As I await the arrival of my purchased copy of Whisky & Jazz by Hans Offringa, I thought I’d go ahead and do my own Whisky & Jazz post. I was sitting with a couple of Lagavulins recently, going through my classic jazz collection, and I came across an amazing pairing: Lagavulin 1991 Distillers Edition and The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions, by Verve. This bottle of Lagavulin was bottled in 2007 at 43%.
I found out about The Complete Jam Sessions three years ago, reading about it in John Marks’ The Fifth Element article in Stereophile magazine. You can follow the link to read his article and learn all about this amazing compilation of recordings. Here are just some of the musicians Granz pulled together for these jams, recorded in 9 sessions during the early 1950s: Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Buddy Rich, Herb Ellis, Stan Getz, Count Basie, Charlie Shavers, and Johnny Hodges. Pretty crazy, huh?
Listening and tasting notes
I want to start with the same Ballad Medley from disc 1 that John Marks raved over, which I listened to last night while drinking the Lagavulin 1991 DE. I started up the song on my stereo system and poured the Laga while Barney Kessel kicked things off on guitar…
On the nose, the Lagavulin DE has the classic Lagavulin peat smoke. Lost from the standard Lagavulin 16 bottling, at least to my nose, is the apples and vanilla. Instead, an extra sherry presence from the PX casks is presented, rising up seductively through the smoke in the form of dried fruit and ripe berries. Meanwhile, Charlie Parker comes in on alto sax, playing Dearly Beloved. He’s drawing me right in with a solid performance, but things only get better…
On the palate, Laga DE provides a nice strong body, tickling the sweet and salty taste buds and maintaining a strong peat presence. There seems to be a little richer, weightier mouth feel than on the 16 year. Next up on the Ballad Medley is Ben Webster on tenor sax with The Nearness of You. He builds on the foundation provided by Parker with increased dynamics in the intonation that brings out more emotion.
The finish on the Laga DE does not disappoint. It’s got the same explosion of smoke that is so great on the 16 year, and the sherry stays right there front and center in the mix. And the length? I could sit through the rest of the 17 minute Ballad Medley contemplating the finish. After Webster, Johnny Hodges steps in with his rendition of I’ll get by. I was already entranced by the mastery of Parker and elegance of Webster, but Hodges blew me away. I could swear he was feeling inspired by the previous solos, and his tenor sax just oozed emotion. Marks said he was “all gelatinous” by the time Flip Phillips came in 4 minutes later, but I melted about 20 seconds into Hodges’ solo.
Similarities of dram and jam:
Lagavulin 1991 DE brings the bold flavors of Islay peat and Pedro Ximenez sherry together in a way that totally works. You might expect a disjointed effort (especially since the sherry is just a “finish”), but there’s a great interplay and harmony of flavors. Similarly, the Norman Granz jam sessions bring together some of the best jazz players of the time. Sure, there is showmanship involved. On the ballads, however, it’s all about showing emotion, and the competition at that level draws you into the song and results in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
When I first tried the Lagavulin DE, my feeling was that it was better than Lagavulin 16. However, I’ve compared them a number of times since then, and I’ve decided that it’s like trying to decide if a Cadbury chocolate bar with caramel is better than the original. To me, they’re equally good, just different. That’s how I now feel about the two Lagavulins. With the DE, you get the extra sherry influence, and perhaps a bit more body on the palate, but you lose the apples and vanilla that provide additional complexity on the Laga 16. Right now, I’m on a sherry kick, so I might give a half point extra to the DE, but I’m going to round down and give it a 91/100 to match my score for Lagavulin 16.
When I first started listening to the Jam Sessions, I gravitated to the ballads, listening to them over and over. Since then, I’ve really gotten to where I get a kick out of listening to ALL of the songs in the box set. It’s amazing to hear these huge names in jazz belt out solo after solo. Right now, I’m really digging disc 3, with a couple of great trumpet players strutting their stuff…Roy Eldridge blowing great solos throughout, and Dizzy Gillespie joining him on Stompin’ at the Savoy. However, for the purposes of this post, it’s the ballads that go so beautifully with the Lagavulin DE in the evening after the kids have gone to bed.
Finally, I don’t know that I’d recommend either of these to beginners. On the whisky side, I’d recommend checking out the Lagavulin 16 before venturing into the Distillers Edition. Likewise, I’d check out some of the core body of work from people like Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson and Dizzie Gillespie before jumping into these extended jam sessions. Maybe next time I’ll write about a good introductory whisky & jazz combination. You can download the Jam Sessions set for $45 on Amazon, or $50 on iTunes, but I’d go for the CD version from Amazon for $59 so you can enjoy reading through the included booklet.
Lagavulin DE 1991
- WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge – Serge seems conflicted between his desire to dislike “finished” whiskies, and the fact that the Laga DE is pretty awesome. He gave it 92 points blind, but does a seemingly tongue-in-cheek downgrade to 91.
- Malt Advocate – 91 points here, also…and a better rating than Lagavulin 21 (which I agree with).
- Whisky For Everyone – Some info about the Lagavulin distillery, along with some nice notes on the Laga DE.
- YouTube – Peatluvr gives his video review of the Lagavulin 1991 DE
The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions
- AllAboutJazz.com – A write-up on this set by critic Norman Weinstein. His overall opinion of it seems to be positive, even though it seems like he doesn’t want to like it (he refers to the up-tempo songs as “noisy, competitive joustlings among hornmen”. Also, given my earlier comments about Ballad Medley on disc one, it’s probably not surprising that I disagree with his assessment that Johnny Hodges seems disinterested. I do agree with him, though, that the ballads are the “real deal.”
Lagavulin DE Quick Take
Here’s my “quick take” graphic for Lagavulin 1991/2007 DE. Scoring-wise, it’s almost identical to my Lagavulin 16 rating, with a little less on the nose and a little more on the body. For more info about this format, and my rating system, see this post.