Here is the last stop on my little tour of Islay this month. I started at Caol Ila a week ago, Friday and then moved on to Bowmore last Monday. After that I cut across to the south shore, stopping first at Laphroaig and then at Lagavulin. Today I go another mile up the road, to Ardbeg. (My apologies, by the way, to Bunnahabhain, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich—I will try my best to get to them next month in another whistle-stop tour of Islay.)
As with all the other whiskies from this tour, this is an indie bottling. It was released by Chieftain’s in 2011. For reasons I cannot explain it has taken me till 2020 to get around to opening it. But better late than never, to coin a phrase. I opened this bottle in early October. I was fully expecting to be underwhelmed: a single cask bottled at 46% by one of the lesser indies. But, as you will see, I was more than whelmed. Continue reading →
Last week I posted reviews of whiskies from three closed distilleries. First the Japanese distillery, Hanyu, then Brora in the Scottish highlands and finally Port Ellen on Islay. Today I have a review of a whisky from a distillery that is still in business, Ardbeg. But in a sense this whisky is also from a distillery that is long gone: the Ardbeg that once made high quality whisky and made it available at reasonable prices. The irony of this statement is that in fact the Corryvreckan may have been the first in the series of concept whiskies that have brought us down to the permanent state of folly in which Ardbeg now resides. Yes, the Uigeadail and the Beist were released before it—and the Uigeadail was already NAS—but those are fairly traditional whiskies. The Corryvreckan, on the other hand, first released widely in 2009—after a “committee release” in 2008—has a lot of virgin French oak casks in the mix (at least this was the talk when it was first released) and is more of a “designer malt”. My first bottle was a 2010 release and I loved it. I haven’t followed it through the years since but it’s remained a highly-rated whisky. Alas, my review will not speak to its current quality as this is a bottle released in 2011. Let’s get to it. Continue reading →
This was Ardbeg’s 2019 Feis Ile release. I have to admit I stopped paying attention to Ardbeg some years ago. The 10 year old is still an Islay classic and my last bottles of the Uigeadail and Corryvreckan were very good too (albeit neither were anywhere close to being recent releases), but most of the noise emanating from the distillery—or rather from its owners—has seemed for a while to be in the service of high-concept silliness. I thought 2018’s Feis Ile release, the Grooves, was fairly ordinary. Why then am I reviewing the 2019 release? Well, largely because in theory at least bourbon cask Ardbeg finished in rum casks does not seem like a bad idea. (Of course, they say they’ve “rested” their spirit in rum casks; unlike all those other distilleries who make their spirit ride treadmills and run marathons in finishing casks.) Will the reality of this whisky in fact match up with that theoretical promise? Only one way to find out. Continue reading →
In which I start the month with a timely’ish review. The foolishly named Ardbeg Grooves is this year’s entry in Ardbeg’s annual exercise in folly. The regular release comes out on Ardbeg Day, otherwise known as June 2; this higher strength release came out a few weeks ago to whet the appetite of those who cannot get enough of Ardbeg and their folly. Despite being a fool myself, I’ve skipped these shenanigans entirely in recent years; and eventual reviews of their recent annual releases have not made me feel foolish about having done so. However, this year when the opportunity arose to taste the latest “Committee Release” via a bottle split, I decided to go for it. For some reason I thought I’d read very positive reviews of it—though I have not subsequently been able to track down what it is I’d thought I’d read. This whisky apparently contains some significant fraction of spirit matured in ex-red wine casks. The press materials tell me that these casks were charred extensively, producing grooves in them; evidently, Ardbeg’s proprietary cask charring system allows them to produce effects that fit with whatever silly concept they’ve hit on for the year (see also the Alligator). Also, Ardbeg was groovy in the 1960s and whatnot (yes, this is actually part of their sell). Continue reading →
Three relevant whisky reviews in one week: who am I and what have I done with myself?
Like the Old Weller Antique, the Ardbeg 10 is not a special release. Unlike the Old Weller Antique, it’s actually available everywhere whisky is sold. Amid all the shenanigans that Ardbeg have gotten up to since they re-opened, their 10 yo has been the mainstay of their range, Unlike the Uigeadail and the Corryvreckan (which came later), there have not been many reports of changes in its character or even of decline. I’ve previously reviewed bottles from 2007 and 2009 and liked them a lot; more to the point, Serge V. gave the 2015 release 89 points. That should bode well, in theory, for this bottle which was released in 2016. By the way, it’s become much easier to read the bottle codes on Ardbeg bottles (see below): I don’t know how the Ardbeg obsessives are coping with the loss of their special codes. Continue reading →
On Wednesday I posted a brief description of the Ardbeg distillery grounds and visitor centre, replete with far too many photographs. Today I have a brief write-up of two lunches at their Old Kiln Cafe, which were the focal points of our visits to the distillery. Don’t worry, there aren’t quite as many photographs today though I do have—in what represents either a high or low for me (depending on your point of view)—four separate pictures of the same dish. The food on Islay, with one exception, was far better than I’d expected it would be, and our lunches at the Old Kiln Cafe were, in sum, the best of our meals on the island. Continue reading →
We visited Ardbeg on our first and second full days on Islay but on neither occasion was it for whisky-centered action. I did not do any of the tours or tastings the distillery offers. Instead, we were there to eat. Old Islay-hands already know this but Ardbeg’s Old Kiln Cafe may very well be the best place to eat on Islay—it certainly was where we had our best meals. I’d originally thought I’d only have the one post on our visits to Ardbeg, centered on food. But when the time came to resize and crop pics this weekend I discovered that, predictably, I’d taken an amount known to mathematicians as a shit-tonne—and I felt that it would be cruel to deny you the opportunity to look at all of them: many of which are of the same subject from multiple angles, taken with different white balance and aperture settings on different cameras. (There is no need to thank me.) Accordingly, my post on the Old Kiln Cafe will come on Friday. Today I have pictures of the distillery grounds and the visitor centre/shop, which we wandered while waiting for tables to open up. Continue reading →
I started the month with a Douglas Laing cask of Ardbeg 27, 1973 that was bottled for their original Old Malt Cask line in 2000. In the middle of the month I posted a review of another of their casks: a 28 yo from 1972 that was bottled in 2000. I liked those two a lot. Here now is the third of those early 1970s OMC casks that I got in on via bottle splits. Will it be as good as the other two? Only one way to find out.
Ardbeg 28, 1972-2001 (49.5%; 222 Bottles; Douglas Laing OMC; from a bottle split)
Nose: A big phenolic hit as I pour; tarrier smoke when I sniff, with lime peel and salt right behind. Gets more medicinal almost immediately and then keeps going (disinfectant, gauze bandages, iodine, rubber gaskets on medicine jars). After a minute or two there’s some soft vanilla (just a bit) and some ham, a bit of sackcloth and quite a bit more salt. Gets brighter (acidic) and “cleaner” and less tarry as it sits. With a drop of water it gets even more austere: smoky almond oil. Continue reading →
Last week I posted the first of three reviews of early 1970s Ardbegs from Douglas Laing’s Old Malt Cask line. I really, really liked that 27 yo. Here now is the first of two 28 yos. As noted in the previous review, these bottles did not have cask numbers on them and are identified by a combination of distillation and bottling years and their outturn. In this case, the abv is relevant too: at 50.1% it’s a touch higher than the usual 50% of the OMC line. Anyway, let’s get right to it.
Ardbeg 28, 1972-2000 (50.1%; 234 Bottles; Douglas Laing OMC; from a bottle split)
Nose: Bright, phenolic peat: more citrus and cereals here than in the 27 yo. Starts expanding almost immediately with salt crystals and olive brine, more disinfectant and the sweet, sweet stink of the sea. A little inkier as it sits and even more coastal (the sea, the beach, the air). More lime peel now and pickled mustard seed. With more time there’s some ham cure here too but not as pronounced as in the 27 yo. A few drops of water push the smoke back a bit and pull out more of the coastal notes and more of the ham cure and some preserved lemon. Continue reading →
This is the first of three reviews of Ardbegs from the early 1970s that will be showing up on the blog in the next few weeks. Very few things in whisky geekdom are fetishized more than 1970s Ardbeg and, in particular, early 1970s Ardbeg. I’ve not had very many of these but I’m sorry to say that the few I have tried have all mostly lived up to the general hype (sorry because I’m temperamentally drawn to being contrary). Those, however, have all been official releases—see, for example, my reviews of the two US releases of the legendary Provenance series (here and here). These three, however, are independent releases. They were all bottled by Douglas Laing for their Old Malt Cask series—they were bottled in the early 2000s well before the split in the company. Two were distilled in 1972 and one in 1973; all were bourbon casks. Cask numbers were not listed and so these are identified by the number of bottles in the outturn. I got one ounce of each in a bottle split and on a per ounce basis these might add up to the most expensive whisky I’ve purchased. As such I’m really hoping not to be disappointed by them! Let’s see. First up, a 27 yo distilled in 1973. Continue reading →
I started out the week with a review of the first US release of the Ardbeg Provenance from 1998. That was a spectacular whisky, one of the best I’ve ever had. This is from the 4th release (and the third overall in the US) from 2000. So it’s a few years older (all the Provenance releases were of the 1974 vintage). Will it scale the heights of the other? Let’s get right to it and see.
The generous source of this sample can be identified just by looking at the label.
Ardbeg Provenance, 1974-2000 (55%; 4th release; from a sample from a friend)
Nose: A little “rounder” than the 1998 release but otherwise very similar: minerally peat, lemon, mustard seed, paraffin; a little bit more vanilla here perhaps. Gets brighter with a bit of air: drier smoke, salt; some wet stones too. Creamier and fruitier as it sits (apple again and slightly sweeter citrus). No lime pickle with water but more fruit instead: hints of apricot to go with the citrus; some candied ginger too. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
Since I started the week with Ardbeg. I might as well end it with Ardbeg too. This is from a sherry cask and was also bottled by Malts of Scotland for van Zuylen’s Dunes An Oir series. Given how rare indie Ardbegs of any kind are, leave alone from sherry casks, and given how manic the market for Ardbeg usually is, you might expect this to have to sold out double-quick. But as of my writing this is still available. Have the distillery’s own annual shenanigans finally begun to puncture some of its mystique? Probably not, but one can hope. Still, you’d think whisky geeks tired of NAS Ardbeg with tall tales and funny names attached might be attracted anyway to a 17 yo at cask strength from a bespoke bottler. No, I’m not trying to give you the hard sell on behalf of the retailer; just trying to wrap my head around the vagaries of the whisky market.
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. Continue reading →
Ardbeg previously released editions of Supernova in 2009 and 2010. At the time the Supernova played in the “how high can you go?” peat league but Bruichladdich’s Octomore line has essentially put an end to that competition. The significance of the Supernova—quite apart from silly stories about whisky going to space—lies mostly in the marketability of its name. It’s a bit like when movie studios run out of ideas and decide to just “reboot” old franchises that made a lot of money. This is not to say, of course, that Ardbeg doesn’t sell a lot of its other special releases too, but, in the US, at least, none of those are guaranteed to sell out double-quick and most don’t cross the $100 barrier. This Supernova, however, sold north of $150 in most markets and disappeared pretty quickly.
At the time that I first tasted it, back in September (at the same gathering that featured the Clynelish 17, Manager’s Dram), it was still around (in fact, had just showed up) and while I liked it, I didn’t think it was anything I’d pay $100 for, leave alone $150. Every Lagavulin 12 and Laphroaig 10 CS I’ve had, I thought, kicks this one’s ass up and down the street and they cost 1/2-1/3 of the Supernova’s price. I took a sample home and am interested to see if time (and a bit of air in the sample bottle; I have about 1.5 oz in a 2 oz bottle) have made this any better. Continue reading →
The Ardbog was Ardbeg’s special Feis Ile release for 2013. I can’t recall off the top of my head if Ardbeg had any other special releases last year—it’s hard to keep up with them. With Ardbeg’s latest noisy releases on the market now—the new Supernova just came out—it seems like as good a time as any to review this one (I’ve had the bottle open for a long time). It is a vatting of Ardbeg of different styles, particularly ex-bourbon and ex-manzanilla sherry and it is 10 years old. It originally retailed between $89 and $120 in the US—if you’re keeping count this means it went for 2x-3x the price of the regular 10 yo. It didn’t all go though—there’s still some available.
I’ll be curious to see, by the way, what the fate of the new Supernova will be in the US market. In addition to the Ardbog we still have plentry of the Alligator and Auriverdes on the shelves of liquor stores here. Ardbeg-mania doesn’t seem to be quite as well-established here as it is in the UK and Europe. The new Supernova is priced far higher than any of those were—the lowest report I’ve seen is $125 and the highest is close to $200. If I could find it at $125 I might think about it but that’s my limit. I did like the samples of the 2009 and 2010 that I reviewed a little while ago quite a bit but I don’t want to get too caught up in Ardbeg’s marketing frenzy. There’s plenty of other high quality peated malt out there. Continue reading →
After Monday’s discontinued Ardbeg 17 here is the one-off Rollercoaster. This is a vatting released in 2010 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Ardbeg “Committee”, and comprises spirit from each year from 1997-2006. In other words, there’s 3-12 yo whisky in this (you can get the details of the proportions at the Ardbeg Project). This was around in the US for a while at a fairly reasonable price, but, of course, I didn’t bother trying to get a bottle till it was too late. Still, thanks to a sample swap I get to finally try it. Let’s get right to it.
Ardbeg Rollercoaster (57.3%; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Well, there’s no shortage of phenolic peat on the nose with this one. Also: seashells, lemon and a big hit of vanilla. Gets quite medicinal as it sits and there’s some wet rope and an organic/rotting kelp note too. The vanilla comes back up again with time and it gets quite creamy. With water the lemon is out on top but the vanilla-cream is still around. Continue reading →
Continuing an unplanned mini-run of discontinued Islays in their late teens, here is the Ardbeg 17, which was, I believe, the first release from the distillery after it was purchased by the Glenmorangie group in 1997. It was discontinued in 2004. I got this miniature in an unlikely swap. A fellow whisky geek offered it in exchange for the tin of a Port Charlotte PC9. I was only too glad to take him up on it. I can’t be bothered to squint for the bottling code, but this is a 43% bottling for the US market and as per the Ardbeg Project there was only one release of the 50 ml miniature in the US and that was in 2000 (well before I’d ever heard of Ardbeg). I’m not sure how much production was happening right before the 1983 closure of the distillery (it reopened in 1989)–it’s possible that this is from even older distillate. It is certainly the case that those who bought the 17 yo released in 2004 were getting much older whisky.