UPDATE: Trader Joe has “tweaked” its Finlaggan formula so it’s nothing like the Islay I described previously. It’s not unpleasant, reminds me of Dewars in fact. But not Islay.
I picked up a bottle of Finlaggan Islay Single Malt Scotch at Trader Joe’s on a recent trip to California. (TJ can’t sell liquor in New York, one of many challenges living in this arctic region.) I was fascinated, assumed it would be awful at its $17.99 price tag, tried it, liked it, kept trying. As you can see, nearly the whole bottle is gone and I still can’t find out what’s wrong with it. It has peatiness, the bite of the salt air and a disruptive sensation when it hits your throat—all the qualities I value in an Islay. It’s not up with the best of Bowmore, my favorite distillery, but at 1/5 the price it’s definitely a great value for what you’re getting and, I’ve finally decided, a damn good dram of its category. Not confident of my own tastes, I went online this morning and was surprised to discover quite a secret society of Finlaggan lovers—including some who seem to mark it up significantly and sell it where there isn’t a Trader Joe. Whiskeyparty.net says “it’s not terribly complex, but neither was The Big Lebowski, and that didn’t stop it from being spectacular… So the finish isn’t long. Go suck an egg. This is a fantastic Scotch.” Another perspective comes from Anonymous who calls it “absolutely disgusting…essentially what I would imagine the water from a fire hydrant would taste like after it’s been used to put out a gas station fire” but that’s an indictment non Islay lovers might make of the category in general. There is quite a bit of mystery about where this inexpensive potion comes from, much of it promulgated by the alleged distiller, Vintage Malt Whisky Co Ltd which tells us “Finlaggan is very much the SECRET Islay, as the name of the distillery from which it comes is a closely guarded secret and known to only a select few. Only those who have sampled Islay malts over a long period and who are familiar with the subtle differences of nose and taste, could begin to guess at the pedigree of this true son of Islay.” I ran across a nice discussion on Reddit including one guy who points out that there’s a Finnegan castle on the north end of Islay and if it’s made by Lagavulin then “Finlaggan” would be a nice bit of wordplay. Anyway, I can’t wait to get to a liquor-selling state to get more of this. Check it out. P.S. A comment about the other bottles in the picture. Next to Finlaggan is Bowmore Darkest which is expensive garbage—an Islay especially formulated for those who want a “smooth” whisky. Then comes one of several cask strength bottles from K&L Wines, which buys the casks and bottles them, and the magnificent 1991 Port Matured, which alas is too majestic to drink.