The Lagavuin 16 balances on the edge of powerful smokiness and elegance. (photo by Steve Kirwan for Wine and Whiskey Globe)

One month after a bottle of The Balvenie DoubleWood forever hooked me on Scotch, I fell in love with Lagavulin 16. Gaelic for “the mill in the hollow,” this Lag expression used to sell for under $40—and no, that was not before they invented the steam engine, the wheel, or fire. However, it was twenty-ish years ago, and I’ve yet to find a Scotch that I like better.

Those who claim to dislike Scotch often speak of the relentless onslaught of smoke, iodine, tarry rope, salt, and kippers that traditionally define Islay whiskies. If you’re reading this, you likely already know that Islay is but one of six major geographically classified Scotch styles, each exhibiting varied characteristics, and most transcending the Islay stereotype. Even within their category, Islays can vary significantly in flavor and intensity. Lagavulin 16 is one of those whiskies flipping the notion of “stinky peat” on its head. It’s a remarkable balancing act between Islay traditions and the sherried refinement of a Speyside, and that marriage of two seemingly polar opposites firmly ensconces Lagavulin 16 as my ideal Scotch.

Retailing somewhere between $69 and $89, depending on the source, Lagavulin doesn’t qualify as a “daily drinker,” at least not at my pay grade. It is, however, my preferred “special occasion” indulgence. I buy it twice a year at my local Costco for $69.99—once for my birthday, and again at Christmas. The bottle’s appearance is as classic as it is classy: smoky pale green-brown glass with an old-style parchment label proclaiming its minimum 16 years of aging.

In the glass, it’s a deep amber-gold, and although often described as intensely smoky, the immediate peat nose more closely resembles “tobacco shop” than actual smoke. Notes of iodine, eucalyptus, and dried kelp round out the aroma, backed with notable sherry fatness. Bottled at 43% ABV, it hits the palate with forward heat and an initially oily mouthfeel that morphs into drying warmth. The iodine is most evident initially, followed by briny notes, smoked kippers, and a subtle seared-beef earthiness. The swallow reveals dates and figs, dried cherries, old leather, more iodine and brine, and then the telltale “band-aid” taste imparted by oloroso sherry cask aging. The finish is velvety, luxurious, and long, and where an actual “smoke” flavor lives. The aftertaste exhibits more sherry, some brown-sugar sweetness, and then a long, drying finale.

Lagavulin 16 embodies both the “idea” and the realization of a well-aged whisky. It exudes that unique melding of flavors and aromas that only time can imbue, making its price feel relatively insignificant. If you like traditional Islay whisky, and appreciate a quality Speyside, few choices will fill the niche as perfectly as this Lag. And while you may not want to break it out for your Rob Roy party, if you seek a classy, refined, and thoroughly elegant dram to sip for special occasions, Lagavulin 16 makes for an excellent option.