Probably best known as the favorite spirit of Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman, Lagavulin is one of those Scotch Whiskys that you either love or you hate. A departure from the traditional flavor profile of other local whisky their distinct flavor makes it an interesting specimen.
Illegal distilling has been going on at the current site of the Lagavulin distillery dating back to at least 1742, but the officially licensed and legal Lagavulin distillery was established in 1816 by John Johnston. Using pear shaped stills to distill their malted barley mash in small batches, they quickly gained a reputation for their fine product.
Johnston would continue to run the distillery until his death in 1836, expanding the distillery to take over a second facility that had appeared next to his original building. What followed was a succession of small Scottish companies who owned and operated the distillery between 1836 and 1887, when the owner died and Peter Mackie took over.
Lagavulin was originally only available within Scotland, not even exported as far as England to the south until 1890. One of Mackie’s first moves was to create a whisky called the “White Horse Blend” that incorporated Lagavulin as a component for the export market and became wildly popular.
In 1908, the distillery had a bit of a spat with the neighboring Laphoraig distillery. After trying to choke off their production by damming the stream they use as a water source, Lagavulin actually duplicated Laphoraig’s distillery at a facility called the “Malt Mill” and started producing an identical spirit in an attempt to drive them out of business. While Mackie was unsuccessful in killing the rival distillery, the Malt Mill was somewhat successful and operated until the 1962 renovation and expansion of the Lagavulin distillery. The old Malt Mill distillery now serves as the visitor’s center.
Private ownership of the distillery ended in 1927 when the current owners of the distillery sold it to the Distillers Company Limited, a conglomerate of Scotch whisky manufacturers. The distillery changed hands most recently when The Distillers Company Limited was sold to Guinness and finally in 1997 to Diageo, the newly formed British spirits company.
Lagavulin Scotch Whisky is a traditional recipe with a twist.
The spirit starts as malted barley from Port Ellen Maltings that has been smoked and baked using local peat. The barley is separated into its components and added to the mash in a very particular ratio.
The mash is created in a stainless steel mash tun and cooked for a longer duration than most other whiskys, then transferred to large oak vats for fermentation, where it is also left to sit for an abnormally long 55 hours. Once the fermented mash is created, it is distilled in one of Lagavulin’s pear shaped pot stills.
Like other Scotch producers, Lagavulin uses former bourbon barrels to age their spirit. These charred American oak barrels are imported, filled with neutral grain spirit for three years, and then re-filled with the distilled spirit from Lagavulin’s stills. The barrels then sit for a period of 16 years, either at their facility or other storage facilities around Scotland before bottling.
The Lagavulin bottle is a beauty of understated simplicity.
A traditional styled bottle with a round body, a gently tapered shoulder, and a rather long neck, it’s not pulling any new tricks here — but I wouldn’t expect a flashy bottle from a distiller that dates back to 1816.
The bottle itself is a smoked and tinted color. I’m conflicted about this. On the one hand, it better protects the content of the bottle. But on the other, it doesn’t show off the beautiful color of the liquid within. Overall, I’ll chalk it up as a win for now. The bottle is capped with a wooden and cork stopper.
The label on the bottle is printed in a style reminiscent of mid 1800’s style, with fading black type on a yellowed background. The age statement (16 years) is highlighted in red for emphasis.
It’s a damn appealing bottle, and one that looks great on any shelf.
The very first thing any person with a working sense of smell will get wafting off this dark amber spirit is a healthy dose of peat. Which makes perfect sense, since this is a heavily peated Scotch whisky, after all. From there, the impression I get is that of standing on the edge of a cold beach, a bit of salty granite rocks and some seaweed.
The spirit itself tastes like the textbook definition of “umami.” That same peat flavor is present and strong, but behind it there’s a whole world of salty savory delight. Part of the flavor is like that of a distilled miso soup, there’s some hints of soy sauce, and a bit of seaweed.
This tastes the same way I would expect the Iron Islands from Game of Thrones to taste.
At times I also get a bit of coffee mixed in, but in general that ocean, salty taste is the predominant flavor of the spirit.
All that’s left for me is the peat. With the ice dropped in, the cornucopia of flavors has been reduced to just a handful — mainly just the smokey peat flavor. And honestly, if I wanted to taste that much smoke I’d just stick my scotch in a barbecue pit.
It’s still a bold flavored drink, but the charm and the subtlety is gone.
It is a bit on the more intense side of things and definitely not for everyone, but for those nights when I want to be socked in the face by some flavor, this is the Scotch I reach for.
Lagavulin 16 Year Scotch Whisky
Production: Lagavulin, Islay, Scotland
Classification: Islay Scotch Whisky
Grain bill: 100% malted barley
Aging: 16 years
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $82.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 5/5
I love this. I think it’s great. My current favorite Scotch Whisky.