Rather than rant, pontificate or hypothesize tonight, I thought I’d write about something for which Colin Pearce and I have a keen appreciation: single malt Scotch. Today I made a stop at my local liquor boutique and replaced a bottle in my collection that has been missing far too long – a bottle of The Lagavulin, a highly complex, aristocratic and refined Islay (pronounced “eye-la”) single malt. Tonight as I sit at my desk to write this, I have a glass of the amber nectar at my side and as I sip it, I feel like I am being reacquainted with an old friend. It is one of my absolute favorites. Before I discuss the taste though, let’s get through a few preliminaries.
Terminology / Geography
1) Scotch – or Scotch Whisky, is as you would expect, whisky that is made in Scotland. This sounds obvious but it is, in fact, law in the United Kingdom according to Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 which made it illegal for anything to be called “Scotch Whisky” unless it is produced in Scotland. You can read more than you can stand about the regulations here.
2) Single-malt Scotch is whisky that is produced at a single distillery from only malted barley and water via the process of batch distillation. Most Scotch is blended Scotch and as such features a somewhat generic taste. The fascinating thing about single malt is that each variety has its own unique flavor and character – one of the things I truly love about it. As I write this I have 27 bottles of single malt in my collection, ranging from a cheap bottle of Finlaggan that I picked up in Costco a few months ago to a bottle of 25-Year-Old Macallan that I’ve had for years and is probably worth several hundred dollars.
3) There are several distinct regions in Scotland where single malt is produced. It’s easier to provide a visual depiction than to explain it so I’ve included the map here which you can see in greater detail at http://www.malts.com/index.php/en_us/Choosing-Whisky/Whisky-Regions-of-Scotland#0. Each region lends its own traits to the whisky it produces. Rather than discuss each region and risk boring you, we’ll just focus on Islay for now since that’s where Lagavulin is produced.
Instead of trying to describe the region and its unique characteristics in my own words, allow me to let other, more literate, whisky writers speak for me:
“Located on the southern coast of Scotland in view of Northern Ireland, Islay produces whiskies that are easily identified by their specific flavor profile. These whiskies are commonly described as briny, peaty, seaweedy and medicinal. For some, their intensity may be a bit too much, but for those serious about their whisky, at least one favorite is likely to come from this region” (Lerner, 1997, p. 28).
“Island malts tend to be fuller in body and stronger in peat than the Highland and Lowland malts. Islay malts, in particular, are well known for their heavy, almost oily body, and strong peaty flavor. Some people claim to taste hints of seaweed and iodine….What makes the Island whiskies so special is hard to say. Perhaps it is the island peat. Perhaps it is the moist sea air, perpetually blowing across these islands, which imparts something to the whisky as it ages for years in its porous casks. Perhaps it is the island water, filtered through the fibrous peat” (Harris & Waymack, 1992, p. 123).
Before I go further, I have something to confess. After years of experience with this wonderful stuff, I must be a terrible taster. I read the tasting notes of others and I find myself baffled. They claim to taste everything from the essence of almonds and honey to lemon and orange to pepper. Scotch in general and this one in particular, don’t evoke any of those ideas in my head or on my palate. Let’s face it – Scotch is whisky, it’s about 40% alcohol, so what it tastes like is mostly alcohol. But there are some delightful nuances that it brings to both the nose and the tongue and that’s what I’ll be focusing on in my own ineloquent and uneducated way.
When I bring the glass of Lagavulin to my nose, the first thing I notice is that there is no rush of peat or smokiness to my nostrils. There are hints of the two aromas, but neither is overwhelming. Instead the aroma is deep, complex and inviting. When you smell Lagavulin, you want to taste it immediately.
The taste of the whisky, like the aroma, is complex. There is no burning on the tongue, no rush of a single taste or flavor. Instead there is rich complexity of flavors that seems to dance on the tongue and might seem a little reminiscent of fruit but is mostly warm and smooth. Unlike the words of the writers above, I don’t find it oily or heavy or medicinal at all.
Here’s where the the peat and smokiness hits you, but it’s just a smooth, loving touch at the back of the tongue and the throat. It lingers just enough to make you want more and then is gone with no burn or harshness.
There are those that call Lagavulin the “definitive Islay malt.” I disagree. Laphroaig (to be reviewed in the future) will always hold that title in my mind. Instead of the :most definitive,” I’d call Lagavulin “the most civilized” and maybe even “the most regal.” It gives you a smooth, refined taste of Islay. It stays alive on your tongue and the taste of it, unlike some of the stronger Islay malts, doesn’t wear harshly in your mouth even after a few glasses. You could drink Lagavulin all night and in fact, that’s what I plan to do!
Harris, J. F. & Waymack, M. H. (1992). Single-malt whiskies of Scotland. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.
Lerner, D. (1997). Single malt & scotch whisky. New York, NY: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers.