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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
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