Keeping up the Old & Rare drive, here’s an Ardbeg Trio.
If a distillery and its whisky are uber-popular, it’s going to get a harder time from me than say an underdog or fledgeling distillery. I can’t let the giants enjoy global success without challenging and scrutinising those elevated positions from time to time. Thing is, it’s very hard not to respect and love Ardbeg.
I’ve visited the Ardbeg distillery twice. The first time was during a sunny few weeks in October 2013. Having just missed out on the last tour of the day [and the last day of my trip], I was bowled over by the hospitality shown me, receiving discounted food, a personal invite into the manager’s sample cupboard, and complimentary cask samples from 1974 and 1975 vintages – more curios than stellar examples – but my experience was, needless to say, positive and I was thoroughly grateful.
Move forward five years to 2018 when Ardbeg put on a Feis Ile show [WLP] to beat all the other open day’s on the island that year, and even put some of the others to shame. With a family fete-like atmosphere and a richly rewarding lucky dip, Ardbeg set up one of my all-time tasting highlights – sipping classic Ardbeg with then-distillery manager Mickey Heads – suitably dressed head to toe as Disco Stu in his back garden [WLP]. To top it off, I also won a bottle of Ardbeg 10yo!
Whilst the annual releases have been something of a hit-and-miss affair [Perpetuum being a memorably disappointing year], I’ve applauded many of Ardbeg’s core NAS releases such as their celebrated Uigeadail and Corryvrecken, for example, and their latest young 5yo Wee [WLP] Beastie. It’s weird to think that contemporary Ardbeg 10yo has only been with us since 2008. Before that it was ’Very Young’, ‘Still Young’ and ‘Almost There’ as well as the 17yo which reflected existing stocks.
Indeed, Ardbeg’s reputation has come from a long and rich legacy of production and incredible past releases, a few of which I shall try today.
Whiskyfun: ‘General Distillery Profile: Peat Smoke Tea Pepper Lemon Apple Camphor Liquorice Oysters Grapefruit‘:
- Young (<20yo) : Peat Smoke Apples Tee Lemon Pepper Liquorice Oranges Green, maritime
- Old (>20yo) : Peat Lemon Smoke Tea Sea Liquorice Camphor Apples Orange Medicinal
Ardbeg 1991/2005 14yo DL OMC refill hogshead cask #3532 [358 bts] 50% WB88
I’m thinking this refill bourbon single cask offering shall make for a good appetiser, compliments of Malt Martin who must have given me this sample three or more years ago.
- N: Acutely salty malty sweet-peppery citrusy peat, with thick vanilla pastries, a special blend of un-brewed herbal, dried orchard fruit & smoky tea leaves,… this all making for a recognisably Ardbeggian affair.
- T: Definitively Ardbeg with oily briny coal > tar into soft-bourbon-y salty maritime-vegetal burnt char that provides an intense abv-driven middle, though adding too much water over-simplifies things, amplifying the chocolate and dampening the herbal briny salty qualities.
- F: Eventually settles with all the lovely balanced sides of peated-malted barley in refill oak and an ashy salty bitter-sour citrusy charred ending.
- C: Douglas Laing must be commended time and time again on their ‘Old Malt Cask’ 50% bottling strength policy. It has served us so well for so long, and indeed those whiskies they’ve bottled that will stay intact for far longer than many of those from G&M as well as official classics from Glen Grant or Strathisla for example, many of which are slowly dying in their bottles.
Scores 87 points
- N: Boy, check out those almost Brora-esque honeyed sugars into Golden Syrup, sweet ripe lemon, a hint of coconut, … but unlike the rest of the lineup and most Ardbeg’s I’ve tried, this doesn’t possess the usual peatiness, the saltiness, the big maritime bite – not that there’s anything lacking about this whisky in its own right. In fact, it’s an awesome bouquet that reminds me of an old refill-matured Bunna or even a rare-old Glen Grant or Glenlivet. Being very light, however, the strength/vitality is a slight concern for the palate as the nose needs frequent re-covering in order to build the aromas back up in the glass.
- T: Airy bone-dry juice that defies my understanding first off. I should have started the flight with this, doh! Honeyed meatiness into a very light yet concentrated/confined ashy peatiness,…
- F: ,.. soon leads to subtle streaky bacon – well fried – alongside the continuation of the honeyed melon. It’s hard to detect the briny peaty maritime levels after the far stronger and younger, more dominant DL powerhouse.
- C: I’m not surprised that we see wildly different stories & scores of this single cask. Perceptions will be bottle-dependent, and those that tried this back when it was first bottled may have reacted more favourably than those that try this more than 20 years later from a half-opened bottle that travels from festival to festival.
This example scores 88 points, with potential easily into the 90s.
TWE says: ‘,… this cask-strength dram is from the 1976 batch of sherry casks that took Ardbeg’s reputation into the stratosphere’. I wonder how much this bottle fetched in 2002? For the Japanese market, this is another offering I’ve held onto for years now, compliments of ASWhisky.
- N: You know it’s incredibly dense, just by the way it falls into the glass. Leathery at first and very intense, it takes a while for the sherried complexities to open out. In fact, I’m not convinced it’s fully opened out after 45 minutes in an open glass, though every time I go to it, I pick out more and more. Indeed ASWhisky says ‘For this Ardbeg you need rest and time he unfolds his treasures only after a good while in the glass drunk too early, he shows something grumpy and old in the mouth’. It goes from bone dry & leathery to classic sherry to salty brine over the course of time, with a profile that is both old skool and contemporary, such is the freshness, the intensity, the vivid vibrancy. Then again, there are fusty overtones that defy this to have been distilled later than 1981 when Ardbeg was mothballed for eight years. It’s worth noting that the distillery closed again in 1996 before Glenmorangie bought the distillery and remaining stock a year later for £7 million. Not accounting for inflation, that’s currently around 9 bottles of 52yo Macallan [MoM]. Now more than an hour later this remains formidable yet it’s a firm but generous nose that gives without shedding. I reckon you could nose this all night, and the same glass would still hold up in the morning. Not sure mine will last that long.
- T: Whilst I’d anticipated this would be sweeter and squidgier, the arrival is surprisingly bitter and peated. It definitely needs some water, otherwise, it’s just salty oloroso followed by lots of peat. Water marries the two camps together, where the magic then happens. Aside from all the descriptors that one’s palate may glean or one’s brain conjure, it’s the mouthfeel that defines this one’s appeal. It’s big on everything, but consolidated with water – unlike some Karuizawa’s perhaps that can stay ever-intense and ‘showy’ – this is perfectly congenial. ASWhisky says: ‘You still feel the memories in your mouth hot and spicy but also spicy and soft’. Following on neatly perhaps is a quote I heard today from no other than Gordon Ramsey who says “presentation lasts 30 seconds, it’s the flavour that holds the memory” [Kitchen Nightmares:, Series 3 Episode 3: 26 mins].
- F: After the oiliest gooey-ist vegetal-sweet~ashy chocolate on earth [with hints of rum, clairins and cachaca], we’ve succulent yet dry ashy > oak briny tannins, the dry-vegetal ashy oiliness remaining buoyant.
- C: I can easily see, if you rushed this, that it could be just ‘good’. Give it all the time and help it wants and it shall reward. Though not particularly subtle nor perhaps the emotional jerker I wanted, it is a sherried single cask of excellence from a great vintage year for Ardbeg.
Scores 93 points
With huge thanks to AS and Malt Martin.