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Lagavulin 2017 Distillery Exclusive

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. I’d give him a 7/10 for effort as he missed one; life also means wear and tear, regardless if you’re human, a building, or something non-tangible such as a reputation. We should all adopt good housekeeping and maintenance. It’s an unavoidable fact of existence that we should look after ourselves in some shape or form. This safeguards our future and as Adam suggested in his recent article, our wellbeing and mental health. Even at MALT, we do find the time to repair technical things backstage, which ensures a better experience for the visitor.

In comparison, many distilleries seem to think they are oblivious to the ravages of time and have become lazy. In doing so, their reputations that have rested upon past glories have become battered and faded. Every decent visitor attraction, whether it is zoo, theme park or hotel, knows that they have to reinvest on a regular basis to ensure quality continues to be maintained. Going hand in hand with this is your reputation, which is beyond mere physical materials and financial clout.

I’m stating that Lagavulin is looking a bit drab and weary when it comes to its reputation. Yes, I’m opening those gates to hell and unleashing a torrent, but sometimes the stark reality of the truth hurts doesn’t it? And sadly, we don’t have much truth in whisky. Everyone is cosying up and being somewhat fake when it comes the stone-cold hard truths, which is what we specialise in here.

I haven’t had an official whisky from Lagavulin in sometime, that knocked my socks off. Ok, if the Scarabus is Lagavulin, which I suspect, then its solid and raises the question why Diageo aren’t doing better? Many still hold the distillery in high esteem and fanboy-dom. The 16-year-old is an artificially colour saturated bog of previous incarnations. The 10-year-old travel retail exclusive remains out of my reach till I travel to Rotterdam in October. The 8-year-old you say? Don’t believe the hype; overpriced and lacking substance – compare it to the Kilkerran 8. A distillery that only sparked into life at the turn of the millennium and combines value and flavour to devastating effect. All in all, ask yourself can Lagavulin do more?

In my book the answer is clearly yes. Even a wonderful opportunity to try several single casks as part of their warehouse tour left me non-plussed. It’s not because I don’t like peat, or dislike Lagavulin. It has a fascinating history and should be doing better, but as the market is buoyant and anything from Islay sells, there’s no need to actually improve. The current situation promotes laziness by a collective approach from owners, who don’t need to push the boat out, or actually try harder. An Islay oligopoly if you like, where too many are blinkered to see the truth for the bottles; mostly unopened bottles.

As Mark touched upon in his recent article, Islay has become a brand in itself. I hear all the time about tourists rampaging across Edinburgh, venturing in whisky shops with only Islay peat on their shopping list. Cadenhead’s cannot keep up and this has been going on for several years. The Edinburgh shop uses it to their advantage by showcasing peats from other regions that are arguably just as good, if not better. Malts from Campbeltown, Loch Lomond or further afield via Ardmore, or even god forbid England. The trick is to shake the mindset of the Islay hunter and show them that peat from elsewhere warrants attention.

With all this demand the temptation is just to ship out material that ticks the peat box – yep, I’m not even referring to it as whisky anymore. It exists and little else besides. I just wish as consumers we’d step back and voice disappointment, or disapproval more. Our Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2019 review underlined the fact that releases are coming out that are flawed and overpriced. Islay has a wonderful heritage and is an absolute joy to visit (when the taxi drivers aren’t fleecing you), so it has to do more to protect that legacy and that brand. It all starts with the individual distilleries who should be doing their best for their customers and not whatever investment fund is counting on a good return.

All that said and done, we have a Lagavulin to try to today. This is the 2017 distillery exclusive bottled at 54.1% and is obviously only available if you make that iconic trip to the island. Limited to 7500 bottles, it’s a distillery team selection and features a quadruple maturation, which apparently means a vatting of 16-year-old partially matured in Moscatel casks with freshly matured bourbon spirit of a younger age. It’s still available if you make the pilgrimage to peat-Disney.

Lagavulin 2017 Distillery Exclusive – review

Colour: copper.

On the nose: it’s Lagavulin but with a sweetness. Chalky, seaweed, smoked haddock and brown sugar. There’s wet hemp, chocolate, moss and sea salt. A rusty quality, followed by cranberries, cherry and a pleasant smokiness. Coastal for sure with toffee, driftwood and charcoal.

In the mouth: a bizarre hybrid with traces of Lagavulin but not quite all there. More coastal elements and rubber? Pork scratchings, toffee, redcurrants and dangleberries. Wet cardboard or even a wet forest and driftwood.

Conclusions

An interesting Lagavulin, enjoyable in some parts and a little flawed in other aspects. Fun nevertheless and while I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t be heading over to Islay for a bottle.

A whisky you can enjoy and take out for night but not something to take home to meet the parents.

Score: 6/10

My thanks to JD for the sample and photo.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Jason
Jason

JJ is based in Scotland, which means he’s able to reach out and enjoy a wealth of distillery trips and whiskies. Although, it’s more than likely you’ll find him in the Edinburgh Cadenhead's shop or in front of a laptop.

  1. Avatar
    Duncan says:

    You’re not a fan of the 12 yo? After discovering this when doing a tasting at lagavulin I get a bottle every year. Whilst there is some variability year on year, I still find it is consistently excellent.

  2. Avatar
    JP says:

    An anecdote from a recent distillery visit confirms your views here. I asked a staff member whether she could tell me approximately the age of the malts in the Jazz festival bottlings (NAS) of the last two years. (It already says something that they still have them for sale at the distillery shop given the current demand for special Islay releases). She replied that she could not say since they were ‘flavour based whiskies’. Despite a very entertaining warehouse tasting overall, the lack of honesty was somehow confirmed when Iain McArthur first told everyone that his favourite whisky is the standard 16yo, then that it is the 21yo (sherry), and after people liked the 22yo (bourbon), that it would be this one for him. Sorry Lagavulin. I appreciate that there remains a decent quality 16yo as a standard bottling to be seen, but share some of the frustration about the lack of honesty and integrity that seems to be getting more closely linked to the distillery and how it deals with its customers.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi JP

      That’s sad to hear and not surprising given what we’re seeing from Diageo and their distilleries. It’s all part of their rhetoric and message nowadays. I’ve heard of Johnnie Walker brand ambassadors justifying their releases without an age statement because that’s the only way they can create their 19th-century style blends – I cannot even keep a straight face typing that!

      Age doesn’t mean good, but now we’re seeing the lack of being utilised as a tool for mundane and excessively priced releases.

      For Lagavulin, I don’t think it cuts the mustard anymore, and the decline of, is evident.

      Cheers, Jason.

  3. Avatar
    bifter says:

    “The 16-year-old is an artificially colour saturated bog of previous incarnations.”

    Are you suggesting that they now add more colour than they did before? I had a bottle of the 16 not too long ago and it is not the peat-monster that it once was, though this has long been the case. Looking back at my Whisky Bible 2012, Jim Murray notes:

    “If anyone has noticed a slight change in the Lagavulin, they would be right. The peat remains profound but much more delicate than before, while the oils appear to have receded. A different shape and weight dispersal for sure. But the sky-high quality remains just the same”

    He awards a 95, a score I would resile from awarding to the current expression. You mention wear and tear in the context of reputation, is this maybe what we’re seeing with the quality of the 16? The challenge of maintaining a hallowed expression such as this must be immense. Perhaps in years gone by there were older whiskies in the mix, a practice that is unlikely to be prevalent these days? Are they still able to source the best sherry casks with rising costs and increased competition? Etc.

    Noticing incremental changes in particular expressions and relying on your memory and notes across the years is an imperfect science but I rather suspect a side by side comparison of a Laga 16 from 10 years ago would blow away today’s incumbent. (I recently had the chance to do this with a Talisker 10 from 8 years ago and it was like night and day.)

    When non-whisky drinkers find out I like a dram, the oft-asked question is ‘what’s your favourite whisky?’ and my reflex response for many years was ‘Lagavulin 16’ (these days I might cite Springbank or Glenfarclas). I might also explain the context of entry-level OB core bottlings if they seem receptive. Anyway, Laga is one of those sacred cow distilleries , one that people romanticise and venerate. So it’s very brave of you to call them out, though probably fair!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Bifter

      Compare and contrast is always the best way. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the 16 has slipped in recent years. Just like Talisker, Clynelish and the Johnnie Walker brigade.

      Of course, Diageo will tell you otherwise, but we know nowadays we’re paying more for less.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Welsh Toro says:

        I’m glad you added the other Diageo miscreants to this comment Jason. My latest Clynelish 14 was disappointing to say the least and Talisker has been all over the place recently.

      2. Avatar
        bifter says:

        I remembered this conversation in light of a recent tasting, not sure if you get notifications of comments on old threads? I had the pleasure of attending a Glenlivet Guardians event hosted by UK brand ambassador, Kirsty Thomson and Chris Brousseau, the Glenlivet archivist. Chris had brought bottles of Glenlivet 12 through the ages, from the ’40s to the present day.

        We sampled examples from the ’70s, ’90s and present day (in the new livery). The ’70s bottle was deep hued and tasted soft, rounded, sherried. The famous fruitiness was present and there were spices (cinnamon) and dried fruits too. The ’90s bottle retained the fruitiness, with esters (Opal Fruits/Starburst), but tasted more bourbon-casked and had lost most of the spices. The present day bottle tasted saccharine sweet, almost sherbet-like and seemed to have lost most of the natural citrus notes. The whole room agreed; the older the better. It was interesting to see just how much the expression had changed, and not for the better. I can’t see what Glenlivet gain from exposing their present day product to this comparison but I have to laud their candour.

        Anyway it made me think of this thread and the death spiral OB expressions seem to be in. As you say, we’re paying more for less. It’s bleak. I’m visiting Glenlivet in October, I’ll try to be as politic as I can!

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Bifter

          Yes, any comment we’ll receive a notification. It is interesting Glenlivet shot themselves in the foot with such a display, although you have to admire their openness. I’m sure this decline applies to many, including I can confirm, the big name blends and of course our friends at Glendfiddich.

          Cheers, Jason.

  4. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    I see absolutely no point buying anything described as ‘distillery exclusive’ from a massive operation like Diageo. Islay is awash with this stuff. Disney stuff. No thanks.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi WT

      With the whisky tourist boom, Diageo obviously see this as a chance to cash-in. The distillery exclusives offer very little information, are expensive and easily thrown together. I agree, Talisker is a minefield and Clynelish is better served by the independents – who are ramping up prices due to demand.

      I might be at Clynelish next month and we’re opening their 1st ever hand-fill as part of my Edinburgh Festival tasting as well. A compare and contrast might be on the cards. As for Islay, it sells, regardless of quality, which is variable at best. We’ll keep hunting for the golden nuggets.

      Cheers, Jason.

    2. Avatar
      Dan W says:

      Lagavulin 16 was the very first single malt whisky I ever tasted getting on for 15 years ago. It blew me away. The current 16 is a pale comparison.

      The 12 CS is still decent and the only Lagavulin I still buy. But at over £100 a bottle now it’s overpriced.

      I agree with your sentiments that Islay has almost become a brand in itself. And a premium brand at that. Their is a temptation to ignore the region completely until things calm down and become a bit substance over style.

      Ardbeg released a 19 year old last week. £170 and it doesn’t even break the crucial second decade barrier. Far from people commenting ‘how much???’ They were saying how reasonably priced it was.

      Beggars belief.

      1. Jason
        Jason says:

        Hi Dan

        Hard to disagree with any of that whatsoever. Islay is running amok and the masses aren’t canny enough to question why.

        I was in a shop this afternoon and any indie bottler seems to be asking £65+ for a teenage whisky, regardless of the distillery. Expensive times.

        Part of me believes that these distilleries claiming they’ve had to go NAS in recent times, did so because they wanted to return with more expensive age statements further down the line. Moet Hennessy have form with Glenboringie on this. Expect more of the same; many fools will be easily parted with their money it seems.

        Cheers, Jason.

  5. Avatar
    Newckie says:

    To read the comments on how the mighty have fallen saddens me. Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Bowmore do indeed seem to be chasing the premium bucks within brand Islay. With Ardnahoe yet to show its spirit, I wonder if the aforementioned Goliath’s of Islay will be slain when it eventually does, or will they improve and take on the fight?
    Lessons learnt by the new boys maybe, but Kilchoman initially showed promise but it too is getting onboard the train heading for mediocrity.
    Investment is key, and with Distell lavishing Bunnahabhain with funds and Remy-Cointreau at Bruichladdich, these two distilleries are in my view worth watching as they are producing some interesting whiskies and ideas.
    Come on Diageo, show some love at Lagavulin and get it to where it once belonged, the Lord of the Isle.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Newckie

      Lagavulin has staunch support, which at times cuts it too much slack due to blindness and fondness. Diageo cultivates and profits from this. Like anyone else, I want to see it back on form, but it seems incapable of such a feat currently. Islay will eventually eat itself. The peat obsession is unleashing some very flawed whiskies. At least with Bowmore, we have the independents. Laga is rarely seen on the indie market and then when it is, adorned by a fake name.

      Here’s hoping for an improvement soon. Cheers, Jason.

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