Saturday, December 3, 2016

Scotland: Mapping The Islands with Lagavulin 16 year old

It's hard to overstate how fascinating I found 'Scotland: Mapping the Islands'. It helped that I opened it with, if not low expectations, then definitely well managed ones. I expected it to be interesting, but not to feel like a child presented with a genuine treasure map - which I did. D continues to try and appropriate it, and as it's very definatley his area of interest I suppose I should gracefully give in, but it's a real inner struggle to do it. (Not that it really makes much difference if it's his book or mine, but still...)

The obvious drink to go with this book is whisky, and obviously it should be an island whisky. There are some great ones to choose from which cover a range of styles but I'm opting for Lagavulin 16 year old in all its peaty splendour.

When I started out in the wine trade whisky, specifically single malt whisky, was very much the spirit of the moment and I fell in love with it. It was the late 1990's and the ideal time to discover it. Single malt as a category was effectively invented by Glenfiddich in the '70's, before then it had been a really niche market with blends still pre-eminent. When I got started interesting whisky's were easy to find at what felt like reasonable prices (God bless those pre mortgage days) and there was plenty of interesting stuff to be found (a more sensible woman would be sitting on a decent collection now).

These days the market feels distinctly over heated, the distillery bottlings have doubled in price over the last decade, and special editions, which often come in huge runs, routinely have 3 figure price tags. It takes a lot of the fun out of it if what you buy feels to expensive to drink.

Meanwhile the traditional bottlings with an age statement on them are increasingly being replaced by those without (no age statement or nas's). The marketing line is that it frees the master distiller to do more interesting things and whilst this may be true, it also means you can sell much younger whisky and get a quicker return on the sizeable investment involved.

Lagavulin 16 year old currently retails at around £50 which is the upper end of my budget but I really love a peaty malt so once in a while I'll get a bottle. When I was learning my way round whisky they were defined geographically (highland, island, speyside, lowland, Campbeltown) which wasn't actually very helpful as island and highland can mean all sorts of things, Campbeltown only has 2 working distilleries left, and there aren't actually that many lowland malts around either.

Currently it seems more popular to use a flavour map of some sort and categorise by style, which makes more sense, but debates with customers suggest that those classifications can be just as problematic and open to interpretation as the previous system.

Which ever way you look at it though Lagavulin, from the southern end of Islay, is peaty. It's a challenging aroma and flavour for some (think of tcp, smoke, and maybe a touch of seaweed). Peat smoke is part of the smell of a Shetland childhood so I was always predisposed to like it, it's also another reason I think the whisky goes so well with this book.

If it's a style of malt you're unfamiliar with I suggest finding a bar that sells it, or a miniature to try, before committing to a full bottle. Underneath that peat smoke there's a rich, malty, sweetness that chases out the cold of a winters day. The whole package is essentially the Scottish islands (in all their rugged glory) in a bottle.

1 comment:

  1. There are discussions on the internet as to whether one can be nostalgic for a place one has never seen.
    There is a German word for this state of mind.
    Nostalgia for real places is just as piercing an emotion.
    Lagavulin makes me want to be in Islay.
    Indeed any single malt makes me long for the road to the Isles and for the pibroch.
    I first heard a recording of the pibroch in a house in Bridge of Allan or the Brig o'Allan as my father called it.
    The Bridge of Allan man belonged to the Sanderson sherry family.
    He told me this music had no obvious form or melody. And as we listened he poured me a heroic measure of the Lagavulin.
    I was no more prepared for the pibroch than I was for the whisky.
    And that was in 1975 or '76.
    My father thought Lagavulin had a wonderful astringency, quite different from the Macallan.
    Desperate Readers visiting Glasgow will enjoy a Lagavulin in the Babbity Bowster in 16-18 Blackfriars Street.
    You can have it with a bowl of cullen skink. Aye, even on the Sabbath.
    You are not too far from the Provand's Lordship Museum (Glasgow's oldest house) and our medieval cathedral.
    When I sit in the Babbity I have a sudden longing to be in Islay.
    John Buchan said Glasgow was a Highland city on the edge of the Lowlands.
    But he was talking about the 1920s when the city had a very visible Highland presence.
    James Kennaway said the pibroch was something he felt physically.
    So too the Lagavulin.
    As you say, peat smoke and seaweed.
    I might also add the pibroch's lament.
    J Haggerty