These tasting notes are based on a sample of Lagavulin 21 1985 vintage, bottled in 2007 at 56.5% ABV. It was matured exclusively in first-fill European oak sherry casks. Supposedly, this is to be the last “fully sherried” release from Lagavulin, and this was a limited bottling with 6600 numbered bottles. I’ve been very curious about this bottling, but it’s not available in Arizona, and costs a fortune these days by mail order or on eBay.
I was lucky enough to have recently traded a sample of my Laphroaig 30 for this Lagavulin 21 sample with a local whisky drinker (Sean), who I met through the Whisky Magazine forum. I got about 75ml of the Laga 21. This was quite generous of him considering there are still a couple of bottles of Laphroaig 30 here in town for $250, but Lagavulin is nowhere to be found (except on eBay for $500). The Laga 21 is also his all time favorite whisky. I had built Lagavulin 21 up as the likely “perfect dram” for me. It should have the great nose of the Laph 30, but provide more power on the palate and finish. The Lagavulin 16 and 1991 DE bottlings rank just below Laphroaig 30 on my list of favorites, so surely this one would rocket to the top. Let’s find out…
On the nose (take 1): A couple of nights ago, I poured small drams of this Laga 21, Laphroaig 30, and Laga 1991 DE. I started out by nosing all of them, with the Laga 21 coming last. When I got to it, I prepared to be wowed, and took a good whiff. Woa! I was immediately hit with a huge dairy farm smell (It also reminds me of a smell I’ve noticed when shooting off fireworks…which reminded me of driving by a dairy farm :-) ). To be honest, I found it a little off-putting. Then I spent more time with it and found that once I started breaking it into smaller components, there was quite a bit there. One of the components was sherry. Usually, I’ll talk about sherry “influence” on a whisky, resulting in red berries, maybe some dried fruits. In this case, it’s literally sherry…not just a sherry influence. Interesting.
On the nose (take 2): Last night I poured a litle more of my Lagavulin 21 sample. This time, I was NOT hit by that big dairy farm smell. It was much more along the lines of what I originally expected. Strong sherry; still a full actual sherry scent. Also peat, but not a tarry peat…more like moss. There’s also something that reminds me of a leather-bound book, and a rich caramel sweetness. Of course there’s a nice smokiness to it. As I spent more time with it, I periodically got reminded of that dairy farm smell. Or is it spent matches?
On the nose (take 3): Ok, one more time with a comparison (Laga 21 and Laga DE). First a quick whiff right out of the sample bottle, and I was met with sweet (and smoky) berry pie. No cows. Then onto the comparison in nosing glasses. Again, nosing the DE first, then moving over to the 21, I get hit by that big farm/cow smell. Weird. Something about nosing one of the other whiskies first causes this reaction with the Laga 21. I can move back over to the DE and it smells “normal”. What’s going on here? [Update: Answer further down]
On the palate, I’m getting the full Lagavulin experience, but more intense than with the 16 or DE. Nice full body, with an amazingly thick coat on the tongue. Strong peat with some noticeable pepper. There is a little bit of alcohol hotness at first due to the ABV. A little water tones that down without really harming the rest of the expreience. Then onto that amazing smoky, medicinal, peaty finish that I love so much with the other Lagavulin expressions. It lasts and lasts…excellent.
In theory, this is the best scotch I’ve had. The palate and finish are everything you would want from a Lagavulin, and the nose adds significant complexity to the more standard bottlings. Perfect, right? In reality, I had to work too hard with the nose for my tastes. If I swirl it around and get the evaporation going, or if I nose it after another dram, I get hit by that dairy farm [sulphur?] smell and it throws me off. If I approach it gently, there is all kinds of great stuff going on there. At times, it was truly great, but the greatness came and went. I couldn’t keep it in focus.
When I’m in the mood to concentrate and work on appreciating my dram, this could be right up at the top of my list. The bottom line, though, is that I’m ALWAYS in the mood for Lagavulin 16, Lagavulin DE or Laphroaig 30. With those whiskies, the nose comes to me and pulls me in, and the rest of the experience is pure enjoyment. For me, that puts them a notch above this expression.
Update: Definitely some indicators in the comments below that I might just be sensitive to sulphur, as both TIm F (The Whisky Exchange) and Ruben (WhiskyNotes) comment on sulphur notes, and Ruben points out that one of the Malt Maniacs even gave a warning about the level of sulphur in this expression. Maybe I need to search out another known sulphuric whisky and see how I react.
[Update 2] I’ve tried a couple of other whiskies that are known to have a sulphur component, and I had the same “dairy farm”/fireworks reaction that I had with this Laga 21. I’m pretty sure now that this is just the way I interpret a sulphur influence. I’ve also read enough in forums and blog posts now to realize that some people are much more sensitive to sulphur than others, so your mileage will likely vary on this.
It would appear that I’m not giving this whisky its full due. Everybody seems to rave about it. Reading the Whisky Magazine forum, there are a number of people declaring Lagavulin 21 as their favorite whisky of all time. The Malt Maniacs gave it the “top single malt” award for 2008. Here are some reviews:
- WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge – 95 points from Serge. Obviously, he loves it. Lots of good info and interesting notes in this review.
- Malt Maniacs #111 – In E-pistle 2009/06, Luca provides his notes on Lagavulin 21. He even warns that if you’re sensitive to sulphur, you might consider this one “over the top”. [Updated 6/24 per Ruben’s comment below (WhiskyNotes)] BTW – Follow the WhiskyNotes link on one of his comments. He has a great whisky blog.
- The Whisky Exchange – Check out Tim Forbes’ notes. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but I think he might like this whisky more than sex!
- Malt Advocate – Search the review archives by brand name (Lagavulin). Ah…finally, somebody else (John Hansell) who likes Laga 21 but doesn’t think it’s the second coming. Maybe I’m not completely crazy!