Among experienced drinkers, this month’s featured spirit needs no introduction. That’s because Lagavulin 16 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky is quite simply a grand champion. If it were a movie, it would be The Godfather. If it were a basketball player, it would be Michael Jordan. The taste doesn’t just fire on all cylinders as much as it explodes over each one of them. Yes, it’s that good.
Widely available but nevertheless boldly distinguished, Lagavulin 16 Year is often a point of no return. This right here is what converts a casual whisky drinker into a passionate seeker of the next exquisite dram. It also provides that rare instance where the quality meets if not surpasses virtually any amount of preceding hype. To put it another way: this baby delivers. In fact, the only time you should ever hear the words “I don’t like Lagavulin 16” are when they’re followed by the words “because I can’t stand peaty malts”, and even then you should still furrow your brow. Presenting our Spirit of the Month for June 2017: Lagavulin 16 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
The history of Lagavulin goes back. Way back. Legend has it there was an illegal network of distilleries in the town of Lagavulin as early as 1742, making it one of Scotland’s oldest whiskies. Loose talk aside, 1816 marks the brand’s official launch year. That’s when a farmer named John Johnston turned an abandoned building into a (legitimate) whisky distillery. A year later, Johnston’s partner would set up a second distillery that malted its own barley. The two units quickly joined forces under the Lagavulin banner.
By 1861, Lagavulin Distillery had come under the ownership of James L Mackie & Co (later known as Mackie & Co.). James Mackie would bring his nephew, Sir Peter J. Mackie, into the fold. Also known as “Restless Pete”, the cunning and ambitious Sir Peter Mackie became a senior partner in 1890.
It’s Peter Mackie who’s largely credited with bringing the name Lagavulin to the next level. Among other things, he went to great lengths to ensure his distillery had sole access to the premium local water supply. Some also say Restless Pete took a few tricks and even a few employees from neighbouring distillery (and former employer) Laphroiag. That resulted in some intense legal battles to say the least. Hopefully it’s all water and brine under the bridge by now. In any case, Peter Mackie is remembered to this day as a major stepping stone in the brand’s ongoing quality and success.
Like any company around for ages, Lagavulin has experienced plenty of ups and downs over the years. They’re now owned by Diageo, who seems content to let the brand do its thing. It’s a wise move because Lagavulin is possibly bigger now than ever before. That popularity comes courtesy of the stellar taste, but furthermore the recent whisky boom along with some earnest PR from Nick Offerman (aka Ron Swanson). And Offerman isn’t blowing smoke even if he’s sipping it. This is a truly remarkable expression bursting with character. It delivers bold, unforgettable taste over and over again. Indeed, Lagavulin 16 a living classic if there ever was one.
Distinction in taste starts with distinction in ingredients and methodology. To make its wonderful product, Lagavulin uses local Lochan Sholum water, which flows downhill through bogs of rich peat. For a long time Lagavulin was malting their own barley, but in 1974 they shut down their own Malt Mill for good and began buying their malt from the legendary Port Ellen Maltings. They double distill their alcohol, first in big wash stills and then in pear-shaped pot stills at precise and slow distillation speeds. Next, they age the whisky in ex-bourbon barrels and sherry casks inside a white brick warehouse strategically located next to the iodine rich sea. Being a single malt, every drop of Lagavulin 16 Year Old Scotch Whisky is aged in-house. The outcome is pure flavour country.
Although Lagavulin commonly produces a small range of expressions, the 16 Year Old Single Malt remains their masterpiece. It really is quite like nothing you’ve ever tasted, especially if you’re just starting to explore Scotch whisky. And while the smoke is impossible to ignore, it’s expertly balanced by a palpable sherried sweetness. Rounding out the spirit’s many charms is a rich amber colour. That colour is achieved through carmelisation (according to most recent accounts), but it’s beautifully striking nevertheless. Here’s a breakdown:
Nose: Copious amounts of smoke are the first thing my nostrils take in, but it’s a rich, smooth, delightful smoke rounded out by notes of sugar and lightly grassy undertones.
Taste: In my experience, the sugary sweetness usually comes first. It’s followed by luxurious and full-bodied smoke. This is campfire smoke, charred to perfection and balanced by the sustained melted sugar factor. The profile is layered, smooth, smoky, sweet and rarely subtle. A mild dryness keeps the whisky from being outright creamy, though texturally it still rolls over the tongue with ease.
Finish: The savoury smoke hangs and there’s no burn. There are small blasts of chocolate and coffee toward the very end that range in strength from sip to sip.
For those who enjoy a peaty malt, Lagavulin 16 is so outwardly superb you might consciously avoid it just so you never get tired of it. But every now and then you take home a bottle and remind yourself just how amazing it is. On the most unforgettable of sips, there’s a taste that goes all the way down to your toes. Meanwhile, the smell of sweet, bold smoke is seeping into your clothing.
Hence I crown thee, Lagavulin 16 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky, as (current) grand champion among readily available spirits. And I say “readily available spirits” because let’s be honest there are likely some harder-to-find drams even more profound and luxurious in taste. On the other hand, if you’re the type of person who seeks out rare drams, it might very well have been Lagavulin that sent you down your path in the first place.