Many you will have seen the ‘Syndicate’ bottlings of Lagavulin that have been floating about over the past year or so. These are bottlings that came from stock laid down in 1979 and 1990 by James MacTaggart of Islay. They were bottled for him and his chums to have some serious private glugging whisky and, eventually, many made their way onto the open market via the Bruichladdich distillery visitor center through which they were sold. Now you can find them through specialist retailers and auction sites for ever increasing quantities of money. Today we’ll try four of them and see if they’re any good.
Lagavulin 14yo 1990. ‘Syndicate’. 46%. 70cl.
Nose: It’s a pleasant and pristine modern Islay profile, all on wet rocks, mineral, glycerol green peat, ashes, brine, sea air and touches of coal tar soap. Actually this one really reminds me more of a Caol Ila than a Lagavulin. That super clean, coastal, lemony and ashy profile is very in keeping with Caol Ilas of a similar age. Goes on with notes of wet grains, parma ham, salted peanuts and touches of seaweed. Very pleasant and super clean but, dare I say it, maybe just a little too boring.
Palate: It’s almost identical to the palate, like an ashtray full of lemon juice and pebbles. Some hints of antiseptic, mouthwash and eucalyptus with more of these typical coastal qualities like raw oysters, brine, sea water and bonfire smoke. It also becomes quite tarry with notes of creosote, kind of like licking a kreel net. A good, basic modern Islay whisky but it doesn’t seem to be doing anything particularly spectacular or noteworthy.
Finish: Long, drying and salty with a big fragrant smokiness.
Comments: Technically its pretty flawless but its just not very inspiring that’s the trouble. Oh well. Lets see if another six years of maturation will make a difference…
Lagavulin 20yo 1990. Syndicate. 48.1%. 70cl.
Nose: Much better, the peat is more defined, like chiseled leather (whatever that means) with a fatter, oilier quality to it. Still not very ‘Lagavulinesque’ but it certainly has a fair whack of character to it. Notes of smoked tea, minerals, hints of sea shore, wild flowers, mustard seed and something quite minty and herbal, like a throat sweet liqueur. With time notes of paprika, chili infused dark chocolate and turkish delight all start to emerge. This minty/coastal quality still persists very beautifully. With water it seems to revert back to a very similar profile to the 14yo, all on lemons, ashes and salt.
Palate: Oh dear, that’s a bit odd. Quite an astringent and vinous delivery at first, almost like its been is some really odd red wine cask. Notes of green wood, ground pepper, tar, goats cheese, smoked paprika, turmeric and touches of cardboard. This is really weird. Maybe some water is needed… nope. Water makes it cheesier, dryer and stranger with notes of boiled ham, sour mead and cod liver oil. This is so strange and becoming increasingly unpleasant.
Finsih: Quite long and actually improving, becoming greener again and cleaner with a nice oily peat and citrus quality.
Comments: This is a barmy whisky. Such a shame about the palate because the nose was initially very beautiful. I just can get over the odd texture and astringency of the palate, not to mention that weird cheesy note. Oh well… just goes to show that even giants of consistency like Lagavulin can’t be great every time.
The next couple should fair better (lets hope so)
Lagavulin 15yo 1979. Synidicate. 58.2%. 70cl.
Nose: Now we’re a world apart. A blistering white hot desert of peat, ground pepper, cider vinegar, antiseptic, coal dust, lime zest and then lashings of pink grapefruit, gooseberries and finally touches of lychee and white chocolate. While the 1990s were both more akin to Caol Ila, this reminds me of some early 1970s high strength Port Ellens by G&M. It’s still quite approachable and alluring at full strength though with some spectacular notes of fresh mint toothpaste, frying bacon, clove rock and lemon oil. With water: now it just seems to become spectacularly farmy, oily and slightly industrial with notes of petrol, motor oil and WD40. It also becomes much more organic and herbal with notes of sorrel, fresh rosemary and aniseed liqueur. A truly compelling nose.
Palate: The farmyard and seashore battle it out immediately but the strength in no way overpowers anything. This is really reminiscent of the 30yo version I tasted on Islay back in May except being half the age it is double the intensity. Huge notes of smoked and green teas with preserved lemons, wax, salt, honeycomb, green fruits, more salivating grapefruit acidity and white pepper. Brilliant, slightly old style Islay peat water. Speaking of water… spectacular again, liquid smoke, mint choc chip ice cream, freshly baled hay, dried cereals, pear liqueur, old riesling and something like Castrol GTX motor oil (yes that specific brand, they’re all different you know!)
Finish: Super long, pristine, coastal and decked in minerals and lemon juice. Fat, oily and wonderful.
Comments: What a difference 11 years can make in terms of distillery character. This reminds me of the best, Diageo produced 1970s peated Islay malts, the greatest Caol Ilas, Port Ellens and Lagavulins all share something of this blistering white peat character. Glorious whisky.
Lets see if 59.2% can match it…
Lagavulin 15yo 1979. Syndicate. 59.2%. 70cl.
Colour: Straw (identical to the one above really)
Nose: This one is a little softer and maybe a bit more ‘classical’ but it certainly from the same family as the 58.2 with these plush notes of grapefruit, cider and gooseberries. All kinds of sharp and sour fruit notes with a hyper clean coastal edge and bags of chocolate limes, dried herbs, smoky bacon and background hints of fish and chips. These touches of white chocolate appear again but they are quickly overtaken by these big fishy notes of peppered and smoked mackerel, various fresh shellfish and minerals. It’s almost like a sea salt liqueur. With water: whereas the other one turned into some kind of psychotic farmyard with water this one seems content to explode with mint, smoked sausage, green peppercorns in brine and some wonderfully fatty notes of cured meat and frying bacon.
Palate: A big pile of white pepper, green peats, minerals, menthol chewing gum, ashtrays, antiseptic, herbal toothpaste, mouthwash and salt. Again, this is more typical than the 58.2 version but it is almost flawlessly constructed with bags of big personality to offer. Goes on with notes of bay leaves, a soft spiciness, camphor and treacle. With water: still a bulldozer with this massive arid saltiness and fug of sinewy phenols and green peat but otherwise it is quite straight forward and not quite as complex or beguiling as the 58.2 version.
Finish: My tongue feels like its coated in tar and salt so I’ll just write: long!
Comments: I prefer the 58.2% version but not by much, this is still a fantastic old Islay whisky. If you get the chance both these olf 15yo bottlings are well worth trying in my book.