Lagavulin Feis Ile 2014 Review and Notes: How and why you taste whisky makes a BIG difference

This post has been in the works for a while as this whisky was a bit of a roller-coaster experience.

Back in May 2014, a full Feis Ile bottles share was organized by me and a few buddies led by Chris who did all the hard work of going to Islay and collecting them all (Thanks again Chris!). As whisky geeks, we were curious to taste them all but without going bankrupt (as the average bottle price was about £100). By the time I got my share it was almost unanimously agreed upon, by the other shares members and the general whisky community, that the Lagavulin bottling is the best of them all and it even surpassed the 2013 bottling. As I’ve tasted the 2013 one and it was utterly divine, I was eager to try the 2014 one. I tried a full flight on my Feis Ile 2014 bottlings, keeping the Lagavulin and Octomore to the end, but my palate was tired, so by the time I got to the Lagavulin I only wrote general impression:

Nose: Matured and balanced with peat and sherry.

Palate: Peat and sweet sherry.

Basically it felt balanced and lovely. Good combo of peat and sweet sherry. I then decided to keep the rest of my share for another tasting (where I could take proper tasting notes) later that week. Alas, life and other samples intervened and it didn’t happen and that bottle was gathering dust in my cupboard.

Then the Usquebaugh Society Blind Tasting competition happened.

The Lagavulin Feis Ile 2014 was #17 and these are the tasting notes I wrote down:

Lagavulin Feis Ile 2014 (54.7%)

(Blind tasting notes)

lagavulin-feis-ile-2014Nose: Bites and punchy, honey, fruits, quite heavy. After a minute or two there is peat and then smoke. With even more time it recedes and we get sweet fruity notes, stone fruits, almonds.

Palate: Strong peat and smoke, burning with some power, fruity, honey sweet.

Finish: Burnt down bonfire, smoke clinging to cloths, lingering sweet.

Initially I estimated it at around 50% and my final guess was Bruichladdich 18yo bottled at 51.9% which yielded me a respectable 50 points (30 for age, 20 for region).

Following this tasting I and many other competitors were utterly shocked. Average score was 82.34 (by 56 people) while it’s being ranked almost 92 points on whiskybase.com (by 117 people) which is a very high mark and the 10 points difference is a too wide a gap to be explained only by different tasters.

Personally, there were no traces of the sherry goodness I recalled from my first tasting and the peat profile didn’t remind me Lagavulin at all so I wondered if the sample was from a fake or defective bottle (slim to nil chance of that mind you) or it’s indeed can be explained by tasting blind vs psychological expectations.

Luckily, like I said, I had some leftovers from the share, so last night I finally sat down and tasted it again, writing down fresh set of tasting notes:

Nose: peat smoke, sweet fruits & honey, after a min dried fruits, choc/espresso, richer, so sherry impact but not like 1st impression.

Palate: Strong peat, ashes, sweet dried fruits, honey & espresso bitter chocolate

Finish: Long finish with peat, oak, lingering sweetness, mildly bitter espresso grounds.

Hmm, that second set of tasting notes isn’t too far from the first one I wrote down during the blind tasting competition. Not exactly what I expected! Although there was more sherry in here, I do wonder how real was it and how much of it was impact from the fact I expected to find those notes based on knowing it was matured in sherry casks.

I thought of a few things that can explain it and I’m sure they all contributed to the staggering difference between my initial impression I had (and what most people still feel about it) and the full notes I took in both cases:

1. Oxidization – The first taste happened a couple of months ago and impression was way more sherried so it could be that elapsed time and oxidization diminished the sherry notes a bit.

2. Tasting purpose – Since it was a blind tasting competition, I had a different goal in mind. Not just write tasting notes but try to guess correctly the whisky. That’s a utterly different mindset and I believe it does impact perception and notes.

3. Small sips vs moderate sips – at the blind tasting, I had only 20 ml sample so in order to analyze it properly and trying to guess it correctly led to different tasting method of taking a few small sips instead of 2-3 sips from a larger sample (25-30 ml)

4. Clean palate – Whisky can (and will) taste a bit different if it’s the first dram of the night, the 3rd dram or the 7th dram. Palate do get tired!

5. Whisky description (AKA expectations) –  There’s no way around it: What we know of the whisky (casks, maturation period, whisky description) before we actually taste it, does play an important role in our perception and impact our subjective impression.

 

And Lagavulin Feis Ile 2014? Is it really such a good whisky meriting a 92 score? The truth is out there. Remember – Judging whisky and ranking it is based your own personal senses and therefor it is subjective. No need to follow hype, taste it for yourself and judge it according to your senses.

 

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4 thoughts on “Lagavulin Feis Ile 2014 Review and Notes: How and why you taste whisky makes a BIG difference

  1. Tom Gur

    Great Post! I had a similar experience with Glenfarclas 30yo. Following the first dram out of the bottle I scribbled down:
    Nose: Rich rubbery notes, leather, intense sherry, citrus, and a hint of smoke.
    Palate: Sherry, thick, creamy, leathery, and slightly herbal.
    Finish: Very long, complex, leathery (and perhaps some allspice?).

    Then, on a blind tasting of the same bottle, I wrote down:
    Nose: Sherry and citrus.
    Palate: Barley, raisins, and sherry.
    Finish: Long and nutty.
    (and to be honest, I had a 21yo GlenDronach in mind..)

    What happened to all the rubber, leather, smoke, creaminess, and herbal notes? Were they ever there in the first place? This experience led me to believe that perhaps we are being too articulate and “poetic” in our tasting notes, and maybe a more objective, well defined, and less-specific set of descriptors is called for.

    On the other hand, the expectation and hype are all part of the experience, and if one derives pleasure from it, even though it’s not part of the intrinsic qualities of the dram, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing.

    Reply
      1. Tom Gur

        About 3 months apart I guess, and from a 4/5 full bottle (so low air/spirit ratio). While oxidization can impose non-negligible changes in such settings, I find it a wee bit suspicious that such a dramatic change occurred. But undoubtedly, the atmosphere (i.e., leisure vs a test) and the palate background were completely different.

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