February 27, 2013 Lagavulin – Distillers Edition
The Whisky: Lagavulin - Distillers Edition 1994
The Book: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
2013 marks one hundred years since the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers. The centenarian deserves a dram with a classic, worldly presence. A whiff of smoke mingling with an edge of the bittersweet.
This Lagavulin, “double matured” in ex-Pedro Ximénez sherry butts, should do nicely.
This is Lagavulin for the open-minded, those willing to take a step away from the much-loved, peat-driven Lagavulin 16-year-old, the whisky on which the distillery’s reputation is so soundly built. The Distillers Edition, with the sherry influence outlasting the peat, is not what most would expect of Lagavulin. But that’s good. If a distillery can’t surprise then it runs the risk of languishing in predictability.
The colour is rich toffee, mahogany in a glass. Very inviting. (I’m thinking a whisky aged twice in casks that once held thick, raisiny sherry may well have ended up with this brilliant hue all on its own. We are not told otherwise.)
The dram brings to the nose spiced toffee, a curl of honeyed peat. The smoke is stronger in the mouth, warmly sweetened, and still with a pleasing alcoholic cut. Finishes intense, long, and with a good deal of drama. (43%, non-chillfiltered)
Lagavulin is one of Islay’s landmark trio of distilleries found along the shores of Lagavulin Bay. Ardbeg to one side of it, Laphroaig to the other. And facing it on a rocky promontory at the entrance to the bay — the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle. It is from here that the Lord of the Isles once reigned over Scotland’s western seas.
Legal distillation started on this site in 1815. By 1835 it had grown into Islay’s largest distillery, and today stands as an impressive white-walled complex comprised of several buildings. The present operation is owned by the multi-national Diageo group, and is one of several Scottish distilleries in their hands.
It seems even Diageo was left a little wide-eyed at the recent success of Lagavulin. No one predicted that peated whisky would win over the whisky-drinking public in the way that it has, and for a time Lagavulin was caught out. There was not the inventory to meet the demand for its staple, the 16-year-old, since in prior decades the distillery was sometimes in operation for only a couple of days a week. But Lagavulin came through, sales arrows turned skyward, and there are contented smiles all around.
So why tinker with the proven formula? Because it pays to cater to different tastes, when each whisky has its own strengths. The Distillers Edition is not for everyone.
And neither is Lawrence.
I first read this book when I was nineteen, having come to some degree of maturity in the Sixties, ripe for Lawrence, as many of us were. He was a favourite author of several of my friends, reinforced by the release of the screen version of Women in Love in 1970.
Time passes and the doors opened by Lawrence have been flung so wide that the books of the pioneer can now seem rather tame. The depiction of relationships in the life of the restless, unfulfilled young man, what lured the reader decades ago, is no longer the draw. I found myself impatient, especially with the middle third of the book. ‘Call an end to it, Morel, for heaven’s sake, and get on with your life.’
The reader should, of course, put Sons and Lovers in the context of the period it depicts, and in the context of the new ground Lawrence was breaking. Still, I couldn’t help but think that put the book in the hands of a modern-day editor, and there would be much gnashing of teeth.
The version I read this time was the Cambridge unexpurgated edition first made available in 1992. The book’s original editor, Edward Garnett, did in fact chop away a tenth of the manuscript, here restored.
Despite my newfound reservations, I held strongly to the book. The Morel family dynamics are depicted with incredible power. The mother-son relationship has rarely been drawn with such complexity. The sense of the place, the coal-mining hamlet, is encased in raw truth. There is a rich intimacy to the writing, to the story, drawing, as it does, on Lawrence’s own turbulent youth. The central character is constantly analyzing his place in the world, as Lawrence must have done. The sense of the author (pictured here at age 21) is as compelling as that of the story.
As for whisky, well, the quote that follows (from Chapter 12 in two different versions) gives as strong a sense of the book as any.
“Well then, if he must go, let him go and have his fill—something big and intense, he called it. At any rate, when he had got it, he would not want it: that he said himself. He would want the other thing, that she could give him. He would want to be owned, so that he could work. It seemed to her a bitter thing that he must go. But she could let him go into an inn for a glass of whiskey, so she could let him go to Clara—so long as it was something that would satisfy a need in him and leave him free for herself to possess.” (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
“Well, then, if he must go, let him go and have his fill — something big and intense, he called it. At any rate, when he had got it, he would not want it — that he said to himself; he would want the other thing that she could give hm. He would want to be owned, so that he could work. It seemed to her a bitter thing that he must go, but she could let him go into an inn for a glass of whisky, so she could let him go to Clara, so long as it was something that would satisfy a need in him, and leave him free for herself to possess.” (Penguin Books, 1948)
Ah, WHISKEY in one, WHISKY in the other. Just what would Morel have been drinking — Irish whiskey or Scottish whisky? Just what did Lawrence truly have in mind?