Lagavulin 12 Year Old, A full comparison of the 2011 to 2017 Releases

Lagavulin 12 Year Old,  A full comparison of the 2011 to 2017 Releases.

The Lagavulin 12 Special Bottling, Limited Release, represents the finest that the distillery can produce. It is indeed rare that Diageo allow one of their distilleries to release a purist expression of their whisky on a yearly basis and not restrict it to a distillery only bottling.
The Lagavulin 12 is available from specialist whisky shops worldwide. Many distilleries print the words “Limited Edition” on their label but, because the SWA has no rules regarding this term, it’s use is frequently abused within the industry with “Limited Editions” stretching into the tens of thousands of bottles. This Lagavulin however is a true Limited Edition, restricted to a few thousand bottles every year.
I have owned the 12th (2012), 13th (2013), 14th (2014), 15th (2015) and 17th (2017) releases, but have tasted the 11th (2011) and 16th (2016) editions as well, so I think I have a pretty good idea of the general flavour profile of this expression.
Lagavulin at its purist
Every yearly release has been bottled at cask strength and all matured in 100% Ex-Bourbon American Oak casks. This makes them perfect for Orthodox Jews who are serious about their single malt whisky.
Although Diageo do not mention this on the label, (another awful marketing blunder), it is pretty well agreed upon that they are natural colour and (by observing cloudiness, after adding water), non-chill filtered.
Packaging
What I like:


Unlike Kilchoman 100% Islay editions where they missed a golden opportunity to encourage people to collect the different editions which are a sheer delight to compare, because they packaged them in near identical boxes and bottle labels, Lagavulin have done a grand job of, on one hand, showing consistency of artwork throughout the entire range, whilst clearly showing the vintage of each one, thus encouraging people to collect, contrast and compare each edition.
What I don’t like:

Aaaaaaaagh! Why on earth have they removed the classic Victorian Postage Stamp like paper strip seal/stamp of a red lion that goes around the Lagavulin bottle’s cork? Have they gone meshuge?



This is one of the key signatures of Lagavulin. It’s iconic! Why get rid of it? In my opinion, this was a huge a marketing blunder. Doing a Google Image search, I see that they have removed it from their latest editions of the 16 Year-Olds as well. What was the logic here? Was it cost cutting, like the ultra-thin box of the original Lagavulin 8-Year-Old where you have to fortify the bottom to avoid the bottle falling out?




Incidentally, standing the Caol Ila 12 next to the Lagavulin 12 bottle, the artwork looks remarkably similar, no doubt the product of the same person/team.


Year and Release Number:
When searching online for the different editions, it’s useful to know that many stores list them, not by their year but by their release number. The first Lagavulin 12 Special Limited edition release came out in 2001 which makes it really easy to calculate the year of that release. Example. The 2018 edition, which I have yet to try, is obviously the 18th release!
Lagavulin 12 General Flavour Profile

All editions have in greater of lesser quantities, the following flavour notes:
Colour is more or less constant throughout the range which can be described as a light straw colour. The viscosity is good showing long oily tears, a sign of non chill-filtering. Comparing the Lagavulin 12 to its sister Diageo owned Islay distillery's Coal Ila 12, the Lagavulin is lighter, yet has more of an oily mouth fill.

On the Nose

Putting the glass to your nose (after having added a teaspoon of water), the first thing you are aware of is that archetypal fruity sweet coastal haddock like charcoal peat smoke, unmistakably Lagavulin. The Lagavulin peat experience is very different to the medicinal earthy peat of Laphroaig, or the dry seaweed peat of Ardbeg. The difference in characters is quite remarkable considering that these three distilleries are located a stone’s throw away from each other along the same strip of the Kildalton coastline.
The fruitiness of the Lagavulin 12 is like sniffing an elegant Gertzweiner white wine. Light to medium, crisp, tangy, clean with white fruity Pears, apples, lychees and green melon notes.
White Vanilla plays an important part of the profile, no doubt due to the Ex-Bourbon casks they use to mature this whisky. Some releases are more vanilla pudding like, others more melted ice cream. Some editions remind me of sweet butter vanilla biscuits, melt in the mouth Shortbread biscuits, others show a dry vanilla essence.
Tasting:

Vanilla, white fruitiness, luscious white wine with burnt, salty twigs, coastal camp fires, wood spice, Allspice and Cinnamon flavours, all be it in different amounts. There is sweet ash. The kind of ash that remains at the bottom of a “mangel” BBQ grill the morning after.
So how do the different releases differ?
These comments are based on some brief notes I jotted down in my smart phone over the years whilst tasting the various editions. It can be a pain but well worth making the effort. My whisky tasting notes have proved immensely useful over the years and I highly recommend doing it. Just jotting down some very brief comments whilst at a distillery or at a tasting evening, is sometimes all you need to prompt your memory about a particular whisky. Some use little notebooks. Others custom Android/Apple applications for building up a database of whisky tastings. I am currently using Google Keep. By adding labels to the Keep notes like distillery name and including a photo or two of the bottle, I am able to recall memories of whiskies experienced years ago. It also means I have access to these notes, wherever I am and whatever device I am using.

The 2011 edition, 11th Release. 57.5% abv
I spent a very enjoyable hour sampling a most generous glass of the 2011 in the tasting room at Lagavulin back in 2015. With water added, soft sweet coastal peat smoke, vanilla pudding, shortcake biscuits. Fruity white wine, vanilla cream and mixed spices and cinnamon on the finish.
It could well be just nostalgia added to the fact that I was sitting in the lounge tasting room of the distillery when I sampled this, but remember this as one of the finest single malts I have ever drank.
The 2012 edition, 12th Release. 56.1% abv
So impressed was I with the Lagavulin 12 2011 sample that I wanted to buy a bottle then and there. Unfortunately, they had run out of all the 2011 but had the 2012 in stock, so I bought that. I was bitterly disappointed with this release. I say bitterly because the whisky is actually slightly bitter, lacking the fruitiness and vanilla sweetness of the 2011 which is what I enjoyed so much. The peat experience of the 2012 is dry and very ashy like the remains of a coastal bonfire, rather than a coastal barbeque. There is lemon there but its bitter dried lemon, lemon grass spice. Crushed vanilla pods, mixed spices on the finish. The 12th release was, in my opinion, a bit of a dud and not recommended.
The 2013 edition, 13th Release. 55.1% abv
See my full review of the 13th Release here:
I bought this bottle here in Israel.
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 oily legs in glass stick to the sides of the glass and remain there for ages.
Nosing
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. 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. There are white fruity notes like green grapes and cantaloupe melon in white honey but all wrapped up in thick coat of sweet slightly burnt “Cholent” barley smoke.
Tasting
Buttery thick portions of “melt-in-the-mouth” sweet smoked haddock on a barbeque with pineapple and a generous 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. 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 (or cup of strong coffee) and even then there are still remnants of peat on the insides of your mouth. An amazingly long finish.
 
The 2014 edition, 14th Release. 54.4% abv
My notes are taken from a sample at Lagavulin distillery when I was there in 2015. I ended up buying the 2012 release but in hindsight should have bought this edition.
Nosing
Very similar flavour picture to the 2013 but this 2014 is slightly fruitier than the 2013 with tangier citrus. Green grapes, lemon sorbet, glazed lemon grind, red apples, fresh lychees. Really yummy this. So enjoyable. Perhaps a touch less peat and smoke with more sea salt and smoky haddock and wood spices? Freshly grated lemon peel and sea salt, lemon grass and sweet creamy lemon curd barley biscuits. Slightly burnt barley smoke. Sweet, burnt in the oven, vanilla digestive biscuits with lemon icing.
Tasting
Adding a few drops of water, you get some lovely candied nutty like honeyed barley muesli bars with apple, vanilla ice cream and wood spice on the long finish. The 2013 is delicious but the 2014 is ever so slightly nicer. The finish is sweet ash like the bottom of a barbeque.
 
The 2015 edition, 15th Release. 56.8% abv
I bought my first bottle here in Israel in Tel Aviv back in 2017. Recently I saw this on special offer so I bought another two bottles.

On the Nose
First impressions are a lovely pungent malty biscuit sweet peat. Fresh coastal salty sea breeze with barbeque smoke. Haddock with light sour sauce and fresh chunks of lemons on the grill. Luscious white fruits, white wine. A touch of mild white pepper.
Mouth Fill.
This is lightly oily like barbequed lemon and olive oil. Lemon sherbet on the tongue, pineapple and lemon rind marmalade with sea salt. Apple crumble, soft raisins and wet buttery pastry. The dust from barbeque Charcoal Briquettes soaked in white wine and lemon marinade make for a delicious and long long finish. The longest finish of any of the other releases.
 
The 2016 edition, 16th Release. 57.7% abv
This is 200th Anniversary Edition, released at the same time as the first 8 Year-Old, which I reviewed here:
I had one small sample of this so my notes are short. I can tell you that the 2016 is lighter than the 2015 and slightly less fruity with more bitter lemon pith flavours in the background. Lemon aroma are more freshly squeezed rather than cooked or grilled which adds to a slight sparkling white wine effect on the finish. Slightly less vanilla flavour and more mildly milky fudgy notes perhaps? I have not had the opportunity to compare this to another Lagavulin 12 so this remains simply conjecture.
 
The 2017 edition, 17th Release. 56.5% abv
Nosing

These notes are from a direct comparison with the 2015 Release.
Immediately noticeable is that the 2017 is less ashy and is sugar sweeter than the 2015. The 2017 is more floral, less fruity but some would say, shows a certain measured, reserved elegance.
Adding a bit more water, there is less barley malt grain biscuit aromas with the 2017 but has a very dominant floral note which is something new in the 2017 and really sets it apart from the other releases. I’d describe it as a perfume garden aroma which, if it does exist in previous editions, is very much in the background. Further smelling brings a slightly more chemical floral aroma like air freshener, but still very pleasant.
Those garden flower aromas are mixed with raw vanilla pods. White fruits and caster sugar, sweet vanilla cream pudding made from custard powder. There are less citrus and more mixed spices from the cask. The peat aromas are in abundance but seem softer compared to the 2015. The 2015 is definitely more pungent and earthy and there’s more smoke. Please note that there is not any peatiness or smoke lacking in the 2017! This is still well and truly a peat monster! These variances are all very subtle.
Tasting
The 2015 has a bigger mouth feel and gives you more of spicy earthy burnt porridge and pastry with a pungent peat flavour punch in the face. The 2017 is still substantial but somehow, a bit more refined. Gentle fruitiness like a can of lemon and barley travel sweets in a bed of powdered sugar.


The finish is sweet vanilla packet custard powder and a sprinkling of cinnamon, sweet mince meat mixed spices, apple strudel, sweet cake with honey and mixed spices are more in the foreground.
 

Conclusions
Before pronouncing which is the best release, I feel I must make a general comment about this Lagavulin 12, and just hope that, after making it, the whisky community doesn’t put me in cherem.
In two previous tasting session where I gave a presentation of heavily peated Islay style whiskies, in a direct comparison with the Caol Ila 12, the Benromach Peat Smoke 2009 (I know it’s Speyside but it does have a coastal peatiness), and the Laphroaig 18, the Lagavulin 12 did not fare well in a popularity contest.
To the average drinker, compared to other peat monsters, the Lagavulin 12 does come across as quite a bit drier and has a slightly bitter roasted lemon flavour about it which, in my experience, seems to put many off.
This is just my personal opinion so to all you Lag fans out there, please don’t send me hate mail. The Lagavulin 8-Year-Old has a similar flavour profile the 12, both having been matured exclusively in Ex-Bourbon casks, but is much sweeter and hence, more appealing. I have not heard any reviewer making this point but this is my experience. Most, even peat drinkers at my tasting sessions, expressed the opinion that they were not too keen on this Lag 12. I must say again though, that I really enjoy Lag 12 and have no such reservations about its pedigree. However, I simply can’t ignore the opinions of others who were at the table and of my two sons at the Shabbos table last Friday night.
Does the Lagavulin 12 [2017 release] deserve the title of the best whisky of 2017?
Well, from watching certain YouTube whisky channels, you might well believe this.
The Lagavulin 12, is in my opinion, a whisky for experienced drinkers only and certainly not for the newbies or casual single malt drinkers. It demands a lot of patience and careful use of water to get the maximum from it.  It is not immediately obvious that this is a something worth paying £100 plus for.
For a general profile of dryness, the 2017 release is sweeter and more floral than previous release so I can certainly see why this edition might appeal more to the American Bourbon fans.
So, I would rank these releases in the following order.
First place, the 2011 Release,
Second place, the 2015 release,
Third place, the 2016 release,
Fourth place, the 2017 release
Fifth place, the 2014 release.
Bearing in mind that the legendary classic 2011 and possibly the 2014 are now very difficult to find outside the high end specialist whisky shops, that makes the 2015 my personal favourite. If you want something a bit lighter, then go for the 2016 and if you want something a bit sweeter then go for the 2017.
Having said all this, differences are subtle. I have already written about the Kilchoman 100% Islay 4th/5th/6th/7th editions which, in a blind tasting test, I can tell the difference between each release like night and day, just by simply smelling them.
I honestly don't think I'd be able to tell the difference between each of the yearly releases of the Lagavulin 12s in a blind tasting session.

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