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Posts Tagged ‘Lagavulin’

Introduction

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%.

Norman Granz and Lagavulin DE

Norman Granz and Lagavulin DE

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.

Tasting conclusion:

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.

Listening conclusion:

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.

Other opinions

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

Of course, there’s the Stereophile review that I linked to in the introduction, and the Amazon reviews. Additionally:

  • 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.

Lagavulin 1991 DE Quick Take

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Quick Take

Here’s my “quick take” graphic for Lagavulin 16. For more info about this format, and my rating system, see this post.

Lagavulin 16 Quick Take

Introduction

[Update: I did a follow-up review of Laga 16 using a 2009 bottling in December, 2009]

I was going to do a write-up on a great whisky/jazz combination, involving Lagavulin 1991 DE. However, I decided I should post my impressions of the core Lagavulin 16 expression before delving into that special release, so I’ll put that one off a couple of days.

My introduction to Lagavulin 16 (bottled at 43%) came from a 20 cl bottle that I ordered from The Whisky Exchange. The bottle had a bad cork, got caught up in customs, and arrived with about half of the contents emptied into the packing box (kudos to TWE on their packing, as the smell was completely contained within the box). Upon opening the box, I was hit with a very strong medicinal smell, like band-aids and iodine. Taking in that strong odor from the spilled bottle, I was a bit skeptical of this Lagavulin stuff. This was to be my fourth Islay malt, and I was afraid I had finally met my match. However, as you can verify for yourself, the smell of a whisky spilled on paper is not indicative of the smell (nose) that you get out of the glass.

Oops! Bad cork.

Oops! Bad cork.

The Lagavulin 16 I’m writing about tonight is from another 20 cl bottle. This one is from the Classic Islay Collection 2007 gift pack, although the code on the bottle, which starts with “L6″, appears to indicate that this one was bottled in 2006.

Tasting notes

On the nose, that medicinal iodine smell is there, but to me, it serves as a backdrop to the other scents, not really standing out on its own. I’m struck by a strong fruity smell, like a combination of berries and apples. I could swear there is a sherry cask influence here, but I haven’t read anything definitive about the casks used for this expression. Perhaps it’s a mixture of bourbon and sherry casks, as there is a nice, creamy vanilla note coming out (bourbon cask influence). Finally, mixed in with the fruit and sweets is an equally strong, earthy peat influence with some associated smoke.

If you’re new to Islay whiskies, the iodine/peat might stand out to you the first couple of times you take in the nose. Stick with it, and you’ll see all of the elements integrate together beautifully over time.

The palate is substantial, with some sweetness there, but you really start to notice the peat influence. Then it grips your tongue, and becomes very dry. If you like a drying sensation from your whiskies, this one has it in spades. There’s also some spiciness, but I wouldn’t say this is one of the more spicy drams I’ve tried.

On the finish, there is an explosion of camp fire peat smoke. Hello, Islay! The berries come back, too, mixing with the smoke in a very pleasing way. I’m also reminded of the medicinal notes, but it’s still in the background. This finish goes on for a long, long time.

Conclusion:

Lagavulin 16 really hits the spot for me. It’s got earthy peat, combined with just the right amount of berries and vanilla sweets, along with enough of a medicinal character to keep you on your toes. I guess I COULD imagine an improvement with a little more of a Talisker-like pepper on the palate and finish, and possibly even a little more body. I’m reaching, though. There is an amazing balance as it stands. With the enchanting nose and endless finish, I can sit in my favorite chair, listening to a long classic jazz jam session, completely satisfied and free of life’s worries. Surely that’s worth 91/100 points.

Other opinions

  • WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge – A very good, but not great score of 89/100 by Serge. Although, I don’t see much in the way of negatives in his notes. He also discusses this classic malt from the vantage point of having tried many other versions.
  • Whisky for Everyone – They call this “a true ‘try before you die’ single malt whisky.” I agree!
  • Whisky Magazine – Huge scores of 9.5 and 9.75 from Michael Jackson and Jim Murray respectively. This article is from about 10 years ago, however. I believe I’ve read some opinions that Lagavulin 16 isn’t quite the “beast” that it was back then. I’m not sure how Murray rates the latest version in the current Whisky Bible.
  • YouTubeIslayScotchWhisky provides a very positive review. He mentions that it tastes almost exactly like it smells. That’s a good point. With the exception of my getting a lot more smoke on the palate/finish, I was amazed at how much of the profile carried through from beginning to end. Next, peatluvr gives a great account of how he didn’t like Lagavulin when he first tried it (early in his scotch drinking days), but now loves it.

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Introduction

Lagavulin 21 sample

Lagavulin 21 sample

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…

Tasting notes

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.

Conclusion

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.

Other opinions

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!

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Lagavulin 12 Natural Cask Strength 2007

Lagavulin 12 Natural Cask Strength 2007

Introduction

Tonight [well, last night by the time I post this] I’m drinking from a 20 cl bottle of Lagavulin 12 ‘Special Release’, another sample from my 2007 Classic Islay Collection gift pack.  I posted yesterday about the value of these gift packs because of the inclusion of the Port Ellen Annual Release.  However, this Lagavulin makes for another very compelling case, as it appears to be hard to find in full size bottle form.  At this time, both Royal Mile Whiskies and The Whisky Exchange are sold out of the 2006 and 2007 releases of Lagavulin 12.  This particular expression is bottled at a natural cask strength of 57.1%.  Like the Port Ellen, this 20 cl bottling is at a different strength than the full size Lagavulin 12, which is bottled at 56.4%.  I’d still like to hear from somebody who might know the reason for this difference in bottling strength. [Update - Tim F from The Whisky Exchange kindly shared a response directly from Diageo in the comments.  Thanks Tim!]

Tasting notes

On the nose, neat, the Laga 12 is all Islay, with peat, coal smoke, something medicinal in nature, and just a hint of the fruity sweetness found in the 16 year old.  On the palate, there’s an in-your-face brashness (not to be confused with harshness).  This is an energetic drink, exploding in the mouth with that 57.1% ABV heat and tons of peat, along with some pepper spiciness and then drying on the tongue.  Heading into the finish, it’s very drying on the tongue.  There’s more of that peaty coal smoke, and it lasts for quite a while.  Adding a little water, the nose now hints at more of the sweetness you expect from the Lagavulin 16 year, but it is still much more muted.  The alcohol heat is gone, the pepper is subdued, but the peat remains.  A little of the sweetness now makes its way into the palate in the form of light citrus.  The finish remains very similar to the way it was neat.

Conclusion - Tomorrow I might pull out the Laga 16, put on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and contemplate life. Tonight, I’m just going to crank up some Metallica Master of Puppets and enjoy the rest of this Lagavulin 12 ‘Special Release’.  It’s what I have imagined a Caol Ila cask strength would taste like.  The first time I tried the Lagavulin 12, I drank it along with the 16 year and found myself comparing them.  I think the additional richness of the 16 masked the strengths of the 12.  That’s not really a fair thing for me to do, as I’m prone to perhaps an unjustified glorification of  Lagavulin 16 and Talisker 18 single malts.  I consider them nectars of the gods, categorized separately from beverages intended for mere mortals.  Of the earth-bound whiskies, I put this cask strength 12 year right up there at the top.  It’s a take no prisoners peat train crossing the island of Islay, with smoke from the coal-stoked engine hitting you in the face.  It’s not hugely complex, but it’s not one-dimensional either, and what it has to offer is all good.  There’s nothing offensive going on here at all.  I highly recommend trying Lagavulin 12 if you like Islay scotch, even if you find Lagavulin 16 slightly overbearing.

Other opinions

  • WhiskyFun.com – Tasting 5 young Lagavulins.  Here’s a comparison of 4 Lagavulin 12 special releases, along with an independent bottling.  They felt the 2007 bottling was a big improvement over the 2005 and earlier bottlings.
  • Whisky Magazine – The tasting notes and scoring are for an earlier release, but you will also find links to a number of forum threads about Lagavulin 12, and discussions comparing the 12 and 16 profiles.

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I love those gift packs where you get a few (usually three) 20 cl bottles of whisky in a nice box.  The cost is usually not much more per cl than you would pay for a full size bottle, but you get to try out multiple expressions.  They’re especially great for a new whisky enthusiast.  I was browsing through The Whisky Exchange (TWE) web site Special Offers a few weeks ago, and a Diageo gift pack stood out at me because it included five 20 cl bottles instead of the usual three.

I noticed that it was an “Islay” gift pack (Islay whiskies being my new obsession), so I clicked on it.  They called it the “Islay Collection 2007″, and I couldn’t believe what I saw:  Caol Ila 12, Caol Ila 18, Lagavulin 16, Lagavulin 12 CS, and…wait for it…Port Ellen 28 year ’7th Annual Release’!  The price was marked down from 97 GBP ($146) to 70 GBP ($105) [Actually, that's including VAT.  Outside of the UK it's 61 GBP ($90)].  They now also have the 2006 version of this same gift pack, which includes, you guessed it, the 6th Port Ellen release.

2006 Classic Islay Collection

2006 Classic Islay Collection

Are you kidding me!?  One of the Port Ellen Annual Release original distillery bottlings that I’ve been reading great things about, but was scared off by the $400+/bottle price?  I had to get my hands on this gift pack.  I couldn’t believe that they would stay in stock very long.  On the contrary, six weeks later they now have both the 2006 and 2007 versions of the gift pack available.  How is this staying on the shelves?  Let’s consider the price and value:

Spending over $100 on a liter of whisky is still a considerable purchase.  However, let’s take a moment to rationalize this for ourselves.  What would 20 cl of these five scotches go for if you calculated it based on the full bottle price?  I’m going to go with current TWE prices for reference:

  • Caol Ila 12: 70cl = 25 GBP, so 20cl = 7 GBP ($10.50)
  • Caol Ila 18: 70cl = 45 GBP, so 20cl = 13 GBP ($19.50)
  • Lagavulin 16: 70cl = 40 GBP, so 20cl = 11.5 GBP ($17.50) [This would be much more in the USA]
  • Lagavulin 12: 70cl = 49 GBP, so 20cl = 14 GBP ($21) [This is the 2008 price; might be more if you can find 2006/2007]
  • Port Ellen 6th: 70cl = 299 GBP, so 20cl = 85 GBP ($128)

“Fair Price” Total:  130 GBP ($205)

Another way to look at it is that you’re getting nearly 30% of a bottle of Port Ellen at a discount price, and they’re throwing in the other 800 ml of Islay goodness for free. Yet another view is that a fair price for the four non-Port Ellen bottles is 45.50 GBP, so this is a chance to get 20cl of the elusive Port Ellen for a mere 24.50 GBP ($36). A final consideration is the flat monetary outlay that we’re talking about here in order to taste an OB (original distillery bottling) Port Ellen:  Approximately $100 to $135 depending on tax/shipping vs. $400+.  This is a significant lowering of the barrier to entry.

So, if you’re in the UK, or someplace that allows mail order of this gift pack from TWE, what are you waiting for?  You might also still be able to find this in some specialty shops in primary whisky market areas in the United States.  This is your chance to be a part of a rapidly disappearing piece of history; a chance for us middle/working-class scotch lovers to exchange tasting notes of a rare, expensive malt with the rich and famous.  You’re also armed with convincing numbers to explain to your significant other why it would be like throwing away money NOT to buy this set.  Isn’t it great to turn the tables around now and then?

Update: I forgot to mention another tip if you’re having this shipped to the United States – They charge 32 GBP shipping for this gift pack, vs 26 GBP for a single bottle. However, you can add up to five 50ml miniatures to your order and the shipping cost will stay the same. So go ahead and try out some new malts while you’re ordering the Islay gift pack, expanding your horizons and defraying the shipping costs.

Cheers,
Jeff
Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila from the Classic Islay Collection

Port Ellen and friends

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