Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2016

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Lagavulin 12 appears in the Diageo Special Releases nearly every year — but this year it has the luxury of appearing as part of Lagavulin’s 200th anniversary celebratory releases (see also its 8 year old and 25 year old).

This year’s Lag 12, aged in refill American oak hogsheads, is particularly worthwhile, rounded and balanced right from the start, which kicks off on the nose with notes of sweet barbecue smoke, plus hefty iodine and seaweed. There’s citrus notes — lemon and orange — in the mix, with a hard-to-place character that ultimately hits me as lemongrass. The palate is surprisingly restrained considering the hefty proof level, a centerpiece for briny seaweed, lemon peel, and a touch of spice. The finish retreats to a rather bitter note, which works surprisingly well with the mild sweetness and fruity notes that come before.

All told, it’s a bit of a departure from prior Lagavulin 12s, which have tended to be quite heavy on the peat, but this year’s relative quietness really lets Lagavulin’s more delicate, underlying character shine through.

115.4 proof.

A- / $135 / malts.com

Review: Cragganmore Limited Edition 2016

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It’s not Christmas yet, but that most anticipated time of the year has arrived: The release of Diageo’s Special Releases, rarities from Scotland-based distilleries (some long-closed) being trickled to our shores.

This year’s batch includes 10 whiskies, all of which we have on hand for review and will cover one of each day for the next 10 days. We’ll start with the only NAS release in the lot, a special cask strength release of Cragganmore.

This malt is filled from both refill and rejuvenated American oak hogsheads and ex-sherry European oak butts. Again, no age statement.

Cragganmore is a standard-grade but often quite lovely whisky, and at barrel proof it showcases a power it doesn’t usually offer when watered down. The nose is heavy with malted cereal, moderate to heavy sherry/citrus notes, and a haunting pepper/spice note that arrives when you inhale deeply. The palate continues this thread, offering a bruisingly powerful body that features loads of sweetened cereal, billowy heather, modest vanilla, and a lick of iodine late in the game. The finish is sweet, sherried, and lasting.

Traditional to its core, this expression of Cragganmore doesn’t exactly reinvent what we’ve come to expect from Speyside — but it does showcase its core flavors with the utmost of credibility.

111.4 proof. 600 bottles released in the U.S.

B+ / $600 / malts.com

Review: Glenfiddich Experimental Series #1 IPA Cask Finish

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Even old guard Glenfiddich can’t stay away from the fun of experimental whiskymaking. In fact the distillery is launching a whole line of experimental spirits called the Experimental Series which revolve around unusual cask finishes. First out of the gate: an India Pale Ale cask finish.

This isn’t a partnership with a major brewery. Rather, the distillery worked closely with a local Speyside craft brewery to craft a custom IPA, then aged it in its own used whisky casks,. Those casks were then emptied and used to finish already mature Glenfiddich. There’s no age statement for the initial aging run, but the whisky ultimately spends 12 weeks in the IPA barrels.

This is the first of what will likely be a significant series of releases from Glenfiddich. While we wait for what’s coming down the pipe, let’s take a taste of what GF has cooked up with its IPA Cask Finish.

On the nose, it’s definitely malty, bourbon-casked Glenfiddich, but it comes with a clear beer influence as well — moderately hoppy, with citrus (but not sherry) overtones. The palate is malty at first, showcasing traditional notes of cereal, light caramel and vanilla notes, heather, and a touch of spice… but while you’re grasping for that lattermost note the IPA finish kicks in. A slug of hops followed by some bitter orange peel immediately connotes IPA, The finish is decidedly beer-like, bittersweet and herbal at times, but also kicking out a chocolate character that is decidedly unique.

All told, I really love this expression — and am shocked at how generally affordable and available it is. Can’t wait to see what’s next in the series.

86 proof.

A- / $70 / glenfiddich.com

Review: Laphroaig 25 Years Old and 30 Years Old (2016)

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Old Laphroaig is one of life’s great pleasures, but I haven’t encountered any truly wonderful old stock from the Islay classic since 2009. Good news, folks: Laphroaig is reintroducing both the 25 year old expression and launching its 30 year old single malt stateside, to boot.

Best news: We got ’em both and we’re here to review the updates. Thoughts follow.

Laphroaig 25 Years Old (2016) – A blend of whiskies aged in second-fill European oak Oloroso sherry barrels and ex-bourbon American oak barrels, bottled at cask strength. A quarter of a century in barrel have ensured that the fruity notes temper the smoky aromas considerably, everything coming together to showcase notes of camel hair, wet asphalt, licorice, and ample iodine. On the palate, ripe citrus notes from the sherry barrels trickle down into a pool of molasses and salted licorice waiting below. Cloves, pepper, and other spices emerge on the racy and lasting finish. This expression isn’t as well-formed as its 2009 rendition, but it’s still highly worthwhile. 97.2 proof. B+ / $500

Laphroaig 30 Years Old – Double-matured in first- and second-fill ex-bourbon barrels. No sherry impact here. This is a glorious expression of old Laphroaig, sweet and smoky and mellow as can be. The nose is a racy, spicy beast, familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in older Islay. But the use of 100% bourbon casking lets a more pure expression of the whisky shine through. The nose’s fire and brimstone are tempered with vanilla and caramel, and unlike many an Islay, its sweetness is kept clearly and firmly in check. The palate builds on that base, taking the the dying embers of a spent fire and injecting them with fresh apple notes, plus notes of gingerbread and flamed banana. Again, its sweetness is kept firmly in check, the finished product showcasing a balance and delicacy you almost never find in Islay whiskies. The above may be simple flavors and tastes, but Laphroaig 30 is anything but a basic whisky. It’s a nuanced malt definitively worth exploring, savoring, and understanding. 107 proof. A / $1000

laphroaig.com

Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength

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Usquaebach’s first new release in nearly 25 years is here: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength, a blended malt composed of more than 20 single malts (and no grain whisky), each aged 10 to 21 years, packaged in a blue glass version of its traditional flagon decanter. Says Usqy:

Carefully crafted by longstanding Usquaebach blenders, Hunter Laing and Co., the An Ard Ri is made with casks from Master Blender Stewart H. Laing’s personal collection. Mr. Laing selected from a range of Highlands whiskies, including Inchgower, Benrinnes, Craigellachie, Glengoyne, Dailuaine, Blair Athol, and Auchroisk. At 57.1% ABV, the finished product is a powerfully complex and structured, yet harmoniously smooth cask strength blend that faithfully maintains Usquaebach’s position as “King of the Blended Whiskies.” The 2,000 bottle limited release is packaged in a striking gold and blue variation of Usquaebach’s signature flagon bottle, keeping with the product’s theme of bringing ancient tradition to a modern audience.

This is a well-rounded but distinct blended malt. The nose offers some unusual notes, topping a backbone of malty grains with notes of roasted carrots, anise, pipe tobacco, and leather. The palate shows a bit more sweetness, including some molasses notes, burnt bread, coffee grounds, and a touch of torched citrus peel. The finish is modest and drying, coaxing out a bit of prune alongside notes of dried herbs.

All told, Usquaebach makes more interesting whiskies, but An Ard Ri is adept at showcasing the blender’s more savory side of the blend.

114.2 proof. 2000 bottles produced.

B / $200 / usquaebach.com

Review: Glenfiddich 50 Years Old

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It’s not every day you get to sample a 50 year old whisky. I’ve now had four of those days, but the experience I had with Glenfiddich’s 50 year old single malt was definitively the most fulfilling and complete.

The evening began with dinner at Sausalito’s Murray Circle, with dishes paired with a variety of malts from Glenfiddich and sister distillery The Balvenie, all preludes to the final act, GF50.

Among the appetizers (whiskily speaking) were a sampling of Glenfiddich 15 Years Old Solera Vat, served atop a frozen layer of mineral water — a neat twist on “on the rocks,” followed by Balvenie 21 Years Old PortWood Finish, which was served in a miniature copper “dipping dog,” used in the warehouses to retrieve whisky — authorized or otherwise — from a cask. This unctuous, fig-and-raisin-dusted dram led to a tasting of austere Glenfiddich 26 Years Old, wrapping up with Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask, served with dessert, its gooey sweetness pairing perfectly with something sugary.

At last it was time for the finale, Glenfiddich 50 Years Old, bottle #301 of 450. Glenfiddich 50 was distilled in 1959. Two 50-year-old casks were married and put into a neutral vat in 2009 to suspend aging. 50 bottles have been released every year since then. The last 50 will go into bottle in 2017, and GF50 as we know it will be finished. The company says something old will be coming thereafter, but mum’s the word for now as to what it might be.

Unlike many very old whisky tastings I’ve attended, this one included a significant pour, at least 3/4 of an ounce, not a “full shot” but more than enough to really get a feel for the spirit. Given its rarity, the pour was quite generous and unexpected.

Digging into this dram, it immediately shows itself as light and delicate, a much different experience than many a hoary, old whisky that’s been done in by too much time in wood. The nose offers immediate surprises: tropical notes, primarily mango, and ample floral character. Just nosing it, you’d think this was a rather young spirit, not something born during the Eisenhower administration.

The palate showcases a considerably different experience. Quite nutty and malty, and infused with some barrel char, it’s here where it starts to show its age. I spent a long 20 minutes with this dram, letting it evolve with air and allowing its true nature to reveal itself. Notes of toasted coconut and orange peel make their way to the core, before the finish — quite sweet with creme brulee notes and candied walnuts — makes a showing. If there’s a dull spot in the 50, it comes as this finish fades, a very light mushroom/vegetal note that may well be remorse for having to live through the 1970s.

All told, this is a beautiful old whisky, one of the most engaging I’ve ever encountered. Should you find yourself with a spare $28K, I highly recommend picking one up.

96 proof.

A / $28,000 / glenfiddich.com

Review: Chivas Regal Ultis

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Chivas is a venerable blended Scotch whisky brand, and after over 100 years in business, the company is releasing its first ever blended malt — a vatting of single malts, with no grain whisky included.

Chivas Regal Ultis is a premium offering composed of just five single malts that represent the “signature” of Chivas. The quintet are all Speyside distilleries: Strathisla, Longmorn, Tormore, Allt A’Bhainne, and Braeval. No aging information is provided, however, and Ultis does not carry any age statement.

And never mind any of that, because it’s a glorious whisky, showing that Chivas is a perpetually underrated producer that really knows its stuff. On the nose, you’ll find some unusual and exotic notes — Eastern spices and incense, sandalwood, flamed orange peel, and some dried flowers. The body kicks off with a core of sweetness — nutty malted milk, brown butter, some seaweed, and sesame seeds. The finish sees more of a fresh floral element, a touch of mint, and some almond notes.

That’s a lot to try to pick out, and indeed Ultis is a complex whisky with a big body and lots of depth. There’s a little bit in Ultis for everyone, but I don’t think master blender Colin Scott was being populist in creating it. I think he was merely looking at the five single malts he had to work with and said, “What’s the best whisky I can make out of this group of spirits?” Well, job well done.

80 proof.

A / $200 / chivas.com

Review: Kilchoman ImpEx Cask Evolution 2/2016 Bourbon Barrel

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This is a single cask release of Kilchoman exclusively for the U.S. This barrel was distilled on August 11, 2011 and bottled on May 16, 2016, making it just shy of five years old, entirely aged in a bourbon barrel, cask #470/2011. (This series is meant to showcase the impact of different types of wood on Kilchoman.)

Kilchoman’s last ImpEx Exclusive was a sherry bomb, which makes this a fun counterpart and point of comparison. On the nose, gentle smoke gives way to notes of coconut, cloves, and bacon fat. It’s quite inviting, and the body keeps things going from there. The palate offers notes of almonds, more coconut, and a surprising amount of fruit considering that this is a young, bourbon-barreled whisky. The finish sees more of that gentle smoke returning, along with some sweet cola and clove notes that add nuance and intrigue. Everything comes together surprisingly well in this one; it’s easy to see why ImpEx picked this particular cask at this particular time.

120.2 proof.

A- / $135 / impexbev.com

Review: The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old

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Macallan fans, as a rule, love its sherry-casked expressions but bemoan the existence of its bourbon-casked ones, namely the Fine Oak line (although the latter sees a bit of sherry finishing). At last Macallan has come up with a way to bridge the gap between the all-sherry Sherry Oak line and the sherry-minimal Fine Oak. The new line: Macallan Double Cask, a new style of whisky from the company. And it’s even got an age statement, folks.

Some notes on its production, per the distillery, “This is the first time The Macallan has used American Oak Sherry-seasoned casks as the most prominent flavor style in one of its expressions. To create Double Cask, The Macallan brings new oak from America thousands of miles to Spain, where the oak casks are crafted and Sherry-seasoned before traveling to the Macallan’s distillery on Speyside to mature for at least twelve years. These whiskies are then harmoniously united with those aged in the very best sherry seasoned European oak casks.”

So, to clarify, it’s a blend of whisky held in two types of casks: new American oak that’s been sherry seasoned, and standard European oak sherry casks. Note that there are no bourbon casks used in any of this; it is, in one sense, a 100% sherry-aged whisky, albeit an unconventional one.

As of now, there’s only one whisky in the Double Cask collection: this 12 year old bottling. Macallan hasn’t said anything about a line extension yet, but all signs seem to point to this as merely a starting point, presuming it does well in the market.

Let’s taste!

This is a well-rounded, even delightful expression of Macallan, showing off a nice balance between traditional American wood and sherry cask aging. On the nose, the sherry influence clearly dominates, though sharp orange peel and winey notes find balance in some caramel underpinnings. On the palate, a complex array of flavors await, beginning with fresh cereal before moving into more citrus, plus notes of coconut, caramelized banana, and even a curious touch of mint. The finish is lengthy but soothing and gentle, surfacing more of those new wood-fueled vanilla notes, a bit of leather, and some black pepper, which adds some grip to the otherwise lithe and supple body. Great balance from start to finish, and though it drinks a touch on the young side, it’s quite enchanting as a whole.

All told, it does “taste like Macallan,” the malt and sherry components combining for a surprisingly familiar (and somewhat simple) experience, double casking be damned. Die-hard Macallan fans won’t have any complaints here. The rest of you ought to give it a try, too.

86 proof.

A- / $65 / themacallan.com

Review: Glenfarclas 12 Years Old, 17 Years Old, and 105 Cask Strength (2016)

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Recently I looked back at my early reviews of Glenfarclas 10 and 12 year old single malts and was a bit appalled at their naivete. An upgrade was required, and I got my hands on a trio of expressions: Glenfarclas 12 Years Old, 17 Years Old, and the coveted 105 Cask Strength expression.

For those unfamiliar with this Speyside classic, Glenfarclas is all single malt, 100% sherry cask matured (using both oloroso and fino sherry barrels). Consistently underrated, it’s a distillery that’s always worth a look no matter what age you see on the bottle.

Glenfarclas 12 Years Old – Classic Speyside. On the nose, there’s lots of honey and maple notes, with a biscuity character that offers lightly buttery, grainy notes. The sherry influence is slight, offering some punch on the nose but also just a hint of orange peel on the finish, following a body that offers tastes of chocolate malt balls, lightly roasted peanuts, and some dried ginger. This is a perfect “everyday” dram — not overwhelming, but with enough nuance to merit continued exploration — and affordable. 86 proof. A- / $47

Glenfarclas 17 Years Old – There’s an immediately stronger sherry influence on the nose with this older expression, ripe with aromas of orange peel and oil which complement the underlying grain character. On the palate, the bold body kicks off with classic Glenfarclas biscuits and honey, moving from there into notes of lemon peel, gingerbread, and walnuts. Stronger sherry notes build with time in glass; the finish finds this in relative balance with the barley character. 86 proof. B+ / $70

Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength – This is a 10 year old expression of Glenfarclas bottled at 120 proof (not 105, which refers to its original proof under the old British system). The bottle and label have changed in recent years, but what’s inside seems to have stayed the same. This is a richly sherried whisky, complex with notes of Christmas spices, marzipan, honeycomb, brown butter, and ample orange peel — both on the nose and the palate. Boldly malty at its core, the whisky finds intrigue in the way it builds upon that, folding in nuts, spice, fruit, and more. Cask strength gives the whisky the level of heat and the complexity that you’d expect, which you can either embrace with both arms or, perhaps more sensibly, temper it with a healthy splash of water. (It can handle plenty.) Either way — or perhaps both ways — it’s well worth exploring. 120 proof. A- / $92

glenfarclas.co.uk

Review: Lagavulin 25 Years Old 200th Anniversary (2016)

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Islay is rife with 200th anniversaries this year. Up next is Lagavulin, which is putting out a special 25 year old anniversary bottling to commemorate the occasion. Some details from the distillery:

Lagavulin 25 Year Old, matured exclusively in sherry casks and bottled at cask strength, pays homage to the contribution Lagavulin’s distillery managers have made in crafting Lagavulin over the years. This limited-release offering honors the many craftsmen and great skill behind producing Lagavulin’s renowned whisky. Dr. Nick Morgan, Diageo’s Head of Whisky outreach states, “To continue this special birthday we wanted to release a brand new bottling to Lagavulin enthusiasts worldwide. The 25 Year Old is a sublime expression of Lagavulin, I couldn’t think of a better way to pay homage to the distillery managers.”

No surprises are in store for the reader on this one. This is classic, well-worn Lagavulin, which kicks off on the nose with both heavy peat and more luxurious notes of brown butter, fresh herbs, tobacco, and lanolin. On the palate, it’s quite sweet up front, offering notes of spiced nuts, clove-studded oranges, and cinnamon toast. The peat slowly rolls in like waves hitting the shore, bringing with it iodine, meaty barbecue smoke, all dusted with a salt-and-pepper sprinkling. The biting peat notes haven’t been dulled out of this one despite its time in barrel, the experience ending on a toasty, fireside character that really lingers.

All told: It’s nearly textbook Lagavulin, exactly as it should be.

101.8 proof. 1200 bottles available in the U.S.

A- / $1200 / malts.com