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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Absent Friends: Lagavulin & Caol Ila Feis Ile Bottlings

Bling comes to Paradise Island
For the better part of a decade now, Caskstrength has been trekking up to Scotland on an annual pilgrimage to Islay, for the annual Festival of Music and Malt, the Feis Ile. It is a thoroughly enjoyable event and one of the warmest whisky welcomes you can receive anywhere in the world, with outstanding whiskies and tasting sessions, the likes of which are rarely seen outside of festival time. Put it this way, when else would you see Micky Heads, dressed as a Gangsta Rap star?

This year however, our diaries did not allow for a trip up to the whisky isle during festival time, due to other presenting and writing commitments. Fortunately we had already popped in to say a quick hello to the good people of Islay with a visit a few weeks beforehand. With the most recent Caskstrength post being on the latest Laphroaig offering, the next two will feature other Islay distilleries and some of their more unusual output, as a tribute to the great festival.

One of the big draws for visitors to the festival is the annual batch of special releases which the distilleries roll out and there has been no change at the 2014 festival, with the island's eight distilleries (and not forgetting Jura, too) creating something unusual and limited to reward those making the long journey to the Inner Hebrides.  The outturns have changed significantly since the distilleries got behind the festival began back in 2000  - and considerably since 2007, when Caskstrength began its Islay voyages.  

Alas, gone are the single cask offerings, replaced by bottling runs much larger in number. A shame, as we feel that the travellers making the (not inconsiderable) effort to get to Islay should be rewarded for their efforts. But with the huge success of the week-long event and vastly increased visitor numbers, the small outturns left a lot of visitors extremely disappointed when they couldn't pick up a special bottling from their favourite distillery, only to see said bottles arrive on popular auction sites for super-inflated prices a week later.  

It's simply a case of dammed if they do, dammed if they don't for the distillers.  One option could be to explore the possibility of customising the releases for the bottles purchased at the distillery.  Perhaps a special necker/ hand applied shoulder label, or a different capsule colour - or a simple space on the back label for the distillery manager to add a signature if you can track the busy folks down... food for thought, marketing folks out there. 

Anyway, a sample from each of Diageo's Islay-owned distilleries (Caol Ila and Lagavulin) turned up earlier this week, which we were eager to explore. Regular readers will be aware that we usually keep a daily diary of our adventures at Feis Ile and the seven previous Lagavulin releases have been superb, so this gives us a good opportunity to look back at those releases, while trying the 2014 edition. Click on the dates below if you want to see our tasting notes from the previous bottles: Alas, 2007's tasting notes seem to be lost somewhere in the darkest archives of the website, but trust us, it was a fabulous release. 

Lagavulin - Feis Ile 2014 - Distilled 1995 - Bottled 2014 - 54.7% - 3,500 bottles

Nose: A dry, medicinal/carbolic note opens up the proceedings, followed by classic Laga smoky bacon/charred meat, Star Wars figures (apologies, as we've used this ref. before, but take a whiff of a vintage Princess Leia or Chewy action figure and you'll see what we mean... sad but true) some earthy, moist leaves and darker sherry wood notes. The charred notes are dominant, as is the dryness. It's not the most sizzling and vibrant of Lagas, but let's not forget that this is nearly 20 years old now and maturity has taken this beast in a much more sublime direction. 

Palate: Sweet off the bat, into a swathe of drying woody notes, some sweetened black Lapsang tea, more smoked meat, with a surge of peat, zesty lemons and a dusting of both coal and icing sugar. It's rich, powerful and dry, but hangs onto the right side of woody, before the rot begins to set in. 

Finish: Very lengthy, with the smoke subsiding and the resonant sherry sweetness coating the tongue.  

Overall: A tricky toss up here: The recent Jazz Festival bottlings perhaps edge this for sheer brilliance, but without doubt, it still claims a premier spot when it comes to limited edition peated gems. Given the pedigree of Lagavulin - and its staple core whisky with the 16 year old, which pretty much redefines peated whisky, there will always be high expectations placed on the shoulders of those involved in the choosing the releases. Again, they have played a blinder, as this one will absolutely delight the enthusiasts who can get hold of one. 

Our 'mini-journey-from-our-desk' takes us up and onwards to the north of the island, to Lagavulin's sister distillery, Caol Ila. It always amazes us just what a consistent dram Caol Ila is, from the excellent core rage offerings through to independent single casks, rarely do we find a bottling from this distillery that is not exceptionally drinkable. 

When it comes to festival bottles, Caol Ila has also been releasing a series which started off as single casks and developed into longer run offerings, kicking off in 2008.

Caol Ila - Feis Ile 2014 - distilled 2002 - Bottled 2014 -55.5% - 1,500 bottles

Nose: Tremendously spicy on the first sniff, with cloves, cassia bark and a sprinkling of nutmeg, all vying for your attention with black pepper and of course some sweet peat smoke. It's incredibly aromatic, light in character and also in possession of a little fruitiness too: think soft ripened bananas and some freshly picked raspberries too. 

Palate: Very sweet, into the classic lingering Caol Ila sootiness, but backdropped by sweet black coffee, some oaky smoke, a touch of orange zest and nutty breakfast cereal.  On the back there's a slight menthol which, all in all, gives this a sublime balance.  

Finish: Lingering sweetness and a fresh zesty orange note nestles against the slightly sooty/dry peat.

Overall: An outstanding release. Not too woody (somewhat ironic, given the nickname of the current distillery manager, David Woods) and well balanced, this is a whisky with swagger strength and balance. A great bottling indeed.

It is clear to see how there has been a shift in strategy of the Feis Ile bottlings released by the Diageo-owned Islay distilleries in the last two years with the runs increasing dramatically to meet the demand. But this is an issue faced by every distillery on the island and with the continued fascination that Islay holds for new whisky enthusiasts, it is only going to get more tricky to cater for everyone wanting something special. When it comes to the Lagavulin, £99 for a limited release 19 year old is is a valiant attempt to 'keep things real' with the pricing strategy, which has, in recent years become a little absurd.

Fair play guys and see you bright and early next year.