Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Lagavulin 16 yr Old - The Best Islay Single Malt!


Islay whisky is made only on the island of Islay, Scotland. It is characterized by a strong or dominant peat flavor profile. Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig are the three most famous single malts distilleries from this Island. There are a few others, but in any event, I am of the opinion that Lagavulin is the finest of them all. When I first started drinking scotch I did not like anything peaty. I prefered sugary sweet or honeyed scotches like Famous Grouse. However, over time my tastes have matured and now I have grown to appreciate the peat component of scotch whisky to the point that I actually am a fan of an Islay single malt scotch, namely Lagavulin.

This love affair with Lagavulin started this evening. While I had started to enjoy more peat flavors in my blended scotch, I had not found a single malt that I could say I enjoyed. Well, all that changed this evening. I am currently in Prince Edward Island for some meetings. So, I drove four hours, had a little dinner and went to a very lame social mixer. Left that promptly with a couple of friends in tow and headed to the club house bar (the resort has three golf courses!). So, we are sitting at the bar and I am surveying the collection of liquor bottles in pyramid formation against a mirrored wall, and not seeing much in the way of scotch except for three bottles, Glenfiddich 12 year old, a bottle of Cragganmore and Lagavulin. Well, I had the Glenfiddich a million times in the past, and as for the Cragganmore, I was seriously considering it when I started thinking about the Lagavulin.

Lagavulin is one of those single malt scotches that I read about on whisky blogs that scotch aficionados go on about. Basically people who know their scotch, really praise this one. So, having that brain wave wash over my strong body, but weak in spirit, I pointed to the Lagavulin and told the bartender to pour me a double. (A single is simply not enough needed in order to formulate a tasting note, which by the way, I feverishly scratched out between snorts of this heavenly stuff).

Nose
I nosed it at first and was surprised at how sophisticated and refined the smoke, peat and spice (I'm thinking nutmeg). Nosing this, I knew immediately that I was in for a treat. Nothing on the nose threw off a scent of cheap alcohol. Lots of smoke even while I sat. If you walked into the room, you would be searching for the roaring fire of tree branches and peat ("an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter" - according to Wikipedia) producing billowing smoke. Well, there is no fire, just my glass, so why don't you sit down at the bar next to me and my friends and let us go on a wonderful journey.

Palate
With some trepidation I take a sip, expecting to be disappointed, as I have been with another famous Islay scotch, Laphroaig. However, there is no disappointment. I take my sip, hold it, rolling it around, the bartender stares at me pensively (probably wondering how much i will tip him) and contemplate a most wondrous scotch tasting experience. On the palate, a silken liquid of considerable viscosity bathes my palate in a gently sweet wood smoke, moving to mint, peppermint and cool menthol. The liquid is warming. There is no heat, burn or roughness of any kind. Have no fear, you can drink this "neat" (no water or ice need apply to this job!). I also detect some green olive with the red pimento in the centre coming through. Oh, this is glorious stuff. The stuff that dreams are made of. I ask the bartender, tarbender for a napkin and a pen. I have to capture this moment without delay. My friends shake their head. The bartender looks on fearing maybe I am writing a note of complaint to his manager, but oh no, I am writing this very tasting note, documenting what I am picking up on the nose, the palate and of course, the finish!

Finish
More smoke baby! This palate of mine is smoking like a Motley Crue stage or Studio 59 at midnight with all the dry ice. Yeah, I am tasting wood smoke, peat, like a nice menthol cigarette, and that sweetness like that first kiss! oh yeah! Follow that with brine and sea salt and I know I have just downed the best damn scotch I have had in a very long time. It lingers too. The finish lingers for quite a while after I down it. This is no cheap two buck chuck finish.

General Impressions
I did not like peated scotch very much prior to tasting this. I associated Islay with heavy peat married with rubbing alcohol. I now stand corrected. Islay scotch can be very enjoyable. I am shocked and in a state of wonderment as to how good this scotch is.

There are so many web reviews of this scotch and I do not think any are negative. So much praise comes for good reason. It is expensive but an incredible treat well worth it. My double Lagavulin cost me $17! Well, ahh that was the first one. . . As for the tip, the barman was relieved when he found out I was writing notes for this review on the napkin he supplied.

Cheers!


Jason Debly

© Jason Debly, 2009 - 2011. All rights reserved.

57 comments:

  1. Once again, a great, honest review! Now I wish I would have spent a few more dollars and bought this instead of the Ardbeg 10 I picked up (and still haven't opened because I'm worried I won't like it). Better start saving my pennies (and dollars).

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  2. Lagavulin 16 is far superior to Ardbeg 10. If I were you I would return the Ardbeg for a credit toward a bottle of Lagavulin.

    Ardbeg is an acquired taste (one that I do not have!).

    Thanks for the post! Happy sipping!

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  3. Jason, I really like Lagavulin 16, but due to price increase, I cheapened out and bought a bottle of Caol Ila Distiller's Edition. I've heard good things about this whisky, but at $100 a bottle where I live, I am having second thoughts now, like the previous poster. What do you think? Should I follow the same advice and return it and pay the extra $25 for the Lagavulin?

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  4. The Caol Ila is a fantastic single malt in its own right; no need to return it. You'll find it has a healthy dose of peat, though not as much as the Lagavulin. What it lacks in peat power, it more than makes up for with a maritime freshness, and an excellent oily quality. If you're tasting multiple single malts, Caol Ila is a great prelude to a glass of Lagavulin. Great stuff, though nothing has Lagavulin's hour-long super finish.

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  5. Ardbeg 10 is not nearly as nice as Caol Ila Distiller's Edition, so no, the same argument does not apply. For what you save in price, you will enjoy a fine single malt.

    I agree that the pricing of Lagavulin is getting absolutely ridiculous, but its all about the law of supply and demand.

    Another single malt (not an Islay) that has had its price skyrocket is Oban 14 year old. I am also paying $100 a bottle for it, and that is just brutal. The trouble with Oban is that the production each year is very limited, partly due to the fact that they have limited access to their water supply. It always sells out each year and therefore commands higher and higher prices.

    This is not true of a many single malts like say Glenfiddich 12, Glenlivet 12, etc, where annual production is greater than consumption. What is not sold one year is sold the next though.

    Jason

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  6. Great post/review even better whisky, bought a bottle today Sainsbury/s a bargain at under £40, going back tomorrow for some more, keep up the good work

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  7. Glad to hear you enjoyed the revies and also this wonderful whisky!

    Cheers!

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  8. I love Lagavulin, but have found it inconsistent--which probably happens with single malt. Something that may be slightly better, depending on the mood you're in, is the Laphraoig 10 year Original Cask Strength. It is far better than the regular ten year old, and is excellent overall. A little more brash than the Lagavulin, naturally at ten years old.

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  9. Mike there is certainly some variation with Lagavulin from year to year of distillation. This occurs from time to time with single malts as you have noted. Blended scotch whisky is understandably more consistent.

    Laphroaig 10yr Original Cask is one I have not tried, though read lots of praise for it on the net. I will have to check it out.

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  10. I Discovered this blog via google yesterday, because I wanted a review on a Glenfiddich 15 which is on sale ($40) this week at a local supermarket.
    Found the Lagavulin 16 on sale in another store at $50 (I notice someone here writing $100 - not here in Denmark, where the usual price seems to be $65-70), and got to this review. Then I happen to have won a gift certificate for the store with the Lagavulin, so I'm definately going to get both :)
    By the way, excellent blog.

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  11. Magnus, you are lucky as well as all Danish citizens if Lagavulin can be purchased for $50 or even $70. In Canada and the US the price is typically $90 - $100 a bottle.

    By the way, Lagavulin and Glenfiddich 15 are very different single malts, each great representatives of their respective regions (Islay and Speyside). You will certainly enjoy both!

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  12. I just got the Lagavulin today, but haven't been able to really take the time to taste it yet. But I'm sure I'll like it (I did have a little sip and found it very pleasant, especially the long aftertaste). I have several Islay whiskys so far and not really anything else. I love the peat and smoke of Islay whiskys but have been wanting for some time to move on and learn to appreciate other types of whisky as well. I've only been fond of whisky for about a year by now, so I'm still pretty new to this wonderful world of great tasting experiences.

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  13. OK - now I am officially a whisky wh_r_.... I am MADLY in love with Lagavulin 16. OMG (please forgive the 20ish slang - although I am in my 40ishes) this is unbelievable. I am mixed in emotions because I was happy in the $50 US dollar range and now am in the $70 US dollar range - does it keep getting better? Will I lose my love for Caol Ila 12 and Highland Park 12? How can I maintain all of these loves?
    I am just floored - can't even give you any specific reasons right now - but Lagavulin 16 is the best whisky I have ever had!!!

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  14. Ripley, I remember a time when I was perfectly content with buying a bottle of Teacher's Highland Cream. Trouble is, once you taste the good stuff there is no turning back. Highland Park 12 will always have a place in your heart, but it will get crowded very shortly in the heart once you start sipping Lagavulin 16.

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  15. Hey Jason - Update (isn't this a never-ending update)? I don't think I'll lose my love for HP12. It is so very different from the Lagavulin 16 (and CL 12), in fact those have really made me appreciate it so much more - particularly in a side-by-side. The very opposite highlights really emphasize the beauty of each...

    Oh well. BTW I took the last of my Laphroaig 10 on the Presidential Traverse and it just hit the spot - now I have a place in my heart for it as well, and it works nicely for that...

    OK, OK, I'll admit it - I just love pretty much all of it....

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  16. Had a few drams of the Lagavulin 16 last nite at a scotch bar. Definitely different than all others, but a very good different. Now I see why this scotch has such a great following. Looking to make the 16 a staple in my collection. The question is: could there possibly be a better scotch buy than the HP 18 or Lagavulin 16 for $100 ?? Any takers. Frank G

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  17. Buy a bottle of Lagavulin 16yrs and I guarantee you will enjoy it even more than your tasting at the bar. There will be no distractions and you will no doubt be impressed by interesting nuances and complexity of flavor.

    As to your question, it is difficult to answer. Lagavulin and Highland Park are quite different whiskies. While they are both very robust, their flavor profiles head into different directions. I think there are other great single malts and whiskies around the $100 price point that may not be as robust, but nevertheless I rank just as highly. They would be: (1) the great Japanese whisky Hibiki 17 yrs; (2) Clynelish 14yrs; (3) and another Japanes whisky: Suntory Yamazaki 18yrs.

    The Japanes whiskies in a blind taste test cannot be distinguished from the Great Speyside single malts.

    Cheers!

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  18. I have fallen for Highland Park 12 (I know not an Islay) but it seems like Lagavulin might be similar to it, maybe more peaty but just as smokey? Just trying to get an Idea as HP12 is $35 and Lagavulin 16 is over $100 right now.

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  19. HP 12 and Lagavulin 16 are fairly different single malts. While both exhibit smoke, they do it in very different ways. It's like comparing the S class Mercedes to the 7 series BMW. Both are great luxury sedans designed from wonderfully different perspectives.

    HP 12 at $35 is an excellent price. Laga at $100 a bottle is not. HP 12 is a malt you could enjoy every night before bed. Laga 16 is just to big a peat and smoke storm for everynight. As I have mentioned in other posts, seek out Laga 16 in a good bar, try it at a fraction of the cost before laying out $100 + smackers!

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    1. I disagree. It is possible to enjoy the peat-blast that is Lagavulin 16 before bed every night!

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  20. I look forward to trying this, given the way you described that first mouthful.

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  21. My Father is a Scotch fan. I bought the Lagavulin 16 for him for Christmas. The first taste was pretty smoky/peaty, but I will admit it beats most I have ever tried. I am glad that by reviews only I was able to get my Father a quality scotch that IS woth the money. Thanks for your reviews. They were right on point.

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    1. Hi Tim!

      Glad to hear that the review of the mighty Lagavulin accorded with your Dad's tastes!

      Thanks for letting me know.

      Jason

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  22. Jason, I enjoyed your review. I may be one of the few malt nuts who find the Lag-16 too full of acetone and furniture oil ketone, yet I love many big Islays It's fascinating.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, glad to read that you enjoyed the review.

      If you are detecting unpleasant 'acetone' and other tastes, maybe consider how long the bottle has been opened. I find Lagavulin is best consumed within 6 months of opening. Mind you, it should become much gentler as the days pass once opened.

      Thanks for sharing your views with I and the readers.

      Delete
  23. I had a bottle of this sent to me for my birthday.... Because of it's popularity and Ralfy's passive aggressive review of it (and I love Ralfy, and don't blame him for resenting Diageo) I expected to think it was good but also get it into my head that a lot of it is hype. Wow....Wow....I almost can not believe how good it is. There are flavors that crossed my palate that I don't even know how to describe because of their newness. Can you describe a color to someone who has never seen one? The nose of birth, leather, smoke and peaches....the full and perfectly rounded body, and the long smooth, sweet smoke on the finish. The taste of the cask lingering in the back of the room. Smoke throughout, almost acting like a glue for the other flavors, some of which, like I said I can't even describe. I was blown away. I did not want to like it this much because it would have felt cliche, but I liked it more than I could have ever imagined. This bottle is going to last me a long time because its too good to drink just any old evening.

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  24. Jason, I have to report a third consecutive flawed bottle of Lagavulin 16. The repeat of stale or spoiled wood notes in a fresh bottle (e.g., nasty Watco satin oil aromas, specifically) is a tough thing to forgive for a $70 bottle. This makes four of the last seven bottles we've sampled that were so afflicted (five of our own purchase, two sampled from our local pub, including one today with lunch). Something is horribly amiss, whether limited to the supply chain to SoCal buyers or in the production and storage processes at the distillery itself. Our four members are swearing off L-16 for quite awhile, at least where our own cash is concerned. Buyer beware. JK

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    1. That's too bad. It might be worth mentioning to your liquor vendor and ask them to pass the word on to the local Diageo representative.

      If I paid $70 and got a flawed bottle I would want a refund!

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  25. This was the first single malt I bought a bottle of. I know I jumped into the deep end but I loved it! Very few whiskies come even close to this.

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    1. You sure jumped into the deep end! But hey! You are a real scotch whisky fan if you enjoy Lagavulin right off the bat!

      Another you may want to try sometime is Talisker 10yrs.

      Cheers!

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  26. i love this post as i had a similar experience as you. lagavulin 16 is now my favorite choice of all scotches (within a reasonable price point) and i even have an ampty label-less bottle om my kitchen counter with a flower in it for decoration! if you havent tried ardbeg, try it also. i think you will really like it. its wonderful as well.

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    1. I prefer Talisker 10 to Ardbeg. Try the Talisker. A wonderful malt!

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  27. Great review Jason! After reading this I made a subtle suggestion, and lo and behold my wife just gave me a bottle of Lagavulin 16 yo for my birthday (boy, do I love her!). I'm glad I had a few months of sipping single malts under my belt before trying this one. Pretty intense and complex - but WOW! - fantastic! You know the old John Sebastian song "Daydream" which has the line "rub my face in somebody's new mown lawn?" Well, this is more like totally sticking your face into an earthy mossy peat bog! But at the same time it's really full and luscious. Anyway, I don't know if I'll ever need to try another Islay malt...but of course....I will. So with that in mind, what would you suggest as another Islay to have on hand that would be a good complimentary alternative this gem? Bowmore 12?

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  28. Hi VTBob!

    A wife giving a bottle of Lagavulin is the best way to renew one's vows. No need for the Caribbean vacation at a beachside chapel.

    Sometimes the high price is worth it, and this malt is one of them.

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  29. Hi Jason! Thanks for this review. I have been wanting to try an Islay smoky/peaty whisky and I decided to jump in the deep end and try the Lagavulin 16. And you're right, it doesn't really need any water. I'm drinking it neat as I write this comment :)

    Until now, the only single malts I've had are the Glenlivet 12 yr and The Grangestone 12 yr, along with some other blended scotch (Johnnie Walker Red, Black, Dewar's and Monarch of the Glen 12 yr). I guess I must have some Scottish blood in me or something, since I find myself enjoying the Lagavulin 16 as a novice :)

    To me, the Lagavulin 16 reminds me of really smoked pork--or some kind of smoked meat. It's AMAZING, and very different. I love it already.

    Have you done a review of Caol Ila 12 yr? That's a malt I'd like to try sometime, and I was surprised that I couldn't find a review on your site.

    Another question for you: I've been thinking about trying Macallan 12 yr or Highland Park 12yr. Pocketbooks aside, which one do you think I should try first? Have fun!

    I'm not sure if you are able to get a bottle of Monarch of the Glen 12yr, but please review it if you get the chance. It's a blended whisky that reminds me a bit of JW Black. The glass I used to drink it smelled like saw dust days after I drank it :) It's a great value for the price!

    One more question: since I enjoyed the Lagavulin, which Islay do you recommend I try next?

    Thanks so much for your reviews! I've learned a lot from them. Keep reviewing.

    Certifiably smashed,
    Bryan

    P.S. And The Grangestone is great too!

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  30. Jason,
    1/4 remains in the bottle. Making it last as long as possible. Very nice but it's a toss up between the Laga 16 and Laph QC so far. Talisker 10 in the cupboard... to be opened shortly. Let you know how I go...
    Allan (from OZ)

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  31. Funny How tastes can change... Gone right off The Laga 16. Talisker 10 is fantastic ! Laph QC still tops though...When I can afford it!! Ha ha !!
    AL from OZ

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    1. What attracts you, I, and many others to single malt whisky is the complexity of flavors that blended scotch does not (nor attempts to) deliver. As such, we can get bored with a malt and so move to another and another as our taste evolve.

      Those who drink exclusively blended scotch are a different breed. They place a premium of gentle, approachable whisky which therefore will not have the peaks and valleys of single malt. They also tend to buy one brand over and over. Nothing wrong with that. Just a different preference.

      I just wanna get all those blended drinkers to spread their wings a bit and experiment with some single malt.

      Delete
  32. Jason, Probably worth mentioning now: Lagavulin's production cut-over to 100% Bourbon cask maturation occurred around late 1997. For several years prior, Bourbon casks were being increased as a proportion of the whole as well. As their warehouses of stocks of sherry cask-influenced dwindles, we'll be soon seeing a rapid increase in the change rate of the character of whiskies sold at markey, certainly of the 16y releases. Load up on the current version; it's to be rather obsoleted soon. You and your readers may well have noticed (or wondered about) Lagavulin's steady price, compared to their competitor's line at least. Their costs have been down for years, and the price relatively stable - for now. JK

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    1. JK, if you are ever want to guest blog, lemme know. You have a lot of in-depth knowledge of the industry that I think readers would enjoy. Think about it, while I try to load up on Laga!

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  33. My girlfriend bought me a bottle of this a few weeks ago and I've been enjoying it greatly since. I'm still something of a newbie to whisky but this is one of my favourites for sure. I love the mix of peat and sherry influences. I'd say this is my second favourite whisky - with my favourite being the New Zealand made South Island 21 (I'm from New Zealand, so I don't know about it's availability in Canada but it's well worth trying if you come across it). I'm curious as to whether you have tried this with a drop or two of water, given that you stated it's not needed for this to be drinkable, I find that a little water helps bring out the sherry notes more and makes it an even more refined mellow and rich whisky than it is neat. I've not tried too many peated whiskies but I rather enjoy those that I've tried, in typical "don't tell me what I should and shouldn't drink as a beginer" attitude (linked no doubt to my dislike of being told what I should and should not like) I chose Ardbeg as my first Scotch (after having had Wild Turkey Rye 101 which was - unsurprisingly perhaps - rather too strong and harsh for me and jack daniels old no 7 - which I found was far too youthful and sweet), and almost immediately loved it. Oddly enough I now find Ardbeg to be rather mellow (perhaps oxidisation over the last couple of months or just getting used to it?), and have also found Lagavulin to be very mellow (in a good way of course). Has anyone else found Ardbeg to be somewhat mellow?

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  34. Have loved Lagavulin since I first tried it. But, it is going down hill, and,seams to loose its peatiness after its opened. Any idea how the Laphroaig 18 year old compares?

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    1. I still enjoy Laga a lot but this trend of softening the peatiness and smoke is not limited to just this distillery. I think it is a bit of an over all trend in single malts and blends. A decision made by the industry to appeal to more consumers. I am not saying a conspiracy or anything, just that many blenders and single malt distilleries seem to be doing the same thing.

      For example, Teacher's seems more gentle than in years past. Same goes for Black Grouse. Black Grouse was launched in 2007 and at that time it was very peaty and smokey, but the last two bottles of 2013 were mere shadows of its previous self. In fact in a blind tasting the 2007 and the 2013 Black Grouse releases are not similar at all.

      So what is happening? Executives have decided that the public likes softer flavors and that is exactly what they are going to give them.

      Delete
  35. Add me to the list of Laga 16 freaks.
    This in the only bottle i can't have missing more than a week in my cabinet.

    I also bought a bottle of the awarded Talisker 18 and spent several months comparing the two.

    I don't know if it was a flawed bottle of the Talisker 18 , but i still enjoyed the Laga 16 more.

    Also, stangely, i felt the most tasty part of the Lagavulin was the bottom of the bottle, after a few months of "oxygenation" .

    Alexandre

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  36. What to do, what to do?

    About six months ago I had my first taste of Lagavulin 16- I purchased two doubles at a pub in Darwin Australia which cost me a small fortune. I then had to buy a bottle which I nursed for a couple of months. It was a revelation and now I have a real problem in that all other malts seem 2 dimensional to me, nothing compares. I can't afford the Lagavulin 16 unless my children can accept bread and dripping for two of the three meals a day.

    What have I done?

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    Replies
    1. You have tormented yourself with perfection. Everything else pales in comparison. Ahh, but there are more affordable blends and malts that may come close. Maybe try Bowmore 12 yrs or Islay Mist 7 yrs. Cheers!

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  37. Thanks Jason. I have tried the Bowmore 12 and it is very good but it doesn't take me to nirvana as the Lagavulin 16 does. can't get my hands on the Islay Mist as yet.

    I am happy to report that I can currently get a 20% discount on the Lagavulin 16 if I buy 2 bottles making the bottles $88 each instead of $110.
    Having just received a $200 windfall I am wondering whether I go for the Lagavulin or perhaps look up higher on the shelf and treat myself to a single bottle of something else.
    Is there anything you might suggest that would eclipse the Lagavulin in the $200 range?

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    1. I really think Lagavulin, for me, is tops. Higher priced whiskies are going to be different but not necessarily better. I would recommend grabbing the two bottles at that price.

      In general, when the price point gets over $100, the whisky is not really better than the $100 price point malts, it will just be different.

      A lot of whiskies over $100 are expensive because of limited supply rather than being proportionately better than their $100 mainstream counterparts.

      One whisky that is usually reasonably priced that I like and you may too is Talisker 10. From the Isle of Skye but shares some of the characteristics of Islay with a twist.

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  38. Thanks Jason. I will go the 2 bottless. I also am fond of the Talisker 10 which can be had for $80 a bottle where I live. However nothing beats the full package of the Lagavulin 16 for me. Some magic must be involved. Cheers old chap.

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    1. By coincidence I was at a whisky tasting and they had Lagavulin 8yrs old and it was really good. Very similar to the 16 but a lot cheaper. Worth checking out!

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    2. The Lagavulin 8 has just appeared where I am at A$85 a bottle. I will have to try it.

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    3. Well Jason, I couldn't help myself and purchased a bottle of 8 and a bottle of 16. I will have to compare them when I have some quiet time.

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    4. I think you will enjoy both. Be sure not to eat anything spicy at the last meal before tasting and maybe taste the whiskies following 2hrs after your last meal so that your palate is in ideal condition. Please post your impressions here if you get a chance.

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  39. Hi Jason,
    Thanks for the honest reviews. I have been following your site for quite some time. I didn't understand one point in this review. You said highland park in not island whisky. But all google results say this is indeed an island whisky. Below are some links
    http://thewhiskeyjug.com/scotch-whiskey/highland-park-12-review/
    https://www.thewhiskyexchange.com/p/6941/highland-park-12-year-old

    Thanks CJ

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    Replies
    1. Hi! Islay is an island, one of the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean Islands located off the west coast of Scotland. Distilleries on the isle of Islay are Islay whiskies. Islay is one of five whisky distilling regions of Scotland.

      Meanwhile, Highland Park is located in the Orkney Islands, not Islay. The Orkney Islands are the northern most location for a distillery.

      Highland Park is not an 'Islay' whisky but is a whisky from an island, as are Talisker (Isle of Skye), Jura (Isle of Jura).

      Hope this helps and thanks for commenting as I am sure my opaque writing style also confused other readers.

      Delete
  40. Well.... As per Neil Grant.... I too have have a bottle of each... I wanted to re-visit the 16 since my earlier comments were a bit scathing'... It will have to waiting until the cooler months arrive..
    AL (from OZ)

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