features highly in our recommendations for new recruits to the whisky category.

Colin had invited a mixologist along who took full advantage of Lagavulin 16’s rich and smoky flavour to create a fantastic cocktail called ‘Smoke on the Water No.2’ using Lagavulin 16, Grand Marnier, Byrrh Gran Quinquina and Mozart Dark Chocolate Bitters, all topped off with some dry ice infused with a blend of smoky teas. Very tasty indeed!

Next up in the tasting was the Lagavulin Distillers Edition from 1995. Additionally matured in Pedro Ximinez Sherry casks, this additional ‘education’ creates a sweeter yet more robust spirit from the 16 Years Old and one we could talk about for a while. Colin Dunn wanted to show the attendees what flavours good, old Sherry can offer younger whisky and he produced, from his own personal stock, a bottle of PX Sherry from 1927. Astonishing. Next week we have a feature exclusively on the Distillers Editions coming, so you’ll have to wait until then for extensive tasting notes on this expression! Don’t worry... it’ll be worth the wait!

Whisky no. 3 came in the form of 12 Year Old, hot from the current crop of Diageo’s annual Special Releases (2011), notes on which you can read here. And this is kind of where the tasting really took off, as it was the first of four different (and I mean different) 12 Year Old expressions which underpinned the essence of why this flight of whiskies was such a great experience.

The two ultra rare bottles which TWE had supplied for the tasting were both 12 Year Olds, both from the 1980’s and both the classic ‘white label’ editions, but each with a slightly different lineage; one from the UK and one from Italy. These are two bottles that Neil and I have always wanted to try, so it was a real treat to get to try one, let alone two, of these very sought-after early releases.

Lagavulin - 12yo - 1980's White Label - 43% abv (Italian bottling):

Nose: Rubbery peat smoke, something very oily and stewed tea. Dig a little deeper and you'll find notes of cream soda and vanilla ice cream.

Palate: Ginger snap biscuits, seaweed! Slightly aged peat, but there's a huge hole in the middle of this palate with a slight element of grainy weakness to it. Very iodine'y and medicinal around the edge, but nothing in the middle.

Finish: Masses of medicinal flavours, some mint and thyme.

Overall: Disappointing. Lacks any real complexity or direction.

Lagavulin - 12yo - 1980's White Label (White Horse Bottling) - 43% abv

Nose: Lemon Sif cleaning fluid, light peat notes lovely vanilla ice cream and icing sugar. The closest nose to the recent releases of Port Ellen we’ve had, aside from the Port Ellens themselves!

Palate: Unmistakably Lagavulin on the palate with soft peaty tones, farmyard elements, sooty and salty, with some slight tropical fruit notes and green apple skins.

Finish: Light and refreshing, with a deft hint of peat on the death.

Overall: A vast improvement over the Italian bottling. This is Laga like we like it - bold, but beautiful...

These two bottlings could not have been more different and highlight the inconsistency of single malt whisky in early incarnations of now more standard bottlings. Delicate yet so very Lagavulin, the second of these ‘white label’ editions was so beautiful, so light and easy to drink, that I can see why it fetches the sort of sums it does at auction.

To see us home were two more recent official releases; firstly the 12 Year Old Friends Of The Classic Malts edition, released in 2008 which we first reviewed at the start of 2010 and loved back then. Little has changed from our original assessment and this bottle really showed how amazingly well this release stands up in the range of current editions and previous releases.

The finishing touch was a dram of the now legendary Lagavulin 21 Year Old. This bottling has gained cult status (reflected in the price) after Serge Valentine’s review on his brilliant website listed it with a huge score of 95 points and the honour of being his favourite expression so far; quite an honour when you look at how many bottles this living legend has sampled.

Lagavulin - 21yo – 1985/2007 6642 bottles - 56.5%

Nose: Farm yard notes- like Brora, but with a bigger sherry influence. Hugely woody too, as the whisky develops in the glass. Some chamois leather notes start to emerge, alongside rabbit hutch hay, natural yoghurt, buttery mashed potato and dusty books.

Palate: Sweet, but then almost instantly, very woody and dry. Some honeycomb notes, a touch of mint and dark honey. But mostly dryness.

Finish: Dry and bitter, with some quite meaty overtones lingering as the palate dries.

Overall: To be honest, this is the 2nd time we've tried this and it didn't blow us away. In our opinion, it is too woody and lacking the finesse of the younger 12yo's, which sail past this for complexity and character and of course the mighty 16yo.

The night showed off an awesome selection of drams new and old from one of Scotland’s greatest distilleries. Our favourite expression was the Friends of The Classic Malts 12 Year Old which just goes to show, that no matter how you like to drink your hooch, whisky always tastes better with friends.