Ardmore, located in the Highlands (as per the SWA; some still list in the Speyside), is one of a handful of distilleries outside Islay known for producing peated whisky. I’ve not had very many Ardmores but I’ve not had a bad one. There’s not very much available as official bottlings: there’s the Ardmore Traditional, which is a very good value when found in the neighbourhood of $30, but not so much when found in the neighbourhood of $50 (it depends on where in the US you are); and there’s a very expensive 30 yo–I don’t believe I’ve seen any other official bottlings in the US. But the independents, as always, do a good job of supplementing the negligence of the owners. In the last year or two, in particular, a large number of expressions from the early 1990s have come on the market and this distillery’s stock has seemed to be on the rise among the general populace of whisky geeks.
The Ardmore I am tasting tonight was bottled by Cadenhead’s in 1996 (back when the venerable Scots company was still in the US market) and is from the 1977 vintage. As it represents a rare opportunity for me to taste a middle-aged whisky distilled in another era I couldn’t pass the bottle up when I saw it.
Ardmore 18, 1977 (59.3%, Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection; from my own bottle)
The label only specifies that this was matured in an oak cask (not terribly useful as Scotch whisky by law cannot be matured in anything but oak casks) but I would guess this was ex-bourbon.
Nose: Very light peat–sweet and minerally in nature. Medicinal–not phenolic though, more like aspirin (sour). After a minute or so that sourness turns into sour smoke; faint hints of rubber too (pencil eraser). A musky sweetness becomes apparent after a few more minutes (under the smoke). A little powdered ginger too. With water the sweetness is clearly fruity, and the fruit is of tropical origin. Nothing extravagant or over the top, but it’s quite the development from the initial aromas: the sour smoke is now all but gone.
Palate: Amazingly drinkable at full strength: oily texture and a thick, minerally sweetness that expands and all but explodes on the tongue. Peat but not a lot of smoke. White pepper, powdered ginger, a touch of salt. Draws from a limited, somewhat austere palette of flavours but it does a lot with what it’s got. Let’s see what water does (just a drop): oh yes, water unlocks that musky sweetness that peeped through on the nose. A very pleasant and bright burst of over-ripe peaches turning to tinned pineapple. It’s as though a button of a charcoal gray jacket is undone to reveal a glimpse of a baroque waistcoat underneath, and then another, and then another till finally the jacket is taken off completely and it’s like it was never there in the first place (“whatever”, ed.). Amazing transformation. Who knows maybe it would have happened without water too if I’d left it alone for much longer, but I doubt it.
Finish: Long. Peppery and gingery. Slightly tannic. With water the tannic note disappears and a peppery sweetness lingers for quite some time.
Comments: This is really quite lovely. Given how little whisky distilled in the 1970s I’ve had I am in no position to make any statements about the characteristics of whisky from that era, but this is certainly not like the 1990s/2000s Ardmores I’ve had; those have been far more robustly peaty and far more direct. There’s something in the initial gingeriness that is reminiscent of the Amrut Special Reserve and also the far inferior Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve, but there’s none of the raw edge or woodiness of either of those whiskies here. And the austere minerally, peppery peaty character on the palate without water I’ve only really noticed as strongly from Longrow among contemporary releases. Very nice, but sadly, I doubt I will be able to find/afford any more Ardmore from this era. I have a couple more Cadenhead’s US releases from the late 1990s socked away–hope they’ll approach this one in quality.
Rating: 89 points (It is only the relatively uninteresting finish that keeps it out of the 90s for me.)