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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An evening with Laphroaig & John Campbell

It’s the bicentenary year for Laphroaig – no mean feat for a little distillery on the coast of Islay to churn out the world’s most “richly flavoured” whisky for 200 years! And that means some special events and ambassadorial work for the distillery team as they mark the occasion.

It was a treat for all Australians then, when the good folks at Beam Suntory elected to send John Campbell, Laphroaig’s Manager, to our shores for a promotional tour. On a two week trip that saw him involved with endless tastings, appearances, interviews and events – including the epic “The Great Whisky Rumble” (read all about that one here), John spent his last night of the trip in Sydney to conduct an intimate Laphroaig tasting at Grain, one of the city’s newest whisky bars. It was a ticketed event, and yours truly wasted no time in shelling out $85.79 to book a seat.

 

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Mr John Campbell

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The Great Whisky Rumble

Back in 2003, I hosted and presented my first “Whiskies of the World” tasting.  It was an educational affair; an introduction into the different whiskies being made around the world; and an opportunity to taste the different styles and flavours on offer.  More importantly, it was an opportunity for punters to learn how and why, for example, bourbon tasted different to Irish whiskey, and why Scotch and Japanese whiskies were reasonably similar.  And I threw in a Canadian whisky and a Tennessee whiskey for good measure.  (Don’t ask “What about an Australian whisky?” Lark’s whiskies were scarce, and Bakery Hill had only just launched its first ever release that same year).

The format and lifespan of that particular tasting event didn’t last long – I wrapped my up last Whiskies of the World event about two years later in 2005.  Truth be told, there wasn’t much interest or a market for it.  Can you believe that?  Everyone was super keen on Scotch, and the other categories (or countries) failed to get anyone excited.  That probably seems hard to comprehend in today’s environment, but – as I continually preach to people – we’re presently in a heightened time of whisk(e)y enlightenment, and it hasn’t always been like this.   Back in 2003–2005, the choices and products available to Australian whisk(e)y enthusiasts were pretty thin, and brand campaigns or tastings for non-Scotch whiskies were non-existent.

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Whisky Live, Sydney – 2015

As outlined in previous posts (e.g. here) the emerald city of Sydney is blessed  to have three major whisky expo shows pass through each year.  June 26/27 was time for Whisky Live to take centre stage and yours truly went along as a paying customer to the opening Friday night session.

Whisky Live has been running in Sydney since 2009 and it’s the same, original organisers still at the helm.  For reasons none other than inconvenient timing or simply being out of town when the show rolled around, it had been a number of years (four?) since I last attended Whisky Live, so I was keen to see how the current incarnation played out.

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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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The Top Six Distilleries to Visit Before You Die

Everyone has a bucket list, and I daresay most whisky drinkers would probably list visiting their favourite distillery as a “must do” at some stage in their life.  But if you’re really serious about your whiskies and you could actually get yourself to six distilleries before qualifying for your entitlement of the angels’ share, what are the Top Six to visit?  In no particular order…

 

1. Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich's warehouses
Glenfiddich’s warehouses

 

Is it because it was the first distillery to actively and commercially market its own single malt?  Is it because it’s the largest selling single malt in the world?  Is it because it’s one of the largest distilleries in Scotland?  Is it because it’s still independent and family-owned?  Yes, it’s all of those things, but there’s one other key reason to visit here:  It’s actually a really good distillery to see and experience!

There are a range of tours on offer at the Visitor Centre, from the free Classic Tour (which, amazingly, still includes a dram of the 12, 15, and 18yo expressions), to the incredibly comprehensive Pioneer’s Tour (£75) that includes some very special tastings and warehouse visits along the way, plus you can draw and bottle your own 200ml sample from a selection of four different casks.   The guides are professional, knowledgeable, and entertaining, and – despite the fact that this is a major tourist attraction – you do see and experience the real deal.

From a technical point of view, despite being one of the largest distilleries and brands, production is still very traditional – including direct fired stills and stillmen who take the middle cut when the strength and purity is right, rather than when the computer goes “bing”.   All in all, it’s the perfect glimpse into the malt whisky industry.

 

2. Edradour

Edradour's Production House
Edradour’s Production House

 

It still claims to be “the smallest distillery in Scotland”, which actually stopped being true quite a few years ago now, but Edradour can certainly lay claim to being one of the prettiest.  Yes, it is small, and its production is quaint…..right down to the draff being hand-shovelled out of the mashtun and onto an old timber cart.  But the valley, the stream, and the buildings are stunning, and the whole of production takes place in a building that’s smaller than most family homes.

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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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