Ah, Lagavulin. I last reviewed a product from this Islay distillery in November of 2010. A year and a half later, I still think it’s one of the best malts available for under $100. Oaky and smoky, full and creamy, with just a little touch of fruit. Imagine my surprise when I learn that Diageo releases a 12 year-old version of the same malt… for $85 to $99 a bottle. What?! An annual release, bottled at 57.5% ABV after a January distillation “in the middle of the night”, according to Diageo Senior Master of Whisky Steve Beal – who was, I think, making fun of us. The special bottling comes from 100% American oak casks, as opposed to the 16 which is aged in a combination of American and European oak. When asked where the casks came from, Mr. Beal told us “Probably Bulleit casks.” Cool.
So why does Diageo set the price so high? My guess is “because they can”. It’s a cask-strength special-edition bottling with a limited run. According to Mr. Beal, the extra effort and cost associated with doing small-run bottlings like this justifies the price. I doubt it justifies the extra $30, but there you are.
Nose: Full strength wood smoke. Campfire. Nice undercurrent of cereal. Hay. Lighter than expected, without much brine. Refined. Some nice buttered toast!
Palate: Clean fire. Smoky as all get-out. Not much wood, but a little smoked fish.
Finish: Sweet finally. Nice oatmeal, covered by a thick layer of smoke. Finishes with sea salt. No bitterness.
Water: Reveals… banana? on the nose, which dissipates quickly. Campfire notes are subdued. The water adds in banana taffy, and a rummy kind of cane sugar in the nose. Perks up the palate.
Overall: The 12 has a clearer, cleaner flavor than Lagavulin 16, more bright and more powerful – lean and stripped-down. It shows Islay peat, pure and without excess wood or the sweetness inherent in the use of European oak. I think buying Lagavulin 12 is like spending top dollar for scratchy bootleg live recordings of a favorite artist. It’s an interesting case study in the variations present in the whisky due to changes in maturation (less age – thus less oak – and no sherry), but only Lagavulin devotees should consider paying the premium for the experience.