Back to Islay for my next dram, and that ever-popular of the Kildalton three: Ardbeg.
The Kildalton Cross is a special release bottling that’s got the collectors in fever pitch and the auction sites buzzing. Given the prices on the secondary market, and the huge furore surrounding purchase from primary sources, I usually give the Ardbeg special editions a miss (though I’m always ready to taste a sample, of course).
Popular opinion of the quality of Ardbeg special editions varies greatly, particularly with the tendency to release NAS whisky of late. The Feis Ile release this year, Auriverdes, had a lot of negative reactions (I think it was the only NAS whisky on offer during the festival, besides Laphroaig’s Cairdeas).
I can understand the disappointment when special editions don’t have age statements, though I have to say right now that I love the distillery’s standard NAS releases Uigeadail and Corryvreckan. I usually have a bottle of the former open on my whisky shelf and it makes me smile every time I pour a glass. For the price, it may actually get you the best value for money when it comes to Islay drams.
So in my eyes, when it comes to Ardbeg, it needn’t be an old specimen to be balanced, interesting, and tasty.
The 1980 and 1981 Kildalton releases at cask strength have great reputations among Ardbeg fans of old. But will this non-cask strength NAS release of the same name fire up a new generation and keep the die-hards from pining for the good old days…?
Having never been lucky enough to try those older vintages, I should be safe from pie-eyed nostalgia at least. Time to taste!
Nose: Surprisingly calm, with a clinical character. Gentle medicinal peat smoke, bandages, sea water and soft leather. Not a hint of fruit.
Palate: Vanilla toffee with ginger and almonds. A little cough mixture. The trademark Ardbeg peat is in there, but it’s not as robust as core expressions. Instead of starting on full-blast phenols and tailing off, the smoke builds in the mouth. Touch of seaweed in there.
Finish: A smidgeon of dried fruit, but quite tart – more like apricots than raisins. Some drying, nutty, oaky notes linger.
Frankly, this is a very bland expression for Ardbeg. I can see the attraction for them to produce a thought-provoking, subtle, refined whisky to contrast with the loud, intense, party-in-your-mouth profiles we know and love. But, this isn’t it.
It took quite a long time to open up and for distinct notes to present themselves. I daren’t add water at all, lest all flavour disappear entirely.
To be honest, it’s not unpleasant. It’s not a bad whisky. But my mouth misses the party. It’s like sipping a flat cola, the flavour is familiar but it doesn’t hit the spot like you’d hoped. Like going round to an old school friend’s place after years and finding they’ve become a bit… well… boring.
I could let them off given that this was a release to raise money for charity, and so much of it will sit unopened in a cabinet to be admired. But this isn’t what I love about whisky – I need flavour. If there’s poetry on the palate then you could serve me the liquid in a shoe – the bottle, box, and marketing-bollocks is all a discardable vessel to get the whisky to my face.
I wanted to like this, I really did. I tried 2014’s Supernova release and it was absolutely thrilling. A rocketship on the marketing material and a cosmic explosion on the palate. If that whisky was a spaceman then I think this one is an accountant – not an unpleasant person to be with, per se, but he’s no Buzz Lightyear.
Stick to what you’re good at, lads. Loud, mad, boisterous whisky at cask strength. It’s not the lack of age statement here that’s let you down – it’s more a lack of character and a lost sense of adventure.
There’s samples of this on Master of Malt for £10.57 if you fancy a go.