Lagavulin Limited Edition 8 Year Old 200th Anniversary
Taste Score: 94.5
Category: Single malt scotch, Peated
Whisky Cabinet Score: ★ ★ ★ ★
I made the mistake of doing a blind tasting pitting Lagavulin 8 against Lagavulin 16. These two drinks could not be any different, and while the older scotch is more immediately pleasing on the nose, Lagavulin 8 Year Old is more brilliant then I would have imagined. It might even be better then Lagavulin 16, depending on your mood. It's also a big corporate middle finger to whisky writers that complain about no-age statement whisky (more on that later).
It might seem like a gimmick at first. A young scotch released on the 200th anniversary of Lagavulin Distillery, priced just under the 16 year old Lagavulin. The reason for this scotch being only aged eight years goes back to a story from the 1880s. Alfred Bernard, a historian and whisky writer, wrote that Lagavulin 8 was the best whisky he tasted after traveling through Great Britain and visiting over 150 distilleries.
While the whisky was aged to eight years in Alfred Bernard's honor, it tastes nothing like the whisky Alfred Bernard would have tasted. Back then, Scotland primarily aged their whisky in European oak. The flavors would have been dryer, sweeter, and heavy on cinnamon spice. Lagavulin has aged this scotch in American oak, making it higher on acid (lemon), honey, vanilla, and peppery oak spice.
To Diageo's credit, when National Director of Diageo's Masters of Whisky Program, Ewan Morgan, handed the bottle of Lagavulin 8 Year Old, he told me as much. Nick Morgan, outspoken spokesperson for Diageo, also noted in an interview: "But to be clear, it’s not a recreation of what Barnard tasted, which would be impossible to credibly do; it’s really a homage.”
So Lagavulin 8 Year Old is made in the spirit of a whisky from the 1880s, with no like-characteristics to that whisky beyond the time it has spent maturing in the barrels. This does, though, take on a modern story because it's clear Diageo has taken to heart all the complaints about age-statements.
In this way, this is a direct shot at whisky critics. A few years ago the same Nick Morgan said this about no-age statement whisky:
Sadly, I think a lot of the more intemperate and ill-informed views seem to come from people who have been in the category for a short amount of time, with not much understanding of how the whisky industry works.
In an interview with Forbes related to the release of Lagavulin 8, Nick Morgan had more to say on the subject:
The obsession with age statements and older whiskies is really a product of the late 20th century… Age has become a lazy way of defining quality and price. And that’s demonstrably not how it should be.
For once, I agree with Nick. I also agree with Lagavulin's move to actually put an age statement on the bottle despite it being a young scotch. This is a shift from other distilleries in Diageo's portfolio.
Diageo had a bone to pick, and Lagavulin 8 is it's best volley
Diageo took a stand. They proved they could make an eight year old scotch, make it a good one, and sell it at a reasonable price for the whisky enthusiast. Now, I will point out, that the fiercest whisky accountants will note this not a reasonable price for an eight year old product. They will point to the disparaging price-per-year ratio compared to the sixteen year old. However, for the rest of us, having a limited-release Lagavulin at under the price of Lagavulin 16 isn't a bad thing.
The whisky speaks for itself. I can't be critical of Lagavulin for using American oak instead of the more 1800s traditional European oak. European oak shapes the whisky within the first few years, and after a decade it takes over the spirit almost entirely. Much like Lagavulin 12 (bottled at higher proof), Lagavulin 8 is about malted barley, peat, and the craft of distillation. The grain is left wonderfully exposed, not drowned, by the oak. It's a beautiful whisky that highlights all the reasons single malt scotch drinkers love scotch.
This is an important point, because it's easy for distilleries to hide faults in fermentation, distillation, and poor oak barrels by moving whisky from American oak to European oak in the last three to nine months before bottling. European oak used for making sherry or wine can be used to hide imperfections. When one releases a young whisky aged in only American oak, every imperfection would show.
This is a boastful move on the part of Lagavulin Distillery. In every sense, this is a beautiful whisky that warms my heart, despite the many ridiculous moves Diageo has made over the years. While I fully speculate that Diageo gave us an excellent eight-year-old scotch to show us they were right all along, I also hope that they learn from this experience. Make us a great whisky, and well will enjoy it.
Nose: It noses rich, wonderfully rich. Light vanilla, cereal, leather, smoke, licorice hard candy, and dark fruity notes. If not for the color, I'd assume this was an older whisky. Bonfire smoke is evident from the start, though it dissipates quickly.
Palate: On first sip, Lagavulin 8 doesn't offer complexity--it offers harmony. The balance of smoke, vanilla, and dried fruits plays wonderfully off one-another. The sweetness is best described as melted honey, but some fruit sweetness comes through. It's on the second sip that the secondary flavors start coming out: Pepper spice, apricot, ginger, lingering beautiful buttery notes. The smokiness plays wonderfully on the palate, ever-present, but not over-consuming.
Conclusion: It's an easy sipper that shows no signs of age or proof level (48% ABV). Lagavulin 8 is easy to enjoy without thought, but has depth and warmth that spreads should you wish to savor your sip further. Lagavulin Distillery continues to produce fine whisky, regardless of age-statement. Cheers to your 200th anniversary!
Disclosure: This bottle of Lagavulin 8 was provided by Diageo. This had no influence on my review.