Lagavulin is one of the most beloved whiskies in the world. As with many brands, there isn’t just one bottle or expression to love; this company has been putting out a core range and yearly special releases for a long time. That means there are a lot of bottles collecting dust in vaults that most of us will never see, much less taste. That said, right now you can buy several of Lagavulin’s limited releases from the last year before they disappear into those vaults (and before the next group of limited editions drops throughout 2022).
Today, I’m ranking the current lineup of Lagavulin. That includes the core bottles, plus any special releases that are still available. Whether those bottles are available at a specialty liquor store or the distillery gift shop really isn’t considered here. This is about what’s out there right now to buy, taste, or maybe save for a rainy day (though I did skip some of the much older releases for brevity’s sake — otherwise this list could be dozens of whiskies long).
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to taste through the entire Lagavulin line recently on a trip to the distillery, and what makes this whisky so special is the way it both exemplifies an entire regional style (Islay), and does so in an accessible way. These aren’t the peat monsters you may have heard of. These whiskies are more about subtle fermentation, distillation, and aging that highlights nuance over bombast.
The malts for this whiskey are made at the Port Ellen malting house not far from the distillery. While the Lagavulin malts coming out of that mill tend to be on the smokier side, the process of slow fermentation, double distilling, and then mellowing in very old and reused bourbon and sherry casks (amongst others) adds genuine subtly to this otherwise “big” whisky.
Few whiskies in the world spend over a decade in an ex-bourbon barrel and barely pick up any color (Lagavulin can be very lightly hued). That means, generally speaking, that more of the distillate from those smoky malts are shining through than the wood (though not in every case). Add in special finishings in barrels from everywhere from Japan to Mexico to Italy and you’ll find that there are a lot of exciting things going on at Lagavulin — a brand that is both embracing traditions and pushing the envelope.
Let’s dive in!
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9. Lagavulin 11-Year Old Offerman Edition Finished in Guinness Casks
Average Price: $90
This release from 2021 is the second Nick Offerman collaboration with Lagavulin. This is an eleven-year-old single malt that’s then finished in Guinness stout casks for a four-month final maturation. That whisky is then cut down to 92 proof with Lagavulin’s own Islay spring water.
The briny, peated malts come through on the nose with hints of black coffee beans, slightly waxy cacao nibs, and a hint of creamy mint-chocolate ice cream. The palate is one part beach campfire from a mile down the beach and one part Milk Duds and drip coffee with hints of vanilla and pine resin lurking in the background. The finish leans into the dark cacao with a smoky edge (smoked dark chocolate?) while the wood stays dry and resinous and the briny peat gently supports the bitter yet creamy mocha espresso and mild malts.
This was the hardest Lagavulin to place. It’s really tasty but doesn’t exactly feel like a Lagavulin. It’d make a great curveball in a blind tasting, and tasted blind I probably would’ve been fooled myself. That being said, the uniqueness of this dram — thanks to that Guinness barrel — is what makes it so damn drinkable. I don’t know. We have to start somewhere in this ranking so here we are.
8. Lagavulin 8
Average Price: $66
This expression was originally released to celebrate the distillery’s 200th anniversary. The whisky was created to mimic the juice that was being bottled back in the 1880s, during a high point in Lagavulin’s history. The whisky became a modern hit and is now part of their core line.
The nose is full of honey-orange, dry and earthy malts, and a nod to chocolate-covered cherries with the slightest hint of fried cod wrapped in newspaper. The taste brings a solid billow of campfire smoke with traces of dark chocolate, burning cinnamon sticks, dry mint, and burnt potato skins (yes, really). The end is long-ish and marries the tastes together, leaving you with the memory of drinking a dark mint-chocolate spiked espresso next to a smoldering backyard fire on a cold autumn night, while somewhere in the distance, the sea laps at the shore. The very end has a whisper of new Band-Aids still in the box.
This is just a stone-cold classic. It’s simple but deep. In fact, I’d argue this is the quintessential Islay malt that everyone needs to try at least once. All those citrus, spice, and dark chocolate is hard not to love, especially over some rocks after a long day of work.
7. Lagavulin 12 The Lion’s Fire
Average Price: $200
This is the younger of two special releases from Diageo last year. The whisky is built from juice aged in refill bourbon casks, meaning that the casks had already aged bourbon and then aged single malts at least once before this whisky was filled into them and left for 12 years. That whisky was then vatted and bottled at cask strength.
This opens with notes of air-dried sea salt mingling with nori wetted with sushi rice and a clear sense of green tea with a hint of dried florals that lead toward dry cacao powder, salted lemon peels, and a very distant line of sea-spray laced campfire smoke with wet sand lurking underneath. The palate takes that sea salt, nori, and lemon and tosses them together for a sharp yet dry and briny mouthfeel that leads back to now-sweetened tea with a hint of waxy saltwater taffy. The mid-palate rushes towards a big billow of dry driftwood smoke that’s emboldened by a handful of smoked and dried ancho chilis.
We’re already into “Wow” territory with this bottle. There’s so much going on that all just works. You do really need to add some water to let this one bloom. Once you have, pair this with takeout from your favorite sushi joint and you’ll be all set.
6. Lagavulin 13 Fèis Ìle 2021
Average Price: $900
This limited-edition whisky dropped last summer for the famed Fèis Ìle 2021 Islay whisky fest. The juice in the bottle is a 13-year-old whisky that was aged in ex-bourbon casks before a final maturation in white port casks with a very deep char. That whisky was then vatted and bottled as is.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” That’s where the nose starts before edging toward wood polish, Windex, smoked plums and apricots, candied almonds (those ones coated in red sugar), and a hint of dirty campfire smoke in the distance. The palate starts with a woody/oily nature that’s bitterly charred which leads to malty spiciness that leans towards pizza parlor dried chili flakes and freshly cracked red peppercorns. That spiciness melds with the smoked stonefruit late as the Windex and earthy smoke fade away.
On first taste, this feels all over the place. Then it starts to come together the more you add water and the more you go back to it. By the end, you’ll be hooked by this unusual and enticing pour. Admittedly, this one will not be for everybody.
5. Lagavulin 16
Average Price: $110
This is the most recognizable Lagavulin out there. The malts are smoked just down the road from the distillery at Port Ellen and the juice is crafted expertly by the sea at Lagavulin. Then the whisky spends 16 long years mellowing in old American and Spanish oak.
Imagine a beach fire that’s using dried seaweed as fuel next to mugs of honeyed black tea and a clump of wet moss on the nose. The taste of this dram meanders through dried pipe tobacco smoke laced with hints of vanilla and tart apple while notes of briny caramel lead towards an oyster shell minerality. The finish is pure silk as the seaweed grows wetter and the smoke sweetens towards that caramel, vanilla, and apple.
I almost ranked this as number one. This is easily the most drinkable Lagavulin on the list (also findable and relatively affordable). This is the bottle I reach for as a weekend pour over a rock or two (or with some Coke for a Smoky Cokey). It’s easygoing while offering just the right amount of nuance and depth to challenge your palate.
4. Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition
Average Price: $120
Last year’s Distiller’s Edition was another prime example of the heights Lagavulin can reach. The juice was aged for 15 years in the core Lagavulin barrels (ex-bourbon and ex-sherry) and then finished for around six months in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks that were specifically made and held specific sherry before the whisky was loaded into the barrels. The result is a 15-year-old Lagavulin that’ll help you fall in love with the brand and style.
This feels like all the subtle notes across the Lagavulin range have come together in the best way. You’re drawn in with hints of honeyed smoke, salted caramel apples, mild hints of vanilla, and smoldering coffee grounds. The taste ties the honey to a soft oakiness next to vanilla-chocolate coffee, seaside salted taffy, and a touch of fish oil. The end is very long and pure velvet on the tongue as the sweet oak fades towards a sweet smokiness, with a hint of salty roasted almonds and burnt vanilla husks.
As much as I love the 16 above, this edges it out. Why? Honestly, it’s hard to say. But I can tell you this bottle is always emptied far quicker than the 16 at the ol’ Johnston residence. I think this is just that little bit subtler and more refined, and it really shines with a rock or two.
3. Lagavulin 26 The Lion’s Jewel
Average Price: $2,450
This is a very rare and unique whisky. First, it’s the first 26-year-old Lagavulin released. Next, there were only 7,500 of these bottles released. Lastly, the whisky was built from a combination of first-fill Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. Those barrels were married after over two decades of mellowing and bottled at a very accessible cask strength of 44.2 percent.
The nose opens with red wine barrel staves and old boat ropes thrown into a campfire next to figs wrapped in nori and drizzled with rich butterscotch while hints of outboard motor smoke on the dock just a few feet away. From there, the taste mellows towards smoked dates flaked, a sense of sardine oil, and plenty of salt and black pepper. The finish mellows as this wet and earthy note arrives that’s one part forest mushroom, one part wet green moss, and one part smoldering wet cedar branches with a slight peppery tobacco dryness and warmth on the very end.
This is a wild and fun ride. It’s also a pretty damn unique Lagavulin experience overall. Outboard motor smoke, sardine cans, and smoked dates probably don’t sound like they go together. But, trust me, they do in this whisky. Just make sure to really give this time in the glass and add drops of water to let it open up while you go back and forth on the nose and taste. There’s a lot to dig out of this one.
2. Lagavulin 13 Jazz Festival 2021
Average Price: $411
The other big festival in Islay is the yearly Jazz Festival (usually in November). Last year, Lagavulin released a special edition 13-year-old. This time, however, the whisky was finished in former mezcal barrels from Mexico.
This opens with a whiff of cherry cough drops followed by wet bark, singed vanilla pods, and a hint of smoked brisket covered in paprika and black pepper with a grilled fruitiness underneath. The taste leans into the peat with a wet charcoal vibe next to almond shells and tarmac that’s all countered by almost sour tropical fruit and a distant echo of vegetal roasted agave pinas. Floral honey sweetness breaks through on the mid-palate as candied orange peels, new Ace Bandages, smoked pineapple skins, and black pepper soaked in smoked brisket fat drive the finish home.
This was a revelation. Shout out to Diageo for pulling (what I’m guessing is Casamigos) mezcal casks and sending them to Islay. It’s smoke on a smoke, sure. But this is operating at a whole different level of fruit, carbon, and medicinal quality than any other Islay peated whisky out there. This truly will have you saying “wow” from the first sip.
1. Lagavulin 25
Average Price: $3,846
This bottle was released in 2016 along with Lagavulin 8. The juice is a sherry-cask-aged whisky that was left alone for 25 long years. The honey barrels that made it through that era were then vatted and bottled as-is at cask strength into only 8,000 bottles.
There’s a dryness and softness to this whisky that’s kind of mind-blowing. The nose meanders through old and sticky wood polish, rich sticky toffee pudding with salted caramel sauce, savory almost moldy figs, black-tea-soaked dates, meaty smoked prunes, peppery smoked beef fat, chewed-up Band-Aids, and an old cedar box that’s been filled with pennies for decades. The palate feels like raspberry saltwater taffy wax wrappers filled with smoked honey candies and waxy cacao nibs straight off the tree.
A soft cherry wood smoke meanders through more honey and pine kindling with plenty of pitch, tart yet dry cherry tobacco, long and dry willow branches, and burnt mint leaves. Candied orange peel drives the mid-palate back to that smoked honey and peppery beef fat as dried chipotle chilis mix with a very dark and bitter chocolate, a dash of BBQ ash, and a little bit more of that pine resin.
These last two entries are two of the best whiskies I’ve tasted in a long time. But this one is just otherworldly. This might be among my all-time favorite whiskies, full stop. Amazingly, although there seems to be so much going on, this whisky is somehow chilled out. It’s so soft and subtle while taking you on a journey that feels thrilling, nostalgic, and, well, sexy.