A comparison of the Lagavulin 12 Year Old [Ed 2013] versus the Lagavulin 8 Year Old

A comparison of the Lagavulin 12 Year Old [Ed 2013] versus the Lagavulin 8 Year Old

Lagavulin distillery is sandwiched between Laphroaig on the left and Ardbeg on the right. All three distilleries are accessed via a little coastal road, the A846 from Port Ellen, on the south coast of Islay. Coming off the ferry at Port Ellen, Lagavulin is 7 minutes drive away.

They do a very good tour there with a whisky tasting session in their "Green" lounge afterwards. It's worth taking the time to walk around the outside of the distillery for stunning scenery and if you are peckish, there are picnic tables outside by the little harbour.


The Green Lounge

There is a special display for their dearly departed older sister, Port Ellen Distillery.

There are two interesting Vlogs (Video logs) reviews of the Lagavulin 8 Years 200th Anniversary Limited Edition. One by Ralfy.com and the other by MaltMan Mike.

The first one, Ralfy.com. Here.

Although his review is excellent, Ralfy has this idea that this so called “Limited Edition” (which he says is actually not so "limited"), is supposed to replace their long standing core range expression, the 16-Year-Old. I don’t often disagree with Ralfy but he seems to me totally off base here. The 16-Year-Old is bottled at the minimum 43% abv standard for Diageo and matured in a combination of Ex-Bourbon and Ex-Sherry casks (this from discussions with the manager at Lagavulin, my guess is something like 80%/20%). The 16-Year-Old is clearly heavily coloured with E150a caramel and chill-filtered for the American market.

This 8-Year-Old states on the label “Limited 200th Anniversary Edition” which kind of rules it out as being their replacement for their stock bottling (but with Diageo you never know….). It also does not make sense that they would go from a respectable 16-Year-Old to an 8-Year-Old for their core range.

Far more convincing an argument however is the fact that this 8-Year-Old is simply a completely different beast being bottled at a much higher 48% abv and matured in 100% Ex-Bourbon casks which makes it much more similar and directly comparable to another Lagavulin annual expression Limited Edition out there, namely the 12-Year-Old Limited Edition, bottled at Cask Strength, around 55% abv (but varying from year to year), and also matured exclusively in 100% Ex-Bourbon casks. To show just how similar these two whiskies are I decided to do a direct comparison review of the 8-Year-Old versus the 12-Year-Old.


But first, I wanted to mention the second interesting Vlog by Maltman Mike where he mentions that his Lagavulin 8 arrived somewhat battered and he had to stick some Sellotape to the bottom to stop the bottle falling through.


Video Log 019: Lagavulin 8YO 'Limited Edition' (Don't miss the final scene!)

Well Maltman Mike is not alone! When I got home from visiting the specialist whisky shop in Ramat Gan, “Wine and Flavours”, after purchasing this (along with a Caol Ila 25 and BenRiach 16), I also noticed that my bottle of Lag 8 had almost fallen through the bottom flap.

The bottom was sagging rather worrisomely and so I promptly, (yes you guessed it!), applied generous amounts of Sellotape to the bottom. The only conclusion one can make is that Diageo have used SUBSTANDARD CHEAP PACKAGING! This is not a cheap whisky. I wonder how many of these bottles, Chas VeShalom,  have actually ended up smashing on the floor? Shame on them. The Lagavulin 12 on the other hand has no such problems.

E150a Colour. Yes or No?

Intestingly as well, there is general confusion whether these whiskies have any colouring in them. Ralfy.com says emphatically "No!". In his opinion both whiskies are natural colour for sure. Maltman Mike is not so sure and then he looks at the back of the box and sees something important written in German...

An often heard criticism (amongst many), flung at Diageo products, (apart from its tendency to bottle at minimum alcohol levels, chill filter almost all their whiskies and add copious amounts of E150a ceramal colouring even to premium expressions like the Caol Ila 25), is that the label and packaging is full of meaningless marketing fluff and hardly has any actual information which might be of interest to a whisky enthusiast.

Regarding added colour however, they, (as are all Scotch whisky producers), are bound by the Scottish Whisky Association rules which clearly state that the only substance which may be added to the spirit is E150a Caramel colouring. However, bottles meant exclusively for the UK market have no obligation to reveal this added ingredient but thanks to stricter European regulations however, it must state somewhere on the package whether this whisky contains any colouring if being shipped to that market.

Those distilleries which do not add colouring almost always proudly state this on the label but strangely enough, not all do. This could be that the distillery has a general policy not to add colour so they don’t bother stating this on their label. In my opinion this is a silly and lazy omission. It seems that many label designers and marketing guys, even in this day and age, still don’t get it that natural colour is a big selling point for us whisky lovers.

Natural Colour Ex-Bourbon matured has a typical pale straw yellow colour.

The other reason that they may not say that this bottling is natural colour, (even though it is), is to reserve the right, without having to change the label, to start adding E150a in the future if they so choose in order to maintain a consistent colour from one bottling to the next (or to hide the fact that they are using poorer quality casks which will impart less colour!!!).
A possible example of this could be the Glenlivet Nadurra 16-Years-Old which I am sure started out life natural colour but after 3 years of bottling, seemed to take on a fake tan indicating very strongly to me the use of Caramel colouring despite calling the whisky “Nadurra”, meaning “natural” in Gaelic! (See my review of the Glenlivet Nadurra and colouring here…)

The latest Nadurra obviously has E150a in it!

….and indeed with this Lagavulin 8-Years-Old, it tells you at the back down the bottom that Caramel has been added. Interestingly, the Lagavulin 12–Years -Old does not state this anywhere which either means it does but was not meant for the European market or it actually does not contain colouring but they don’t bother telling you!

In my experience, even if the labelling doesn’t say that Caramel Colouring has been added you can almost always tell. For whisky matured (or majority matured) in American Ex-Bourbon casks, the fake E150a induced tans range from obvious bright almost fluorescent glow Tizer/Irn Bru orange to a subtler dark toffee wood brown which looks pleasing to the eye and indeed most people would associate with the colour of whisky but, nevertheless, is actually not the natural colour of Ex-Bourbon matured single malt.

E150 colouring.

If the whisky has been matured in sherry casks then the whisky looks pale red/brown to dark red/black and it’s almost impossible to tell if they have added E150a colouring. Likewise, it’s impossible to tell how much if any caramel colouring they have added to whiskies finished in heavily charred casks which will naturally infuse the spirit with a dark toffee brown tinge and adding E150a will only accentuate that colour.

Recognising an Ex-Bourbon single malt bottled at natural colour

Up until now however, I have always thought that recognising an Ex-Bourbon single malt bottled at natural colour, was easy as pie, as the American white oak soaked in Bourbon produces a whisky with colour ranging from a lovely pale yellow to a custardy, almost mustardy rich yellow colour. Classic examples are (as already mentioned), the Tomintoul 14, the whole Glencadam range except the cheap entry level expression, all Kilchoman expressions, the entire Bruichladdich range and as far as I know, all the BenRiach, Glendronach and Glenglassaugh ("ssoch") range.

Only Natural Colour here. States on the bottle!

Now I have been caught out recently when I was certain that a whisky contained Caramel colouring in the case of the Deanston 18-Year-Old, displaying a very suspicious orangy colour (see previous review) but nevertheless was assured by “those in the know”, that it did not!

I have though never ever been fooled however the other way! That is, by recognising a natural coloured single malt, especially one as blatantly obvious as this Lagavulin which shows a subtle pale yellow colour with not a hint of brown never mind caramel orange in in. I along with Ralfy from his Vlog, observing the colour would be absolutely certain that this Lagavulin 8-Year-Old was natural colour.

Nevertheless, there it is on the package. It states this whisky has Caramel colouring in it!!!!

Even though I could not find it on the box, almost all reviews state that the 12-Year-Old is Non-Chill-Filtered and many say that it is natural colour.

The lightest of the colourings is E150a which is a Plain Caramel Colour, usually corn based.

E150 B and C are used in toffees and sweets to give them that, well caramel toffee look! The most famous of all E150s is of course E150 D which is used in Coca Cola!

Putting these two whiskies side by side makes it very clear. If the 12-Year-Old is natural colour, then the 8-Year-Old must be as well because they are almost the same pale straw to Chardonnay wine yellow colour. There may be a slight difference even whereby the 8-Year-Old might be ever so marginally paler perhaps?


The pale straw/Chardonnay wine colour has come directly from the Oak as indeed should a natural colour matured whisky so we would expect them to be the same or similar colours.

The colour looks even paler than straw

Even the tiniest amounts of E150a would turn a natural Ex-Bourbon cask matured whisky a bright yellow vanilla fudge to yellowy-orange popsicle colour but certainly not (as far as I know) a pale Chardonnay wine or natural lemon juice water yellow!? Moreover, what would be the point of adding E150a in order to arrive at a pale yellow colour? If you are going to add colour, then surely make it look yellow-brown “whisky” colour and not like freshly squeezed lemon! It makes no sense to me.

See this article on whiskyscience.blogspot.co.il on Caramel colouring: Here.

Chill Filtering Test

There is a simple test for chill-filtration which is obviously to add water. If the whisky goes cloudy then you know it has not been chill-filtered. If it remains crystal clear, then you know that it has and also that around 25% of its natural oils and taste have been removed as a consequence. Well adding water to both whiskies proved enlightening. The 12-Year-Old immediately went cloudy and the 8-Year-Old remained crystal clear showing that the 12-Year-Old is unfiltered and the 8-Year-Old unfortunately is!

12-Year on left had gone misty. The 8-Year on right is still crystal clear

The 12-Year (Left) is cloudy. The 8-Year (Righ) is almost transparant.

Comparison of features:

The Lagavulin 8-Year-Old is bottled at 48% abv. Price NIS 479

It is certainly chill-filtered and (in my opinion) natural colour.

Again, no information on the packaging but from Googling around, it seems that both the 8 and 12-Year-Olds are peated to 35 to 40 PPM. (I suspect the 8-Year-Old is slightly more than the 12).

The Lagavulin 12-Year-Old Edition 2013 is bottled at Cask Strength 55.1% abv. Price NIS 599

It is (in my assessment) non-chill-filtered and natural colour.

As stated above, Peat levels are around 35 to 40 PPM.

My first encounter with this expression was the 2011 Edition [11th Edition] which I was given to try at the Lagavulin distillery on Islay. I was really impressed.

Reb Mordechai at Lagavulin distillery, Islay

Unfortunately, they did not have any of the old 2011 in stock but did have the new 2012 Edition [12th Release] which I bought there in the shop along with a Glencairn glass. I have to say that I was very disappointed finding it lacking in cask interaction and very bland compared to the 2011 Edition. However, I was given the 2013 Edition [13th Release] to try here in Israel and loved it so much I bought a bottle which is what we are reviewing here. I have also tried the 2014 Edition [14th Release] which I also really enjoyed. (I have as yet not tasted the 2015 [15th Release]).


Both expressions are very stylish without going over the top. They look wonderful sitting on the shelf. I also like the very similar designs of both whiskies giving the range consistency. Anyone who has ever seen a Lagavulin would instantly recognise these as from the same distillery. I just love the little "British Empire" style sticker that goes over the stopper, reminisant of King George V Postage stamps. Over the sticker there is a practical metal security seal covering it.

Quality of materials used is a different matter though. As mentioned above, the inside of the 12-Year-Old box has been reinforced with thick card but the 8-Year-Old is made from thin flimsy card which is frankly, not up to the job of protecting the bottle.

Smelling and Tasting Notes

12-Year-Old Smelling Notes

Straight from the bottle the 12-Year-Old kicks a huge alcohol burn on the nose. At Cask strength you would expect this but I’m also pleased to tell you that the 12-Year-Old can take a lot of water. I ended up adding 2-3 times the water (about 3 teaspoons) to that I added to the 8-Year-Old in order to attain a comparable smelling and tasting experience. I watched the 12-Year-Old go cloudy in the glass as the water merged with alcohol. Simply Beautiful! The 12-Year-Old at cask strength is quite closed but adding water is the smellimg equivalent of  watching a time delay film of a rose blossoming.

On the nose, after water, you are greeted with freshly crushed black pepper and sea-salt crystals but above all, loads and loads of rich sweet slightly salty barley smoke which is exactly the smell you get from the malting kiln at Bruichladdich. You can really smell the freshly peated malty barley grain in the nose like taking a handful of grist from the flour mill at the distillery before it enters the mash tun.

It really is a lovely rich clean aroma of fresh peated barley and it is amazing that this character remains perfectly intact and is so unmistakable even after the mash, the washback fermentation process, the distillation process and of course maturation in casks for 12 years. I really love whisky that exposes its raw materials. It leaves you with a satisfying feeling of honesty and authenticity when a whisky’s flavour character notes remain faithful to its raw ingredients.

I let the glass rest for a few minutes to settle down before smelling further. Taking the glass in my hand and lifting it up to the light you notice the thickness of the liquid and how, with a gently swirl, the legs in glass stick to the sides of the glass and remain there for ages. This is don’t forget even after diluting with water!

This is a very sedate and dignified dram as if it is whispering in your ear to stroll slowly through the smelling and tasting experience and not to chas veShalom, rush it.

Don’t misunderstand me, it is full of character and certainly not laid back and bland. Oh no. It simply commands respect. Putting the glass to your nose again you get freshly grated lemon peel, lemon grass and sweet creamy lemon curd.

All this in a coat of barley smoke of course like sticking your head in a saucepan of Cholent on Motzei Shabbos after the cholent has been on the hot blech the whole of Shabbos and the barley has congealed like porridge and settled at the bottom of the pan and is now slightly burnt. When cold will be able to peel it off the bottom like a thick round Iraqi pitta. Take the glass away and put it back after a few seconds as your nose acclimatises to all that smoke. Now there is slightly burnt vanilla digestive biscuits, perfect for dunking in  a mug of English tea. After a while you will forget the smoke and start to enjoy the nutty like sugared barley muesli with apple and wood spice.


Putting the Lagavulin 12 to your lips and taking it in your mouth you are struck by an amazing sweet oily texture. It coats the mouth and tongue in this oily sweet and salty peatiness.
It simply has one of the most involved full-mouth feelings of any whisky I know. There are flavours of grilled on an open fire - buttery thick portions of “melt-in-the-mouth” smoked haddock with a squeeze of lemon juice, seaweed, a dribble of white honey and black pepper. These flavour notes of butter, barley sweetness, but also something bitter like lemon pith rind, and cooked lemon juice sourness (and of course, let’s not forget the smoke). There is a slight creamy white honey and dried spices flavour coming through but it’s in the background. All these flavours remain glued to the mouth long after you swallow. The finish is long and lingering to the point of permanency until you drink something else like a glass of Diet Coca Cola and even then there are still remnants on the insides of your mouth.

Lagavulin-12 Tasting Notes

Patience brings its reward. Delicious and satisfying with an aftertaste that any korban Pesach would envy on Leil HaSeder, as this taste will certainly remain in your mouth until morning!

I drank a couple of glasses of Diet Coca Cola in order to refresh and reset my pallette.

Lagavulin's lovely oily texture. (Diet Coca Cola in background)

Lagavulin 8-Year-Old

Nosing Notes

Although these two whiskies share the same colour, the 8-Year-Old is far less viscous than the 12-Year-Old as a slow swirl in the glass shows. The liquid legs are more like runny tears as they quickly fall down the inside of the glass. The 8-Year-Old is obviously not as oily. As can be seen in the photo below. Even after addding water, the 8-Year-Old remains crystal clear.

There is no alcohol pinch on the nose with the 8, even at 48% abv straight from the bottle. Putting your nose in the glass is like walking through the kitchen of an “Al Ha Esh” grill restaurant with grilled food smoke and black pepper everywhere. This smoke though is less defined than the 12-Year-Old. It’s more like a combination of smoky sweet cakes rather than peaty grain barley but this smoke is even more overwhelming than even the 12-Year-Old at first smell.

Adding a teaspoon of water opens it up. Putting my nose back to the glass and that pepper is sweet and soft with sherbety lemon and pineapple sorbet ice cream. The smoke is ever-present but sweet, yeasty and sour. I know exactly what this smells like. It’s Friday morning and my dear wife is preparing the dough for baking Challa. She has just said the bracha for “Hafrashas Challa” and rapped the piece of dough in some silver foil and it is now burning and making smoke on the open flame. The aroma of smoky fresh slightly sour yeasty honey dough fills the home.

Now with water the smoke is much more sweet and coastal. Think of a mixed grill cooking by the beach with chicken and chunks of pineapple and lemon slices. There is a real sense of a fresh coastal bonfire with salty wood and sweet tropical fruit juice, fresh fruit cakes and sour seaweed.  The black pepper is very prominent but its sweet black pepper corns rather than the freshly ground hot “charif”  pepper of the 12-year-old.

Tasting Notes

It’s a refreshing Lemon, pineapple and barley zesty tangy drink. It is like sherbet in the mouth which excite the taste buds. You are drinking this by the smoky beach bonfire. Tons of sweet coastal smoke everywhere. Underneath the tropical fruit is yeasty pastry tarts and smooth vanilla ice-cream with white honey mixed in. After a while you notice that there is a touch of dry spices and mixed cake spice in those tarts as well.
Lagavulin 8 Tasting Notes

In no way would I say this was raw under matured whisky. It is well rounded and well-mannered with no rough edges. An impressive thing to do for an 8-Year-Old and due to the peatiness giving the whisky a fuller body despite its young age! The finish is shorter with respect to all these fruity flavours but the smoke remains and like the 12-Year-Old, sticks to the teeth. The 8-Year-Old’s finish may be shorter but it is more refreshing like a long tropical drink.

Comparisons must be made

The 12 is much thicker and oily than the 8. Legs stick to the side where as with the 8, they drop down immediately. The 12 has a more satisfying mouth feel. My criticism of the 12 though is the dominant lemony flavours with little other noticeable variety of fruity tastes. The 8 on the other hand has heaps of tropical fruits. The fruitiness is more alive tingling the tongue. The 8 lacks some grainy depth which the 12 has in abundance.

The 8 is far more approachable and less fussy. It requires far less patients to enjoy it and can be appreciated by a wider audience. If you do have the patience then the 12 is more complex and rewarding but I suspect for the majority of whisky drinkers, they will prefer the 8 over the 12!
Both are delicious, so similar in some respects and so different at the same time. It’s like comparing two brothers about 4 years apart. It is obvious they come from the same family but they have their own individual characters, plusses and flaws.

Which do I prefer?

It really depends what mood I’m in and how much time I have. I’m so glad I have both of these charming characterful whiskies in my collection and they do look very elegant sitting together on my shelf...