Whisky Review: Lagavulin Distillery Exclusive Bottling 2017

In 1742 there were at least ten illicit stills at Lagavulin on Islay. Fast forward 74 years: Local farmer John Johnston founds the first legal distillery, in sight of Dunyvaig Castle. Now fast forward again . . . over the span of two hundred years.

Air travel evolves from blimps, to motorized gliders, to biplanes, to jet airplanes. Two hundred million Europeans are sacrificed in wars. The English and American stock markets are crashed. In Scotland, a few dozen distilleries rise vertically–brick laid upon brick, mortar slopped upon mortar–only to crumble back down to earth again. Millions of glasses of whisky are consumed. They are tipped back at every second of every hour of every day.

These days, the only “Lagavulin” left standing advertises itself as the same distillery that John Johnston built. In fact, last year Lagavulin celebrated its two hundred year anniversary. However, before you raise your glass for a belated toast, it’s worth asking whether this bicentenary was fact or fiction. Was it really the same distillery that Farmer John built? Ah, well, who knows. One thing’s for sure: folks there can make pure dead brilliant whisky.

Aye right, that concludes our history lesson. Moving right along . . . I’m going to review a “distillery exclusive” from Lagavulin. A friend recently poured out a generous sample from her bottle, which had flown back with her from Islay.

Lagavulin Distillery Exclusive Bottling 2017

image via Whisky Kirk/The Whiskey Wash

Tasting Notes: Lagavulin Distillery Exclusive Bottling 2017

Vital Stats: 16 years ld; double matured in Moscatel oak wood; 700 ml; 54.1% ABV; 7500 bottles produced; price exceeds $200 in limited market offerings.

Appearance: Old gold in color. When rolled in a glass, this single malt shows off dumpy legs with irregular beading. Visually, it’s nothing to write home about, but looks aren’t everything.

Scent: Harmonious combination of “peat and sweet.” A blustery gust of marine air leaps out of my glass. On second sniff, after my nose has adjusted to the gravitas of 108 proof, I am now able to sort out notes of kelp, wet sand, and sea salt, along with a subtle brushstroke of sherry.

My Grandpa Bob was a commercial fisherman, and so I speak from experience when I say that this Distillery Only bottling evokes memories of hemp ropes and creosote on Bob’s fishing boat, which was called “Sashay.” The peat smoke here is really quite exquisite. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I also detect a scent of “avocado pit.” How strange. Must be a hint of wooden casks. There’s also a sweet caramel note loitering in the background.

Taste: Yes, this Lagavulin is emminently quaffable at 54.1%, but I will eventually add a few drops of water, and then maybe a few more. Without water, the malt and peat display a fairly complex array of impressions. Oddly enough, these seem to combine, and then to separate, once again, as though by an act of magic. What in the blazes?  Folks, don’t try this trick at home, unless the distillery bottle from which you’re drinking was made by trained professionals.

Flavors range from sweet to bitter. There’s Lagavulin peat smoke at its very best, Boston brown bread, the crusty top of creme brulee, tar, hemp rope, and freshly laid asphalt. With water, these fairly distinct edges blur into smoother (yet less complex) notes of mesquite steak rub, dark chocolate, caramel, and dried brandy. The finish is medium in length, featuring a resurgence of smoky peat.

The Takeaway

If you happen to find one of these bottles, and you can afford to buy it, then you know what to do. Make me proud. True, it's only sixteen years old, but--hey, hey, hey--it's fabulous.

In point of fact, I like Lagavulin's Distillery Exclusive offering this year a little more than Feis Ile 2017, which was double matured in Moscatel casks. Yes, this maturation sounds intriguing. However, it's worth speculating about the quality of said Moscatel casks. They were originally owned by Caol Ila. Judging by the unadorned nose and palate, I'm guessing those infamous wine casks were pretty much "sugarless" by the time Lagavulin got hold of them.

Two years ago, Lagavulin's 24 Year Old Feis Ile (American oak, PX, and oak puncheons) was nothing short of awe-inspiring, and that's an understatement. Far be it from me to hold next year's Feis Ile up to such an impeccably high standard. You won't hear a peep out of this church mouse--even if Lagavulin sees fit to age its festival offering in Albariño casks, or aunty's wooden leg.

I've never tasted another Distillery Exclusive. Seven years ago, there was a "Distillery Only," which was supposed to be fabulous. I really do hope devotees aren't required to sit around for another seven years waiting for history to repeat itself. 7,500 bottles of this year's nepenthe are not enough for us to properly eulogize, or even to remember, save from the crumbling parchments upon which our tasting notes have been scribbled, with crabby claws for hands. As HP Lovecraft once said: "In the cosmos, there is balm . . . as well as bitterness."

5
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About the author

Whisky Kirk

Whisky Kirk is a writer who specializes in fiction and nonfiction dealing with the supernatural, cultural programming, and the entertainment industry. He also plays drums in rock, jazz, Latin, and ancient native forms of music. Kirk lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches creative writing at the college level as his “day job.” For him, whisk[e]y is an obsession that spans decades.