Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: The Mystery of Finlaggan

In the world of Scotch, few things inspire more intrigue than the release of a "mystery malt." What, you may ask, is a mystery malt? It is a single malt of uncertain origin.

As you may recall, within the world of Scotch, there are many independent bottlers who buy casks of Scotch from distilleries and market them under their own labels. In most cases, these bottlers reveal the source of the malt, but in some cases they do not, and those bottlings are known as mystery malts. We do not know why a given mystery malt does not reveal its source; sometimes it is because of a contractual obligation, other times it may be because the bottler is trying to market a distinct brand apart from any distillery, such as Ian McLeod's Smokehead.

Whatever the reason, mystery malts, especially Islay mystery malts, inspire no end of guessing and hypothesizing over the source.

Today, I will try Finlaggan, a popular mystery malt from Islay bottled by the Vintage Malt Whisky Company which is 40% alcohol. It is available for a bargain basement $16.95 at Trader Joe's.

Now, I've heard much speculation that the contents of Finlaggan are, in fact, a young Lagavulin. Frankly, I'm always skeptical of such claims. First, since there has been a recent scarcity of Lagavulin, nearly every Islay mystery malt is rumored to be Lagavulin. Second, because of this scarcity, why on earth would the distillery be selling it on the cheap to independent bottlers when they could be expanding their own brand? Of course, it's possible that in response to the scarcity, they overproduced and are selling off young whiskey, but they could probably make $100 a pop on a five year old release (a la Bruichladdich) as opposed to putting it in someone else's bargain malt. Then again, they could also be locked into a long-term contract with the bottler.

Caol Ila, on the other hand, a high quality but less sought after Islay malt, is known to produce lots of whiskey for independents, and is probably a more likely source for any given Islay malt than Lagavulin.

The other thing to keep in mind is that since it is a mystery malt, the bottler can change which whiskey goes into it. My bottle may be Lagavulin, yours may be Caol Ila and someone else's may be Laphroaig. There is simply no guarantee that it is all from the same source, though this site reports a correspondence with Finlaggan in which the bottler claims they use only one malt for all their bottlings.

In the end, it's really pointless to discuss the mystery. We're all better off hanging up our Sherlock Holmes hats and enjoying the malt for what it is...so here it goes...


Plenty of peat and good Islay notes on the nose. No mistake about what region this comes from. There is a nice char on the taste but it has an overly diluted taste. The peat is definitely up front, but it is submerged in water, like some sort of peaty submarine. I can see why people think it's Lagavulin. It definitely shares some of those heavily smoked characteristics, even if they are hidden underwater.

Finlaggan is not a great whiskey but provides a decent amount of smoke at a rock-bottom price. I'm guessing it would do well in a Smoky Sazerac.

Next Wednesday: What to drink at your nephew's Bar Mitzvah

1 comment:

Eric said...

Port Askaig is another line of mystery malts from Islay but when you do a little research, you'll learn that Caol Ila is a short distance from the town (Port Askaig has no distillery). Because the Port Askaig line has some old whisky like a 17 year old, I'd say Caol Ila must have surplus old whisky to offer the independents.