Here is the best bourbon cask peated whisky that I have yet tasted: the Ardbeg Provenance 1974-1998. This is not a terribly controversial pick: it is a fairly legendary whisky. I’ve been lucky enough to taste it a few times now, courtesy the generosity of my friend Pat, who has brought a bottle to a number of small malt gatherings in the Twin Cities over the years. Pat’s own store of the Provenance releases is legendary in its own right—not because he has a basement full of them but because of how he came to acquire his (dwindling) collection. He ordered one from a major US retailer about a decade ago (at a pre-insanity price) and after tasting it called them back to see if they had more. They did; apparently, they’d had trouble selling them and had tried returning them to the distillery, who in turn told them to just lower the price and get rid of them. Pat took all they had left. Those were the days.
This was the first Provenance release for the US market. There were two others, both 1974-2000, and I’ll have a review of one of those later this week. The first Provenance releases were made right after Glenmorangie took over Ardbeg and were among those that re-established the distillery’s reputation after more than a decade spent closed or barely operational. That reputation—which some see as being squandered in the silliness of the annual releases of the last few years—was rebuilt on the back of Ardbeg’s output in the 1970s, much of which survived to a ripe old age on account of the distillery being shuttered for a long time. And of the 1970s spirit, that distilled pre-1975/6 is particularly prized as during that time the distillery was using peated malt entirely/largely from its own floor maltings. I have not had enough 1970s Ardbeg to have an opinion, annoying or otherwise, on this pre/post-1975 thing but I can tell you that this early Provenance release, which must have been vatted from the pick of casks sitting at the distillery, is mindbogglingly good.
Various changes in production regimes between the 1970s and now make it highly unlikely that this profile could ever be recreated (or for that matter that of the 1990 vintage that went into the Airigh Nam Beist from 2006-08); but it would be good if we could feel confident that current ownership and management are even interested in trying to match it with what’s being distilled and matured now. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case (though it must be said that the 10 yo remains a class whisky).
Ardbeg Provenance 1974-1998 (54.7%; US release; from a sample from a friend)
Nose: Minerally peat with almond oil, lemon, paraffin and a bit of mustard. Cereally and leathery as well on the second sniff and greater intensity. With more time there’s a bit of cream and also whiffs of an old cedar box with mothballs inside. With time the mineral note gets sweeter but the whole also gets more coastal (salt crystals, seashells). The nose just keeps on developing: some apple after a while and then after more time there are whiffs of gasoline as well. A few drops of water and it gets even better, if such a thing can be imagined: creamier and sweeter at first and then there’s a big wave of what I can only describe as a type of north Indian lime pickle—essentially just limes preserved with salt, asafoetida and some crushed coriander and cumin seed (you’ll have to trust me on this one).
Palate: Sweet entry and then there’s a burst of lemon followed by a burst of smoke. It’s all the stuff from the nose with some white pepper (or maybe it’s a very peppery, minerally olive oil). Lovely, oily mouthfeel. As on the nose, the intensity builds with each sip. Smokier with water (and it’s more acrid smoke now) and lots of coarsely ground black peppercorn. More intense and oily citrus now too (lemon and lime peel).
Finish: Long. Again, remarkably consistent but with a bit more smoke (and it’s a bit ashier here). As on the palate with water.
Comments: This is the single best whisky of this type I”ve ever tasted and it’s on the shortlist of the very best whiskies of any kind I’ve ever tasted. The endless development on the nose is quite remarkable and just when you think it couldn’t get any better water takes it to yet another level; less earthshaking on the palate and finish perhaps but so what? I count myself very fortunate to have had a few opportunities to nose and taste this whisky.
Rating: 94 points.
Heartfelt thanks to Pat for his generosity on a number of occasions.