We’re standing amongst the ruins of Finlaggan Castle, once the much exulted Council of The Isles, on the Island of Islay off of Scotland’s West Coast. This was the seat of power for the rulers of this area for centuries. Despite having had overlords from, variously, Ireland, Scandinavia and Britain, these kings managed to maintain independence from their surrounding kingdoms for generations.
The castle sits upon Eilean Mor, an island on Loch Finlaggan, situated in the middle of Islay. The castle would have played host to lords from the many Hebridean Islands that reside along thisWest Coast – a stunning, rugged and at times uniquely inaccessible tract of land (even now some parts can be isolated for weeks due to bad weather). To sum up, the rulers of the area, in around about the fourteenth century, chose an island, on a lake, on an island, in difficult waters amongst tough territory as a place to hold their meetings. Clearly these lads were a force to be reckoned with.
It’s a fairly bleak day, as befits the rugged scenery. This is day seven of a pretty ferocious boozey trip across the UK – starting in Leeds, then York, Edinburgh for the festival, a few days in Inveraray, Argyll and now here we stand on Islay. Having got off the ferry at Port Askaig and made it approximately 100 metres to the nearest pub (the charming Port Askaig Hotel), we steadied ourselves with a few pints and now are continuing on towards Lagavulin Distillery. My body hates me, and as much as I’m looking forward to a few distilleries and drinking some whisky, my liver is audibly shrieking at the thought.
The island of Islay is a genuinely beautiful and haunting place. Lacking some of the inexorably dramatic aspects of its neighbours, it can still transport you to a time long forgotten. It has such a rich history of strength, valour and tradition. A mixture of Gaelic and Nordic roots, influences from various different languages and a constant need to strive in order to prosper and survive, lead one to believe this to be a place of a mighty, unique and wonderfully exceptional spirit (see what I did there?). Also, the Viking roots lead to a fair amount of blonde-hair-blue-eyedness amongst the local females, which helps.
As we reach the beautiful Lagavulin Distillery, nestled on the sweeping waters of Lagavulin bay, the once full cans of lager are now strewn empty in the footwells of our Fiat 500 (I know – rock and f*cking roll right?) and we’re in fairly desperate need of a dram. The tour is taken by an exceptionally knowledgeable local woman and finishes on a pier at the back of the distillery, with an amazing view around the bay. Now is that magic time where we get to sample some whisky, and there are three expressions on offer; Lagavulin 16, Lagavulin 12 Cask Strength and Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition. I go for an old favourite, the sixteen year old.
The Lagavulin 16 was the dram that opened up Islay for me. For a long time when I started drinking single malts I found that I couldn’t quite see past the peat and smoke of an Islay – that I could find much more depth and refinement in a delicate Speyside. But how very wrong I was. The Lagavulin 16 is still for me the definitive Islay – of all the distilleries on the island, to me it’s the best of the entry level core-range releases. It has such balance, such poise, that it never lets its peat dominate the senses, instead mediating the Islay party piece with a cornucopia of other influences.
Starting with the colour, it has a beautiful amber hue, not as insipid and pale as some of its neighbours (this is, admittedly, helped along by our old friend mister E. One Fifty). The nose has, as you would expect, huge smokey notes. This is tempered nicely by hints of salt, leather and oak. This is the first indication you get that you are dealing with a truly classic Islay malt; you can feel the soft sodden ground underfoot, the touch of that sea breeze across your face.
A big, robust, oily mouthfeel gives you peat in spades but without the acerbic fringes you were expecting. Other flavours calmly start giving you a wave, asking to be noticed – sweet smoke, aniseed, a light pepperiness and just a touch of sherry. At this point I find myself back on Islay, walking through the rolling hills. The smell of the peat bogs, the sting of the salt air in the nostrils, the sound of a fiddle playing in the Port Charlotte Hotel, the beautiful blonde girls of Nordic descent behind every bar, the welcoming people, the immense haunting beauty of the … My apologies, I digress.
This is, to me, a dram that sums up Islay in a most perfect manner, both as a place and a class of whisky. It has the presence of those early kings as well as an obvious functionality that would have been born of a place like Islay, especially half a millennium ago. This is a whisky that, when faced with the dangerous trek to Finlaggan Castle would simply hunker down and make sure it did the Lords of the Isles proud. Is this the best Islay whisky you’ll ever drink? No. Is it the best value for money? Again, probably not. But it is tasty, reliable, and has likely one of the best ratios as far as money spent to years aged.
Featured Image: Loch Finlaggan – Historic Seat of The Lord of The Isles