Known as Jazz Festival bottlings, they are usually different ages and/or different cask types to the norm, generally personally selected by Islay legend Ian McArthur himself. The last few year's releases have been no age statement bottlings, but they're always bottled at cask strength without any added colouring or chill filtration, so I can certainly make do without that other number on the label. Like many limited edition bottlings these days they aren't packaged in a box, but in Lagavulin's case they do come in a nice cloth or heavy paper bag with a bit of artwork on the front, which I think is a nice touch. They can only be purchased from the distillery, until they surface on secondary auction sites at least, and the more recent releases have been limited to either 3000 or 6000 individually numbered bottles. All of which makes them very collectible and widely lusted after, and very hard to come by on the other side of the world.
The 2016 bottling was also still available from the distillery shop during my visit, and it was a mix of first-fill ex-bourbon casks and re-fill American oak casks (presumably also ex-bourbon), bottled at a cask strength of 54.5%. While a tasty whisky (duh, it's a Lagavulin!) I felt it was a little tame compared to the Feis Ile and Distillery Exclusive bottlings, possibly because of those first-fill casks, so I held off and waited to see what the 2017 version would have to offer when it was released a few days later. And I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be an extremely delicious mix of re-fill American oak hogsheads (250-litre casks) and re-fill European oak butts (500-litre casks) bottled at a hefty 57.6% ABV. So it could be refill ex-bourbon and refill ex-sherry casks (of various styles), or it could be all refill sherry casks, we don't really know, but the resulting whisky is fantastic. It sold from the distillery shop for 99 pounds including the VAT, which is really quite reasonable. For the readers in Europe, that's roughly what the annual Lagavulin 12-year old limited release sells for in Australia (when it's officially imported). While these are limited bottlings, being exclusive to the distillery shop means that those 3000 or 6000 bottles tend to last for a reasonable amount of time, which is brilliant for visitors who have made the pilgrimage, so you do actually have a chance of still finding one of these bottles a fair while after the festival has come & gone.
Like I mentioned back in Part 2 of my pilgrimage, my visits to Lagavulin (there were three, in the end) were easily one of the highlights of the entire trip. Despite it being a relatively large corporate-owned distillery, you'd never guess it when you're actually there. The excellent visitor's centre, the very warm, friendly & helpful staff, and the very reasonably priced tastings and exclusive bottlings all add up to one amazing experience. But without doubt one of the best experiences was attending a warehouse tasting with Ian McArthur, who as I mentioned above personally selected the casks that make up this 2017 Jazz Festival bottling. Tasting this one transports me straight back to the distillery on that cold and wet Saturday morning, which is the sign of a great whisky and a good purchase. I was also lucky enough to have Ian sign a bottle for me! Which meant that I had to pick up a second bottle that was just begging to be opened as soon as I was home, and it's now dearly departed. So let's get to it!
Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2017, NAS, 57.6%. Islay, Scotland.
Mix of refill American oak hogsheads (presumably ex-bourbon) and refill European oak ex-sherry butts. Natural colour, non-chill filtered. Distillery exclusive. 6000 bottles.
Colour: Pale gold.
Nose: Lovely. Lots of tar, oily, dirty & sweet diesel, and caked sea salt. Some charred driftwood, drying kelp, ground black pepper and lightly bitter licorice. Sweet dried raspberry and fresh lemon juice, a vegetal and earthy peat and some sweet herbal / leafy smoke. Some sweet & creamy vanilla comes out with more time.
Texture: Heavy weight, very oily and full-flavoured. Plenty of peat and pepper, and a very slight heat that is very pleasant.
Taste: Massively oily, loads of dank earthy peat and cracked black pepper, and a buttery sweetness. Pepper-crusted smoked bacon, more dirty diesel & charred oak, more kelp and a light medicinal balm note that could be lanolin ointment.
Finish: Long. Black pepper & dank, oily, earthy peat again. Then softens with a nice salted root vegetable note like salted potato chips / crisps. Flashes of creamy vanilla, sweet banana, dried raspberry and more lemon juice. Salt-laden peat and that balm / ointment note carry on for quite some time.
Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Notes: Fantastic. So dirty and peaty, with so much tar, pepper and buttery sweetness. An excellent Lagavulin with loads of character and complexity for what I would think is a reasonably young whisky. It has most of the classic Lagavulin notes that are found in the 12-year old, but with extra pepper, more sweetness and even more peat. Plus that refreshing sweet dried raspberry note and the typical Lagavulin lemon & brine. It was released at a similar price to what we Australians pay for the 12-year old, and it's a no-brainer for that sort of money. In my opinion it's significantly better than the 2017 Feis Ile bottling was, despite the latter always getting more attention than the Jazz Festival release that follows it. This one is right up my alley, and I do wish I'd bought an extra bottle. Or an extra case...
Having tried the 2018 bottling on this year's pilgrimage I do prefer this one. The '18 is sweeter and lighter, probably due to the addition of some first-fill casks and apparently also some older stock going into the mix, although it was still offered at the same price point. This 2017 Jazz Festival would have to be one of my favourite Lagavulin official bottlings from what I've tasted to date. I think we need to start a petition against Ian McArthur being allowed to retire in a couple of years' time, we can't afford to lose him. Truly delicious, and highly recommended!
Cheers, and here's to a great new year!