Tasting the J.W. Lees Harvest 2001

Last week we looked at the J.W. Lees Harvest 2005 Lagavulin Cask; a richly deep Vintage ale aged in Lagavulin barrels. This past weekend I opened the other bottle of J.W. Lees that I had, and it is even older. A 2001 bottle of their Vintage Harvest Ale. I was definitely excited to see what nine years would do to this beer, especially after trying one that was aged for five.

J.W. Lees brews this vintage each year in December in limited quantities. Some, like the Lagavulin cask, are aged in various oak casks, but the standard Vintages are left to shine own their own. This should be an interesting contrast at the very least.

The small 275ml bottle proclaims 11.5% abv, but as it is bottle conditioned and nine years old, I expect by now it is closer to 13%, or potentially even more. No doubt this beer should have something very unique to offer, and there was only one way to find out.

I brought the 2001 Harvest out of the fridge and let it warm to cellar temperature around 12C (54F); I did not want to mute any flavors or aromas that would manifest in this beer, so slightly warmer is much better in this case. The pour was thick and syrup like showing no signs of carbonation. I had to pour it from a very high distance to coerce any head out of it. Eventually it did lift a short but dense quarter inch head that quickly faded to a slight film on the surface of the deep maroon beer. It was transparent, with a couple bubbles scattered though it, and glowed with dark bronze and gold. This picture shows it much darker than it really was; it definitely had rich amber hues and traces of deep reds and royal purple.

The nose was, well, as we exclaimed when drinking it, “hectic”. It was immensely rich and powerful. Deep dark sweet fruity malts poured from the beer emanating raisins, figs, sticky dates, burnt brown sugar, warm alcohol and notes of spice and pepper. It really was hugely aromatic and showed thick complexity and dense flavors.

The taste would prove to be no different. It melts into your palate thickly with all the same flavors sinking deeply into your tongue and cheeks. Rich and chewy caramel and toffee malt caress your tongue as the deep and dark flavors of the fruits heavily swim by your cheeks. Again, raisins, figs, dates and brown sugar are all very prominent. The alcoholic touch of brandy warms in also, as does rich stewed apples and pears.

Touches of spice and pepper add a hint of balance, but this beer is extremely one sided favoring sweet malt over anything else. The mouthfeel was thick and oily, really bringing a syrup like note to the whole experience. It showed no traces of maple, but a syrup like sweetness, almost like dark rich honey coats this entire beer. It shows loads of caramel and toffee on every dimension, and really sinks into your taste buds.

It is definitely now stronger than 11.5%, and it shows it everywhere. I did split this bottle with a friend, so after I had has maybe 100mls of it my palate was pretty tired already. Its just a massive trump of dense flavor with zero hops and zero carbonation to help cool it down. It really put me to work. Both me and my bud agreed that an entire bottle of this would be too much for one man to really enjoy; unless you have an hour or so.

I think the Lagavulin 2005 benefited greatly from its time in the oak. Some woody or smoky dryness would help round out this ’01 Vintage Ale, because on its own it is an intense ride with no seatbelts. It is worth the experience if you can find a bottle, but definitely share it with a friend, or three.

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