December 25, 2012

Lagavulin 12-Year Natural Cask Strength - Too Beastly for SmokyBeast?

Happy holidays!  We're thrilled to kick off our holiday Lagavulin series with the limited edition 12-year Natural Cask Strength.

On Cask Strength Whiskies
After completing the distillation process and then aging by the sea for ten to twenty years in various types of wood barrels, most whiskies weigh in at between 50% and 70% alcohol content.  You may notice that typical bottles of scotch you can buy in the liquor store come in between 40% and 45% alcohol content.  How is this possible, you may wonder?  Well the straight and shocking truth is that distilleries "down-proof" the whisky by adding...   Water!  They're watering down your whisky before it even hits the bottle!  If you caught your kids watering down your favorite single malt, they'd be grounded for life.

The Natural Cask Strength edition of Lagavulin is delivered to your bottle straight out of the barrel at a scorching 56.1%.  No water added, only the straight hooch.  It's also a 12-Year edition which means that it misses four years of aging against the typical 16-year release, and six years against the "double-matured" Distiller's Edition.

Cask Strength whisky seems to be big among whisky enthusiasts.  Why have the distiller add water for you?  Give us the straight dope and we'll mix it down ourselves!  Many of the very expensive aged scotches you'll see are bottled at cask strength and many bloggers and reviewers rave about the raw unadulterated experience of high-test scotch.

Here is how it's broken down in K&L's excellent Single Malt Buying Guide:
When a whisky is bottled at full proof or “cask strength,” it provides the consumer with the option to drink it however they prefer. It’s usually more expensive, but it gives the drinker the power to experiment with how a whisky tastes best to them.

A Science Experiment
So we put on our lab coats and sat down with the Lagavulin Cask Strength for a little scientific experimentation.  Would our own concoction of water and whisky turn out better than the beloved smoky beast that has held such a lock on our hearts over the years?  Also would we get a better bang for our buck since we'd be going through the trouble of turning on the faucet instead of drinking water imported from Islay, Scotland?

Background Research:
Lagavulin 16-Year is 43% alcohol.  Lagavulin 12-Year Natural Cask Strength is 56.1% alcohol.  43 divided by 56.1 is .766.  Therefore it's slightly less than 25% stronger.

The Cask Strength bottle (during the few months of the year when you can find it) is available for around $90-$100/bottle.  Right now, during the holidays, you can find it at Astor for $87.99.  They sell the Lagavulin 16-year for $59.97 (which by the way is quite a steal, considering a short two miles away it's selling at Sherry-Lehman for $84.95!).  So from an economical perspective, it's over 40% more expensive, and only 25% stronger.  So much for the argument about economics.  Evidently it's a better deal to let them ship all that water across the Atlantic.

Ok but screw Ben Stein, the point is that making our own mixture will allow us to find that perfect mix,  experiencing the raw unadulterated whisky goodness that has been hidden from our taste buds by the evil watery commercialization of liquor.

Procedure: Beginning with pure, neat cask-strength Lagavulin, taste with progressive amounts of water until reaching an equivalent 25% water content.  Determine ultimate drinkability.  (*warning for amateur scientists, in order to fairly confirm or deny your hypothesis you may be required to drink several, if not many, glasses of scotch).  We measured out a 75/25 percent measure in separate glasses and then slowly added the water, tasting at different intensities.  We used room temperature Poland Spring bottled water for the closest approximation to an Islay spring that was available at Gristedes.

Off to the races..

Full-Test:  In a word: unprepared.  In several words: holy shit-balls.  Initial reaction: throat and nose burning, eyes watering, trouble swallowing.  Mark us wimps, but this stuff is way too harsh.  The nose almost fools you, yielding some of that classic Lag smokiness and mellow peat and caramel.  However, as soon as it hits your mouth, all those sentimentalities immediately vanish.  The initial bite on the tongue is intense, a fiercely alcoholic kick with wild fire and a huge amount of peat smoke.  The finish is fiery and alcoholic with an explosion of pure moonshine-esque alcohol across the roof of the mouth.  What we love about Lagavulin is not just the intense smoke and peat, it's the balance of those flavors with the age and smoothness of the whisky.  We've come to expect that The Mighty Lag has no burn whatsoever.  That's what makes it so mighty and dangerous, that it tastes so good you can drink it all night and never come up for air.  The Cask Strength has none of that amazing smoothness.  Just for the experience of the raw unadulterated Lag, it's maybe something that die-hard fans should try, but for your average mortal it's, shall we say, challenging.

Splash of Water: Slightly less abrasive, opening up a slight citrus quality, but still almost an identical experience to the above.

Healthy Dose of Water (10%): The drinkability is returning, but we're still not raving about this.  It now tastes very similar to some of the less aged (and less preferred) whiskies ala Laphroig 10-year.  Don't get us wrong, Laphroig 10 is a beloved beast for a less-expensive scotch, however it's not really in the same league as The Lag.

Apples to apples (25%): Well the smoothness is mostly back, however what we now have tastes...  well to be honest it tastes like a watered-down whisky with little of the flavor and richness of the original.  In theory we now have a comparable proof of around 43% alcohol content.  And for this proof we'll say that it is very smooth.  It's just a little bit hard to believe that this concoction is supposed to compete with Lagavulin.  It's lost it's golden hue (yes the 12-year is several shades lighter than the 16) and looks pale and slightly sad.  It doesn't have any of the smoky finish or the deep flavors of fruit, chocolate, and fine cigars that bless the original.

On the Rocks: As a final test, we decided to exploit the one characteristic of Lagavulin Cask Strength that we knew could not be achieved with the original - full test booze on the rocks.  We added two large ice cubes to a healthy pouring and sipped slowly as they melted away.  We will say this: this is probably the best on-the-rocks scotch we've ever had.  As the ice melts, the coldness compliments the stark smoky flavor and you can drink your glass down without rushing and still end up with a very respectable flavor at the end of the glass.

Sadly we were not wow'd by the Lagavulin Cask Strength.  The two positives were thus: 1) If you are a huge fan of Lagavulin (like we are) and want to experience the straight, core, middle-earth fire from which Lagavulin is born, it's definitely an experience you won't forget; and 2) if you prefer whisky on the rocks (maybe you like to get drunk at high noon in august) and don't want to be ostracized by us for adding water to a perfect single malt like Lagavulin 16, this is a very dignified and respectable way to achieve both of those goals.  On the negative side: for everyday drinking, we just can't say that it's worth paying a premium for this bottle.  Maybe it's just that they've set the bar so incredibly high with the traditional Lagavulin, that for the value it just can't be beat.  But we suspect that it's the missing years of aging that left us wanting.  No matter how much tinkering with measuring spoons and eyedroppers we attempted, we couldn't get back to the beautiful balance that is Lagavulin 16.  Those extra years in the barrel give the whisky a smoothness that can't be duplicated with water.  It's not dilution, it's a warmth and mellow quality to the actual alcohol that makes such a noticeable difference.

It was kind of like the 'director's cut' of a movie that we really liked the first time, that just added some unnecessary scenes and lost the perfection of the original picture.

Now don't get us wrong, this is purely a comparative review.  Any bottle of Lagavulin is still, in our humble opinion, a thing of beauty and will out-pace 99% of distilled grains, fruits, or berries in the world.  We're sad that we didn't find nirvana in the Cask Strength, but we have to be honest for our dedicated followers.

By the way, that nirvana may just be around the corner.  Don't miss next week's review of the Double Matured Lagavulin Distiller's Edition.  Not to spoil the surprise, but if God wore a kilt, this would be in his Christmas stocking every year...

Back for a second taste

February 2014.  Two things have happened:  We've spend considerably more time around cask strength whiskies over the past year; and our bottle of Lagavulin 12-Year has been doing its chemical dance in the bottle, mellowing out and opening up.  So we figured we'd go back for a second taste.

Straight away from the nose we notice that it's much more mellow.  Our working theory is that straight-from-the-cask whiskies benefit the most from spending time open.  After all they've never tasted water, and basically went straight from the barrels into the bottles.  So it makes sense that they require more opening up than whiskies that have had some time to chemically break down by mixing with water, or changing barrels several times and being vatted.

As for the nose, the peat is still omnipresent, but it's not nearly as sharp and has more notes of sea air, salt peanuts, and white chocolate.  On the palate it's way, way more drinkable.  There's a fraction of the burn, and a lot more wide open space for little things like apples and sweet lemons, rock salt, and white chocolate.  The finish is very clean, completely missing the gasping-for-air quality it had upon opening!

So lesson learned, this went from a big disappointment to a winner by spending some time in the bottle.  If you take one of these bad boys home, be sure to thoroughly decant it (for a few weeks) or have a glass or two and then let it do its thing for some months.  Let us know the results, we think the taste will be almost unrecognizable from the first sip.

Is it better than The Mighty Lag 16?  That's tough, we still think that those extra years add a beautiful maturity to the taste.  And the extra sherry influence is tough to beat.  On the other hand, this stuff has 30% more alcohol than the standard Lag.  So if you're looking for something quick to the punch, this is totally your lady.  :)