So (most probably) the 2003 matured completely on Islay and the 2017 completely on the mainland. And I guess that the 2012 bottling contains casks both matured on Islay and on the mainland (as Diageo started to partly store Lagavulin on the mainland already in the nineties). I am curious about two things: Can I detect a difference between the Islay-matured and the mainland-matured releases AND has the Lagavulin flavours profile changed over these 15 years?
Colour: The colour is irrelevant as they always used and still use caramel to fix it - but for the records: it is burnished and yes, they did a good job in adjusting it to the same level using caramel. The texture of the 2003 shows very, very late slow and fat legs and sticky tears (that translates into a rich oiliness that usually provides a great mouthfeel and finish). The texture of the 2017 shows much earlier legs that move slowly and late fat sticky tears (still a very good oiliness). The 2012 texture is more comparable to the 2017 with early slow legs and late fat tears than with the 2003.
Nose: The 2003 offers a very medicinal and flawless sherry profile with clear maritime aromas of seawood and a little salt. The nose of the 2017 is very different to that of the 2003 with more grassy and herbal aromas and significantly less sherry and medicinal. Did they decrease the share of sherry casks in the recipe or is this a tribute to less intense (designed) sherry casks because of the cask supply crisis (that started around 2000 with a shortage of sherry casks). Maybe there is a paxarette-effect with the 2003 too (back in 1987 the use of paxarette was still allowed). The nose of the 2012 again more compares with the 2017 on strong herbal and grassy flavours but a few sherry and medicinal aromas only (2 points less than the 2003 while the 2017 is 3 points lower).
Mouthfeel: The 2003 instantly coats the mouth without any distracting moment, simply great (Lagavulin at its best). The mouthfeel of the 2017 is still coating but a little bitter and adstringent (tannins, cardboardy). The 2012 arrives on the palate warming and coating with again a slight drying bitterness (but less than the 2017). But far away from the adorable mouthfeel of the 2003 (3 points less and 4 points lower for the 2017 compared to the 2003).
Taste: The 2003 is multi-layered on sweet sherry and barley sugary flavours within a peaty and spicy wooden framework. I find tar (of a freshly tarred road), iodine and sea-salt flavours. The 2017 is much sweeter on the palate but mainly because of barley sugars and less of the sweet sherry wine flavours. The peat is more ashy and bonfire-ish and most of the maritime flavours are missing (no tar, no iodine, no salt). Unbelievable how clear this difference is - so the location of maturation seems to have a tremendous effect on the flavours profile. The taste of the 2012 is more herbal than the 2017 and less sugary-sweet (hence more balanced). The peat is less ashy and more traditional Lagavulinish but I cannot find any maritime flavours here either. Again I vote this 3 points lower and the 2017 even 5 points lower than the 2003.
Finish: The long finish of the 2003 nicely vanishes in different waves without any bitter or drying moments, simply delicious. The 2017 still owns a long finish that is somewhat peppery and very sugary-sweet but again not many sherry or maritime flavours. The finish of the 2012 is long and adds more spicy flavours without any bitter or drying moments (but without the wave-effect of the 2003 either). I vote the 2012 two points lower and the 2017 four points lower than the 2003.
This is a stunning result. I never ever thought the differences between these batches are that huge and I can unmistakingly identify the effect of Islay-maturation versus mainland-maturation that clearly. Of course, there are these additional effects of lower-quality sherry casks, no paxarette treatments anymore and more aggressive new wood. But that the 16-year standard Lagavulin degraded by as much as a huge 3 to 4 points score difference within just 15 years is surprising and ... alarming. No doubt, the 16-year old Lagavulin still is a great dram but it is very different to what it was in 2003!
If you adapt slowly to this new taste over the years you do not notice even such a big change... By the way, I do not claim that today's taste of Lagavulin is worser than 15 years ago - all I say is it changed significantly in a direction that I (personally) do not like as much as its original taste.