J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale Matured in Lagavulin Casks: 11.5% abv
Background: If you have stayed up to date on our reviews, you will know what this is all about. If you have not, just look down (you don’t have to look far) to Review 158. What you will find is that J.W. Lee’s is a brewery within the U.K. area. This is a barleywine called Harvest Ale, and the last review had the barleywine being aged in refill sherry casks. This beer was so interesting, we simply couldn’t wait to bring on the second variation of this that we had in our stocks. That could be a good or bad thing, because we had high expectations for this beer; rightly so, because this particular beer is being aged in old Lagavulin single malt Scotch barrels. Now, we haven’t reviewed Lagavulin, so I did want to take a minute to remind us what Lagavulin is. Lagavulin is a single malt Scotch made in Islay, which although not foregone, does make it a very peaty whisky. This is what interested us, especially since we thought the last Harvest Ale did contain a lot of peat and tobacco influence in it.
Nose: This starts off as a malty and wheat-like nose, with a slightly more peaty influence than the sherry-casked beer. It is also definitively woody. There is also sense of tobacco here. This beer smells old, not from a maturation standpoint, but as if it was slightly musty and briny. You will find, as a more prominent note, citrus flavors of orange and lemon. If you dig into the smell enough, you will find a sort of chemical aroma, close to wood lacquer. This sounds relatively off-putting, but it isn’t over dominant and we couldn’t find a better way to describe this smell. There is even a small portion of popery SP in it.
Arrival: There is a yeasty, malty arrival to this, more akin to the notion of a barleywine. It is decently sweet, with earthy, grainy tones coming to the forefront. There are still some thick, sweet flavors of honey that go along with the malt, with slight vanilla overtones as well. With a full glass at a chilled temperature, there is an enhanced smokiness to the arrival here.
Body: This part of the beer can be well described as a bridge between the two flavor profiles of the beer, from beginning to end. There is a stronger amount of apple cider here in the body, with some orange citrus as well. While chilled, one can find some vanilla in the body that accompanies the sweetness.
Finish: There is an optimum amount of peat in the end of the body, with the finish brandishing tons of malt flavors. There is, unlike in the sherry edition, some hops and grapefruit notes coming through as well. There are flavors of overly-ripened orange with some sour tang to be tasted. To add to the list of fruit notes that can be found in the beer, pear is also found in the finish as well. As the beer settles on the pallet, a reminiscent flavor of peat can be traced back from the taste.
Final Comments: I would like to propose that this version of Harvest Ale is not nearly as compelling as the last one we tried, which was a shock to us, and it should be a shock. Peated whisky can be some of the most complex, richly flavored, and ostentatious whisky available in the market (not meant in a bad way). So why in the world would this rich, heavy flavor not carry over into the beer like the sherry cask did? Some may propose that the sherry is more sweet and rich, and this will provide a larger sweetness to the flavor. We weren't satisfied with that, so we came up with a different theory. The theory is this: the Lagavulin cask is a highly “name” branded thing. It is like the Lamborghini of the cask world, if you will. Unlike an equivalent bourbon cask, this cask could be reused a number of times before Lagavulin needed to get rid of it. So to buy one from them would cost a fortune. What probably happened with J.W. Lee’s is they ended up getting a cask that was deemed “too worn” from Lagavulin and used that to age the beer. At this point, the oak would have a difficult time pulling flavor from the cask. J.W. Lee’s might also be a more gun shy in over-aging the beer in this barrel, so it would result in an early pull. The end result of this is a disappointingly less compelling beer, although it is adequately tasty and complex.
Why you’d buy it: You are a Lagavulin fan and freak out at anything with the word printed on it.
Why you wouldn’t: The complexity, nor the namesake, does not warrant the amount of money they ask for the beer, and will leave you partially disappointed.