Tuesday, October 20, 2015

making the pilgrimage: Lagavulin

This was not a visit - this was a pilgrimage.

As solemn as stepping foot into an ashram, Lagavulin's name inspires awe, wonder, and even a little bit of fear. And although (thankfully) the pants remained dry, for the first time in my life as a wino, I had doubts. Would I be worthy of fully appreciating what I was about to see and taste? Would it live up to the expectations I had in mind - everything emitting a soft glow, angelic choruses singing praises, a cathedral organ hidden somewhere? I went in as a believer. I came out as a fanatic.

Perhaps our amiga on this trip said it best (her quote below in the tasting notes). What lingered was this sense of privilege that we were here, that I was living some sort of Ron Swanson-ian dream. You see, Lagavulin is a throwback. Their legacy bottling, the 16 Year Old, is one of the older expressions of Islay whisky, and is unapologetic for how it's produced. There's this trend of brand positioning happening in whisky - that is, the notion that being non-interventionist is a good thing, that that preserves the true character of the whisky. Namely, the techniques of colouring and chill-filtering are being described as bad, and processes that strip the whisky of all that is interesting about it. Nearly everyone we met insisted (and it is now printed on all labels) that their whisky's do not use these techniques.

So first, maybe we should explain what these two procedures are, and their purposes in whisky production.

Colouring: Caramel colouring for spirits, designated E150a, is just that - used to adjust the colour of a whisky. You can make the argument that it affects/distorts the flavour, but really, it doesn't. A great piece on this by Dramming.

Chill-filtering: This is the process whereby the whisky is chilled to between -10° and 4°C, and then filtered. Its purpose is to remove residue, namely oils from the whisky, and acts to make a more stable dram. It prevents any residue from forming with age, and avoids the whisky becoming cloudy or hazy when water (or ice) is added. Important to note: cloudiness occurs only with whiskys under 46% abv. Again, its critics claim that for cosmetic reasons, distilleries who use this technique are also stripping the whisky of a lot of character.

In the end, what is in the glass overrides all else. And what I want to say is that even with added colour, even with chill filtering ... Lagavulin 16 Year Old is a superior whisky. Rich yet subtle, with exceptional pedigree and breed. He is truly a regal scotch - a powerful expression of the Islay character, perfect in balance and elegance.


New make spirit: Fresh off the still - moonshine! At 63.5% abv, had to reduce with a drop of water to even put my nose near the glass. Great sweetness from the malt. Smoke and peat come up underneath, surprising complexity even at this fetal stage. Intensity and force. Sweet on the palate, slight smokiness. Truly exciting stuff, and something I wish I could have bottled to take home.

16 Year Old: The old standby, the great-granddaddy of them all. Reduced to 43% abv out of the cask. Aged in mostly American oak. Beautiful fresh citrus notes on top, with a slight salinity. Peat comes up at the end. So subtle and elegant. Complex on the palate, giving you nutty, smoky, and mineral notes. What a texture, oily and long. Truly the gold standard for what it means to be an Islay whisky. As one of our buddies said: Before coming to Islay, my favourite was Lagavulin 16. Now, it is still Lagavulin 16. 

Distiller's Edition: This is a 16 year old whisky aged in bourbon casks, and finished for 6 months in pedro ximenez casks. Bright aromas, slightly raisiny. Very elegant. Lots of wood on the palate. Round, with the alcohol well-concealed. Slight spice as well, and clearly a softer, sweeter expression of whisky.

Friends of Lagavulin Triple Maturation: A one-off - possibly over 14 years old, aged first in American oak, then European, then back in American. Bottled at 48% abv, total of 4000 bottles. Aromas of sweet oak, with a lot of depth and richness. Smoky, spicy palate.

12 Year Old Cask Strength: A young Lagavulin bottled at 55.1% abv. Aged in bourbon casks. Very fragrant aromas of sweet corn. Alcohol well integrated, but nevertheless powerful. Slight peatiness as well on the nose, which then comes up big on the palate. With water, builds in complexity. Interesting, but just not as elegant or put-together as the 16 year old. 


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