Lagavulin. Even the name hangs heavily in the mouth. Ripe, rounded, sonorous and grandiloquent. And, to my ears at least, pregnant with ineffable pathos.
For over two centuries the Hollow by the Mill has looked out across its bay at the ruins of Dunnyvaig Castle. Naval base to the Lords of the Isles, until the Scottish monarchy took their title for treason; finally pulled down in 1677 by Sir Hugh Campbell of Cawdor. Now, like Islay’s other great ruin, Finlaggan, its crumbled walls shelter only tourists, birds and ghosts.
Lagavulin was not my gateway drug to Islay, but it was my first taste of peat in more-than-wispish form. The classic sixteen-year-old stands apart from other peated Islays of the same price; haughtier, deeper; less visceral and ebullient. In the late eighties it was the surprise success story of Diageo’s Classic Malts; the snowball that led to the modern peat avalanche; the cacophonous, perhaps misguided clamouring for higher ppm and thicker smoke, at the cost of fruit and complexity.
I don’t drink much Lagavulin these days; new expressions tend to be thin on the ground and expensive, but mostly I don’t drink it because it makes me sad. It is one of my “throwback” whiskies – we all have them – and where Lagavulin is concerned, I only have the stomach to be thrown back every so often. To me, Lagavulin, at least in late-teen form, is the sepia scent of late evenings in formative lounges; of glinting crystal glasses, dimmed lights and the unpicking of the world through low murmurings. It is a whisky I drank before whisky mattered so much; something elevated and august amidst the cheap pints, the nameless neon shots, the stale, dark stickiness of night clubs bleak by daylight, the caliginous uncertainties of the future. The smoke of Lagavulin hung over the bridge into my post-University adulthood, and enveloped me again four years ago, when adulthood seemed its most stygian and inexorable.
When I was offered a list of samples a month or so back, this Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition stood out, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I thought it might be cathartic. Perhaps it was something that hadn’t been reviewed on Malt before. Perhaps I just fancied a Lagavulin.
It’s a progression of the standard 16-year-old, finished briefly in Pedro Ximenez casks; the darkest, sweetest, most glutinous of sherries. It sits at around £80, which is about a £30 premium on the 16. That seems a little high. There again, what doesn’t nowadays? This entity was distilled in 1999 and bottled in 2015.
Lagavulin 1999 Distillers Edition – Review
Colour: Rich amber
On the nose: First comes the peat. TCP. Sticking plaster. Germoline and meaty ham hock. Fruits in behind; lightly, and all dried: prunes, raisins. Feels surprisingly spirit-led for a PX finish of this age. Smoked apple chips and olive oil.
In the mouth: Big smoked bacon palate. Smoky, rather than peaty; the sherry and peat have combined into something more BBQ smoke and hickory than heather and scrub. Lanolin, fat, burnt wood. Barbecue sauce. Sweet elements of toffee apple. Just the lightest peach skin. Wet, granitic stone.
I remember the Distiller’s Editions being fruitier than this. I’m not sure whether that’s a sign of less-indulgent casks being used, or of the peat phenols being ramped up in the spirit. Conceivably it is both.
It’s not a bad whisky, but it seems somehow reduced. As though something of its richness and character has slipped away. Certainly it is more ephemeral than the Lagavulin I grew up with. The rumble of its thunder has slipped a few decibels. Like the place by the mill, and the castle on the bay, it is perhaps just a little bit hollow.
Thanks to Brian of Malt Musings for the sample.