Thanks to North Strategic for the sample that informed this review.
Lagavulin 8 year old
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of their Lagavulin distillery, parent company Diageo recently announced the release of a limited edition 8 year old bottling. In an age where most Scotch whisky distilleries are owned by global conglomerates who seem to be in near constant competition to release the next "most coveted ultra premium" offering, the Lagavulin 8 year old is a welcome break from the trend. Affordable, widely available, and at a youthful age, this anniversary bottling stands apart from the cluttered commemorative landscape of "bespoke" crystal decanters, super aged and unobtainable expressions, or boutique NAS lines in fancy boxes. However, it's worth noting that Diageo is keenly working both ends of the spectrum on this special anniversary since they've also released a limited 8,000 bottle run of 25 year old Lagavulin aged exclusively in Sherry casks.
For such an established and beloved whisky brand, an 8 year old commemorative bottling is a bold move. Bottled at a robust 48% ABV and solely aged in American oak, the anniversary bottling takes a risk and invites the consumer to try a more, dare I say, "essential" version of Lagavulin than what's been previously available in recent times through official distillery bottlings. Reflecting on the past, the inspiration for this expression comes from one of the distillery's earliest glowing reviews and endorsements courtesy of Victorian-era Britain's most famous whisky writer, Alfred Barnard in his 1887 book, "The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom."
The story goes that in the late 1880s, Mr. Barnard visited Lagavulin and fell in love with the distillery. After sampling an 8 year old expression he described it as both "exceptionally fine" and "held in high repute... [as] there are only a few of the Scotch distilleries that turn out spirit for use as single whiskies and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent." Truly high praise for the quality of the spirit; it's important to remember that during those days most, if not all, of a distillery's single malt output was used for blending. Single malt whisky, as we know it, was uncommon as a product for sale and its availability was typically limited to those who lived and worked in the vicinity of the distillery. For the vast majority of whisky drinkers, in both the domestic and the export market, bends of malt and grain whiskies were the only options.
Enchanted by the spirit and the beauty of the Lagavulin bay, Barnard wrote, "[there's] no prettier or more romantic spot could have been chosen for a distillery." I have to say, we couldn't agree more completely.
This bi-centennial bottling isn't an attempt at a re-creation of what Barnard tippled. Quite frankly it would be an impossible task without a time machine since nearly every aspect of production from equipment to process has changed over the decades. Rather, as Dr. Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo, explained in an interview with Forbes magazine, "we wanted to produce a whisky that tasted great--and something that was at an affordable price for a special bottling. So when we fell upon Barnard's tale of tasting an eight-year-old Lagavulin, everything fell into place. The challenge was to find the casks that would deliver against the promise. And we believe to have done that. But to be clear, it's not a recreation of what Barnard tasted...it's really an homage."
To those who might question the merits or price point of a younger version of a favourite whisky, Morgan offers a compelling rationale for the anniversary bottling, "the obsession with age statements and older whiskies is really a product of the late twentieth century. And we should remember that the majority of Scotch that's consumed around the world today doesn't carry an age statement. The fact of the matter is--as Lagavulin 8 Year Old demonstrates very clearly--is that older isn't better. It's simply different [and] in my experience, if you select your casks carefully, you can find many wonderful whiskies aged six, eight, or ten years that have very specific tastes and flavors that are lost with excessive aging--because the wood character begins to dominate. Age has become a lazy way of defining quality and price. And that's demonstrably not how it should be."
I'm convinced but, as they say, "the proof of the whisky is in the drinking!"
Ok, maybe nobody says that but me...
Nose: An eruption of sooty creosote and iodine aromas burst from the glass with a light malty sweetness rushing from behind. With some time in the glass, the liquid reveals notes of newsprint, plastic rope, and charred meat all supported by a pungent column of buttery cooked root vegetables and ripe fruit. A few drops of water brings out a soft doughiness to the buttery elements.
Palate: Light-bodied and somewhat oily, the spirit shows a lively interplay between its smokey, sweet and warming elements. A touch of honeyed sweetness underpins zesty spice and a range of peaty and herbal tones that span from raw green bell peppers to slightly bitter camphor that flashes with chocolate mint. Water softens the spice and herbal components while drawing out more mint and milk chocolate in the mix.
Finish: Strong, almost menthol-like, camphor vapours push through the long, mouth-coating finish which gradually dries to become tannic and chewy on the sides of the tongue with unctuous charred smoked meat flavours. Water improves the finish by opening a tiny space for a delicate muddled fruitiness to emerge. Generous and warming, the dram seems to smoulder and waft smoke to the palate like a smothered bonfire even up to 10 minutes after swallowing.
Overall: Lagavulin 8 year old offers a refreshingly different and more distillate-driven flavour profile than the standard 16 year old expression. Flavour-wise, the anniversary bottling isn't as polished as its standard counterpart and, because it's only been matured in American oak, the 8 year old doesn't have the dried fruits and brown sugar tones imbued by a finishing period in European oak. I love the vibrancy of this dram; its big flavours, the lingering finish and the higher proof is a welcome change. In short, it's not the 16 year old but it's got everything you need in a Lag.
Available in the LCBO from mid-November 2016 for $99.95, the bi-centennial bottling is highly recommended. To the fans of Lagavulin, this is a no-brainer, pick up a bottle or two. This is a limited run and when they're gone, that's it. For those of you who are mulling the price differential between the 8 year and the 16 year; yes it's ~$23 less and half the age, but it is a one-off expression and offers a rare chance to try an official bottling of Lagavulin matured exclusively in American oak. Fans of peaty and smokey Islay malts and/or Bunnahabhain's Ceobanach, Arran's Machrie Moor, or Springbank will also likely find it be a worthwhile addition to their collection.