Through the increasing silliness of their annual releases it must be said that Ardbeg have maintained one of the strongest core lineups in all of Scotland: the venerable 10 yo, the Corryvreckan and the Uigeadail are all whiskies of which you will rarely hear complaints. Well, maybe that’s not true anymore of the Uigeadail (first introduced in the early 2000s). This is the Ardbeg that has a mix of bourbon and sherry cask malt in it and, unsurprisingly, the proportion of older sherry cask whisky was much higher when they first started releasing it. In recent years some folk have said that it’s gotten lighter, both literally and figuratively. It’s always good to test these kinds of beliefs blind, which is exactly what a bunch of Danish whisky geeks did earlier this year. Their results were interesting with the lowest scores going to the oldest and most recent ones they tasted (from 2004 and 2014) and the ranking breaking down as follows: 2007-2009-2010-2006-2004-2014. I saw this report recently after I’d made my own plans to taste a 2011 release head to head with a 2014 release; and as their lowest score had gone to a 2014 release I was more resolved than ever to do it blind.
So, how do you set up a blind tasting when you’re all alone? (Usually, I enlist my wife’s help but she was out of town.) I cut four stickers of similar size and shape. I stuck two of them under identical tasting glasses in the same location under the bases and wrote A and B on them with light pencil. I then poured the whiskies, writing down which had gone in the A glass and which in the B glass. I then shuffled the glasses, along with some empties, without looking at them until I had no idea anymore which was which. I then wrote 1 on one of the remaining stickers and 2 on the other and put them above the other stickers on the glasses. I was now reviewing #1 and #2 but I had no idea which was A and which was B.
I had two ounces of each over the course of about two and a half hours. I moved back and forth between the two on the nose for 5-10 minutes (capping each glass between sniffs). I then drank about an ounce and a half of #1, taking notes on the palate, finish and developments on the nose, adding water halfway through. Then the same for #2 after some bread and water. Then I nosed and drank the remaining portion of each, alternating them after a couple of sips (with more bread and water in between). Not the most rigourous method probably but adequate to my needs.
Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2%; 2011 and 2014 releases; from samples received in swaps)
Nose: Cereals and acidic smoke to start; olive brine and lemons; phenolic but not overwhelmingly so. With more time the aromas of disinfectant become stronger and there’s some mothballs and citronella too. With more time there’s more iodine and the smoke is a little leafier. There’s also a sweet raisiny quality now and some shortbread—evidence of sherry, probably. Gets more and more pungent as it goes. Much later there’s a hint of vanilla. The citronella expands with water and it’s much saltier now; a bit more vanilla as well.
Palate: Sweet and salty to start but then a huge wave of phenolic smoke. Lemon and olive again and salt crystals. No hint of the sweetness on the second sip and the smoke’s leafier now here too. Gets saltier as it goes but there’s not much else changed with time but I’m not sure I would want it to. With water it’s sweeter and not as phenolic; still plenty of smoke, and some pepper too now along with the olives and lemon and salt.
Finish: Long. Smoke, smoke, smoke: deep and tarry. With more time the lemon passes through to the finish as well. As on the palate with water.
Comments: Big, dense Islay whisky; which is not what the nose prepared me for: I liked the nose throughout but it started out brighter before getting more pungent later. On the palate though it’s richer and darker and smokier and everything you want from an Uigeadail (if not as sherry-influenced as very early releases). If this turns out to be the 2014 then I’m not particularly torn about the possible decline.
Rating: 89 points.
Nose: More muted to start and less phenolic still. Acidic smoke here too but there’s some vanilla to go with the lemon. The mothball/citronella thing is also more muted but here as well. Gets more expressive but also sweeter with time. Also leafier, and more phenolic than before, but less dense on the whole. With even more time it’s more coastal: brine, seashells. Less evidence of sherry here. As with #1, water pulls out more of the citronella at first but then the vanilla expands.
Palate: Very much as promised by the palate: sweet smoke with vanilla; not terribly phenolic. More lemon on the second sip and now it’s ashier. On the third sip the acid trumps the sweetness and the ashy smoke is firmly ensconced in the mid-palate. The vanilla’s not gone though. Later there’s a vague vegetal quality. More lemon still with water and more ashy smoke.
Finish: Medium. The sweet smoke lingers into the finish. Gets a little tarrier on the second sip. With time the vanilla begins to hang around longer as well and there’s more salt too.
Comments: This is good peated whisky and nothing I would ever be unhappy to be drinking. But it’s missing some depth, some interest; feels a bit by the numbers, in other words. And a bit too much vanilla for my liking. I liked the palate better with water.
Rating: 85 points.
Okay, now that I’ve written up my notes and assigned my scores, which was the 2011 and which the 2014?
wait for it…wait for it…
It turned out when I turned over the glasses that #1 was the 2014 release (B) and #2 was the 2011 (A). It is, of course, entirely possible that there’s a great deal of batch variation among Uigeadails released in any given year, but given the clear disparity I found between the two, and Steffen’s low opinion of the 2014, I was convinced that #2 was going to be it.
Please note that my 2014 was of a different batch than tasted by the Danes. Their bottle code was the new-fangled L59501 29072014; mine was in the more familiar Ardbeg format: L14 028 15:07 6ML. So Ardbeg probably changed the codes at some point in 2014 (probably corresponding with completely different vattings and bottling runs) and/or very different batches went to Europe and the US. The 2011, in case you’re interested, was L11 284 14:44 6ML.
There’s no real conclusion to be drawn from all this. In the absence of more (ideally blind) reviews of 2014 batches it’s hard to know whether the batch mine came from or the ones the Danes scored is the outlier. What their results clearly show though, and that my more limited tasting supports, is that there’s no simple narrative of decline over the last decade. And together our results probably show that unless you know that a bottle is from a well reviewed batch there are good chances of getting fairly variable results from batches released in the same year. In other words, good luck with your purchase!
Thanks to Bryan F. and Michael K. for the samples!