September Scotch: 200 Years of Lagavulin

New smoky single malt expressions unfold from the Islay distillery

In our two previous September Scotch explorations, we stuck to the Highlands of Scotland for one profile they’re commonly associated with and one that’s a true variation on it all. Now, however, we’re shifting to Islay—the famed, scenic island off the western coast. There, Lagavulin (another Anglicized Gaelic name, this time meaning “hollow by the mill”)—known for its peated, smoke-rich flavors—has just turned 200 years old. It is one of the oldest continuously operating Scotch brands in Scotland and its signature profile is one of the reasons for its longevity. To celebrate such an anniversary, the brand has released two 200th anniversary expressions and both are uncommonly good—and could maybe sway some of the “oak rather than smoke” people to give them a try.

Lagavulin’s core expression—the 16—has been a long-time go-to for peated single malt Scotch lovers. That’s because on the nose one will find one of the smokiest scents from the island—it’s big and bold but does give way to some sherry spice. And on the palate there’s more Hebridean peat smoke, of course, but its sweetness comes as a surprise—all through a rich, complex texture. There’s definitely a bit of fruit and even some caramel. It’s also reasonably priced at around $60. Regarding their portfolio, the brand often issues limited edition expressions as well, with age statements ranging from 12 to 30 years old.

For the 200th anniversary, the brand has released two new limited edition products. An 8 Year Old came out in May of this year. The 25 Year Old has just come out—and will be shipping over the next month. We tried both and they couldn’t be more different while holding true to the Lagavulin identity. The former harks back to the 1880s, during which time the first-ever whisky journalist sampled a Lagavulin 8. (Barnard raved about the product.) This year’s 8 comes across as softer than their signature 16. That said, it’s not shy on flavor. There’s a youthful pungency on the tongue but a second sip reveals something much like a charred chocolate.

The 25, however, shows off the magnificence of the brand’s full capabilities. It’s Lagavulin’s first product this old to be aged purely in Sherry oak casks—and that impacts everything. First, it’s worth mentioning the depth of color—a rich, natural hue that the brand refers to as chestnut. It’s an indicator of what’s to follow. A sniff reveals wood and smoke but also jammy notes and dried fruits. A taste strikes with salty sweetness, and ash and smoke—rounded out by honey. So much is at play, but it never overpowers. Remarkably, there will only be 8000 bottles worldwide.

Georgie Crawford, the distillery manager at Lagavulin explains that “For two centuries, Lagavulin has been crafted through the hands of hard working Islay residents; from peat cutters to warehousemen; the characters that make Lagavulin what it is today share a passion for producing an award winning Islay dram, and I am proud to say that I am part of this passionate group of people.” And even while the global Scotch market preferences may have switched to the more “bourbon-like” vanillas and caramels of unpeated whisky, these hand-crafted elements of Lagavulin—pertaining to Crawford’s references—make this a brand easier to savor than most in the category.

200 years is no small feat. “This is a special year for a much loved Single Malt Scotch Whisky revered around the world as the definitive Islay whisky,” says Dr Nick Morgan, Diageo’s Head of Whisky Outreach. Diageo is Lagavulin’s parent company. He continues that “there are a variety of plans across the year to bring people to Islay and bring Islay to as many people from around the globe as possible. We are thrilled to begin the celebrations for such an historic occasion with the launch of the first Lagavulin 8 Year Old for many years.” Ultimately, though, “The 25 Year Old is a sublime expression of Lagavulin,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a better way to pay homage to the distillery managers.” The impressive 25 will be a collectors item for sure.

Images courtesy of Lagavulin