I have never been much of a scotch whiskey man. I always preferred wine above all else. I remember being a teenager and sneaking sips here and there from my parents’ liquor cabinet. I do not even remember which scotch brand they had, but I do remember that it was terrible. Forgive the reference, but it actually tasted like vomit to me, and I vowed never again to drink scotch. I have since confessed my liquor cabinet pilfering to my parents.
But in my twenties, I became a pipe and cigar smoker, and I kept reading about how good cigars and good scotch go so well together. So, I decided to give scotch another chance. One night I was out at a pub, whose special that night was a double glass of Glenmorangie single-malt scotch at a very good price, so I ordered a glass. The flavor was worlds better than the stuff I had nicked from my parents. It had a complex, slightly-sweet flavor, with hints of apple and oak. I had never known that scotch could be not only good, but delicious, and so I decided to explore the world of scotch whiskey.
I headed to my local wine and liquor merchant. As it turned out, one of their staff was a real expert on scotch. He asked me some questions about what sorts of flavors I liked. I told him that I usually go for something strong, flavorful, and different. He directed me to his Islay scotches, and explained scotch a little to me. Before that, I had been mostly ignorant of the world of scotch.
To summarize scotch whiskey, it is a distilled beverage made from various grains. Like in the winemaking process, yeast eat the sugars in the grains, and expel alcohol and carbon dioxide. But with distilling, it does not stop there. Using a boiling and condensation process, distilling concentrates the liquid, making it more intensely flavorful, and increasing its alcohol level. While all sorts of grains are used for whiskey, single malt scotch whiskey uses only malted barley. Generally (but not always), the scotches that the experts consider the best, are single malt scotches. While the word whiskey refers to all grain-based, distilled, alcoholic beverages, scotch, as the name implies, is the style of whiskey that comes from Scotland.
What really piqued my interest, was learning that the geographical location of where scotch is made — its terroir so to speak — determines alot about its taste characteristics, like wine. And in Scotland, there are five distinct scotch-making geographical appellations: Lowland, Speyside, Highland, Campbeltown, and Islay. Each appellation has its own style of making scotch, and thus the scotch from each region has its own distinct flavor profile and taste characteristics. This is analogous to European wine appellations. Like wine, the flavor range of scotch whiskey is broad, ranging from sweet and floral, to salty and smoky. Lagavulin definitely fits on the salty and smoky side of the range.
The clerk finally convinced me to try a bottle of Lagavulin. The distillery makes different varieties. Like wine, scotch is aged in oak barrels, and the longer a good scotch ages, the mellower and more complex it becomes (again, like wine). I chose the Lagavulin 16 Year Single Malt variety. At $100, it was a large investment to make in a scotch that I might or might not have liked, but I took the plunge. Lagavulin, in Scotch Gaelic, means windmill, apparently a reference to the landmark of the ancient distillery.
The Lagavulin distillery was founded in 1816 by John Jonston and Archibald Campbell. The two had a falling out, and one of them continued distilling as Lagavulin. From my research, no one really knows which man won out. There are a couple of factors that, in my opinion, make Lagavulin a particularly special scotch, in terms of the process. First, the Lagavulin distillery is right on the sea, and the aging barrels are intentionally exposed to the sea to influence the flavor of the whiskey. Second, the malted barley is dried using peat smoke from local peat moss. Again, this imparts its terroir characteristic that makes it quite unique.
I took it home, and did a little research online about the proper way to drink scotch. While there are many different opinions, the advice that seemed to hold the most water for me (based on the expertise of the advisers), was to pour a glass with only one ice cube. They said that, as the ice melts, the sweetness and complexity of the scotch really comes out. Also, as with wine, the size and shape of the glass matters. With scotch, you want a very shallow, very wide glass, because the bouquet (the way it smells as you drink it) greatly enhances the flavor, since the sense of smell is strongly linked to the sense of taste.
My first sip of Lagavulin was a true epiphany. I felt like I had found a real liquid soulmate in life. To try to describe the experience is difficult, because it really transcended words (as does all great food and drink). I begin with the bouquet. The instant my nose came close to the glass, my olfactory sensors were overwhelmed by burnt smokiness. It really made me imagine a glass filled with only smoke. The earthy, peaty smokiness is clearly the most imposing scent in the bouquet, but in a good way. Not everyone appreciates the smokiness of Islay scotch, and Lagavulin is, hands down, the smokiest.
The first sip exhibited flavors of smoke, and salty ocean. I am not sure how to relay the taste of ocean, except by analogy. Imagine you are swimming in the ocean, not far from a beach. You feel the sand between your toes. You see colorful fish darting in between your legs. The gentle waves rock you up and down, a mermaid’s caressing hands lifting and lowering you. The sharp, crisp, salty air tingles your nostrils as you feel and taste the salt in your mouth. That is what it was like. The earthy, pungent peat and its smokiness battled with the ocean saltiness, and the two produced a thick, viscous mouthfeel. The flavor was very pleasant, but extremely strong and sharp.
As the single ice cube slowly melted, the next several sips brought in a luscious, smooth, apple and oak sweetness that I had not imagined could be in the scotch. I do not understand the chemistry of how melting ice brings out the sweetness in a scotch, but it truly does. There were also very faint hints of cassis, cherry, and tree bark. Combined with the ocean salt, the peat smoke, and the apple sweetness, I relished in the very complex blend of flavors.
I was instantly transported to the Scotland of old. I stood, a soldier in blue warpaint and leather armor, a mace at my side. Our leader stood before us. He spoke encouraging words in Gaelic, words that assured us that we would defend our homeland against the invading English. To my right, the craggy rocks of the shore surrendered to the rough churning of the dark sea. The sea spat its saltiness against our faces and into our nostrils, but we were accustomed to that. At each of our sides was a leather flask, filled with local scotch whiskey to give us strength and warmth in the battle. We saw the well-armored and well-equipped English army approaching, as our leader shouted to us to defend the honor of our land, our people, our blood. The battle call sounded, as the salt whipped against us.
Ever since that first sip of Lagavulin, I have been a loyal fan. I have tried a large variety of other scotches, Islay and others. And while there are many excellent labels out there, to me, nothing comes close to Lagavulin 16 Year. If I have a really nice cigar, a glass of Lagavulin with a single ice cube, a good, leather-bound book, and a roaring fire in the hearth, then I am completely happy and fulfilled as a man. I am transported to the higher realm of gastronomic pleasure, and I do not want to return.