Ardbeg 17

Distillery: Ardbeg
ABV: 40%
Cask: Bourbon Barrel
More Info: WhiskyBase

Here’s one of those mythical creatures of days gone by: the much-loved, and missed, Ardbeg 17. I’ve heard stories of this whisky for years now, and finally (thanks to Alex Blankenstijn at WhiskySample.nl) I’ve sourced myself a wee dram…

Nose: Honeyed vanilla coal dust. Permanent marker. Clean malty boiled sweets. Salty mineral-rich air with faint, light peat acridity. Some dusty tropical fruit and melon rind. Banana custard.

Palate: Light and delicate mouthfeel. A soft malty sweetness gives way to coastal notes and tangy, peppery peat. Then comes the fruit: leathery apricots smothered in honey with limes and nectarines soaked in brine, followed by a kick of sooty black pepper.

Finish: Chalky with lip smacking salt, more pepper, and creamy oak. Metallic tin right at the end.

Well that’s not what I was expecting! That mix of creamy, fruity salty flavour really reminds me of Bruichladdich. This is a much lighter whisky than the peaty engine-oil of a whisky that the distillery tends to produce nowadays.

No tour-de-force here, but a subtle, soft, fruity dram. Shame it’s so hard to source… If you see some, give it a taste!

Ardbeg Perpetuum Distillery Release

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 20.08.08Distillery: Ardbeg
Bottled: 2015
Age: NAS
ABV: 49.2%
Bottles: 12,000
Cask: Ex-bourbon and ex-sherry
More Info: WhiskyBase

Another year, another Ardbeg Day release!

Only this time it’s a special year for the distillery at the end of the Kildalton road – they’re celebrating their bicentenary. So just to confuse everybody, they released not one special bottling but two! I guess that’s one each for both centuries?

This one is the distillery-only version released for the Feis Ile. Oddly, they changed their mind and decided to put it on sale on their website, causing havoc as their servers went down under the heavy traffic.

They also did the anniversary edition, bottled at a slightly lower 47.4% ABV and to the tune of 72,000 bottles.

Both releases promise elements of classic Ardbegs throughout the ages, with old and young spirit and a nod to the future as well as the past.

But beyond all the marketing spiel, what’s it actually like…?

Nose: Big flakes of sea salt on pretzels with air-dried ham. Dusty sherry notes of ripe plums, backed by briny iodine. Thick, sticky molasses with Jamaican ginger cake and malt loaf. Chewed rubber-tipped pencils, with fireplace hints of dry wood ash and old coal dust.

Palate: Sweet iced coffee with lots of salt and pepper. Creamy sherry trifle. Glacé cherry, bananas, juicy sultanas with rich malt syrup. More briny iodine notes swirled into chocolate sauce.

Finish: Super long and dry with oily espresso foam, salty ashes and sticky liquorice. Creamy, buttery oak.

Absolutely delicious. It’s desserty but not over the top – a really excellent balance of salt, sweet and bitter. It definitely tastes old and dusty with classic elements of more mature Ardbegs, and vintages from days gone by. I love the sherry influence – not as knockout as Uigeadail, more restrained and subtle.

Top notch, this. Thanks so much to Ben Cops for the sample.

The distillery edition’s long sold out on the Ardbeg site, but you can still find it on other retail sites and in auctions. Just don’t pay £400 for it like some people have!

Ardbeg Auriverdes

Distillery: Ardbeg
Distilled: 2002, Bottled: 2014
ABV: 49.9%
Bottles: 6,660
Cask: American Oak
More Info: WhiskyBase

Is 12 months enough time to let the hype of an Ardbeg Day release subside?

Hard to say, given the social media fever pitch (football pun intended) flying around whenever the distillery at the end of the Kildalton road sends forth a new shimmering green emissary into the foamy-mouthed, wild-eyed, peat-worshipping pandemonium.

With the spotlight firmly on the two slightly different Perpetuum releases, I felt it was time I really got to grips with last year’s Auriverdes, the world-cup bottling in honour of Brazil’s flag “Auriverdes”.

By all accounts, consensus from those who shout loudest is that this is a bit of a flop. Someone described it to me as being more a Schmeichel than a Gascoigne*. I’m not sure I’d agree there but it’s fair to say it’s atypical of Ardbeg bottlings, with the peat-junkies getting all rattly and agitated like Mark Renton after a disappointing miniature paper cup of methadone.

Let’s see if I can manage to be objective:

Nose: Very medical. Savlon cream and bandages. Lemon juice with cracked black pepper. Crispy smoked bacon fat. Vanilla pods in dark honey with a synthetic peach aroma. Thick black liquorice sticks.

Palate: Briny, but fruity. Smoky pineapple and grapefruit juice with peaty vanilla ice cream, cinnamon wafers, and a thick, oily espresso foam. Thinner and lighter than expected but still mouth-coating.

Finish: Long and dry, quite woody with ashy smoke. At the very end, a waxy/fruity/jelly sweet residue coats a medicinal, iodine-rich aftertaste.

Very interesting, this one. And very comforting to drink. I’d describe it as lightly peated (by Ardbeg standards). It has a lot in common with Caol Ila, though it retains an oily, tarry Ardbeg signature rather than the light and delicate Caol Ila zing.

In all honesty, I really like it. I’ve had a bottle open a few days now, and wasn’t sure at first, but it’s growing on me more every time I take a sip. The lack of punchy peat smoke really lets out the fruity side.

All in all, then, this is a winner. Maybe not what the peat-freaks wanted, but it’s a very drinkable and interesting dram all the same. I can see this going down well with a big salty slab of Brazilian beef steak.

After selling out last year, Ardbeg have made some more of this available on the Ardbeg shop for £79.99.

* That’s to say, a keeper not a drinker.

Ardbeg Batch 5 (TBWC)

Distillery: Ardbeg
Bottler: Master of Malt
ABV: 47.5%
Bottles: 23
More Info: Master Of Malt

Oh my.

It’s always fun to sample an interesting Ardbeg. This time it’s another batch from the chaps at Master of Malt.

Their Boutique-y whiskies are from mystery casks bottled independently and adorned with clever cartoon labels, usually depicting an in-joke of the whisky world. Sadly they keep the details (including the age) to themselves, but the whisky in the bottle is usually of a high standard and full of character.

Much as I love them, this should be quite a departure from the current core Ardbeg expressions…

Nose: The smell fills the room! There’s that distinctive Ardbeg coal tar (though it’s a fair bit more restrained than in Ardbeg 10), rubber shoe soles, candle wax, lemon cough drops, eucalyptus, pineapple chunks, rock salt, and fresh boot polish. With time, more delicate notes of wild flowers and dry grass.

Palate: Sooty and sweet! Quite creamy, cereal-rich, and malty to start. Then bakery notes of gingerbread, spiced treacle, and malt loaf developing into soft fruit, dark coffee and chocolate fudge, all against a backdrop of gentle sticky peat.

Finish: Salty smoke and hazelnuts with dry liquorice root, damp wood and earthy peat.

This is fucking classy. Like a really excellent dessert course after a posh meal. A fine mix of smoke and dark, rich cake in a glass. Pretty much exactly what I wanted from this dram – all those lovely Ardbeg characteristics but toned down with subtlety and elegance and some fun bonus notes along the way.

I wish MoM would tell us more about this batch but that’s just not the way they roll when it comes to Boutique-y Whisky. It’s certainly tastes like it’s a decent age. I’m guessing it’s at least 18, though that’s pure speculation on my part…

If you’re an Ardbeg lover, I’m afraid all 23 bottles are now gone but there’s still some samples left as I write this. £19.45 isn’t such a bad price for a sample, and I’m sure you’d be asked to pay that for a glass of Haig club on a night out in London anyway.

Arbdeg 1994 (Cadenhead’s)

Distillery: Ardbeg
Bottled: 2007, Distilled: 1994
Age: 13 years old
Bottler: Cadenhead’s
Bottles: 318
ABV: 58.4%
Cask: Bourbon Hogshead
More Info: WhiskyBase

Here’s a little treat from Cadenhead’s… A peaty teenager from Islay. The 1994 vintage Ardbeg, aged for 13 years in a Bourbon barrel and bottled at cask strength.

Noteworthy because it was distilled while the distillery was owned by Hiram Walker. Glenmorangie bought Ardbeg in 1997, and their standard releases (except for Ardbeg 10) are typically now released without an age statement. Old Ardbeg tends to sell for a premium, so it’s nice to a) try spirit older than 10 years, and b) have a go with a bottling from the old regime.

Nose: Coal, rock dust, rubber, dense oily smoke, sticking plasters, dried salt, pine resin.

Palate: Oily malt biscuit, brine, swiftly evolves into dry smoke, tea, liquorice, grapefruit, cloves, and pepper. Little floral/herbal notes of violet and lavender.

Finish: Citrus, Brazil nuts, and dry smoke.

I do like the modern Ardbeg expressions, but this is different – very mineral-rich, and more savoury and drying than the 10 year old, with subtle nuances (I think cask strength probably helps here…). I also reckon the lack of wine-cask means more flavour’s drawn from the barley and the oak.

I’m not sure if the Bourbon cask was a first-fill or not but I don’t get the typical whiff of vanilla, or the sweet spice. So I’m tempted to suggest the flavour comes from good spirit, good distillation, and good oak.

“As it should,” the purists might say…

Just for contrast, here’s my notes for Ardbeg 10…

Nose: Barley grass, definitely vanilla, coal tar smoke in evidence, tarred-rope and maritime/fish notes.

Palate: Sweet vanilla, tangy smoke, citrus fruits, cloves. Not as drying as the older Ardbeg.

Finish: Peppery, with a charred oak flavour and salted cashews.

It’s good, of course – Ardbeg 10 is one of those Islay staple drams that’s consistently good quality. I think there’s a first-fill Bourbon influence  – I get less barley flavour and more vanilla sugar. Also, the smoke is still coal-tar in nature but it’s less pronounced, and not as drying and the mineral notes are more in evidence as maritime/coastal scents.

So, is older Ardbeg better than modern Ardbeg? I think “better” is the wrong word…

It’s probably more in keeping with an older style of whisky production, which definitely gives it a big appeal. Modern whisky is often accused of being too heavily groomed and doctored to fit certain profiles that keep the market researchers happy.

Either way, it’s a pleasure to drink both of them. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for more old Ardbeg, provided it isn’t attached to a daft price tag.

I got my Ardbeg 1994 sample on WhiskySample.nl, but they’re all gone now. Keep an eye out on auction sites for older Ardbeg – you might get lucky with a sane price.

Ardbeg Kildalton 2014

Distillery: Ardbeg
ABV: 46%
Cask: Bourbon and refill sherry
More Info: WhiskyBase

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.