May 292016
 

IMG_2086SMWS 33.70 “Keith Richards Meets Socrates”

57.3% abv

Score:  74/100

 

It’s 12:15 am.  May 29th, 2016.  It is now the day after Ardbeg Day.  Or perhaps I should say Ardbeg Night, as they’ve elected to brand it this year.  Over the past few days I’ve been fortunate enough to taste both the Committee and general releases of this year’s bottling, ‘Dark Cove’.  Unfortunately, however, I have no samples of either to review at this time, nor had I opportunity to set pen to paper and capture thoughts when I did try them.  Oh well.  I’m sure I’ll get another chance at some point.  In the meantime I figured I’d go one better this eve, and – sticking to the theme – tackle four indie Ardbegs from the SMWS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society, that is).

I’ll be posting tasting notes for all of them in very short order, but let’s kick it all off with the earliest of the bunch.  This 33.70 was a cask from several years back now.  1998 to be a little more precise.  It was born of a sherry gorda that yielded 848 bottles (I know!  Whopping outturn!), and bottled as a 10 year old.  And I must admit that the name alone had me excited to try this one.

Unfortunately, high expectations and distillery fanboyism has led to disappointment as devastating as a wee boat smashed to kindling on a rocky cape.  I came in expecting to sail high on this one (rich, dark natural colour, high strength, relatively mature age and from earlier (read: better) years) but my hopes were immediately tempered.  Reality is a harsh mistress sometimes.  This decader is heavy and cloying in thick caramel (which is bad enough) and nothing – not even herculean phenolic might – can completely temper the sulphuric undertones.  Put as simply as possible:  This was a real dud barrel.  Such is the nature of the single cask game, I suppose.  Disappointing nevertheless.

Nose:  Syrupy, heavily sherried nose.  Damp horse blanket.  Almost a vague hint of sulphur.  Too much caramel.  Ok…definitely sulphur.  Something reminds of young(ish) port here.  Savoury stewed fruits (even a little tomato).  Stale ashtrays.  Wax crayons.  Poor quality Roman Nougat.  Smoke.  Organic, mineral notes.

Palate:  Ash.  Smoke.  Immediately drying.  Bitter chocolate.  More ash and tar.  Salt licorice.  Cooked greens.  Oversteeped lapsang souchong tea.  Caramel apple.  Slightly syrupy.  Very dry finish.  And yeah…hints of burnt matchsticks.

Thoughts:  Not my kind of Ardbeg.  At all.  Granted I am grossly intolerant of sulphur, but still.  I had such high hopes too.  This is just…no.  Let’s move on.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 12:47 pm
Apr 112016
 

Ardbeg PerpetuumIMG_1428

47.4% abv

Score:  89/100

 

Ardbeg really takes a drubbing these days.  Seems to be everyone’s favorite whipping boy.  Now, I can hear the collective groans out there and know the immediate reaction will be something akin to ‘awwww…poor Ardbeg…fleecing us with NAS expressions and making a fortune once or twice a year with so-called limited releases’.  The sentiment seems to be along the lines of feeling sorry for the Kardashians for not having any privacy.

Here’s the thing: I hate – as much as, or more than, most whisky lovers – this constant barrage of shitty NAS malts that are flooding the market, but the simple fact of the matter is that Ardbeg consistently releases bloody great expressions.  Even those that don’t take the highest place on the platform are still miles better than most new whiskies hitting the shelves.  Additionally, the prices, while frustrating over the past few years, are suddenly not far out of line with most other new releases.  Not that that is justification, mind, but it is acknowledging that in this case at least the devil we know is consistent in terms of quality, while the others are suspect (at best).

The cynics out there will lambaste me for this one.  So be it.  I’m practically past the point of giving a f*ck.  Anything positive I say about NAS expressions is seen as treasonous to the campaign against this initiative.  I get it.  Unfortunately my own morality when it comes to being honest supercedes any sort of agenda.  Bloggers are constantly under scrutiny regarding their morality.  I’d like to think I still have mine in tact.  So let’s say it here and now, in hopes of deflecting some of the questions that will inevitably come afterwards:

This is an appeal to the folks at LVMH/Ardbeg:
Please start putting age statements on these expressions.
It is known and accepted that Ardbeg is generally served up fairly young.
That’s why we like it.  Peat works well in youth.
Wear that number proudly.
I’ll buy.  We’ll buy.

There.  PSA over.  Let’s get on with it.

Seems I may have liked this one more than some reviewers out there.  Granted while I have been fortunate enough to try it a few times through others and at tasting events and festivals, and was given a sample not long ago, I do not have a bottle kicking around to work through and note the evolution over time.

Perpetuum was released in 2015 to commemorate the distillery’s 200th anniversary.  I think most of us had our fingers crossed for a relaunch of the 17 to mark this special occasion (and unbelievable milestone!), but alas…it wasn’t meant to be (yet?).  We do know that Ardbeg is now able to warehouse more than they are releasing, so hopefully team green is building up to some sort of healthy surplus of mature malt.  Time will tell, I suppose, but my fingers remain crossed for a more advanced age-stated addition to the core range.  At the time of writing, word has trickled down of a new Ardbeg 21 on the horizon.  I can only imagine the cost and limited availability.

Perpetuum.  Infinity.  Or perpetuity, to be a little more precise.  Gotta hand it to the marketing team here.  There is always a clever spin at play.  My own slightly more cynical point of view falls a little closer to Sage Serge’s thoughts, though, if I’m to be honest.  But let’s let the whisky speak for itself.

BTW…I cannae recall the ages of malts that went into this vatting, but I think it was a marriage of 7 to 13 year old Ardbeg.

And did I mention how much I detest this being yet another NAS expression from Ardbeg?

Nose:  Soft candied fruits.  Lime.  Ash and smoke.  Soft doughy notes, indicative of a bit of aged malt in the mix.  A little bit of pear and a little bit of lime.  Maybe green melon.  Vanilla softens things here.  Still sooty, charry and all that.  Y’know…Ardbeggian.  But muted.

Palate:  Now some licorice.  Smoke.  Earthy peat, but also very approachable for a dram from Islay’s heaviest of heavyweights.  Wet charred wood.  Salty and tingly.  I love how soft and hard this is at the same time.  A yin and yang malt for certain.  Green apple skins.  Citrus, of course.  Charred scallop.

Thoughts:  Ardbeg back on top.  Nice to see some decently mature spirit in the mix softening things up.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:20 am
Jan 042016
 

Ardbeg Rollercoaster Committee Release097

57.3% abv

Score:  90.5/100

 

Oh, man.  If only this were a legitimate road to travel.  Back in 2010 Ardbeg released what would become – for me, anyway – the poster child for what NAS whisky could be (if it has to exist at all, that is) without the interference of the SWA and the British government enforcers.

Ok, so the bottle doesn’t say 10 or 12 year old, as you can see, but it does have a curious band of dates dancing across the front label and an even curiouser little bar graph on the back label.  Hmmm.  What have we here?  Long and short of it is that before the folks at Ardbeg got their knuckles rapped for disclosure (well…not exactly), they printed up these labels and 15,000 bottles of Rollercoaster hit the open market.  And those aforementioned dates and graph?  A breakdown of the vintages that went into creating this careening gem of a malt, as well as the percentage of each that made it into the final vatting.  These component casks range from 3 to 12 years of age.  Now…if Ardbeg had played by the rules this one would have had to have been labeled a 3 year old.  Would that sell?  Maybe.  Probably, actually, but you’ll never convince Big Business of that.  Too much of a gamble.

Anyway, Ardbeg gave us the details, were subsequently given the ‘shame on you’ treatment’ and that was the last we saw of what is – in my mind – a brilliant way of selling a marriage of young and old.  Of course, the proof is in the puddin’, as they say, and fortunately this is a hell of a sexy malt, proving that there’s nothing wrong with bridging malt gaps; only with the concept of doing it without being held accountable to the consumer (read: the dreaded NAS).

For those of you interested in the actual barrel breakdown…voila!

1997 Cask: 2nd fill – 9.5%
1998 Cask: Refill Hogshead – 12.2%
1999 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 14.2%
2000 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 10.9%
2001 Cask: Refill Barrel – 6.2%
2002 Cask: Refill Barrel – 8.9%
2003 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 11.7%
2004 Cask: 1st Fill Barrel – 10.6%
2005 Cask: 2nd Fill Sherry Butt – 10.4%
2006 Cask: Refill Hogshead – 5.4%

Great whisky that is now a part of malt lore.  Much as Balvenie’s Tun series (early days anyway) and Glaser’s recent online info share will be for future generations.

There’s much more we could say about this one, but only so long I expect to be able to hold your interest, so how ’bout some tasting notes now?

Before we do, though, a big cheers to my mate Voytek for allowing the opportunity to try this one.  That was an unforgettable night!

Nose:  Ashy and redolent of beachside bonfire.  Very juicy and sweet, fruit-rich nose.  Ardbeggian through and through. Smoke and black licorice.  Chocolate.  Charred scallops and seared meat.  Warm rubber.  A sweet and savoury collision.  A slight leathery note in the background.  Iodine and apples.  Tangy…like a good BBQ sauce.

Palate:  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!  What an arrival!  If only the stocks existed to make this recipe a staple in the core releases.  Big tart, green notes.  Black licorice meets blackberry jam.  A mouthful of strong, strong medicine.  Loads of syrupy dark fruits.  Loads of smoke.  Lime zest, bittersweet chocolate and a hint of coffee.

Thoughts:  I expected a bumpier ride, to be honest, but this is a freaking great build.

 

– Images & Words:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:23 pm
Dec 112015
 

Ardbeg Supernova 2014137

55% abv

Score:  91/100

 

Yes, I realize I’m gonna get lambasted by the righteous for this review, but I really don’t give a shit.  So be it.  Those that want me to negate any positivity toward all whiskies that are NAS will be chomping at the bit to have their say here, so let’s get it out of the way early, before I explain my reasonings (no, not justifications):  yes, I really like this whisky, and no, I do not support the philosophy or pricing behind it.

At one point Ardbeg was unquestionably my favorite distillery.  In terms of consistently producing solid releases they’re definitely still at the top of the heap, but unfortunately it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile a love like this with my own moral standings regarding whisky.  Yes, I have such things as moral standings.  I do still love Ardbeg.  I love the island it is from (my home away from home); I love the people at the distillery (truly beautiful souls); I love the smells and tastes (celestial, in my humble opinion); and I do love the aesthetics and intangibles associated.  Sometimes the ones we love most, though, have the power to hurt us deepest.  Why Ardbeg insists on this path of non age-stated malts is beyond me.

But Supernova 2014 now…is it good?  Yes, it’s actually very good.  It was bound to be, wasn’t it?  A few dissenters’ opininons aside, Ardbeg seems to be one of the few distilleries that actually seems to unite malt lovers, despite what would seemingly be a polarizing profile.  It’s not hard to recognize the inherent quality in each subsequent release, irrespective of whether or not it’s to one’s personal tastes.  Sometimes quality is objective.  The fracture point comes between those who will swallow anything and everything Ardbeg markets (literally) irrespective of price, and those who recognize that the combined might of good malt + strong marketing and aesthetics = blank check pricing policies, and are turned off by that.  Reflect back now.  Can you recall a new Ardbeg release in the last 5 or 6 years that has hit the shelves at anything less than $120 or so?  Not around here anyway.  And that is with a fairly readily-acknowledged admission to ages of really not more than ±10 years.  So, I guess the real question with Supernova 2014 is not whether or not it is good, but whether or not it is $200 good?  And sadly, no.  No, it’s not.  Around $90 will get you a cask strength 15 year old Bowmore Laimrig, and that is a stunner in its own right.  The math speaks for itself.

Ultimately Ardbeg sells, though.  The market dictates prices.  And Ardbeg will not be getting cheaper anytime soon.  C’est la vie.

Nose:  Extreme iodine.  Lots of saltwater.  Smoke and pepper.  Green mint leaf candies.  A little bit of cinnamon coming through.  Ash and licorice.  Evergreen.  Coke and lime.  This is huge stuff.  The sherry influence makes this a lot mustier and damper than the razor sharp SN2010.

Palate:  Wood smoke.  A lot of salt licorice.  Smoke…and more smoke.  Citric tartness.  Granny smith apple skins and clean oak shavings.  Quite drying as it fades out.  There’s more, but you don’t need more.  Tangy, smoky, licorice-y.  Awesome, really.

Thoughts:  To be concise: a very good, very overpriced malt.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:40 am
Nov 172014
 

Ardbeg Kildalton (2014)043

46% abv

Score:  92/100

 

Some whiskies carry a story.  Not the marketing department fluff or the PR nonsense, mind you, but the personal tales we relate back to them.  They become sort of timeless and cherished through the memories we associate back to the opportunities we had to taste them.  Ardbeg’s Kildalton 2014 is one of those whiskies for me.

I first tried this Kildalton with a group of good friends before a great meal at a very special Ardbeg event.  Imagine an evening of brilliant peated malts, a setting sun, long limo rides, a Top Chef-catered multi-course dinner in an isolated setting and spectacular cigars to close it all out.  Fortunately, I don’t have to imagine; instead, simply remember.  I should acknowledge here that it’s truly interesting to note how many of my favorite malt memories are intertwined with drams from this incomparable Islay distillery.  Not a coincidence, I’d suggest.

This special limited one-off Ardbeg was released in order to raise money for something called The Kildalton Project.  This undertaking – sanctioned by Ardbeg (LVMH), the North Highland Initiative (NHI), and HRH Prince Charlie – is an effort to “support ‘fragile, rural communities’ across the North Highlands’.  In particular, a good portion of the funds are to be used to restore the St. Columba Village Hall in the distillery’s near-neighbouring village of Port Ellen.  Neat.  And rather admirable.

This 2014 Kildalton is not to be confused with the now-legendary 2004 release under the same appellation.  The earlier incarnation was a lightly peated dram, but at a higher bottling strength.  It is also very limited and zealously coveted by Ardbeg collectors.  While I’ve not yet tried that earlier version, I can attest that the 2014 is a stunner.  A tasteful vatting of ex-bourbon casks and new and refill sherry butts.  Simple and elegant.  I’m happy to see an Ardbeg that hasn’t been tinkered with too much.

And finally, the name of this expression – for those who may not be fully ‘in the know’ – is a tribute to the spectacular and monumental high cross of the same name at the site of the ruined Kildalton Parish Church on the Southeast end of the island.

Nose:  Smoky and briny, but soft for a contemporary Ardbeg.  Vaguely Laphroaig-ish (Hmmm…slightly more than ‘vaguely’, actually).  Lemon squeezed over oysters on the half shell.  A little bit of lime and chocolate too.  Quite coastal and oceanic.  Salty and peppery.  Fennel.  Green Jolly Ranchers.  All told, though…quite soft and creamy dessert-like (think Airigh Nam Beist vanilla notes).

Palate:  Gentle arrival.  Anise.  Wet rock.  Briny shellfish.  Smoke.  Poached pear.  Lemon pepper.  Grilled meat.  A little bit of coffee with good cream.  Good balance of peat and sweet.

Thoughts:  Great ‘pure’ Ardbeg.  This is Ardbeg the way it should be served up.  Austere and classy.  The only way I would have tweaked this one would have been to leave it at cask strength.  Sadly, not one a lot of Ardbeg fans will be able to try, as this release was (is?) a distillery-only exclusive release.

*Sincere thanks to our mate Andrew Ferguson for surrendering a good portion of valuable suitcase room in order to bring me back a bottle of this malt from the distillery earlier this year.  Slainte!

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:27 pm
Jun 232014
 

Ardbeg Auriverdes001

49.9% abv

Score:  91.5/100

 

I doubt there’s a ‘buzzier’ whisky out there right now.  Even still…and much as usual…we’re a little late to the party.  I did get to try a couple drams of this on release day, but am only now getting ’round to sharing some proper tasting notes and personal thoughts.  Oh well.  I’m not even remotely worried about being first with these reviews; just the last one standing.  😉

Let’s take it back to square one for a moment or two.  Each year at the end of May/beginning of June Ardbeg takes the whisky world by storm, launching their latest novelty limited release.  A couple years back was the eponymous ‘Ardbeg Day’.  Last year’s release was given the appellation of ‘Ardbog’.  And this year we have ‘Auriverdes’.  The linguists out there (of which I am not one) may recognize the roots of this one in the Latin ‘auri’ for gold and ‘verdes’ for green.  Aside from the immediate and obvious connotations (gold liquid in the green bottle), there’s a deeper resonance with this choice of name.

2014 is the year of the World Cup (in fact, we’re smack dab in the middle of WC fever as I write this).  This year’s host nation is Brazil, whose team’s nom de guerre just happens to be…yep…’Auriverdes’.  Clever cheeky folks at Ardbeg, huh?  Ok, ok…the Ardbeg to football connection may be tenuous at best, but we’ll let it slide so long as the end product is a good ‘un.  But we’ll get to that momentarily.

Here in Calgary this year, our local Ardbeg Embassy and regional distillery representation pulled together a hell of an Ardbeg Day celebration.  This was a joint effort between local LVMH representation (Charton Hobbs) and Calgary’s Unquestionable whisky champion (Andrew Ferguson).  I won’t get into all details here, but before the day culminated in popping the cork on four and a half litres of ‘Auriverdes’, there was riot of an Ardbeg Day football (soccer) game, pitting team ‘Auri’ against team ‘Verdes’.  Sad to say I can’t report that the good guys won (i.e. the team captained by yours truly) but that’s ok…I’ve always been more of an antihero kinda guy, myself.  Either way…a very memorable occasion and launch for a very memorable dram.

Ok…media blitzing and marketing buzz aside…what makes this new evolution in the Ardbeg canon stand out?  A new ‘innovation’ in the handling of the cask heads this time.  Apparently one barrel end was lightly toasted to release more of a light vanilla influence, while the opposite was more heavily charred to elicit darker coffee-like notes.  The cynic in me would like to elicit a hearty and dismissive ‘pfffft‘, but the simple fact is…you can’t argue with results.  If that really was what was intended all along, it was a heartily realized experiment.  The whisky does indeed carry these very characteristics, and quite at the forefront too.

Auriverdes is a return to a more mature (though I don’t believe this is all that advanced in terms of actual years) and somewhat lighter style.  It takes me back to the Airigh Nam Beist from a few years ago.  And I have to say that I like it much.  VERY much.

Nose:  Sweet, sweet peat.  And smoke, of course.  Anise…fennel.  Salt, pepper and ginger.  A substantial lime note.  Touch of lemon too.  Honeydew melon and other soft, faint fruits.  Quite creamy.  Those coffee/mocha notes that are being advertised everywhere are indeed here.  With quite some vanilla as well.  Ice cream-ish.  Love the oak notes; those both fresh and burnt to ash.  Great nose all around.

Palate:  More lemon, with licorice, tar and damp ash.  Surprisingly sweet and soft.  Gentle smoke (well…gentle for someone accustomed to Ardbeg’s usual fare).  Lively wood notes.  Sharp coffee and dark chocolate (but not too heavy on these notes).  Much going on here.  Neat citric back end (is that grapefruit?!?).  Also…more medicinal than I generally find Ardbeg.

Thoughts:  Great balance on this one.  A softer Ardbeg than the last few releases.  And surprisingly…all the better for it.  The nose, in particular, is lovely.  Again…closer in style to the Airigh Nam Beist, I think.  Will have to try the two side-by-side.

 

– Reviewed by: Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 12:43 pm
Nov 282013
 

Ardbeg 1975 (Connoisseur’s Choice)002

43% abv

Score:  91.5/100

 

Independent bottlings are notorious for their inconsistency.  This is observation, not criticism.  Inconsistency has led to some of the most unique and, in some cases, incredible whiskies I’ve ever tasted.  You are required, by nature, to take a bit of a flyer on ’em, but much like bucking the odds at the track, the payoff can be astronomical.

Now…let’s get down to brass tacks here…

Ardbeg is my favorite distillery.  I don’t even pretend to hide the bias.  Some bottlings are obviously better than others, but if I were to average and weight my scores by distillery, I can’t imagine anyone coming even close to this Islay mecca’s dominance.  Consistently high marks by a nearly unanimous field of writers, critics, reviewers etc indicate I’m far from alone in recognizing the high quality of spirit flowing off the stills at Ardbeg.

Now one of Ardbeg’s great strengths, I think, has always lain in its incredible vatting abilities.  It’s no small secret that early Uigeadails (and maybe later?), bottles of the 17, Lord Of The Isles etc were helped along immeasurably by the inclusion of some older casks in their respective vattings.  I have no idea to what degree that is still going on, but man…there are some nuances and shades in many of the Ardbeg releases that should only be found in mature whiskies, and not certainly not in the youthful peat beasts they keep unleashing of late.

Having said all of that…what happens when Ardbeg isn’t able to do large vattings?  Such as in a case like this one where G&M were responsible for bottling.  Being as there is no cask information on the packaging, I can only assume that this was a marriage of a few Ardbeg casks which this independent bottling giant had in its vast whisky warehouses.  Not certain, but either way…I’ll take it.

Right now we’re looking at a 1975 Gordon & MacPhail release from under the Connoisseurs Choice brand.  Unfortunately the decision was made to drop the abv down to a more palatable strength (ahem…read: watering it down = more bottles released = more profit), but that can be overlooked if the drink is still good.  I’m sure I don’t really need to say it, but with a whisky this old it’s well nigh blasphemy to hobble it.  Let it run.  Let it be big, bold and impetuous.

Getting beyond that initial disappointment though, the whisky itself is an absolute revelation.  Beautifully complex and bearing the fruits of a long period of coming of age.  Each year invested in maturation was time well spent.  This is great whisky, with a particularly fantastic in-sync dialogue between nose and palate.

Here’s to more old Ardbeg crossing our palates soon.

Nose:  Soft and crumbly iced sugar cookies.  Very mild peat and smoke.  Mild lime…mild melon.  Softly spicy.  Is that kiwi fruit?  Not sure, but my mind keeps coming back to it.  Cinnamon.  Faint old dunnage warehouse.  Some salty and peppery notes begin to emerge after a few minutes.  As do some greens.  There’s a savoury note too which I can’t quite put my finger on.

Palate:  So beautifully matured.  The peat is just an ethereal memory here, but the smoke is still there to a wee degree.  A little bit of anise meets mouth-watering sweet fruits white fruits.  Cinnamon cookies.  While I love fiery young peat, this is where my heart lies now.  Older Islay malts are like distilled angel tears.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:33 am
Sep 072013
 

Ardbeg 1977017

46% abv

Score:  94.5/100

 

I had held off in putting pen to paper on this one for quite some time.  A couple of years, in fact.  The simple truth is that those reviews for that small select handful of whiskies that are simply stratospherically better than all others out there are much harder to write up.  Much harder to express in sentiments that won’t come across as nothing more than gushing praise and salivation.

It’s no small secret that Ardbeg is my favourite distillery, and up until recently, when I was able to taste both 1974s from the Ardbeg Double Barrel release, this 1977 was arguably the greatest Ardbeg I’d yet encountered.  That should tell you something as to its inherent quality.  This one was a sort of a ‘where do we go from here?’ type thing.  Once I’ve laid down the word on this one, I had wondered, is everything else a mere shadow?  Maybe something akin to Plato’s forms?  Well…here’s hoping not.  And I like to think the Double Barrel releases from this Hebridean distillery are proof positive that that perfect dram…that holy grail of malt whisky…is as elusive as ever.

A certain whisky writer once opined in his sermons that 1974 and 1977 were special years for Ardbeg.  While I may not agree with everything he says (or even much of it, to be honest) he was dead-on accurate in this case.  Those looking for the snarling ferocity of recent Ardbeg cask strength giants need to approach this one with a completely different mindset, or simply look elsewhere.  This is no Beastie, nor Supernova, nor ferocious ‘Gator.  This is class, elegance and refinement.

Further…this is a sublime example of beautifully aged peat, vibrant fruity notes and almost unfathomably excellent composition.  The balance struck here is simply magic.

Nose: Fruit with cream. Bordering on tropical. Melon…maybe peach. Chocolate. Vanilla and old cinnamon. Distant echoes of peat. Grains are noticeable, but sweet and bearing a faint fields-o’-barley nostalgia. There’s a gorgeous mild paint or rubber latex note here that you only find in well-matured casks.  Cadbury’s chocolate.  Oranges and other sweet orange fruits. Butterscotch. Aged and balanced smoke. Some more citrus.

Palate: Bright, very bright, with an absolutely great mouthfeel.  And oh, man…the fruits!  A lot of orange, and a mix that borders, again, on tropical.  Mild peat and a building wall of smoke.  Some smooth chocolate.  Lingering and delicious.

ABV does it justice, at a respectable 46%, but man…to have this at cask strength…

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 11:38 am
Jun 302013
 

Ardbeg Double Barrel

The sky has been bruised and tortured for days now.  The clouds are still leaking and the wind is tussling with pretty much everything it can catch…and winning.  This deluge has been on and off for days now, but it seems the fiercest of it all may now be in the rear view mirror.  We in Calgary hope so anyway.   

I started putting this piece together over a week ago, but the floods and other concerns have, quite rightly, taken precedence.  While I, and most of the local people I know and love, are safe and didn’t suffer much in the way of loss, I do know others who did.  I, and all associated with ATW, wish you well and offer any help that can be provided.  You know where to find us.

Let me share a few words now about a rather spectacular event that took place not long before the floods swept through.  I’m simply going to pick up where I left off…

I’m sitting at a computer with the lower half of my body damp and, in all likelihood, dripping on the carpet under my desk.  Hey…there’s only so much an upside-down inside-out umbrella can do to keep your head dry, let alone your lower regions.  It’s very early.  And dark.

In short…a near spot-on model of Scottish weather.  What better ambiance to share a few words on an event that went down only days ago, also on a rather bleak and rainswept eve?  Though I’d initially hoped to get this written in the day or two immediately following, life got in the way, as it often does.  Either way…step in and dry off.  Let’s have a dram of Ardbeg and chat.

083

While I may have missed this year’s June 1st Ardbeg Day festivities (again…life), there’s simply no way they could have come close to measuring up to what has been dubbed ‘The Ultimate Ardbeg Experience’.  On June 14th, at the Southern Alberta Pioneer’s Building, Calgary’s Kensington Wine Market put on a once in a lifetime tasting.  For the legions of local acolytes, and several from afar, this was an evening not to be missed.

The line-up was centered around opening the legendary Ardbeg Double; An over-the-top ornately extravagant guncase housing two different bottles of vintage 1974 Ardbeg.  And, of course, a few extras we’ll get to in a bit.

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As each of the attendees arrived, we were pulled aside for a quick photo op with Kensington Wine Market‘s Andrew Ferguson and Ardbeg Brand Ambassador, Ruaraidh MacIntyre.  Preserving this one for the ages, I suppose.  And perhaps rightfully so.  I know of no other tasting in the world that has popped the top on the Double Barrel.

The room was laid out beautifully.  Ardbeg goodies everywhere against the rustic backdrop of a sort of ‘hunting lodge’-esque hall.  Very suited to the occasion, and when one considers the ambience of the darkened skies and onset of the rain, the overall experience was sublime.  A few of us hung topside for a while snapping pictures of the room and the bottles themselves before joining the rest of the guests who had made their way to the lower hall for a bit of an informal pre-event cocktail hour.

There were tangy Ardbeg Ten caesars and drams of Galileo on offer for those who wanted a bit of a warm up, and of course we all did.  For those gasping at the idea of burying their beloved Ardbeg in Clamato juice and spices, rest assured that this really does work.  I’m a purist with whisky, if ever there was one, and still I’ll happily sip on one of these salty, smoky cocktails when offered.  One was enough though, before the Galileo seemed a better fit for the evening.

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Downstairs, in the less kitschy lower hall, the party was in full swing.  Familiar faces all around and a lot of reunions of sorts.  Nice to see so many good people gathered and sharing a laugh.  Some of the usual suspects I hadn’t seen in months, or longer, and these sorts of events make me wonder why we wait for formality before gathering.

Aside from a quick pass by the serving station, I didn’t get too close to the food.  It looked great…it smelled great…but I can’t attest any further, unfortunately.  This eve was all about the drink, so it was a conscious effort at palate preservation.

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Social hour is always great, but it’s also a bit of a waiting game.  The flight upstairs was a stunning one and anticipation high, so when the call came we made our way back upstairs to claim a seat with no second reminder needed.

The evening started off with Scott Westgard from Charton Hobbs providing a brief introduction and thank you to all for coming out.  He then took a moment to speak of Andrew’s accomplishments on behalf of Ardbeg (and more) and to present him with a plaque commemorating the one year anniversary of the Calgary Ardbeg Embassy, something that is quite a point of pride for both Andrew and KWM, I believe, and rightly so.

Andrew took a few moments to share a few words on the generosity of both Kensington and Charton Hobbs in helping to subsidize this event before gracefully ducking the spotlight and handing over the reins to the evening’s host extraordinaire, Ruaraidh MacIntyre.

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I’m not sure Ardbeg (or LVMH, perhaps I should say) could have a better ambassador than Ruaraidh.  He’s mere months removed from Scotland; grew up on Islay; and has generations of familial ties to the Ardbeg distillery.  On top of these blood qualifications, Ruaraidh is passionate about both the island and the whisky.  His humour and comfortable delivery are the perfect medium for bringing to life what Islay is really all about.  Ruaraidh entertained with touching anecdotes, hilarious tales and heartfelt pride.  Great speaker with great subject matter.  For an audience…it doesn’t get better.

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I mentioned earlier that the line-up for this tasting was tip-top.  That may have been understating matters.  The flight was seven malts deep, from peat monsters to delicate old stunners.  How best to structure a flight like this is something I deal with frequently between personal tastings and Dram Initiative events.  You always want to save the best and most aged gems as the closing treat, but when it comes to peat…the younger ones that come before can easily beat the hell out your senses before getting to the true showcase.  Tough call.

Anyway…here’s how it all went down…

Uigeadail – Starting with a beefcake such as the Uigeadail before moving into the subtleties inherent in older whiskies was a bit of a concern for me, but it all worked out.  I was initially afraid of blowing out the tastebuds before the big show so I only took wee sips from this and the following dram.

Corryvreckan – Again…another big boy.  Small sips.  Came back to this one at the end of the night.  Had to save the receptors for what was to follow.

17 – Having just killed off my own 17, it was a treat to revisit, and wow, was this a stunner.  Big batch variance from the 17 I had just finished.  This one was rich in sweet subtle tropicals and incredible depths of complexity.  Some malts in here much older than 17, I think, and if I had to venture a guess I’d say this was one of the earlier 17s released.  Spectacular, and one that created quite a buzz this night.

1977 – An all-time favorite of mine, and one I couldn’t see being dethroned as the best of the Ardbeg releases.  Until tonight, that is.  This 1977 was brought along from Victoria by Lawrence Graham.  You’d likely know Lawrence as the gent behind The Victoria Whisky Festival and Whisky Intelligence, among many other whisky endeavours.  Thanks, Lawrence.  This really was a treat.

Ardbog – This was the evening’s closer, and followed on the heels of the Double Barrel bottles.  Unfortunately, the glasses for this dram were slightly compromised, and by the time we came round to this one, the whisky had fallen apart and was a murky mess with a funky flavor.  Perhaps a little soap residue or something.  Oh well.

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Conversation at the tables was fun and relaxed, with everyone happy to share in the making of memories and spend a little time getting to know their neighbour.  Guests had come from afar for what was truly a world-class event.  Andrew managed to pull in folks from Montreal, San Francisco, Victoria and more.

Anyway…I think we’ve laid enough of the bedrock.  Let’s talk about the reason we were all here.  Ardbeg Double Barrel.

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The Double Barrel is sort of an iconic thing of lore in the Ardbeg spheres.  For those that may have visited the distillery, this would be the elaborately packaged ‘gun case’ you would have seen locked away with the diver’s helmet behind the glass enclosure.  The case features two different bottles of vintage 1974 Ardbeg, eight engraved silver cups, an oak pen, and a couple of leather-stitched books.  All presented in the aforementioned hand-crafted leather gun case.

The sticker you’d have seen in the shop at Ardbeg…£10,000.  For anyone who may have nabbed one of the four that made its way to Canada…just over $15,000.

So…with no further ado, I’m going to share my tasting notes here, but no scores.  An event like this is not the environment to properly assess a whisky.  Even tasting notes should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but here goes…

 

Ardbeg Double Barrel Cask #1745151

49% abv

Nose:  Tropical-like fruit notes, with vibrant peach and tangerine at the forefront.  Jelly candy…somewhat like a red cherry ju-jube.  Creamy milk chocolate.  Licorice.  Touch of iodine.  The smoke is only an afterthought here.  Crisp cookie notes.  Creamy caramel and smooth subtle vanilla.  Smooth and complex spice profile.

Palate:  Smoke and peat are a little more pronounced now.  Finally.  Some salt licorice.  Slightly fishy note.  Salty dough.  Smoke and licorice grow, then ebb into echoes of fried tropical fruits and very pleasant vanilla oak.

Thoughts:  This one followed on the heels of several good drams, including a great bottling of the 17 and directly after my favorite Ardbeg, the 1977.  I hate to admit it, but that ’77 has now been dethroned as my favorite Ardbeg to date.  This cask is stunning.  An absolute diamond.

 

…and now…the second bottle…

 

Ardbeg Double Barrel Cask #3151157

47.7% abv

Nose:  More chocolate here than on #1745.  Still tropical, but slightly less…technicolor, if you will.  This is made up for by a darker, more mysterious air to this one.  Dark European bread dough.  Smoked oyster and maybe a little smoked fish as well.  Doughy and carrying some beautifully balanced spices.  Butter tarts, Andrew mentioned, and was dead-on accurate.  Slightly more pokey and peppery.

Palate:  A little more peat here than on the previous cask.  Smoke and dark chocolate.  Some coffee notes (strong…espresso-like) and high content dark chocolate.  Licorice.  Salty and briny.  Much more in the style of contemporary Ardbeg.

Thoughts:  Deeper and darker than cask #1745, but not necessarily better for it.  Very complimentary though.

 

Overall…

Definitely a slight preference for the first of the two, cask #1745.

Though I can’t share scores here, these are both certainly in the 93-95ish range (give or take).  Especially the former.  What I wouldn’t give to sit down again with these two and do a proper session.

Whisky is meant to be shared among friends.  It’s meant to make memories with.    This night 30 or 40 friends got together over a dram (or maybe it was eight) and made a helluva pile of memories.

An extra special thanks to Andrew and Kensington Wine Market.  Andrew has wanted to turn this into a reality for the better part of four years now, and I truly don’t believe anyone but he could have actually followed through and made this happen.

Also, to Moet Hennessy and Charton Hobbs…a bow.  Merci.

 

– Words & Tasting Notes:  Curt

– Photos:  Curt

 Posted by at 8:35 pm
Jun 272013
 

Ardbeg Ardbog027

52.1% abv

Score:  89/100

 

That very same uncontainable impatience and excitement we all had as children in the lead-up to Christmas is the very same bit of childish glee I experience as we approach the release day of each new Ardbeg expression.  And much like Christmas, while some are better than others, these Ardbeg releases never seem to disappoint.  Just think back to some of the past few years’ releases:  Airigh Nam Beist, Supernova, Rollercoaster, Alligator, Corryvreckan and so on.  And while I do know a few detractors who were less than over-the-moon about Blasda or Galileo, I dare ya…try those malts blindly and tell me they still don’t stand head and shoulders above 80-90% of what’s currently on the market in this age/price range.

No two ways about it.  Ardbeg is a finely oiled machine.  Kinda like the Beatles in their heyday, pumping out hit after hit.  Soak it up while you can, folks, is all I caution.  They say all good things must come to an end, and so I play the ant, not the grasshopper, squirreling away my stores while the sun shines, for I fear that bleak and dreary winter.  Hopefully our current state of fortune never dries up on us, but I will continue to plan (read: hoard) accordingly.

I’ll use my soapbox here to speak frankly:  Ardbeg has done a bloody masterful job to date in assuaging any concerns over quality slippage or supply falling short.  I don’t want to push my luck but let’s cross our fingers for twofold reasons.  One…that our cupboards ever overflow with the green and black; and two…that the distillery is holding back some maturing stock.  Who wouldn’t love to see a new Ardbeg 17 hit the market?  Or maybe even an Ardbeg 18?  Lest I get too caught up here in dream and fancy, let’s get back on topic.

Last year’s Ardbeg Day release, brilliantly and insightfully titled ‘Ardbeg Day’ (hint o’ sarcasm), was quite a stunner.  I loved that dram.  Heavy on the phenolic and ashy side while still bearing a sweetness and balance that only this distillery seems to consistently hit across all of their expressions.  So…how then do you follow up a release that won accolades and adoration across the whisky sippin’ world?  Why, you release another wee snarling beastie of a dram that roars in at cask strength and shows a bit of innovation to boot.  Ardbog is a vatting of 10 year old Ardbegs matured in bourbon casks and Manzanilla casks.  A first for the distillery.  While not as radical as the afore-mentioned Galileo, this is still Ardbeg having a bit of fun and exercising their muscle.

All that remains then to is to ask if it works.  And the answer is ‘yes’.  While still not on par with last year’s Ardbeg Day, this is definitely another special release from Islay’s undisputed champ.

Limited run (though how limited, I can’t seem to find answers for).  Stock up now or forever hold your peace.

Nose:  Smoke and hot rubber.  Something akin to bicycle tire.  Some neat fruits.  Is there such thing as Ardbeg jam?  Iodine (almost like farmyard urine).  A small dab of ultra dark chocolate.  A few drops of espresso.  Black Wine Gums.  Heavy salt.  Seems almost like the Alligator, but further finished (though not necessarily better for it, to be honest).  Some very tongue-curling deep red/purple jammy fruit notes…not far off from fruit leather.

Palate:  Here’s the smoking rubber again up front.  Then into a vaguely raspberry note.  Then into that Ardbeg familiarity:  vanilla, citrus, licorice and big smoke.  Shaved ginger.  Granny Smith apple flavors add a drying tartness to the back end.  A neat balancing act between smoky, salty, licorice notes on one side and sweeter sherry-influenced fruit on the other.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:28 am