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Sunday, 25 March 2018

Lagavulin 12 Year Old 2017 Whisky Review!

I apologise in advance, but this review is going to include a bit of whingeing. Like the magnificent Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength, the subject of today's review is another brilliant whisky that we Australians have been unfairly deprived of recently. Sad face.

Lagavulin 16-year old is an undeniable staple of the entry-level peated whisky scene. It was responsible for showing many current hardcore whisky enthusiasts, including yours truly, just what was out there in the whisky world, and most haven't looked back since. The 16 is still a great introduction to Islay malts, and is still a nice easy drinking dram for those who are a little more experienced to return to. But when compared to the higher level whiskies from its neighbouring distilleries, it's held back a little by a relatively low bottling strength (43%), chill filtration and added artificial colouring. Prior to the welcome launch of the Lagavulin 8-year old in 2016, which has since been made a permanent addition to the range, the 16-year old and its PX sherry-finished Distiller's Edition sibling (which is also chill filtered, artificially coloured and bottled at 43%) were the only easily obtainable Lagavulin bottlings. So there wasn't a lot of further Lagavulin exploration left for many of those hardcore enthusiasts. 

But there is something out there that can fix that little problem. Lagavulin 12 year old, which is bottled at natural cask strength, naturally coloured and also non-chill filtered. But it's only released once a year as part of Diageo's annual special releases, along with un-peated expressions of Caol Ila, and official bottlings of Brora and Port Ellen. And unfortunately, while the releases aren't particularly small, the Lagavulin is usually the most affordable, and arguably the most popular, and is often the first to sell out from those annual special releases. I'm assuming this is why Australia has missed out on the last three bottlings of this delicious drop, aside from a couple of specialist bottle shops that are parallel importing stock from Europe on their own, which understandably comes at a higher price. To be fair we did officially get stock of the 2014 release of the Lagavulin 12, and it seemed to hang around for longer than I would've guessed, so maybe that has something to do with why we haven't seen the subsequent releases. Likewise a certain large retailer had stock of the excellent 2013 release, but good luck finding that one these days.

I have had the pleasure of trying both the 2015 and 2016 releases of this special drop in bars, finding one in the UK last year and one in Brisbane whisky haven Cobbler. Both were very good, and despite the 2016 bottling commemorating the distillery's 200th anniversary, neither was ever officially imported into Australia. Which means that if you found a bottle from a local parallel importing retailer you were going to have to pay an extra 50% or so over the price that the 2014 release (that was officially imported) was selling for. The fact that these bottlings have sold out from those parallel importers signals to me that there's definitely a market for them in Australia, especially at a lower price, even if it is increased slightly from the earlier bottlings. There's also the fact that they're utterly delicious whiskies, and are in my opinion the best example of Lagavulin that us mere mortals can afford, unless you visit the distillery itself on Islay. **EDIT - Diageo's Australian Brand Ambassador Simon McGoram tells me that Australia is getting a limited allocation of the 2017 release! So I stand corrected, and it's great news!**

Anyway, enough of my moaning! The sample of the 2017 bottling I'm reviewing today was a sample swap with another whisky geek, who picked up a bottle in Europe. It was bottled at a cask strength of 56.5%, without added colouring and no chill filtration. Which shows in the lovely oily, almost dirty texture, which we can largely thank Lagavulin's squat, bulbous stills & downward-angled lyne arms for. Like all recent versions of the 12-year old it was matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, which lets Lagavulin's delicious oily, dirty (in a great way), medicinal & coastal spirit show itself in full. Time to dive in!

Lagavulin 12-year old, 56.5%, 2017 bottling. Islay, Scotland.
Cask strength, matured in refill ex-bourbon casks, Diageo special releases 2017. Natural colour, non-chill filtered.

Colour: Very pale gold. More colour than the 8-year old though.

Nose: Lovely. Oily, peaty & coastal. Thick brine, salted butter, dried sweet herbs and aniseed. Dried sweet lemon, fresh salty oysters, spearmint. Some vegetal, ashy peat but it's subtle and refined here. Plenty of Lagavulin's trademark dirty engine oil and diesel fuel, and a little clean, old rubber.

Texture: Also lovely. Medium weight, oily and dry, and remarkably soft for the strength. No heat whatsoever.

Taste: Big dry, ashy, spicy peat, which builds for a couple of seconds then explodes. More aniseed, some sweet cigar ash, more brine and fresh sweet shellfish. It starts quite dry overall but then subtle sweetness pokes through, like a salted light toffee, and seafood sweetness.

Finish: Long and warming, becoming quite soft. Still has that ashy and spicy peat, and the aniseed, maybe actual licorice root now. And that diesel fuel and dirty engine oil. That might not sound particularly pleasant, but trust me, it is. Laga lovers won't need to be told that! There's some ashy wood smoke here too, and a slightly bitter wood-smoked fish, plus more of those dried sweet herbs and dried citrus in the background. Then the ashy, coastal peat returns to round everything out. Delicious.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Pure, unadulterated Lagavulin. Very easy drinking and soft for the age and strength. Remarkably so, in fact, especially when you consider that there haven't been any first-fill or notably assertive casks involved in this whisky. And it's remarkably mature regardless. There's not a huge amount of complexity perhaps, when compared to the more subtle single malts anyway, but it still has a lot to say. Big, peaty and dirty, but also soft, easy-going and disarming. Lovely Lagavulin with loads of character. Like the packaging says, "as fine as new milk"!

I know I keep harping on about this, but it's a real shame that these 12-year olds aren't easier to get a hold of in the southern hemisphere. And yes, I do prefer this one to the 2014 release that we did get. It's sweeter, more dirty, and even softer. Nosing and tasting this beauty almost takes me back to the warehouse tasting at the distillery with the legendary Ian McArthur, which if you ask me is a hallmark of all the great Islays. They transport you back to their place of origin, even if you've never been able to visit in the physical sense.

I've pleaded with Laphroaig and Beam Suntory in the past when it comes to their cask strength expression, which we also don't get here, and I'm going to do the same here with Lagavulin and Diageo. Please guys, don't neglect us Lagavulin freaks down under, just throw a few dozen cases on to the next available boat! We'll love you for it. **EDIT - We're getting a small allocation of the 2017 release! Great news!**


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