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Tasting Ardbeg at the TWE Embassy

One of the bonuses of my new job is that I’m not only able to go along to many of the whisky tastings at the TWE shop in Vinopolis, but I’m half expected to so that we can write up the events on our blog. However, most of the time I’m backup writer and now that Toby from the shop has written up our most recent tasting I get to write about it over here. For this one it was especially fortunate that I managed to blag my way into one of the reserved seats as it was rather overwhelmingly oversubscribed. Luckily we predicted that and the right to buy a ticket was chosen at random from all the people who applied – over 300 for the initial 35 places. In the end we found a bigger room in the misleadingly cavernous expanse that is Vinopolis and managed to squeeze 50 people’s samples out of our tasting stock, and thus we had an Ardbeg tasting.

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There were two main reasons why Ardbeg were down in London – 1) TWE has just become an Ardbeg Embassy, which mainly means we’ve got a bunch of bottles open for anyone who pops by, and 2) June 1st, the day after the tasting, was the release date of the latest Ardbeg Committee bottling: The Alligator. The Ardbeg Committee is the distillery’s fan club, founded in 1999 with a mission to “promote the advancement of general knowledge and enjoyment of Ardbeg”. They have very much tapped into the distillery’s fanbase, producing a dedicated group who will travel around the world to get to events (our furthest visitor at the tasting had come from Washington DC) and rewarding them with exclusive bottlings before products are unleashed on the public.

Ardbeg itself isn’t a young distillery, with a founding date of 1815 meaning that its bicentenary is only 4 years away. There are records of distilling on the site, although in a slightly less legal fashion , since 1794, but the distillery legally came into being under the management of the MacDougall family 11 years later. Things continued on fairly quietly until the 1970s, when the first commercial single malt whisky bottlings under the distillery’s name appeared – prior to that release there was only one hogshead of whisky going to single malt a year, and that went to the owners. In 1977 it was acquired by Hiram Walker (who became Allied Distillers) and shortly after things started going a bit wrong.

They closed in 1981 and again in June 1996 (after limited production mainly for the Ballantines blends had restarted under Allied Distillers in 1989). It was then acquired by Glenmorangie PLC and reopened in June 1997, ramping up to full volumes by 1998. This means that there is bit of a stock shortage between 1981 and 1996 (as there wasn’t a lot of whisky produced in the 90s which stayed at the distillery) which led to the initial Glenmorangie owned releases being rather special – 1970s vintages which became quite legendary. As the stock gap was filled they produced a number of expressions to show the development of the 1998 vintage whisky, running from the Very Young at 6 years old, through Still Young and Almost There before releasing the new 10 year old  in 2008. Since then they’ve mined the stocks from before the Glenmorangie takeover and continued to produce their own whisky to create a fairly solid range of (mainly) big peat monsters – having the reputation of being the distillery with the highest peat levels doesn’t hurt in today’s peat freak marketplace. LVMH, the current owners of both Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, seem to give the distilleries a good chunk of independence as well as investment – currently most of Ardbeg’s maturation takes place on the island, but not all, and new warehouses are being built to help rectify the situation (even if there is disagreement over whether maturing on Islay really affects the spirit’s flavour in the ways many often claim it does…).

land girlThe tasting was led by Mickey Heads, distillery manager and embassy ‘Chief of Mission’, and he was accompanied by a pair of Ardbeg Land Girls, part of the company’s latest effort to show that whisky isn’t only for men of a certain age who like women in cut-off dungarees (SARCHASM). Mickey is a local lad and became Ardbeg manager in 2007, but has a bit of history in the industry, starting at Laphroaig in 1979. From there he moved to Jura, where he stayed 8 years before coming to Ardbeg. Anyways, enough history – on to the booze, all made up of spirit distilled since 1997:

First on the tasting mat was the core of the range – Ardbeg 10 year old. It’s the main focus of the distillery and very much a statement of intent. Ardbeg is one of the peatiest whiskies on Islay, home of the peaty whisky, and the 10 year old is at 55ppm when it leaves the still, which mellows to a ‘mere’ 25 ppm by the time it gets to the glass – a big peaty punch. On the nose it’s big, sweet and smoky, with fruity peat, citrus, a little bit of chocolate, cream, barley, stone and brine. To taste it’s salty with sour limes and coal smoke leading to a finish of prickly pepper, sour fruit and chocolate limes. A drop of water softens some of the prickle in the finish and brings out the creaminess from the nose.

Next up was Uigeadail, ‘That Mysterious Place’ in gaelic, named for one of the two lochs that supply water to the distillery – the other is Airigh Nam Beist, which also had an expression named after it (nicknamed The Beast), although it is sadly gone. This was released in 2003 and is currently made up of whisky around the 12 year old mark with a little bit of older whisky (an increasingly small amount as time has gone by and the Ardbeg stocks have filled in). It’s a 50/50 vatting of whisky matured in oloroso sherry and bourbon casks, and from the flavour I suspect that there’s a good chunk of first fill bourbon in the mix. The nose has vanilla essence and caramel up front, with green veg, raisins, treacle, black bread and coal smoke coming in behind. To taste at first a wave of rubber rolls across the palate, leaving buttery edges on the side of the tongue, followed by coal dust and smoke, lime cordial and liquid smoke. The finish is long, with charcoal, raisins and a hint of lime accompanied by a prickle of alcohol. Water adds a sponge cakiness to the nose and rich caramel to the flavour.

That was followed by Corryvreckan (‘Cauldron of the Speckled Sea’), the replacement for The Beast, named after whirlpool that sits in the gulf of the same name,separating the islands of Jura and Scarba close to Islay. It’s a mix of first and refill bourbon casks, and whisky matured in (very expensive) new French oak. On the nose it has lime and brine, vanilla, fresh sea air, flowers, light fruit and malt loaf. To taste it is malty and sweet, with smoked cheese and ham, pepper, dark stick cherry, tobacco, coffee and coal stoves. The finish isn’t as long as the Uigeadail, but has more bitterness, with coffee and fruity dark chocolate. Water brings out a sweet butteriness to the taste and a whiff of smoke to the nose.

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Next was the Supernova 2010 Release, Ardbeg’s second release by the name and their entry in the Islay peating war with Bruichladdich. The latter produced Octomore, at 100+ppm, and Ardbeg produced their Supernovas, with similar levels of peat. The whisky was all matured in bourbon casks, again with a big chunk of first fill if my palate isn’t fooling me. The nose had a fake butter and vanilla smell (diacetyl and vanilla essence) to start with, but that faded quickly in the glass (or my nose got used to it) to reveal lime cream, pepper, vegetal peat, green pepper, molasses and burned honeycomb toffee. To taste it started with big buttery peat, with smoked fish and hints of green vegetables (broccoli and asparagus?) to follow. The finish had smoked butter and perfumed wood, and hung around for a respectable amount of time. It’s really big and smoky, and it’s hard to express that without saying ‘and smoke’ after every flavour…

The last production sampler of the night was the one that we had all been waiting for – The Alligator. Officially released the next day, this is the first committee bottling that I’ve been actively aware of (only having become a fan of Ardbeg and member of the committe since around the time of the Supernova 2010 release) and there’s been talk about it for the last couple of months as details have been very carefully leaked. It comes from a mix of first fill bourbon casks and new oak ‘Alligator casks’. The latter are so called, giving the whisky its name, due to the Level 4 charring they receive during coopering – this is the highest level of char regularly used and is nicknamed ‘Alligator char’ due to the resemblance between the wood after firing and Alligator skin. This extra firing should give a bit more filtering of the spirit, as it passes back and forth through the charcoal layer as it soaks into the wood during maturation, as well as more intense flavours, although it does also increase evaporation from the cask. This initial release is of ‘only’ 10k bottles, with a 40k general release promised in September. I tried to log on to the Ardbeg website on the first day of sale only to find it snowed under with orders, slow and occasionally crashy. I advised people who asked to leave it for a few days, as I didn’t think the 10k bottles would sell out all that quickly, although I will admit that I sat there refreshing the page regularly to try and make sure I got my bottles. On checking while writing up this post it seems that it is now sold out, which is quite impressive. On the nose it had vanilla ice crea, hints of citrus, charred pineapple, cherries, pine, chalky sweets and an alarmingly light smokiness. To taste it had buttery vanilla, chocolate limes (it’s a flavour that I’m coming to increasingly associate with Ardbeg), orange peel and a savoury middle – butter sauce and green veg. The finish continued the veggie motif, with tannic wood and veg slowly turning sweet before fading. Water added more spice, with a bit of fruitcake appearing, as well as some more delicate floral notes.

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With those five out of the way we came to the unmarked outliers on the tasting mat, which we learned were cask samples drawn by Mickey a few days before and billed as ‘Something interesting from the warehouse’. First of the pair was cask #2732 – a 1998 refill oloroso cask at 55.7%. On the nose it had similar fake butter and vanilla to the Supernova. Along with that there was smoke, sweetness and maltiness that my slightly wobbly notes list as like ‘a smoked ham and golden syrup sandwich’, as well as some lime and raisins. To taste there was a chunk of pot pourri/air freshener at the back of the palate, with the rest dominated by a sweet and savoury mix, with syrup, smoked cheese rind and leather. The finish had smoked cheese, pot pourri and a lingering coal fire.

The second sample was from cask #2117 – a 1999 first fill bourbon at 56%. On the nose this had a biiig vanilla cream note (written deliberately with multiple ‘i’s in my notes), which combined with some biscuity notes to give me Custard Creams, whipped cream, caraway seeds, nuts, spices and peat smoke. To taste it was strange, with milk chocolate and smoked cheese, blackberries, kippers and a hint of briny seaside air.

The Land Girls then made their way through the assembled throng with buckets of what they described as edible peat and instructions – dip the supplied stick into a jar of manuka honey, poke the stick into the bucket of peat, stick the whole lot in your mouth and follow it up with a dram of the 10 year old. The ‘peat’ was revealed to be a mix of flour, sugar and crushed hazelnuts bound together with some Fuller’s London Porter and and stirred until dry and earthlike. It worked quite well with the 10 year old, matching the whisky’s sweet citrus smokiness with the dry and nutty pretend mud.

Unfortunately for me the evening didn’t end there, with nearby pubs leading to an encounter with a night bus, a nostalgic kebab from the shop formerly known as The Kebab Machine and a walk along a deserted Holland Park Road looking for a bus or cab to get me closer to home. However, I do now have a bottle of Alligator in the post for me as well as five others ordered by people from mainland Europe, hit by LVMH being unable to send bottles to Europeans locations and now using me as a stopping off point and remailing service. Let’s hope that they all arrive intact…

Ardbeg 10 year old
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35

Ardbeg Uigeadail
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 54.2%. ~£50

Ardbeg Corryvreckan
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 57.1%. ~£60

Ardbeg Supernova 2010 release
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 60.1%. ~£85

Ardbeg Alligator
Islay single malt Scotch whisky, 51.2%. Was ~£55, now sold out until September 1st’s general release.

As an employee of TWE I not only managed to get a ticket without going through the raffle, I also got in for free. Regular ticket price was £25. I did have to edit Toby’s post though, and buy a round in the pub afterwards…

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