Finlaggan Old Reserve

The Finlaggan Mystery

Finlaggan is a conundrum. Bottles from the Finlaggan brand (a product of the “Vintage Malt Whisky Company Ltd.”) contain a single malt from an Islay distillery. The company keeps a very tight lid on the identity of its source, breaking silence only to insist that Finlaggan does now, always has, and always will contain whisky from the same distillery. If we are to believe the company, we must trust our nose and not our ears in order to divine the secrets of this pale liquid. A favorite topic of whisky forums, the identity of Finlaggan’s source is thought to be Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, or Caol Ila. It’s very likely that the OR (Old Reserve) contains younger whisky – perhaps in the 6 year range – although a bottling of 10 year-old is available in some markets.

The fascination with this whisky comes primarily from its absurdly low price. A bottle at my local Trader Joe’s (the primary reseller of Finlaggan in the U.S.) costs $18. This makes it, by a wide margin, the cheapest single-malt available to me. The astounding part is that it’s actually QUITE GOOD. A good, peat-forward, single malt for $18 a bottle? Mystery aside, that makes Finlaggan a rarity in a world where Ardbeg can sell out of $100 bottles of 10 year-old malts named after reptiles.

Finlaggan itself is named after the ruins of Finlaggan Castle, a historic site on Loch Finlaggan on Islay, which was the residence of The Lords of the Isles.

Finlaggan OR (Old Reserve)

Color: Very pale in color.

Nose: Concentrated smoke. Grill-blackened mushrooms. Charcoal. The peatiness is intense, in a very campfire-smoke way. Underneath the smoke lies a layer of sugary malt sweetness – not complex, but undeniably malty. The Islay character is clear, but there is little maritime influence. A few drops of water intensify the smoke, but also release a little lemon peel and green apple.

Palate: Medium body. Alcohol burn upfront betrays its youth. Evolves into rice vinegar, sour candies, silty water, fresh green moss, and a pervading bitter smokiness. A few drops of water goes a long way to tame the alcohol. The water also brings out a little bit of vague fruit.

Finish: Long and with an interesting flavor like sweet-and-sour or Margarita mix. Fades into simple, slightly bitter, smoke and wet ashes.

Clearly a young, heavily peated malt from Islay. The indistinct maritime flavors suggest that it might not have matured in seaside warehouses, or perhaps used inland peat? The remaining flavors are muddy and lean towards the bitter. Despite these negative characteristics, this is a powerful, peaty dram of single malt for under $20. For that price, and this range of interesting flavors, it’s hard not to recommend. If you don’t like peat, avoid this bottle. If you’ve developed a refined taste for well-aged peated malts, avoid this bottle. However, if you’re curious, definitely locate a Trader Joe’s with an alcohol license near you and pick some up.

My theory? I think it’s young Ardbeg. The lemony “Margarita Mix” flavors and lack of a dominant seaweediness or saltiness remind me of Corryvreckan, although this is obviously a far cry from that superb dram. I just don’t get those warm, unctuous, savory Lagavulin notes. Many informed whisky drinkers are sure that it’s six year-old Lagavulin. Either way, this is very good stuff for a very good price, and I think the mystery adds something to the experience.

Finlaggan Old Reserve
40% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $17-$20
Acquired: (Bottle): Trader Joe's in Folsom, CA $17
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,
48 Comments

48 Responses to Finlaggan Old Reserve

  1. NB says:

    In the Chicago area, you can find this one at Binny’s Beverage Depot. Pretty coarse stuff, frankly, but worth a try if you like the peaty ones.

  2. Anonymous says:

    For $18.99, its not a bad sip. I think your review gets it right on the nose.

    The alcohol burn is 1st and prominent followed by bitterness. To me, the finish is not long lasting. I can taste the peet, but its being cloaked by water, so the Peet is not as powerful as a bottle of Lagavulin, but it is there.

    For under $20, not a bad buy, but not something you’ll savor. Just something to drink.

  3. PMC says:

    it has a smoky flavor, and what seems to me to be a salty nose. For the price you can’t beat it. I would definitely buy another bottle.

  4. chris says:

    I purchased a bottle at Trader Joes in San Diego. I’ve been drinking Speyside which I realize is a much lighter breed of cat but I was floored by the NASTY aroma after opening the bottle.It wasnt just a strong smokey nose it dam near assaulted me.It smell like it was aged in creosote lined hollowed out telephone pole and filtered through campfire ash that included green wood and trash. This whiskey burns like a cheap tequila.A second whiff reveals burnt electrical insulation and band aids……YIKES

    • Hi Chris, sorry that you didn’t enjoy Finlaggan. (Lucky it’s so cheap, right?) I’d be curious if you’ve tried other heavily peated scotches like Laphroaig, Lavagulin, or Ardbeg. Was your reaction to the strong peat aromas (an acquired taste, of course, but relished by those who like peated whisky), or specifically to the admittedly lower-quality Finlaggan?

      • Jimbo says:

        I had basically the same experience as chris here. I might rather have a dram of liquified rear wheel dragster tire after a full blown burnout. Finlaggan was so peaty that I just couldn’t drink it. Was pretty much disgusted by every aspect of it. Not sure if the immediate sick feeling in my stomach was physical or emotional based on the noption that I had just spent $20 on an undrinkable bottle of smoke. I actually returned it to Trader Joes and exchanged it for a reliably delicious bottle of Jameson and enjoyed every sip all the more.

        • Jimbo, thanks for sharing your experience – I agree that Finlaggan ought to come with a warning label – “This is young heavily peated whisky, and tastes like it” – just be glad you didn’t drop $60 on a bottle of Ardbeg to discover that you don’t like heavily peated whiskies. :)

          • Garret says:

            I personally loved it for my first islay, it was so different from what i am used to the smoke, salt, offensive flavours and all. Next is lagaulvin 16 year at costco.

  5. Johnny says:

    I found this article when I was deciding whether to buy a bottle of Finlaggan at Trader Joe’s last night. I bought two: one for my friend’s birthday, and one for myself.

    It is good! I think the price makes it taste better, because it makes me feel as though I’m in on some amazing secret.

  6. Michael says:

    Just found your website today while looking up Pappy Van Winkle’s 15yo ((Beltramo’s is an awesome place, by the way. Don’t make it out there nearly as much as I’d like) and I started to look around. You’ve got a great site.

    Now, on to the post.

    I’m no scotch expert, but I agree with how great Finlaggan is for the price. I keep a bottle on hand at all times now.

    I also would guess it is a young Ardbeg. It just seems smoke heavier (in comparison to peat) than Lagavulin, and less subtle. Last Ardbeg I had was anything but subtle.

  7. DamagedGears says:

    I have a feeling that it’s a young Laphroaig just because the initial nose of the Finlaggan is very similar to recent batches of Laphroaig.

    Having said that, for $20, this is an awesome scotch. Lots of peat, hints of iodine, and that maritime smoke… Reminds me of the times when I was young and spent a lot of time in coastal areas. Good stuff indeed.

  8. UsedtoLiveinStatewithaTJ's says:

    Oh Finlaggan how I miss your strong taste and cheap price. Hopefully we meet again at trader joe’s soon

  9. Nathan Lee says:

    I am sad for those who thought this stuff was too strong. To me, it is too weaaaaaak.

    My 1st Islay Scotch was only last Christmas. Lagavulin 16 year. I hated it at first: It was like drinking burning rubber or liquid asphalt. I didn’t understand it; however, I also don’t like wasting alcohol, so I kept going at it every day for a week. 1 dram at a time trying to understand it, and it happened after half the bottle was gone.

    I started to understand. I started to love it. It was velvety smooth and had so much more complex flavors than the Speyside I was used to. It made Glenlivet bland.

    It took me only about 1 month to finish that bottle of Lagavulin, and I tried to go cheap. I got a Laphroaig 10 and Finlaggan OR. The Laphroaig 10 was very industrial diesel tasting. The Finlaggan tasted watered down. I mixed the 2 and the resulting mix was a train collision that was the worst of both combined.

    So I just picked up a bottle of Lagavulin and a bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail. I also picked up a bottle of Finlaggan. I think the Finlaggan might be fine for every day Islay drinking, but its just missing something. I just think there is too much water.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Nathan. I personally think Finlaggan’s problem (and the cause of its low price) is the quantity of extremely young (possibly 3 y/o) Islay malt in it. That causes it to have harsher-than-usual industrial/rubber flavors which would mature out in an older malt. Still, I agree with your assessment that it’s a good cheap alternative for everyday, especially with the recent increases across the board in whisky prices.

      • Nathan Lee says:

        Somehow, I’ve been lucky.

        Price jumps have been minor. Glenlivet 18 year was $49. Now $55 is the lowest I can find it. Ardbeg Uigeadail seems to go for $70-80 online. I can get it for $58.99.

        All in all, in my station in life, I can afford to pay a little more for quality. After my review of Finlaggan, I decided to pop open and drink the Ardbeg….the taste difference is huge. I guess I now understand how pronounced the industrial/rubber taste is in the Finlaggan. I had simply attributed it to the alcohol, but the Ardbeg Uigeadal I’m drinking has at least 14% more alcohol, but I’ll be damned it I could even tell. Smooth, sweet, complex…..it makes me not want to touch the bottle of Finlaggan. That’s what I get for drinking one of the best rated scotches with the cheap Trader Joe’s stuff haha…

  10. paperboy says:

    It would be interesting to see the results of a blind tasting that includes Finlaggan — I suspect it would fare pretty well. I buy several bottles whenever I’m in a Trader Joe’s market. I enjoy all styles of malts but prefer the peaty Lagavulins and Laphroaigs. I particularly cherish my bottle of cask strength Lagavulin 12. But Finlaggan is a remarkable malt for the price. I’m planning a trip to Scotland next spring, including three days on Islay, where I intend to sniff out the true story.

  11. Peat McSmokerson says:

    I dumped my first bottle of Finlaggan down the sink. I had been drinking Lismore, and I would describe the flavor as tasting like rubber cement.
    Years passed, and I received a bottle of Lagavulin for Xmas. Oh no! There’s that glue smell again! But wait. 1/3 of the way through the Lagavulin, I started to like it. For me, Peaty scotch took some getting used to, but now, I prefer it to sweeter, less challenging scotches. I can’t drink say, Glenmorangie without wincing at the sweetness. I’m converted. Give me Peat!

    • Garret says:

      Glenmorangie is my favorite scotch hands down, but a peaty islay is nice every now and then my plan once i graduate from medical is to buy a bottle of the 18 year Glenmorangie and really sit down and enjoy it.

  12. Brobdingnag says:

    After getting a recommendation from another Laphroaig drinker at TJ’s, I really wanted to like Finlaggan.

    This thing is a beast. Vile. Burnt rubber tires mixed with lighter fluid that made the hairs on the back of my head stand up (literally).

    This watery and harsh liquid is nothing–nothing–like the beautiful complexity of Laphroaig, which reminds me of smoking a nice Virginia/Latakia blend. Finlaggan instead just tastes like cancer (to me, anyway).

    Yes, sure it’s peaty, but peat alone does not a good drink make. Save your money for something better.

    I returned my bottle in horror, and TJ’s was gracious about it.

    • @Brobdingnag Sorry to hear about your experience with Finlaggan – I thought it was inferior to Laphroaig 10, but drinkable. You should check out Black Bottle, it’s around $20 and is much tastier than Finlaggan, despite actually being a blend. A review of Black Bottle will be up on my site 3/4/2013. Cheers!

  13. Brobdingnag says:

    Hey, thanks for the nice quick reply! I don’t regret the experience, the displeasure was worth the education (what I like, what I don’t like). A know-your-limits kind of thing. Looking forward to your Black Bottle review!

  14. Eric says:

    I mostly agree with your review here. Finlaggan was my first Islay malt and it completely blew me away. I’ve moved on vastly superior (laphroaig) Islay malts but still think Finlaggan has value. With more Islay experience, I note Finlaggan lacks the salty sea air of seaside warehousing, the sweetness of bourbon casking, and pretty much any other flavors are drowned out by vicious burnt rubber peat.But that said, you can’t find a whisky under 30 dollars that packs near the punch of this one. Unfortunately, TJ’s stocks Laphroaig 10 for 39$, making it much worthwhile to double up the purchase and get Laphroaig over Finlaggan.

  15. Thank heavens for your website, Scotch Noob.

    I thought perhaps someone had blended in rubbing alcohol with my Finlaggan. Now that I know it’s safe to drink, I’ll try to discover the complexity of peaty whiskeys.

    Again, thanks.

  16. Garret says:

    Costco carries Lagaluvin 16 year for 60-69 dollars, now that i know that i like Finlaggin i will move onto that once i get the cash.

  17. John says:

    Oh dear baby Jesus help me. I poured a shot and it… omg… the finish will not die! I’ve tried soda, mustard, milk… it’s like a scot used my tongue for toilet paper.

    If you don’t like your mouth being an outhouse, avoid this bog of eternal stench. Will ketchup help? It works on skunked dogs.

  18. j.b. says:

    this is an incredible value. it’s not as good as laphroig/lagavulin but for the price it’s fantastic. i’d expect to pay $30.00 for something this rich.

  19. Garret says:

    Finlaggan, boy what a deal each time i drink it is an adventure. Sadly i dont enjoy bourbon anymore i used to drink bourbon for the kick and scotch for the smoothness but after finlaggan nothing i have except WT101 and its big brother kentucky spirit even get near the feel.

    • Garret says:

      Its more of i do like bourbon, but islay has so much more oomph to it. Still i have my favorite’s and each one for a different day.

  20. Walter says:

    Has anyone found this scotch in the New Castle County, Delaware area? Also, I’m curious where people are finding these sub-$20 prices. I’ve seen TJs in CA mentioned, and I found it for $32 at a Chicago Binny‚Äôs Beverage Depot as mentioned by one commenter. I suppose the price depends on local liquor taxes.

    • Hi Walter,
      The prices I list on the site are ones I’ve seen in the Bay Area, in California. This one was at Trader Joe’s. I would definitely not pay $32 for Finlaggan, I’d much rather move up $10 and get Laphroaig 10 or a Bowmore.

  21. Menk says:

    True, if you’re a regular islay drinker, you’ll realize there’s something a bit off about the after taste… that sort of sickly sweet harshness that young tipples of all types have.

    But that considered, and the price…. it’s very drinkable.

    Above all else, consider it for the amazing opportunities it offers for mixed drinks. Don’t have the heart to dilute your precious laphroaig with bitters and god knows what else? Try the finlaggans for exactly that purpose. Those off flavors go right away, as is usually the case with mixer grade booze.

    My cocktail of choice these days: Finlaggans, a dollop of honey, a splash of absinthe, and 2 dashes of peychauds, served with a big cube and a lemon twist.
    An Islay Sazerac.

  22. Mr. Stuart says:

    I’m done visiting California for a while. So I have limited access to replenishing my supply of Finlaggan.
    And ..I NEED SOME MORE !! I heard TJ’s doesn’t carry it anymore(?) I hope that’s incorrect; I know they don’t in Chicago. But I’ll check Vinny’s for it, as someone ref’d.

    As far as the distinction and quality of Finlaggan, I find it amazing with its strong aromatic Peat. But here’s my trick.. I use it AS A MIXER, a flavoring ..
    I “peat” up my Highland single malts, such as Glen Livet or Glen Fiddich, or even cheaper blended scotches, to make them a wonderfully peaty (Islay-style)drink .. BUT, don’t use too much! Just a splash of Finlaggan to a couple ounce sniffter of the other.
    Oh, and has anyone tried the 10 year old or Cask Strength?? I would love to get a hold of those !!

    • Mr. Stuart – I believe my local TJs in California still carries the Old Reserve, but I haven’t checked there in awhile. I’ve never seen any other expressions for sale anywhere. I think using Finlaggan to create your own peaty blend or blended malt is a great idea. I sometimes dabble with blending malts (usually when I have several bottles hanging around with dregs in them), and I imagine that a little malt-forward or sherried whisky would round off Finlaggan’s rough edges quite nicely. Cheers! -Nathan

  23. Leo says:

    Give me peat, but don’t give me unfinished, unripe water-diluted turpentine!
    No matter how cheap this bottle is ($20 at just opened TJ in CO), it’s not worth inflicting on yourself. Just save the money and get something you are actually going to enjoy and savor. Too much to ask from a $20 bottle? Yes. You get what you pay for.

  24. Victoria says:

    I just opened this bottle of Finlaggan single malt OR , poured it over some rocks, took a sip and wanted to spit it out. I tried a few more sips thinking I best give it a chance. Tastes like it was aged in an ashtray with a case of band aids thrown it. I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ll either pour the bottle down the drain or if I have time, return it to Trader Joes .

  25. Tim says:

    This is one of the best single malt scotches I have ever tasted. Yes its a little young, but it is very smoky and very sweet, and the finish is long and drawn out. Excellent bottle for the price, great for the campfire too. T

  26. Steve says:

    I actually think the Scotch is very good. I drink Laphroig as a preference but this stuff is right there. I don’t do a side by side comparison for a reason. I like the price. laphroig is $50 a bottle so it only gets opened now and again. Yes, I just bought 4 bottles at Traders when I was in Calif.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Just tried Finlaggan. Ok for 18 bucks. Im a laphroaig fan and there is a difference but if you want an affordable SMS then its ok. You get what you pay for

  28. Scott says:

    I’ve been intrigued by the extremely mixed reviews. Some say it’s undrinkable panther piss; others say it’s quite respectable; others say it’s excellent. Just tried it tonight for the first time. I love the Islay SMSs, and Laphroaig is my preferred barley juice … Finlaggan is quite good. It qualifies for sipping, but I totally agree with those who say to use it as a mixer, given its shockingly low price. Experiment with Scotchtails. I always cringe a little when mixing Laphroaig, but Finlaggan will let me mix with abandon.

    • Thanks for the comment, Scott. I agree completely. Anyone who says it’s disgusting has to reconsider what they’re comparing it against. Other $20 peated single malts? Hello? Another good use for Finlaggan is to add a peaty spike to a dram of disappointing or bland single malt. I’ve used it successfully to make interesting use of the last 1/4 of a mediocre bottle of something cheap aged in ex-bourbon. Again, not a use I would subject Laphroaig to, but at $20 there’s no shame in doing it to the Finlaggan. Cheers!

  29. Jason B says:

    I think this wold lend itself well to my version of whisky and coke, only I would use vanilla cream soda and this scotch. It is a great variation.

  30. Tom says:

    I love Islay Single Malt, like Bunnahabhain and Laphroaig. Finding Finlaggen on the shelf at TJ’s intrigued me. So I bought one, and while I found Finlaggen to be rather soft on the palate, I didn’t find it distasteful at all. I rather enjoyed its long, lingering finish. Its soft watery mouth-feel is made up for in its up front peat flavor and mild briney nature, which I really like. So, those that found it extremely distasteful, I would bet you do not like Islay scotch in general, or have never tried one. For 18 a bottle, I will be purchasing this one again.

  31. vw says:

    I thought Id buy this along with the 4 roses… they didn’t have it. After tasting 4 roses and reading this description, I wondered if this is what inspired Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’? I need to get a barkeep to pour me a sample of 4 whiskys to see if I like any of them.

  32. Anna Granfors says:

    Just got back from Trader Joe’s with a bottle of the Old Reserve for Thanksgiving. While it’s definitely young, I’ve always found it eminently drinkable…and am of the opinion that it’s a young punk version of Lagavulin. Those of us lucky enough to have found their first bottle of Lagavulin at Trader Joe’s will probably remember that it came not in its current clear bottle, but in an opaque tan pottery jug, replete with a finger handle at the join of bottle and neck and a cork with a green pottery top…and it was a similar steal at $15, IIRC. (TJ’s also sold “airline” minis of Lagavulin a little later, for even cheaper. Do NOT ask me how many cases of that my brother and I went through.) :)

    But the point that I wanted to make is that the typography on that jug for the words “Islay Malt” (with the I and M both italicized) are nigh-on identical to the typography you’ll find on Finlaggan, with the same italicization.

    Obviously, typography isn’t a copyrighted property, but I’ve had enough Lagavulin throughout the years that I’m pretty sure that they’re the source…the taste is very similar, just, well, a young punk version of Ol’ Papa Lagavulin.

  33. Kirby says:

    This stuff is excellent if you are looking for a cheap peat fix.

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