Google Lagavulin, 12 White Horses

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Hi, this is one of our (almost) daily tastings. Santé!

December 25, 2020



This Is How Whiskyfun's Scottish Headquarters Celebrated Christmas This Year:




Angus's Corner
From our Scottish correspondent
and skilled taster Angus MacRaild in Edinburgh
12 White Horses
I’m writing this in a village called Strachur by Loch Fyne, it’s where I grew up and where I was living when I got properly interested in whisky at far too young an age. Opposite us on the other side of the Loch is Inverary, home of the (once) great Loch Fyne Whiskies.


The first time I really became aware that there was such a thing as ‘old’ bottles and that they were not only different to their modern counterparts but more desirable in many ways, was reading one of the LFW owner Richard Joynson’s articles in his brilliant Scotch Whisky Review.



Richard wrote about a trip he’d taken a trip to Italy to meet famed collector Valentino Zagatti. Zagatti and Richard shared a dram of the old Lagavulin 12 year old White Horse bottling from the 1970s. I remember Richard describing it as ‘remarkably salty’ by comparison to the 16. It was a short route from reading that to googling old bottles and sifting through the early era pages of a website called ‘The Whisky Exchange’, finding names such as ‘Samaroli’ etc. Learning, stockpiling and accumulating information.

(Editor's comment) Scotch Whisky Review, best whisky writing there ever was. Here Edition 18, Autumn 2002.


Some years later, in summer 2005, I was working on Islay at Ardbeg distillery and I was offered a dram from the car boot of a Belgian whisky collector. This gentleman had arrived at the distillery with his pals, they were all wearing matching beige shirts and were part of a club called ‘Lindores’. I took this at face value and just assumed it was a Belgian thing and that this kind of behaviour was normal - these were more innocent times after all. This was the time before I realised sipping whisky from small sample bottles out of strangers’ car boots was pretty standard stuff for whisky culture. Tucked away in a box, amidst many other bottles, was a white label Lagavulin 12 yo. Needless to say I jumped at the chance. To this day I can still recall the profound and immediate realisation that this was something different, something other. I knew the 16yo well and while this was clearly familial, it was also a stranger. That was one of a handful of key whisky flashpoints for me. Crossroads in time where you can divide your thinking into before and after - the questions that whisky raised in my mind have a lot to answer for about where I’ve gone and what I’ve done since. It’s also arguably responsible for a lot of great friendships and unrepeatable, brilliant experiences.



As a result of all this, these old Lagavulin 12s remain fascinating to me, not to mention special and personal. Not only because they are often such brilliant drams in a technical and objective sense, but also because they are in some ways the epitome of what we mean when we say things like ‘old style’. Or, when we posit arguments for the evolving nature of Scotch whisky, or that many malts used to be more charismatic than their modern counterparts. Using these arguments to open up discussion and debate about what Scotch whisky should be and why it can and should be better. There are few whiskies that ground and demonstrate these arguments as profoundly or as powerfully as the old Lagavulin White Horse 12s.

I’ve been sitting on this wee pile of samples for a few months now, waiting for an opportune moment to do them justice. Like a special bottle, you can wait around for a long time to find the right moment, but I think 2020 is the sort of year where circumstances sometimes just call for great whisky.


We’ve all had shitty time this year, some of us to greater extent than others, but pain, frustration and misfortune are not competitive: we feel what we feel. So, I would simply say that, whatever your situation here at the arse-end of this most frustrating of years, I wish all of you some peace, some quiet, some relaxation and some fun over the winter break. I hope you spend time with people that matter, eat and drink well and carve out space for some decadence and joy wherever you can find it.






A couple of quick points about this tasting. Firstly, I don't have images of every exact bottle to hand I'm afraid, but they're similar looking bottles and hopefully there's enough info for these notes to be of use/interest. Additionally, I think these old 12 white labels are tricky bottles to correctly date. It seems that some batches used bottle moulds earlier than you would expect, while others can appear to be bottled later than they really are. I have indicated a bottling decade for most of these which I'm confident in, and where possible I've given the glass code, however, it's not been possible to be super specific for some of these I'm afraid. Oh, and I will try my best to keep the hyperbole and maltoporn to a minimum, but apologies in advance, just in case… 




Lagavulin ‘Pure Islay Malt’ White Horse (75 proof, OB, UK, 1970s)
Ok, not all the drams in this session are 12 year olds. This is an extremely rare NAS version for the UK from the early 1970s I believe. Never tried this one before, but as you know, I’m a huge fan of NAS… Colour: pale amber. Nose: as big as you can get at 43%. Old school peat slapped on with a trowel. Black pepper, coal embers, soot, roof pitch and buckets of tar. Feels even more ‘old school’ than the 12 yo versions; I’m reminded of a certain 14yo Laphroaig bottled in the 1950s here. Brilliantly herbal, tarry, earthy, phenolic and full of this wonderfully greasy, textural peatiness. Mouth: Indeed, this is old, old stuff. Hugely peaty, grizzly herbal bitters, smoked peppercorns, natural tar extracts, industrial cough medicines, ointments, vapour rubs and hessian. Simple in many ways, but beautifully so and with devastating poise and power. Finish: long, leafy, drying, herbal, tarry, earthy peat smoke. A briny splosh of seawater in the aftertaste. Comments: Feels rather distinct and separate from some of the later batches - were they getting rid of the dregs of Malt Mill in the early 70s? Anyway, extremely old style, properly uncompromising Islay whisky. You cannot help but imagine what kind of immense leviathan this must have been at marrying strength…
SGP: 467 - 94 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (75 proof, OB, UK, 1970s, SC295)
Colour: pale amber (I’m seeing a pattern here). Nose: the peat is a notch lighter than the NAS, it’s more on this wonderfully metallic and autumnal sherry profile. Lots of subtle tarry notes, wet leaves, camphor, metal polish and oily toolbox rags. In time there’s a more defined peatiness emerging. Riddled with dried seaweed, old school herbal medicines and camphor. Mouth: that familiar thickness and textural oiliness is very present. These older style Islay whiskies were really so much about texture. A rather greasy slick of peppery, dry, tarry peat along with more touches of metal and furniture polish and more herbal medicines. Finish: medium and rather peppery, coastal, tarry and with a lovely drying peat. The impression of peat embers fading in a sooty hearth. Comments: brilliant whisky that’s emblematic of this place and era. It reminds me instantly what I love about the older Lagavulins: they display this very specific, bone-dry and idiosyncratic peat flavour. Distinct in the same way Highland Parks of this era have their own peat personality.
SGP: 466 - 92 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, CINOCO Brussels import, Belgium, 1970s)
Colour: pale amber (I think we can start cutting and pasting thanks to E150.) Nose: different again, a more luxurious and velvety fusion of fruitier sherry and softer peat. The immediate impression is that this is smoother, rounder, and perhaps composed with some older stocks in the mix? Gorgeous, quilted layers of peat smoke, natural tar liqueur, smoked olive oil and the best VORS oloroso fresh from the bodega. Mouth: indeed, deeper, oilier, silkier, rounder, tarrier, the peat softer, more peppery, smoked black tea, lemon rind, herbal ointments and even some wee exotic fruit notes. Finish: feels short at first but it resurges beautifully with lapsing souchong, cured meats, herbal-tinged peat smoke and more soft tarry vibes. Comments: A rather more luscious and ‘complete’ batch that feels like there’s more sherry influence and age involved.
SGP: 555 - 93 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, Para Espana, 1970s)
A version for Spain, not too sure I’ve tried this one before either… Colour: pale amber. Nose: interesting, this is drier, sharper, more coastal, narrow and chiselled. Lots of dried seaweed, wet rocks, chalk, old dried out medicines, herbal teas, more distant tarry notes and things like vapour rubs and camphors. Even more modern things like mineral salts and beach sand being to appear - kind of foreshadows later styles. Mouth: drying, rather mineral sherry, motor oils, camphor, peppery tar, smoked sea salt, olive brine and anchovies. This one is more chiselled and more precisely coastal and even slightly fishy than the others. Some wee hints of smoked grist and cured meats. Finish: long, getting deeper, tarrier and finally peatier now. In fact the finish really soars. Comments: a funny one, deceptive in some ways but quite fun. Gathered an extra point in the superb finish.
SGP: 365 - 92 points.



Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, Ausländisches Erzeugnis, German import, 1970s)
I’m told that ‘Ausländisches Erzeugnis’ just means ‘foreign import’ and that the importer was usually Stahlkopf in Hamburg. Colour: yes. Nose: another sharper, more chiselled and coastal one. Superbly fresh, salty, briny and with plenty seaweed and nervous, mineral sherry. In time the peat comes through more clearly. It’s dry, very peppery, quite assertive and with lots of tarred rope and hessian supporting it. More of these impressions of dusty, phenol-ridden old malt bins. Mouth: wonderful arrival. Surprisingly thick, tarry, textural and full of oily peat, sardines in olive oil with herbs, anchovy paste, olive brine, kelp, smoked herbs and tarry rope again. Some velvety sherry gluing everything together. Brilliant! Finish: long, more smoked herbs, cured meats, tar liqueur, fir wood and peat embers. Comments: Feels like a hybrid of the nose from the Spanish import and the palate of the CINOCO. We’re approaching danger levels of sheer, unbridled quaffability here.
SGP: 466 - 94 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, Carpano Torino, Italy, 1970s)
Colour: wait…! Deep gold I think. Perhaps the caramel guy was hungover that day? Nose: I really do think these bottlings have more in common with some of the old official Highland Park dumpy bottlings than with their contemporary Laphroaig and Ardbeg neighbours. This very particular and stunning combination of dry, rooty and herbal peat smoke, mixed with embrocations, tar, pepper and wee touches of metal polish speaks to me more or Orkney than Islay in some aspects. Either way, this is stunning and there’s more in the way of aromatic dried seaweed, sweet herbal cough medicines and oily, mineral-flecked sherry. Joy and pleasure unbridled! Mouth: just gorgeous! There’s something ‘extra’ going on here in terms of thickness, velvety texture and an almost syrupy sweetness that adds in things like natural tar liqueur, coconut, smoked olive oil and cream sherry. Just devastatingly gorgeous old Islay whisky. Indeed, this is another one where the palate knocks it out of the park and leaves you questioning the age statement. Finish: thrillingly endless, riddled with cured meats, salty old oloroso mixed with sweeter cream style sherries, natural tar extracts, herbal cocktail bitters and leathery, tarry old rope and hessian. Comments: Disgustingly, shamelessly, unequivocally brilliant! I just adored these sweeter we coconut notes in here, they feel outrageously decadent. The very epitome of what makes this such an iconic bottling series in my view.
SGP: 566 - 95 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, Montenegro Zola, Italy, 1970s)
I don’t know enough about the different Italian importers of this era to tell you more precise dating info on which of these came first etc. Colour: amber. Nose: the same, and yet with its own idiosyncrasies once again. This is extremely thick and dense on the nose. Lots of tarry, leathery, almost syrupy peat wrapped up in ancient cream sherry, smoked herbal teas, camphor and the purest and most beautiful peat smoke. The peat in fact possesses some more modern facets such as a more assertive and sharper smokiness, but in combination with these other aspects its quite stunning. Mouth: wonderful arrival in the mouth, beautifully thick, dense, oily - almost fatty peat. Peppery, ancient tar liqueur, long aged yellow Chartreuse, mineral oils, ointments, camphor, soot and oily smoked fish. This is the fishiest one so far in fact. Amazing that whisky can retain such textural heft and muscle at 43% and after decades in glass. To try this at its original marrying strength… that’s the dream! Finish: similar comments to the Torino… endlessly long, mesmerisingly thick, textural and with a glow of deepest, darkest peat and smouldering seaweed you could melt a marshmallow over without compromising social distancing! Comments: Leaves you a little bit speechless really. These bottlings really do deserve their reputations. They’ve captured a process, ingredients and style that, in the grand arc of history, only existed for the shutter snap of a few decades.
SGP: 556 - 95 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, UK, glass-moulded horse in bottle shoulder, early 1980s)
Let’s see how things evolve as we shift forwards in time… Colour: amber… I mean, does anyone really care about colours? I know, I know, my apologies to all the Macallan fans out there ;) Nose: at first this is gentler and softer, rounder as well with a more subdued mix of leathery old sherry, peat smoke and many tiny notes of herbal medicines, pine sap, smoked teas and hessian. With time begins to get superbly gamey, leathery, salty and with a sharper, more precise coastal and mineral aspect. This impression of a more blustery, playful and fresher profile is really endearing. Mouth: indeed, ‘meatier’ is the word. We’re not talking biltong here, but certainly cured game meats, pheasant in bouillon stock, old pinot noir and many subtle smoked teas and crystallised exotic fruits. This is one thing that you feel is absent from these old Lagavulins in some way, the fruits. But it’s just that I often forget to mention them in face of such monumental peaty/tarry/sherry/herbal beauty. Indeed, they’re here on display, and there’s a snippet of kumquat and blood orange too. Finish: long, thicker again, this lingering, very textural feeling, deeply unctuous and almost sappy peat flavours mixed up with tar extracts, mineral sherry, salty game meats and more crystallised exotic fruits. Comments: It’s starting to get hard to really be objective about these, the pleasure factor is pretty overwhelming. These are very much the kind of whiskies that almost compel you to sit back, forget about all this scores and notes nonsense, and just bask in their hypnotically brilliant glow.
SGP: 565 - 93 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, UK, early 1980s)
Probably the kind of bottling they were giving away free if you bought a few bottles of Gordon’s Gin in Oddbins at the time. Colour: amber. It’s true that the colour seems to darken as we head into the 1980s - I blame Thatcher! Nose: we’re back to a very tar-forwards style. Dense, thick, greasy peat, coal embers, anthracite, pine wood, some kind of tar syrup and crystallised orange peel. Beyond that smaller notes of old leather, brine, salted liquorice and boiler smoke. Some aspects recall the NAS from the start of this tasting funnily enough. Mouth: it’s brilliant but in many ways simpler and more focussed than previous batches. Sharp salinity, nervous leathery sherry that includes some nutty and rancio aspects, tarry rope, dried seaweed and smoked black pepper. These wee fishy touches are back: peppered mackerel I think. In time there’s a stunning medicinal aspect coming through, herbal cough medicines extraordinaire. I know often use that as a tasting note, but here you really get this flavour in a pure and vivid way. Finish: long, tarry, full of supple, peppery, herbal peat smoke, crystallised citrus peels and exotic fruits, emblematic once again of this profile. Comments: I was wavering around the 92 point mark at first but this one just grows and grows on you. The evolution on the palate and finish in particular is pretty breath-taking.
SGP: 466 - 94 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, Montenegro Zola, early 1980s, SD133)
Back to Italy… Colour: amber. Indeed, it would appear they hired a new, teetotal caramel dude by this point. Nose: once again, we’re back at the peat-face! A big wall of tarry, leathery, oily and dense peat. This one even starts to display notes of kippers, brine mixed with lemon oils, cracked black pepper on cured meats and a dry, rather punchy smokiness with touches of struck flints and puffer fumes. Just great, once again! Mouth: there is something about the Italian batches, they seem to possess a thickness, spiciness and roundness of the palate that is utterly enchanting. This series is so much about texture and fatness on the palate anyway, but here it’s at its most vivid, luxurious and velvety. No wonder everyone was banging on about malt whisky being ‘smoooooth’ in these days. Anyway, the usual suspects are all here: tar liqueur, greasy peat, smoked olive oil, camphor, herbal extracts etc… Finish: long, deeply peaty, oily, tarry, camphory and with loads of leather, salty sherry and wee crystallised fruit notes. Comments: I don’t think this is quite as spectacular as the late 70s batches for Italy, but we’re very close.
SGP: 566 - 94 points.




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, Montenegro Zola, Italy, 1980s, SD170)
By the way, in case you didn’t know, those wee codes I’m noting above are glass codes from the base of the bottles. They’re pretty essential in dating and differentiating batches of older official bottlings. This one should be from a year or so later than the SD133… Colour: Whoa, STOP PRESS! It would appear we have struck ‘reddish amber’. Evidently ‘Mr Caramel’ had taken up yoga or jogging by this point. Nose: it’s funny how these batches change incrementally, going back to the NAS briefly we’ve clearly come quite a distance. The sherry here is bigger, more obvious, sweeter and more syrupy. The peat feels a similarly thick, tarry and herbal, but it’s more in equal billing with the sherry. There’s smoked mint, eucalyptus resin, tea tree oil and wee hints of the kind of funky, fermented weed they use to assassinate stray Scotsmen in the Netherlands. Also some funny notes of black olive, pickled herring and other more obviously fishy qualities. I don’t think we ever really commented enough on quite how fishy old Lagavulin could be. I remember a rotation 1958 spring cap Lagavulin that was essentially a smoked mackerel smoothie. Anyway… this is otherwise typically superb. Mouth: the arrival is softer but this may be the silkiest expression of peat flavour thus far. Also sublime tarriness, kumquat, apricot, smoked olive oil, rancio, smoked walnuts, ancient balsamic - the sherry really does have a more assertive voice here, so perhaps ‘Mr Caramel’ was simply being restrained for once? Finish: long, with lots of leafy, rather earthy and raisiny sherry. Salted walnuts and almonds, natural tar and herbal liqueurs and wispy peat smoke. Comments: A divergence for sure, but it feels like very similar distillate just from more active sherry casks.
SGP: 655 - 93 points.   




Lagavulin 12 yo White Horse (43%, OB, French import, 1980s, SD522)
Probably one of the last batches of the 12yo with the white label before the switch to green glass and the roundel distillery label for a brief spell before finally settling on the 16yo. Colour: pale amber. Nose: the shifting profile starts to become more noticeable here. This is a notch grassier, the peat smoke rawer and a little harsher, more boiler smoke, hessian, smoked meats and even a slightly balsamic / acetic note to the sherry. Some tarred rope and drying kelp. Mouth: big arrival, with lots of dunnage earthiness, dry peat smoke, black pepper, tar, iodine, kelp and some ashy wood smoke. Flinty, gravelly minerals, smoked olive oil and iodine. Finish: long, boisterously peaty, more gravel, earthy, herbal medicines, wormwood, antiseptic and smoked black pepper. Comments: Rather suitably this one firmly points in the direction of later iterations of Lagavulin. However, it’s also another one of these rather sly batches that starts off with simplicity and then bamboozles you with raw brilliance and power on the palate.
SGP: 466 - 93 points.



And now, because it would be a shame not to…



Megavulin 12yo White Horse (43%, MacRaild’s Private Covid Reserve, vatted 2020)
Colour: pale amber. Nose: what’s funny is that a roughly equal vatting of all twelve rather focuses the sherry aspects and brings forward these stunning notes of smoked coconut, tar, seawater and olive oil. Some tropical fruit syrups and divine, old school, earthy, herbal peat. In many ways these old 12s are reminiscent of those old 1980s bottled G&M wartime distilled Speysiders with this peat, exotic fruit and coconut fusion. Anyway, this is all getting a bit silly… Mouth: stunning! A perfect fusion of all the peat, tar, smoked oils, dried seaweed, hessian and ancient herbal liqueurs and medicines. Finish: brilliant as expected. Comments: not really sure we learned anything by doing this. But we had fun dammit!
SGP: 566 - 94 points.



Ok, one last wee bonus, just for sake of comparison and to kind of bring us closer to modernity, but gently so…



Lagavulin 16 yo White Horse (43%, OB, UK, +/-1990

Lagavulin 16 yo White Horse (43%, OB, UK, +/-1990)
I wanted to do one of the current Laga 12s but sadly I just don’t have a single drop of one t available. So this sample of a very early 16yo will have to suffice. I’ve recorded notes for this before so this is really just for the record and sake of comparison… Colour: gold (huzzah!) Nose: what’s immediately obvious is that they stepped away from such a dominant sherry profile which was so often the case with the 12s. This is greener, lighter and more on refill wood qualities such as more direct and obvious green and exotic fruits. Although, this coconut aspect does remain here. You can certainly see the DNA of the modern era Lagavulin fully formed here. Lots of elastoplasts, bandages, embrocations, seawater and gorgeous fruits. What it shares with the 12s is more this hessian and herbal medicinal profile. It also feels older than 16 funnily enough, reminiscent in many ways of some latter era Port Ellen special release batches (batch 9 onwards for example). Mouth: stunning freshness and fruitiness. Whereas the 12s are all on crystallised and dried fruits, this is freshness and ripeness in abundance. Greengage, star fruit, pineapple, guava and banana. The silkiest of peat smoke as well, almost ethereal, drying and medicated. Finish: long, layered peat smoke, fruits, seaweed, medicines. Stunning! Comments: a different animal to the 12s but brilliance that is Lagavulin remains undimmed I would say. No wonder we are all in love with this distillery to varying degrees.
SGP: 446 - 93 points.



And that’s a wrap!



I’m indebted to Hans Ekström for this tasting. Cheers and hugs to you Hans!




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