Matching a whisky to every James Bond film

Whisky has been paired with food for decades, although in more recent years we’ve seen whiskies paired and matched to cigars, watches, albums, bands, and even movies!   If you’re going to sit down in your comfy sofa and pass away a few hours being entertained by 007, then having a good dram in your hand goes a long way to enhancing the experience.

Of course, Jimmy’s drink of choice may be a vodka martini, but we can shake and stir things up for the whisky drinkers out there who are James Bond fans: Here is our attempt to pair and match the perfect whisky to every (official) James Bond film.

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Lagavulin 8yo Launch

As is widely known across the whiskysphere, 2016 sees the Lagavulin distillery celebrate its 200th Anniversary. No one celebrates a 200th birthday lightly, and Lagavulin has been widely praised for the release of its limited edition (but widely accessible and affordable) celebratory 8yo in honour of the occasion.  Whisky & Wisdom had an early taste of this, and wrote up a piece about the distillery and the whisky back in April.   You can read that piece and the review on the 8yo here.

However, more recently – and closer to home – the 8yo had its local launch in Australia just a few weeks ago. Held at The Wild Rover in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the launch was not just the unveiling and tasting of the whisky, but it was also an incredible virtual reality (VR) tour of the distillery.

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Lagavulin 8yo and the 200th Anniversary release

Over the years, I’ve had countless discussions with whisky enthusiasts from all backgrounds about that magic moment in their life:  When did they first try a single malt, and which one was it?   It astounds me how often people tell me their first single malt was Lagavulin.   And, for the record, it was my first single malt, too.

It was the early 1990’s.  I was drinking and enjoying Scotch whisky, but had only been exposed to blends.  (For recent converts to the world of whisky who may not appreciate the context, bear in mind that in Australia at this time, the very best liquor outlets in the country stocked, at most, no more than perhaps nine to 14 different single malt expressions, representing perhaps only six to ten different distilleries).   UDV had recently launched “The Classic Malts” range and my father-in-law-to-be returned from a trip to Scotland with a bottle of Lagavulin 16yo in his luggage.

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Is whisky better or worse today than it was 20 years ago?

If you listen to enough punters who’ve been around a while, or read the writings of many in the whisky community (er…including here at Whisky & Wisdom), you might rapidly form the opinion that Scotch whisky being produced and released today is not as good as it used to be.

In short, plenty of people – myself often (but not always) included – assert that the whisky that was being produced and released 15 to 20 years ago was superior to what we are being served up today.  It’s a divisive topic, and one that is clouded by – all simultaneously at once – fact, hearsay, nostalgia, science, memory, rose-coloured tastebuds, marketing spin and experience.

Of course, there are plenty of exercises and tests one can apply to examine this theory.  For example, if you have the means, you can acquire a bottle of Glen McSporran 12yo from 2015 and a bottle of Glen McSporran 12yo from 1995 and taste the two side-by-side for direct comparison.    This has been done by plenty of people, including many respected whisky bloggers, and certainly by yours truly, but the conclusions vary and – ultimately – are subjective.  Everyone will happily conclude that the two releases are different, but personal taste and preference usually determine which one is deemed better.

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The 1980’s Heavy Metal Guide to Single Malt Whisky

Michael Jackson once compared a particular single malt to a car (e.g. “the Rolls-Royce of whisky”).  Others have since compared certain single malts to particular Grand Cru wines.   More recently, people have started writing tasting notes for whiskies and suggested various songs or bands to match and pair with the whisky.  So, whisky and music is now a thing, right?  Okay then, let’s take it one step further…

No one likes to admit it, but there was once a time when heavy metal was actually commercially successful, and major record labels were falling over themselves trying to sign up hard rock acts.  The genre is lampooned today, and often labelled dismissively as hair metal.  But, like me, you might be from that era when heavy metal was actually on top of all the charts and hair metal bands ruled the airwaves.   But has anyone ever compared single malt to heavy metal artists?  Perhaps now is the time.  Get out the hair gel, put on your spandex, and take yourself back to the 1980’s.  Here are my comparisons…

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Port Ellen and dram envy

All whisky drinkers are on a journey.  You may be just starting out and discovering the world of whisky via some casual drams of Johnnie Walker, or you may be an über-enthusiast who doesn’t get out of bed for anything less than a Macallan 50yo.

I’d been giving this some thought lately, as I’ve seen and read a bit of chatter on various whisky forums and discussion groups that hinted at there being some sort of series of conquests or achievements that you’re supposed to tick off as you continue your whisky journey.   It’s almost as though you’re expected to graduate from blends; transition across to mass-produced single malts; upgrade to limited edition releases; stop by Islay to collect your Peat Badge; gain a promotion to take on cask-strength whiskies; and then make the leap into the industry as either a brand ambassador, a blogger, or set up your own distillery!

Of course, I don’t support or endorse such an observation for a moment, but I can’t deny that there does seem to exist some unwritten, barely-whispered gates or “checkpoints” that some folks feel you need to pass through if you want to assert or display a heightened sense of creditability as a whisky drinker.  And by “checkpoints”, I mean drams.  In other words, there are some whiskies you probably need to have tasted and conquered if you want to demonstrate you’re taking this caper seriously.  And it seems like one of those whiskies is Port Ellen.

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When fixation on PPM gets OTT

If you’re a fan of peaty whiskies and you do a bit of reading or googling on the subject, it’s not too long before you encounter the letters “ppm”.   And never have three letters caused so much excitement, passion, enthusiasm…and confusion.   Parts Per Million.

 

A lot of whisky appreciation these days revolves around comparison and relatively.   Examples?  We measure or define how sherried a whisky might be by comparing it to a well-known benchmark: “The Macallan Sienna isn’t as heavily sherried as Aberlour a’Bunadh.” Or “If you like the smokiness of Talisker 10, you’ll probably enjoy Bowmore Legend.”

 

Where ppm sticks its nose in and causes problems is that people use it as a yardstick for comparing smokiness and peatiness in whisky. And that in itself causes dramas, as there are plenty of people out there who still don’t appreciate that smokiness and peatiness are two different things. Yes, you can have one without the other.  More on that in a moment.

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Lagavulin or Laphroaig – which is better?

It’s a question almost every Islay fan asks themselves at some point in their whisky journey:  Laphroaig or Lagavulin…which one is better?

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Is there a definitive answer?  Yes, there’s some juicy stuff we can explore over the next minute or two:

For the sake of any comparison, let’s get a few obvious things out of the way first:

  • Both whiskies come from Islay, and yes, they are next door neighbours, just one mile apart from one another.
  • They both make heavily peated, smoky, medicinal whisky.
  • Laphroaig is owned by Beam Global (now Suntory!) and Lagavulin is from the Diageo stable, one of their original “Classic Malts”.
  • The flagship expression of Laphroaig is the 10yo, whilst the flagship expression of Lagavulin is the 16yo. Thus, any comparison of the two main combatants has to take into account a six year age difference.
  • There are numerous core-range expressions of Laphroaig available (e.g. Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, PX Cask, and older variants such as the 18yo and 25yo).
  • For Lagavulin fans, the core-range alternatives are much thinner on the ground – depending on which market you’re in, you may be able to source the Distillers Edition version and/or the 12yo Cask Strength expression.
  • Laphroaig is pretty easy to find amongst the independent bottlers. Lagavulin, on the other hand, is a little scarce amongst the IB’s.

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To be frank, no one can possibly assert that distillery “X” is better than distillery “Y”.  We can certainly discuss which one we prefer, or which one tickles our tastebuds more than the other.  We can even play the emotional angle and declare which distillery we warm to most or feel a stronger allegiance to.  But, in the context of whisky, “better” is a hugely personal and subjective measuring stick, and I’m not about to start World War III by declaring one better than the other.  It’s really about which one is better for you.

Making broad, sweeping statements about certain distilleries or whiskies is increasingly fraught with danger these days, as there seems to be an exception to every rule. (For example, you can’t make the simple statement that Ardbeg peats its malt to 50ppm phenols, when it simultaneously produces heavier peated expressions (Supernova) and lighter expressions (Blasda)). But I’ll make a few generalisations now, and ask that the more precise readers don’t get too distraught if I blur a line or two.

Generally speaking, Laphroaig peats its malt to 35ppm. Officially, that’s the same as Caol Ila and Lagavulin. However, long term Lagavulin fans would be aware that Lagavulin used to peat much higher than this – for a good stretch back in the late 20th century, it was typically around 50ppm.   The decision to reduce the peating level back to 35ppm was made in the mid 1990’s, and so over the last 5 years or so (as the casks containing lower peated spirit have reached 16 years old), the vattings for each release have been carefully blended to manage the transition, so that Lagavulin fans don’t wake up one day and notice a sudden change! What I’m saying, however, is that if you can compare a Lagavulin purchased today with one that was available on the shelves, say, 6 or 7 years ago, you should notice a difference.

Of course, the malt’s simple phenol rating in ppm is only one contributor to a whisky’s final style and flavour, and there are many other influencing factors. The best way to appreciate this is to look specifically at Lagavulin and Caol Ila for a moment. Both distilleries use precisely the same, identical malt, sourced and peated to the same specification, and produced at the same maltings, i.e. Port Ellen. However, the two whiskies share very little in common when it comes to the final flavour, and – to the palate – one tastes peatier than the other, even though they both started with malt that was peated to the same level. Why is this? The answer is a little scientific: Lagavulin ferments for 55 hours, Caol Ila for 80; Caol Ila’s stills are tall and plain, Lagavulin’s are described as “plump”; the stills at Lagavulin are charged to 85-95% capacity, Caol Ila to 50%; Lagavulin takes a wider cut of the spirit run, from 72% ABV down to 59%, Caol Ila collects just from 75% down to 65%. I appreciate these are dry statistics that may not interest all readers, but they go a long way to explaining why the flavours and textures from each distillery are so markedly different and why one is peatier than the other. (Bear in mind that we haven’t even put the spirit into wood yet, and we know that the cask will contribute around 60% to the final flavour in the whisky).

So it is for these reasons and more that Lagavulin and Laphroaig will always offer you a different experience, even though they both use malt with similar peating levels. But it’s worth exploring the differences in their peat, also: For starters, Laphroaig’s barley comes from three sources: Roughly 15% is malted at the distillery in the traditional way, using local, Laphroaig peat. (More on that in a moment). Of the remaining 85%, the majority comes from Port Ellen, and some from Crisp Maltings on the mainland.

And this is where the principal difference between Lagavulin and Laphroaig is discernible on our palate: Malt made at Port Ellen uses Lagavulin’s / Diageo’s peat, which is dug from a bog at a very different location and altitude to Laphroaig’s peat bog. The peat bog at the lower altitude, which in millennia past may have been below sea level, has a much brinier, seaweedy composition than the peat from the other field. So if you’ve directly compared Lagavulin and Laphroaig and felt that one seemed more maritime-like, with perhaps a saltier tang or a more seaweedy undertone, then this might well explain it. (So which distillery owns which peat bog? Taste the two whiskies and tell me what you think!)

And so, ultimately, it comes down to what floats your boat. At 10 years old, the Laphroaig is a bit more vibrant and energetic. At 16 years old, the Lagavulin is slightly more refined and genteel (noting that peatiness diminishes with time in the cask). To my palate, Laphroaig offers a green, mossy bonfire smoke and a sweeter malt, whereas Lagavulin offers a drier, toastier, more maritime experience. I honestly can’t tell you which one I prefer, because my answer will change each time, depending on the day, the weather, the mood I’m in, and other variable parameters.

So let’s answer the very original question:  Which one of these is better?  Whichever one is within arm’s reach.  There…I’ve said it.

Cheers,

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