When I was 16, my 12 year old little brother was a pain in the rear...always embarrassing me in front of my friends, messing with my stuff, and making fun of my romantic life, or lack thereof. Now, Lagavulin's classic 16 year old single malt has a younger sibling of its own, and a cask strength* one at that. Is Laga getting along with its little sib? Has sibling rivalry reared its ugly head among these Islay offspring? Let's taste and find out.
Lagavulin 16 year old, 43% alcohol.
Lagavulin was the first big smoker I tasted. Five years ago, you could get it for $40, but due to demand outstripping supply, the price has almost doubled since then. Now, it seems that this once grand malt has been supplanted by the excellent Laphroaig and Ardbeg as the smoky favorites of south Islay-the smokiest coast of the smokiest island in all of smoky Scotland.
The aroma of the 16 year old is all smoke. Not the heavy char of some Ardbegs but a purer wood smoke, like the smoke that rolls off of the dying embers of a campfire. In some cases, I'd rather smell a smoker than drink one as the taste often doesn't live up to the aroma, but with Lagavulin, the wood smoke is there, followed by a burst of sweetness. Then, you swallow, breath out through your nose and you're back by the campfire. There's a reason that the Lagavulin 16 year old is much sought after, and I'd guess that it's because of the fine melding of these flavors. That's why I prefer it to the standard bottlings of the other two big smokes, the 10 year old Laphroaig and Ardbeg (though those distilleries have some amazing whiskeys in their portfolios).
Lagavulin 12 year old, cask strength, 58.2% alcohol.
Before I was a scotch drinker, I was a tequila drinker, and occasionally, I get a scotch from Islay that has a strong aroma of tequila. This is one of those...the aroma and first sip put you right in Jalisco. There is some understated smoke, but more prominent is the sweetness of a good aged tequila, such that it makes me want to do a side by side comparison with my favorite tequila. The flavor is actually light for a cask strength and there is much less smoke here than in the 16 year old (I've noticed the Laphroaig 10 year old cask strength also to be less smoky than its regular strength counterpart). The flavor keeps that agave, and while there is trace smoke, it's nothing like the peat hit you get from the 16 year old - it's firmly balanced with the sweetness and a slight acidity.
All in all, I thought these were both very nice whiskies. If you're looking for a balanced but smoky scotch, take the 16 year old, but the 12 year old has much to offer with its balanced flavors.
UPDATE: Upon a few weeks rest, both Lagavulin's open up substantially. The 16 year old develops more complexity. Beneath the smoke there are layers of flavor, including some oak which gives it a rustic feel. The 12 year old loses some of the tequila and develops more of a character of its sibling, such that you can definitely tell they are in the same family. As with many whiskies, I think these benefit from a few days open.
*Cask Strength means that the alcohol strength of the whiskey is not diluted with water.
Next Wednesday: Young Turks