Whisky Odyssey
Old-fashioned with a twist of the modern 

Lagavulin 16 years old – 1990s versus 2020s comparison

The Lagavulin Islay single malt whisky might well be one of the very best in the world. It has everything you look for, right? It has body, it has power, it has legacy and it has an incredible consistency over the many, many years of producing. Of course, distillates do change across the ages, but somewhere in these changes remains a common soul. Or so we hope. On our Whisky Odyssey past all the Islay distilleries we today taste two Lagavulin. One from yesteryear, and one more recent offering. People who have been buying whisky for longer than past week, might remember a little habit. At least one I had… When in a liquor store, I would always look at the Lagavulin label. Did it state “White Horse Distillers Glasgow” at the bottle of the label, you would have found an oldie. Did it (already) state “Port Ellen, Isle of Islay”, you had a newer, more current bottle in hands. But this ‘Port Ellen’ addition has been there for a while now too, hasn’t it? An early 2000s Lagavulin would carry this too, and you should not leave it on the shelves. Nor any Lagavulin, for that matter, but that is just a fanboy speaking.

We poured two glasses of Lagavulin, see details below. The first thing I immediately noticed is that there is no difference in colour, even though the whisky’s were bottled 25 years apart. I tried to scan some older and newer packaging, but neither states that colour adjusting has happened on these Lagavulin. Such identical appearance does make you wonder. But let’s taste the stuff!

Lagavulin 16 years old – bottled in the 1990s at 43 % abv

Makeup: The old and trusted Lagavulin 16 years old, with White Horse label. Part of the Classic Malts of Scotland range by Diageo.

General impressions: Quite sherried to begin with, which is something I did not really expect. But since this whisky was probably distilled around 1980, we should not be surprised that sherry casks in all kinds of shapes and forms were still readily available then. It dominates the nose on this particular example. This make the WH Lagavulin lean towards medicinal notes too, all on wet bandages, like when you cut your finger, put a bandage on and then forget to take it off when you take a shower. A hint of mushroom comes through, combined with wet floorboard. With time some petrichor, stale tea and pine wood emerges. A very complex nose, that keeps developing.

The sherry influence remains dominant here, and manifests in a liquorice taste, dry figs and an incredibly focused smokiness. Deliciously dark. More dry than I remember certain batches to be, with a nutty influence that we recognize from modern sherry matured whisky. But still, the sherry plays an enhancing role to the spirit. It is there, undoubtedly dominant, but still to act as one sum of all the parts that makes this Lagavulin tremendously Teddy Roosevelt. ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ When it hits you, you go down. An amazing old time capsule back to the 1990s, when bottles of whisky were released that are now legends. And legends because back then, we could afford them and make noise about it. Now one asks € 2.000,- for bottles of the same quality and wonder why nobody speaks of them (hint: we regretfully can’t afford to taste the stuff).

Even though both bottles are filled at 43 %, I wanted to see what water did to it. The WH Lagavulin burst open with iodine. I have been looking for it in Ardbeg and Laphroaig these past few weeks, but this Lagavulin actually has it in spades. Wet sherry cask smell too, like sticking your nose in the bunghole of a freshly opened cask in one of the remaining warehouses at the distillery. It makes me almost sad from nostalgia, because this might well be the true classic Islay aroma you want to find when nosing. On the taste is has become a little sweeter, maybe a tad too much, but the finish is full of brine and chocolate. And it lingers, for oh so long.

Conclusion: Marvellous old Lagavulin, worth hunting down. At first sight, you would not think it very different from current-day offerings of Lagavulin, and maybe it does not surpass it with Seven-league boots, but it does offer tastes that are much and much harder to find in the roaring 2020s.

Score: 91 points
Disclaimer: sample acquired through membership of a Blind Tasting Bottle Club.

Lagavulin 16 years old – bottled in the 2020s at 43 % abv

Makeup: A more recent Lagavulin 16 years old, with Port Ellen label (circa 2022). Are the Classic Malts of Scotland still a thing?

General impressions: A little fresher on woodland smells, and more centred on peat influences. Funnily, it makes me think of the Arcade Fire song “The Woodlands National Anthem”. The whisky makes me long for a nice campfire, the sun already set, someone picks up an acoustic guitar and sings of a world void of worries. Sing along! Another smell that arises from the glass I might have to explain. For those of us old enough to remember, you know this crackling sound when you’d turn of the television in the 1980s? You could move your hand over the screen and feel the static. Somehow, it had a smell. And I smell it in this PE Lagavulin. Talk about the power of whisky to make you travel through time.

Compared to the WH Lagavulin, this PE Lagavulin might even be dryer, especially on the finish. There is a distinct hint of new wood involved, bringing out some peated pencil shavings. The medicinal character that was more on the nose in the WH, makes an appearance here on the exit. To be honest, upon second sipping, the newer Lagavulin packs a more heavier peat punch. Maybe because it is less suppressed by classic sherry casks? I would certainly say sherry casks were used in making the recipe for this Lagavulin, but it is a different style. More modern. Not better or worse, just modern.

Following in the footsteps of the other sample, we also added some water here. Yes, it becomes a more modern-day peat powerhouse, that has become the preferred taste of the masses (myself included, mind you, when done well). On the taste more vanilla sweetness, which gives notion to the fact modern day Lagavulin is more bourbon-cask-driven. As the other side of the medal very loveable, but now it has trouble to stand out against modern day Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Good company to be in, but a choice between modern day variants is more generic than it used to be. In the 1990s I am sure it mattered if you drank a Laphroaig or a Lagavulin.

Conclusion: Lagavulin is still the powerhouse of Islay whisky, a true ‘grand cru’, and truly impressing. Standing proudly next to older brothers from yesteryear, it only loses to the ravages of time, meaning the sherry casks that lifts to WH Lagavulin even higher are just not there anymore.

Score: 89 points
Disclaimer: kindly shared with me from an open bottle by a whisky friend.

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