Monday, October 05, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Lagavulin 16

In the glass, it has a really lovely dark gold color. When I stick your nose in, the first thing I notice is a medicinal, rubbing-alcohol, maybe even pine resin or turpentine smell, with a hint of iodine. Warm it in my hand and breathe a little deeper, and it's a campfire of oak logs blowing across the beach, stinging my eyes a bit. This scotch has a big, big aroma.

What else can you get just from the nose? There's a little something like dry sherry. It's notably lacking in some of the sweeter aromas, like caramel, although there is a little bit of vanilla in there to sweeten it up just a touch; as I progress through the dram, slowly, there's a build-up of a sweetness on the back of the tongue that reminds me of sweetened condensed milk. I don't get anything floral from it. I can imagine a little orange, or maybe bergamot, or cherry, but maybe that's just my imagination. There's just a touch of saltiness, and the flavor they call "sea air" -- the iodine reek of seaweed. There's something like black peppercorns.

On the tongue, the texture is immediately striking -- this is an oily scotch, with a smooth feel across the tongue, almost like cream or honey, but dry, dry, dry, as if there were some bee venom in that honey, and it leaves a burn in my throat, cheeks, and tongue that warms and lasts. It's not that it is a terribly high-alcohol beverage; the 16-year-old is 43%, which isn't unusual, and I'm attached to a bourbon -- Knob Creek -- that is 50%, but feels much less punishing to the mouth.

The sensation of peat, and even charcoal briquets and lighter fluid, sticks with me, and I notice it even more as I exhale, taking my little breaks to make notes in between sips. In fact, this dram makes me wake up feeling like I've spent the night face-down in a bog. It will kill everything that used to live in my mouth, in a way that some of the gentler whiskies don't seem to do. And that's not really a good thing. The flavors stick with me so strongly that ten minutes after finishing my dram, I'm still studying the flavors.

This isn't my favorite scotch. It consistently gets high ratings, but while I love the oily smoothness and smoke, the sting and the long-lasting charcoal and peat are a little much. Adding a little water -- not too much -- reduces the burn a little, and I get a little more vanilla, but it doesn't really open up any hidden flavors or reveal anything the way it works in some scotch whiskies. Lagavulin 16 is better straight.

Going against the scotch whisky critic consensus, I give it only an 7.5 out of 10. If you're having a tasting, it's definitely an iconic and intense scotch and you must include it. It's very good at being big and intense and I do love that oily texture and smokiness, but the lingering burn and peaty dryness in the throat means it's probably not the one I will turn to often when I'm looking for a little something before bed; it's just too much.

Lagavulin is distilled on Islay. Next time, I'll taste Caol Ila, also from Islay, and then maybe Bunnahabhain, and compare the three different Islay whiskies. I don't have any Laphroaig on hand, but maybe I'll see if I can pick up a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

Spoiler: Bunnahabhain is one of my all-time favorites, although it doesn't seem to get the press and high numbers that some of the better-known malts get. Maybe we can talk about why that is.

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