A Sensory Experience on Islay
A Review of Lagavulin’s Distillers Edition & Our Experience at the Distillery
This week we’ll be taking a trip to Islay to sample a whisky from arguably one of the more iconic single malt distilleries—Lagavulin. Islay is a remote and sparsely populated place, yet it is home to nine (soon to be eleven!) distilleries that produce a full spectrum of single malt; many feature Islay’s most characteristic ingredient—peat smoke. Today we’re going to try the Lagavulin Distillers Edition. Along the way we’ll give you some insight into our trip to the distillery, which is an experience we think you’ll agree is essential for anyone who is traveling to Scotland or is interested in whiskies.
Lagavulin is one of a group of distilleries located on the island’s southern shore, right in between Laphroaig and Ardbeg. All three can trace their roots back to the early nineteenth century (Lagavulin cites their founding as 1816). Several of the distilleries on Islay have closed, merged, re-founded, and closed again over the centuries, yet Lagavulin has more or less remained in operation. The distillery is now part of the Diageo megabrand that you might know from some of the company's larger brands: Johnnie (and now Jane) Walker, Captain Morgan, Smirnoff, and Guinness.
With so many distilleries in such a small space, you might assume the whisky from Islay all tastes very similar. However, each distillery on Islay uses different techniques, ingredients, machinery, and casks to create an enormous spectrum of expressions. During our trip, we learned that Lagavulin uses longer stills and offers a more narrow range of older whiskies. Whereas some distilleries aim to constantly experiment, we got the sense that Lagavulin strives to maintain consistent quality and character.
Before we get to the review, we wanted to share some aspects of our visit to the distillery in 2016. This happened to be a special year for Lagavulin, as the distillery was celebrating 200 years in business. We opted to fill a day visiting all three of the southern Islay distilleries, and for Lagavulin, we booked the sensory tasting experience. Instead of the usual distillery tour, a representative from the distillery took us to an incredible tasting room where we got to experience the full Lagavulin range alongside some samples of flavor note items such as tea, sea salt, and sherry wine oak shavings.
As with all of our other distillery visits on the island, the experience was friendly and genuine. Despite being part of a large mega corporation, Lagavulin retains an independent feel and the connection to the history and legacy of the distillery was very present. We also got a chance to taste their special annual bottling for that year’s Feis Ile, the annual Islay festival. Bottles of Feis Ile rarely escape the UK, so this was a unique experience for us.
The Distillers Edition
On to the whisky! The Distillers Edition is part of the Lagavulin core range. Classic Lagavulin is the 16 year old and aged in ex-bourbon casks. For those of you new to whisky, single malt scotch whisky can be aged in any type of oak barrel. Former bourbon casks end up being most common type of cask used; since bourbon must be aged in new barrels, single malt distilleries have access to a plentiful supply.
For the Distillers Edition, Lagavulin takes aged whisky out of the ex-bourbon casks and transfers it to casks first used to age Pedro Ximenez sherry. If you’ve ever had PX sherry, you can imagine what kind of flavors the used casks impart on the whisky—rich, syrupy sweetness. You’re going to see a lot of sherry, and other sweeter wine cask-aged whiskies on this site. We go crazy for the combination of heavy peat smoke balanced with ex-sherry casks.
At 16 years old, The Distillers Edition ends up being the same age as the flagship Lagavulin. That’s a good amount of time to spend in the cask, and as a result you can expect a more balanced, mellow range of favors. We found this whisky smoky, oaky, and syrupy sweet Let’s take a look.
On the Eyes: The bottle is elegant and stately with a vintage feel as if it was made 50 years ago. While there’s no age statement displayed, the distilled & bottled years are included on the front, indicating the whisky is 16 years old. The whisky itself is an enticing midpoint between honey and amber. Swirling it around in the glass, the dram has long ‘legs’ and appears viscous, and syrupy.
On the Nose: The peat smoke becomes apparent immediately, however unlike other Islay peat monsters this is not a maritime punch in the face. Instead, the Lagavulin malting produces a subtle smokiness that resembles the air around a soft campfire. Mixed in with the fire are hints of the aroma clove/cinnamon and vanilla; balanced, and not overpowering.
To the Taste: Similar to the nose, the peat presence is announced up front like the opening chords of a powerful symphony. The taste is grassy and herbal, but again soft and palatable. The flavor then rolls into rich sweetness in the middle evoking figs and cinnamon. The sherry influence becomes more and more apparent with notes of oak, smoke and maple syrup mingling.
And the Finish: As the syrupy sweetness from the sherry fades, the finish brings a bit of salty, woody smokiness to the table reminding us that Lagavulin is a stone’s throw from the ocean.
Overall, the Distillers Edition is a complex malt that offers a carousel of aromas and flavors. We chose to review this whisky first because it showcases some of our favorite flavors and region in a very balanced, approachable, and intriguing package. Based on our tasting of different vintages and our experience at the distillery, we think that Lagavulin strives to keep their whisky consistent, which can be a benefit for someone expanding their palette. While it is on the more expensive end of the Lagavulin range, we think that Lagavulin Distillers is a fantastic dram to showcase the balance of peat smoke and sherry wood. The Distillers Edition would be great to enjoy with some dessert outside in the fresh air, or perhaps during the peak of winter nearby a fire.
During the sensory tasting experience, the representative mentioned that The Distillers Edition was often thought of as a Women's Whisky due to it's more approachable flavor and reduced intensity. While we don't necessarily agree with this—these qualities make The Distillers Edition an option for a great (if a bit expensive) scotch for anyone, regardless of experience, looking to add a bit of interest to their cabinet.