Lagavulin is celebrating its 200th Anniversary this year and what better way to do so than by releasing limited editions of their classic maritime single malt. Regarded as one of the greats in the world of Scotch whisky, Lagavulin seems to have carved out a niche for itself as the “grown up” Islay distillery.
It’s flagship 16 Year Old is significantly older than that of the introductory expressions of its neighboring distilleries (with a higher price point to boot) and the whisky’s general character and flavor profile is a bit deeper and more mellow than some of the younger, visceral malts we have become accustomed to on Islay.
When it comes to whisky making, Lagavulin tends to stick with what it knows best. We may see a limited younger, cask strength bottling (12 Year Old) and we may even see a double-matured, sherry-influenced expression (Distiller’s Edition) but the core of Lagavulin has remained unchanged for generations. As much as I may appreciate the broader scope and experimentations from the other Islay distilleries such as Bruichladdich, there is nothing wrong with making something great and sticking with it. Lagavulin seems to have done that with no shortage of success.
The new 8 Year Old expression gives enthusiasts a preview of what the iconic Lagavulin 16 Year Old tastes like at the halfway point of its maturation. It is matured exclusively in refill American oak casks, bottled at 48% ABV and priced at $55 USD (as opposed to $80-$100 for the 16). While it doesn’t say it on the label, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this one is non-chillfiltered as it’s just above the magic 46% mark. The label for the 12 Year Old Cask Strength, which is definitely non-chillfiltered, is also lacking confirmation but one can only assume this is because most everything else made by Diageo is chill filtered. It would be bad business to boast about the features of one product while effectively downgrading the quality of others. But I digress.
Considering the type of wood, maturation period, and ABV, we can expect cask influence to be minimal with a very hot delivery. 48% is nothing to boast about but with something this young and unaltered it will surely deliver. Throughout this review I will compare it to the standard 16 Year Old not because I believe Lagavulin has set out to surpass it in any way but because it will simply serve as a reference for many of you who are familiar with their core expression but not yet this new limited edition.
Uncorking the bottle releases a burst of freshly cut wood and saline into the air. Yes, that is unmistakably Lagavulin but this is also a brand new experience in its own right. While the 16 Year Old will kindly invite you in, this one is screaming, “Enter if you dare!”. It’s hot, very hot. In the glass the liquid is a pale straw color, not too dissimilar to a white wine. My understanding is that this whisky does have a dash of artificial coloring added to it, which makes me wonder if this whisky would have any color at all without it. When we cut into it a bit further on the nose, wow, not quite the same as the deep, mellow peat smoke of the 16 Year Old but more of a light ash with lots of the fresh wood. There is plenty of malty cereal notes whisked with green moss and other light earthy aromas. Yes, there is a bit of sweetness, mainly vanilla and a bit of citrus zest, but most of this is masked by the light and fragrant peat smoke. Overall, not too much complexity on the nose but I can tell this one is going to be hot.
On the palate, a light body with a fresh and vibrant delivery. The peat smoke is there but not as forward as I would have expected. There is an interesting pause, no more than 2-3 seconds, between first sip and a small explosion of cracked white pepper attacking the tongue. Wow! A very respectable ABV. This is arguably more approachable than some of the young Islays I have had in the past but it is definitely more powerful than its older sibling. It does not draw you in like the 16 Year Old and it may not come as a surprise that it lacks the depth that many of us have come to appreciate with Lagavulin. All of this whisky’s excitement is happening on the surface. Adding a few drops of spring water unlocks more citrus flavors, some sweet honey and a bit of chocolate. The finish is long, very long with a wonderful balance of punchy smoke and fresh, earthy wood.
Overall, a very interesting whisky and a good one at that. I was initially underwhelmed with my first dram but a few days and roughly half a bottle later (as depicted above), I have found real enjoyment in this one. I am reminded of why it is difficult to fairly judge a whisky in a single tasting. This bottle was just opened 3 days ago but given that it was a holiday weekend, I’ve had the chance to enjoy multiple drams at different times of the day, both indoors and out. I am a firm believer that there is a time and a place for every whisky and an evening sun setting on the rocky beach before me makes for a perfect compliment. This setting is different than what I view as ideal of Lagavulin 16 Year Old: a cold, damp, late-autumn evening spent by the fireplace as a coastal rainstorm wrecks havoc nearby. Some of you may read that and think it’s ridiculous but some of you will have tasted both expressions and can absolutely agree. If so, please comment below!
I will conclude with this: if you are still new to single malts, specifically peated malts from Islay, and are interested in Lagavulin, pay up for the 16 Year Old. Quite frankly, I don’t think Lagavulin will mind if you do. While the 8 Year Old is a very good whisky, the 16 is near perfect. It’s far more memorable and enchanting and I would argue more approachable for the novice palate. What we have here in the 8 Year Old is a true connoisseurs dram whose beauty may be lost on the average drinker. It’s a limited edition released to celebrate the distillery’s 100th Anniversary and it differs from the standard bottling in ways that experienced drinkers can appreciate. Plus, it’s bottled with an age statement and sold at an attractive price point. I quite like this one. It doesn’t thrill like some of the young, brash Laphroaig and Kilchoman expressions I have been fortunate to try but it’s obvious to me that the Lagavulin 8 Year Old is simply a legend in the making. I consider it a privilege to taste this one and can’t wait to try to next limited editions released for the 200th Anniversary. Lagavulin fans out there – pick this one up while you still can. You won’t be disappointed.