By Richard Thomas
Among the offerings in Diageo’s Classic Malts collection, arguably the most classic single malt after Talisker 10 Year Old is Lagavulin 16 Year Old. Like the other Classic Malts, Lagavulin 16 is the flagship expression from its distillery, and in this case the distillery in question is the Islay entry in the collection. Add the rather high age statement to coming from the famous and peaty Islay whisky region, and it’s easy to see why the single malt is so popular. Lagavulin 16 is so bedecked with medals and awards that it to speak just of 2015 would mean referring to two golds and two silvers.
Lagavulin is located on the south coast of Islay, along a row of distilleries that includes Ardbeg, Laphroaig and the defunct Port Ellen. That grouping is, in itself, just part of the 10 distilleries of Islay. In addition to having its own source of peat and water, Lagavulin is distinguished from its neighbors by its pear-shaped stills and relatively slow distillation process.
Bottled at 43% abv, the color of Lagavulin 16 Year Old is in the light amber vein, straddling a spot on the metals spectrum where rich gold leans into burnished copper.
The nose promises a rich, deep experience, delivering a scent heavily laden with oily creosote, spiced with cinnamon and vanilla. This single malt has a reputation as one of the smokiest to come out of Islay, and certainly the scent delivers a thick puff of the stuff. Yet at the same time, it’s well balanced by a sweetly spiced side.
Come from the big personality of the nose, the palate was a little disappointing. The flavors were big enough, so it wasn’t that. In fact, from the flavors it’s easy to see why this whisky draws such passionate devotion. A dense wallop of peppry, dry wood is part of a balanced tripod, joined by thick, ashy smoke and cinnamon-spiced fruit sweetness.
Lagavulin 16 is often compared to Lapsang Souchong for its smoky-and-sweet disposition, and rightly so, but that leaves out that dry, deep and toasty wood aspect that really makes this something special, juggling three very distinct flavor currents and doing it well. The one thing that held this whisky back was, in my opinion, it’s humdrum texture. The mouthfeel was neither here nor there, and for something with big personality like this I want it to lie heavy and thick on my tongue. The liquid didn’t, but even so this is still very good stuff.
Prices in the United States vary widely, from $60 to $75. Even the high end of that range is fair for a middle aged Islay single malt, and at $60 it’s a moderate bargain. In the UK, £54 is fairly typical.