January 12, 2013

The Mighty Lag - Lagavulin 16-Year (A Life-Changing Dram)

Life-Changing Introductions

We first discovered The Lag at a traditional Robert Burns supper in western Massachusetts.  Your humble narrators - at the time a boyfriend and girlfriend in their respective early thirties and late twenties, now a husband and wife team with a bouncing baby girl - were stunned.  We'd had whisky, but nothing like this.  We fell in love.  With the drink, with each other, and with one of those beautiful moments in life when all of one's senses align.  Lagavulin is and shall remain the ultimate smoky beast.

The Scene
January 25th.  Logs roasted slowly in a giant stone hearth.  There was haggis (layman's term: sheep guts).  There were neeps & tatties (turnips & potatoes).  There were reels (think Scottish square dancing).  As is traditional, all the guests stood and read Robbie's golden words.  And what better words could there be to our favorite scotch in the world than Scotland's greatest poet, a man who wrote a eulogy to the very barley malt that sacrifices it's life to bring us our prized whisky?

John Barleycorn by Robert Burns
Top: Robbie Burns, Bottom: Haggis
They wasted, o'er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller used him worst of all,
For he crushed him 'tween two stones.

And they hae ta'en his very heart's blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
'Twill make your courage rise;

'Twill make a man forget his woe;
'Twill heighten all his joy:
'Twill make the widow's heart to sing,
Tho' the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne'er fail in old Scotland!

And then there was scotch.  A dark sultry bottle was produced from a navy box.  Your faithful narrators, at the time boyfriend & girlfriend - now husband & wife, rose glasses in a toast.  A first sip was shared.  History was made.

Our Favorite Man on the Planet
To understand the heaven that was about to enter our lips, you have to get familiar with a certain breed of Scotsman.  A gentleman who has spend forty years digging peat, roasting barley, and slowly, patiently, watching barrels of malt age and mature in salty ocean breezes by the coast of Islay.  A man who's uncle, and grandfather, and generations of relatives walked this same path.   And a man who is about to divulge a deep dark secret about expensive whisky.  Ladies & gentlemen: Iain McArthur.

Haven't packed your bags and bought a ticket to the Scottish Isles yet?  Ok, your loss, let's drink some whisky.  For on that cold birthday of Robbie Burns, your faithful co-authors of SmokyBeast were about to meet: The Mighty Lag.  Lagavulin 16-Year.

He - hubby - was at first confused.  Was there something wrong with this bottle?  Had the alcohol evaporated out of it?  How could it be so smooth?  So smoky and yet so utterly drinkable?  Eyebrows frowning out of sheer disbelief, he took a second sip.

She - wifey - eyebrows up in eureka!  Love at first taste.

There's just nothing like it.

Tasting Notes
Nose:  Peat, peat, & more peat.  Smoke, & more smoke.  Leather.  Toffee, caramel.  And a hint of orange rind.

Body:  Sweet honey cake followed by a rich coffee and mocha.  Extending over the palate with more hints of citrus.  On second sip: little hints of banana, pineapple, and apple.  Spices: cinnamon and nutmeg, a flash of hot black pepper and ginger.  Almost no fire whatsoever.  The tiny heat is offset beautifully by the full peat smoke.  The most drinkable whisky on the planet.  On any planet...

Finish:  The alcohol vanishes like a fairytale princess at midnight.  It's replaced by a ghost of smoke that lingers on the breath, like you just had a tiny puff of a very expensive cigar.  It's a finish that you relish, slowly letting the aftertaste linger.  The sugar leaves first, then the fruit, and then you're left with the smoke.  The most pleasant sensation...

This is a whisky that you'll never forget.  The most distinctive taste that could never be confused with any other.  Someone asked us once if we could really tell the difference between different whiskies.  We looked at each other and just said "Lagavlin, for sure!".  It's utterly unique.

And Now For Iain's Secret
Everyone assumes that when it comes to scotch, the older the better.  You'd be lucky to get a wee sip of some hidden beast that's spend fifty or sixty years aging in the back of the distillery.  Right?  Well everyone says so but Iain.  And this scotch has been in Iain's blood for generations, so he probably knows a thing or two about vintage.  He takes visitors on  distillery tours and watches them sip Lagavulin like a proud father at his daughter's first piano recital.  And there's a reason that the good people at Lagavulin bottle it at 16 years.  In the words of Iain: "We can't rush Lagavulin.  Lagavulin, it takes time...  Ten year old is just baby Lagavulin to me."  (Which makes sense based on our review of the 12-Year Cask Strength). "We have sixteen year old Lagavulin here just now that we take out and let people taste, and what I say to them is 'we won't get better', Lagavulin 16 Year old is excellent...  The oldest cask in Lagavulin is 44-year old.  I call that a ladies dram.  It's lost its smokiness and its peatiness, but it you put it in your hand and rub it with the heat of your hand, it's amazing how it all comes back."  One day we will make our pilgrimage to Islay and meet Iain in person.  Maybe he'll let us taste some of that 44-year old ladies dram.  Until then we'll take him at his word that it doesn't get better than the 16-year.  It's hard to imagine how it could be.

Lagavulin 16 gets our first, and maybe our only "A+".  It's simply the best.