Lagavulin 16, a Significant Drop in Quality

lagavulinAt first I thought my taste buds were changing, that for whatever reason my palate was no longer sensitive to the aromas and flavours of smoke and peat. I’ve recently acquired an unexpected and entirely pleasant appreciation for non-peaty, sherry influenced Highland and Speyside single malts, so temporarily losing a preference for peat in my scotches seemed reasonable. The earthy Islay scotches were my first love and have been my preferred scotches for years, especially Lagavulin 16 which I recently referred to as the king of kings and the holiest of holies, the earthiest, peatiest, smokiest of scotches, smooth and warm. But not anymore. I’m not sure what’s happened to Lagavulin 16 in recent years, but it’s not good.

I picked up a bottle of Lagavulin 16 a couple months ago that I would not have recognized as Lagavulin if it was given to me blind. It tasted like the bottle had been left open for a month and the scotch slightly diluted. It didn’t have the big blast of smoke and peat that I’ve come to expect from Lagavulin 16. The finish seemed weak, not at all complex, none of the delayed warmth and peatiness rising up that I’ve experienced every time from Lagavulin 16 in the past. For the first time since I discovered single malt scotch, I’m disappointed with Lagavulin 16.

A nice dram of it will open up after a while with a small splash of water, but even then it’s nowhere near as smooth and warm as it used to be. It even burns a bit and Lagavulin 16 never used to burn. I’m not sure if I got a bad batch, but from what I can gather from other comments on whiskey forums, Lagavulin 16 has dropped significantly in quality in recent years. If the bottle I have is any indication, current bottlings of Lagavulin 16 should be avoided. It’s not what used to be and it’s certainly not worth the price they’re asking ($101 at my local store).

I’ll have to get my peat fix from Laphroaig and Ardbeg for now on.

Glenfiddich 12 vs 15

I recently bought some Lagavulin 16 which has always been the king of kings and the holiest of holies for me, the earthiest, peatiest, smokiest of scotches, smooth and warm — but I was underwhelmed. The big blast of smoke and peat I’ve come to expect from Lagavulin was gone. It was as if the bottle had been left open for a month and diluted. Is it possible I got a bad bottling of Lagavulin? A huge disappointment.

My current #1 single malt scotch experience is the honey and vanilla smoothness of Aberfeldy 21. I had the impression that sherry was the dominate flavour but apparently that’s vanilla I’m tasting. The jury is still out on that one. Whatever it is, I love it because it’s opening my appreciation for the non-peaty scotches like Glenfiddich 12, a scotch I never expected to get into. I sampled the Glenfiddich 12 and was so impressed that I decided to go for the Glenfiddich 15. After reading mostly favourable reviews and watching Ralphy’s review of the 15, I expected to like it even more than than 12…

…but I don’t. If the Glenfiddich 12 is like biting into a big block of milk chocolate, then Glenfiddich 15 is like biting into an orange with the peel still on it. Perhaps the Glenfiddich 15 is part of a scotch family that I just don’t get yet. I don’t know.

The 15 is solera matured and I’m pretty that’s why it doesn’t work for me. The solera process more or less siphons off older whiskey during maturation and replaces it with younger whiskey, supposedly to create a marriage of flavours that keeps the whiskey fresh and spicy. It’s not a bad whiskey, but I can tell I don’t like spicy. The 12 has a slight bite but warms while it goes down. The 15 burns compared to the 12. The 12 has a sweet softness in the mouth and a slightly delayed old oak, aromatic sherry finish. (I appreciate any scotch that hits me with a delayed pleasant after taste.) The 15 has a sharp citrus delivery, overwhelming the sherry that barely makes it through to the finish. The 12 smells like an old musky log cabin where someone’s baking a chocolate cake. The 15 smells more like sap, though there’s a touch of sweetness hiding in the corner. I’m sure there’s more complexity to the 15 if you reach for it, but it doesn’t register on my palate. The Glenfiddich 15 seems only slightly more exceptional than, say, a Glenlivet 12.

A 750ml bottle of Glenfiddich 12 is $44 at my local store. The Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera is $56.

UPDATE (March 22/13): I had more of the 15 last night and it was a different experience. None of the citrus burn was present in the nose or palate. That seemed to allow room for a soft sherry sweetness to seep through, much like the 12. I’ll have to remember to hold off on judging a single malt until after I’ve let the bottle breathe a bit. I had a similar experience with a Glenlivet 18. The whiskey left a hard liquor burn on the tongue when I first opened the bottle, but it smoothed out considerably after about a week and three or four drams had been removed. I’ll update again after I’ve given the 15 another go.

UPDATE (June 25/13): I didn’t think I would buy another bottle of the Solera 15, and I haven’t, but it’s not at all a bad scotch, definitely one I’d be glad to try again (and I’m pretty sure I’d would choose it over the unusual though not complex Canadian “Cask of Dreams” Glenfiddich). My first impression of the 15 wasn’t exactly a glowing review, but I’ve since learned that most single malts open up significantly after four or five solid drams have been removed from the bottle and that is clearly the case here. The Solera doesn’t have a long complex warming finish, but the nose is sharp and sappy yet sweet and deep, so pleasant that I want to keep smelling it. In the mouth, I taste toffee and fruit and fresh wood that melts into the tongue without burning. I understand now why Ralphy likes it so much.

Single Malts from the Highlands, Speyside, the Isle of Mull, Islay and a Gaelic Whiskey

Using my webcam, I just recorded a review of the five (mostly) single scotches I have in my house. It was fun. By the time I got to the last scotch, I was in a great mood. However, the sound that went through the webcam, I discovered during the playback, quickly fell out of sync, so I deleted the video. Instead, I present, in good old fashioned words, the results of the side by side comparisons of the five scotches I’m drinking now, in order of preference:

Laphroaig Triple Wood ($78) — Seaweed character like regular Laphroaig but around a camp fire that was started with charcoal brickettes and lighter fluid, burnt wood and smoke, perhaps not as much peat as the Laphroaig 10 but still in the same league as its Islay cousin, Lagavulin 16. The Triple Wood will replace my Laphroaig 10 for now on. Pour a big dram. Drink half of it neat because even at 48% it doesn’t burn and it pleasantly surprises with a cascade of delayed sensations that open up over five or ten minutes. A dash of water doesn’t hurt, but somehow gives it a bit of a burn for me, so I lean more towards having it neat. (UPDATE: Lagavulin 16 used to be great, but it’s not anymore.)

Aberfeldy 21 ($150) — If it wasn’t so expensive, I’d have it in my cabinet all the time because it’s so different from what I’m used to. The more I drink it, the more I like it. It’s a Highland scotch but similar to the Laphroaig in that when I pop it open, it hits my nose and I say, “Oh yeah, this is going to be good,” and it is. Possibly the smoothest scotch I’ve tasted next to the Macallan 30. The aroma and flavour seem identical to me: honey and sherry, distant peat and soft oak, not at all harsh. At 40%, it doesn’t need much water. It’s not overly complex but it’s deep and smooth and satisfying, easy to drink. The Aberfedly 12 at a quarter of the price may be a better bargain.

UPDATE: Anyone who likes Aberfeldy 21 will probably enjoy Aberfeldy 12 (at $44 a bottle) because it has almost exactly the same flavour, just not nearly as deep and lasting. Sometimes the memory of an excellent scotch can enhance the scotch you’re drinking.

Té Bheag ($37) — Pronounced che-veck, it’s a blended Gaelic whisky (bottled at 40%) loaded with heavy malted scotches, minus the harsh grain flavour of most blends. It has a smooth toffee character with a touch of peat, just enough earthiness to put a smile on my face. I’m pretty sure this will become my go-to affordable everyday scotch. It’s as deep, complex and more pleasant than many big name expensive single malts I’ve tasted. I’d recommend the Té Bheag to anyone who appreciates single malt. For what it’s worth, I agree with Ralfy on this one:

Ledaig 10 ($70) — From the Isle of Mull, the Ledaig 10 seems like a grain whisky that’s been soaking in moss for a while. It feels like it could be a high calibre scotch if it was left to mature for another six years or so. At 46%, it’s odd that it doesn’t open up much with water. It needs to age. The bottle describes it as being “wonderfully peated,” and it is. For my peat fix, I’d rather spend another $20 or so and pick up a Lagavulin 16, but the Ledaig is a passable peaty scotch if you’re on a budget. (UPDATE / REMINDER: I no longer recommend Lagavulin 16 due to its significant drop in quality.)

Glenlivet 18 ($90) — This was the first scotch I tasted a few months ago at a Whiskies of the World convention. It was smooth then with a hint oak and smoke, but the bottle I purchased burns a bit when it goes down and that pretty much kills whatever complexity it has, even when I add some water (it’s bottled at 43%). I can tell it’s not a bad single malt, but it may be a regional thing (it’s from Speyside) that just doesn’t agree with my palate. I don’t know. Whenever I drink it, I can’t help but think how I could have picked up a bottle of Lagavulin 16 for pretty much the same price. I’m tempted to open the bottle and let it breathe overnight. I’ve heard that can make a difference with scotches that initially seem harsh. For now, though, it’s the least favourite of all the single malts in my house.

The big winner is the Té Bheag. It may be the smoothest blended scotch I’ve ever taste. It’s a one-note wonder (okay, two notes: other worldly toffee and a mosaic of peat), but it’s easily in the same class as certain single malts that cost twice or three times as much.

Who Doesn’t Drink Scotch?

Laphraoig 17Phillip here. My thoughts on single-malt scotch, which I don’t really drink anymore

J&B is to scotch what a Big Mac is to fine dining. I suspect most people who drink J&B do it to get drunk, and quickly so as to put themselves out of their misery from drinking the stuff in the first place. But if that’s what tastes good to you, and you enjoy it, then fill your boots. It all comes down to what you like, and what tastes good to you might go down like Buckley’s Mixture to someone else. The easiest thing to do is try a bit of everything, scotches from all the regions, and then focus in more of whichever region has the most interesting flavour or sensation. Explore.

Like most people who know nothing about single-malt scotch, I tried Glenlivet. I didn’t know how to drink it, so I drank it as a quick shot, straight down, which was warm but never burned. Later on I tried the next most-available (i.e., cheap) single-malt, Glenfiddich, which, although not awful, isn’t as good as Glenlivet, and is the last single-malt I would choose to drink.

Lagavulin was the first real single-malt I had, and as soon as I opened the bottle, and the aroma of peat filled the room, I knew I was dealing with something completely different. I’ve never gotten over that experience. I instantly fell in love with the smoky, earthy sensation and flavour of the Islay scotches (which are strong with peat), and they’ve been my favorites ever since.

One of the cheapest Islay scotches, and actually one of the best, is Laphroaig. Some people describe its flavour as medicinal, but that’s an adjective that can apply to all single-malts. No doubt about it: single-malts are an acquired taste. But once you’ve acquired it, it can be a hell of an experience.

The best single-malt I’ve had (excluding that time with Lagavulin) was a 15-year-old cask-strength Laphroaig which smelled like rubbing alcohol when I opened it, and then exploded with a peaty aroma and flavour as soon as I added some water. Unbelievable.

If had the money for it, I’d have a bottle of that cask-strength Laphroaig in the house, a regular bottle of Lagavulin, an 18-year-old Macallan, and some scotch from the Lowlands. That’d do me for a long time.

Who Drinks Scotch?

Beginner’s single malt Scotch is a post at MetaFilter where someone asked:

What’s a decent, inexpensive and readily available single malt or good blend for a brand-new scotch drinker whose current dram of choice is a good dark sipping rum?

The first response recommends J&B, a common, inexpensive blend that I’d never recommend, although I do drink Teachers, a cheap blend that doesn’t taste cheap.

There’s no right answer; everyone’s tastes are different. There are a lot of excellent suggestions posted, although someone wrote:

Stay clear of the Islay malts like Lagavulin or Laphroaig until you’ve cut your teeth on the easier stuff.

Bullshit. The first time you open a bottle of Lagavulin and let the aroma of peaty air permeate the room, you’ll fall in love.