September 26, 2011
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.