Thursday, 9 April 2015

An ode to Islay 1: Ardbeg

What follows is a series of blog posts picking up a bunch Islay whiskies, starting with last year’s Feis Ile.  If anyone still thinks that terroir doesn’t work for whisky, they only have to look to Islay to see it in action, and my whisky shelves to see how much square footage is dedicated to whiskies from this tiny island.  Maybe it’s the history and attitude, maybe it’s the climate and air, maybe it’s the (mostly) shared maltings, presumably it’s a bit of all of those things (but mostly, I suspect, the climate, weather, air and proximity to the sea). 

So, in alphabetical order:

  1. Ardbeg
  2. Bowmore
  3. Bruichladdich
  4. Bunnahabhain
  5. Caol Ila
  6. Kilchoman
  7. Lagavulin
  8. Laphroaig
  9. Maybe I can find a Port Ellen in to go in at the end?

So this set is running up to 2015’s Feis Ile, which runs from May 22-30, and just goes to show how long it can take a man to get round to publishing his tasting notes from last year if he keeps adding to his horizontals.

logoOnto Ardbeg. This horizontal has been really educational and I now see why Ardbeg is so popular.  Such quality in most expressions although there is a fear that quality is declining.  We’ll see what comes out of Feis Ile this year!

I already published my reviews of Auriverdes (last year’s FI) and SN2014, both of which I really enjoyed.

Ardbeg New Make

Thanks to Matt for a sample of this from his trip to Islay!

Ardbeg_by_typ0Nose - Weirdly (or perhaps not), this is unmistakably Ardbeg, and on the nose, very gently so.  Weirdly, also a lot like the Kidalton on the nose too (below)! How young is the Kidalton 2014?  Warm, comforting, freshly inhaled Marlboro light smoke, cake and fried parsley and potatoes.  Fennel.  More fetid with water.

Body - Eeek....  eye wateringly intense.  Sour, intense, malted barley and bitter, palate destroying tannins.  Rotten crayons.  Carrots.

Finish - Sour and oily, very long. 

It takes a brave or experienced distiller to taste that, stick it in cask for a decade or more and come out with such great whisky at the other end.  Mind you, the Octomore new make I had at that whisky squad tasting was a lot worse.  Memorable tasting notes included infected wounds, rotten wood, old bandages… this isn’t that bad. 

Ardbeg Kidalton, 2014 release, 46% A-

I’d love to try the original Kidalton one day, seems unlikely now that I will, although I sometimes sail close to scoring that pack of miniatures with it in at auction.  This 2014 expression was only available at the distillery last year.  Thanks to Stumbler for the sample!

Aug14-ArdbegKildalton2014Nose - Warming, comforting, lemon and roasting chicken.  I’m strangely reminded of the reed from a saxophone.  Light burning pine, lemon toffee, has the feel of an old Ardbeg that’s a bit over the hill, however some juicy wood toast and welcome warm wax brings it back from the brink.  Water brings out a slightly fetid, musky tone which I don’t really appreciate.

Body - Dark sweetness, bright peat, lemon toffee.  

Finish - Quite long but lacking intensity.  The peat finally makes itself felt properly, with some numbing effervescent lemon and more pine.  Quite oily.  With water, the body loses integrity and the finish disintegrates.

What’s not good about it - Lacks intensity.  I’m fairly underwhelmed especially considering the cost.

What’s good about it - Warm, comfortable, restrained. It’s rather drinkable and rewarding, like a sit down and a drink after a rainy, cold walk home in the dark.

Compared to the Auriverdes: Nose - The Auriverdes has more wax and fruit, more vigour (and I consider it to be a mild Ardbeg itself).  The Kidalton has more toasty musk - perhaps their intensity is just in different directions rather than one being more intense than the other.  Both have integrity but the Auriverdes is more balanced on the nose.  Delivery - The Kidalton is sharp and sour, but a little unremarkable, when the Auriverdes is pleasingly bizarre with petrol and coffee notes.  They are seriously different although both clearly Ardbeg. I could happily drink both but prefer the Auriverdes by some margin.  Then again, this next one blows them both out of the water…

Elements of Islay, Ar4, 58.1% A⊕+

elem_ar4Nose - The epitome of Ardbeg (which is I guess, the point of this series - but whoever put this one together knew what they were doing), and completely balanced.  Light, sweet sherried peat, followed by austere, dusty Islay with refreshers and ground stone.  Some cereal, some beautiful wood (planed, seasoned oak), and great depth with musky, sexy wax, cherry and penny toffees.  Spectacularly delicious.  With water, loses some of the complexity and intensity but brings in more juicy fruit, musk and sherry.

Body - Enormous depth.  Massive peat.  Sweet and sulphurous, with a little spice.  Has that juicy sherry sweetness that Uigeadail has but loads more fizzing brightness and totally balanced.  With water the sweet shop notes come out more, with refreshers, cough candy and foxes glacier fruits.

Finish - Long, juicy, tannic and intense.  Spicy peat lingers, balanced by sweet toffee and lots of wood.  With water, more fizzing and fruit again. 

What’s not good about it - Nothing.

What’s good about it - Intense, complex, balanced and ever changing.  Just wonderful - a dram to take time over and explore.

SMWS 33.127, Ardbeg, It’s a knockout, 7 years old, 64% A⊕

This ones a 10cl dram from an SMWS welcome pack.  These are usually annoyingly good (annoying because they won’t sell me a whole bottle of it).  Thanks Stu for letting me have a dram of this!

smwsNose - Young, but ripe and musky.  Sandalwood joss sticks sniffed cold, in a brisk, ocean wind.  Clean, honest cereal (crushed malted barley), granite, freshly washed steel and deodorant.  Very dry but with some lemon boiled sweets.  More ordinary with water.

Body - A retronasal knockout, certainly.  Massive peat up the nose, intensely sweet and rich on the palate, with Sussex pond pudding (slow cooked lemon in butter and sugar steamed in suet pastry) and oak shavings.  With water, intensely sweet, cloying almost, but seriously delicious with medicinal notes of bandage and germolene.  

Finish - Long, citrus peat and spice.  Lots of black pepper.  With water, even longer, spicier, more coherent and even longer and oilier.  A rather epic, young Ardbeg.

What’s not good about it - Angular and unreasonable.

What’s good about it - Long, complex, competent, spicy and delicious.  Mouth puckering peat and tannins, balancing complex sweetness. I’d love to be able to buy young bottles of complex single cask Ardbeg from SMWS right now, and have them be like this.

SMWS 33.106, Ardbeg, A Tale of Two Drams, 13 years old, 54% A⊕

From the Beach BBQ mighty mini set.  Refill bourbon.

20150408_110341Nose - Restrained but powerful.  Burnt newspaper, ozone and toffee pennies.  So much granite - wet and cold.  Unripe pear and gunpowder.  It’s a lot more compelling than I’m making it sound actually, I can’t stop returning to the nose.  Water brings out a big sweet nose, juicy and quite fruity with peach and dried figs.

Body - Again restrained, with shy fruit and then a big fizzing belt of metal filings and gunpowder.  Water opens it up again, with an almost kebab shop thing going on with pickled chillies, sweet onion and yoghurt.  Fruity still - it still hangs together.  What a weird whisky.

Finish - Long, juicy peat and toffee apple at a bonfire.  Strangely vanilla and mango juice in the end.  Very sweet!  Very long and satisfying.  New plastic and a bit of play doh.

What’s not good about it - Seriously intense, quite challenging and quite odd.  I get the two drams thing.

What’s good about it - Same as above.  Love the fruit too.  An intense and complicated dram.  

Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Committee release 2008, 57.1% A⊕+

Thanks to Sjoerd at Maltfascination for a taste of his bottle of this fantastic committee release.  

corryvreckanNose - Dark.  At first, then a bit brighter, sweeter, and gentler than you’re expecting but the brooding Ardbeg excellence is just hiding.  Sharp granite, dark (aged) cereal, dusty mango juice and bright plastic book covers.  Waxy and musky.  This is an enticing, dirty, yet elegant nose.

Body - Intense and pure, sweet Ardbeg.  Brightly spicy and bitter.  Musky sulphur and really quite sexy.  I didn’t add water, it was too perfect already.

Finish - Long, very sweet and juicy.  Crisply fried bacon.  Final notes are of elegant oak.

What’s not good about it - Nothing.

What’s good about it - Sweet, elegant, intense, frisky, sexy and just beautiful.  I love it.  This is nudging an A⊕⊕.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan, General release, some batch in 2013, 57.1% A

Just the bottle off my shelf, I didn’t get round to writing notes before!

ardbeg corryvreckannNose - Sour.  Compared to the committee release the nose on this is sour.  Underneath, the same granite peat is there, quite harsh and full of ozone. Some cashews, particularly on exhale.  Ketchup.  It’s brutal but competent compared to the committee release.  With water, gentler, and a much waxier sweetness, much improved. The muskiness I enjoy in both is still there, presumably the French oak.  

Body - Icing sugar sweet, plum, hot dogs and ashes.  A world away from the elegance of the CR.  I can see the lineage when I compare them side by side, but the drop in quality is marked.  This is my own bottle, 2/3 through, and I liked it more before!  With water, it drops the intensity but doesn’t improve much.

Finish - Long, intensely peated, spicy and fizzing.  More hot dogs at the end.  I’m not sure I like hot dogs in whisky.  Water gives a sweet shop element, maybe parmas, maybe a bit of midget gems.  I’m a fan of those things.

What’s not good about it - Definitely doesn’t hold a candle to the CR.  I might have to re-review it when my palate’s fresh.  It’s very harsh (compared) though - I bought this after tasting it because I found it to be remarkable, but now it seems blunt.

What’s good about it - There’s only so bad Ardbeg gets though.  This is still “very good” whisky and is being compared to it’s more serious brothers.  The musky notes I loved in the CR is there, the complexity is there.  It’s just not as refined.

Ardbeg 10 year old, 46% A⊕

Strangely, I’ve never owned a bottle of this and never really sat down with it before.  Thanks to Stu for a sample of his duty free purchase.

Ardbeg-10-Year-Old1Nose - Icing sugar sweet, gentle, light raspberry peat.  Some metal filings.  Light lemon and pear.  Definitely youthful, bright and finely ground, and very polite and balanced.

Body - Very sweet - echoes the nose pretty perfectly.  Some gentle ashes.

Finish - Quite long, lovely cereal peat and wood.  Lingering toasty wood and ashes, and what I’d basically call Ardbeggyness.

What’s not good about it - Nothing at the price, lacks a little complexity.

What’s good about it - Beautifully rounded, gentle and a great all round Ardbeg expression.

Ardbeg Uigeadail, some batch in 2013, 54.2% A+

From my (nearly finished) bottle.  About time I wrote down something about this one too.

1011309xNose - Lovely dark, sherry notes, quite restrained.  A little black cherry, freshly planed expensive oak, top notes of granite peat, a little lemon curd.  With water, the superior casks are apparent - more musky, fruity and spicy, and a little fag ash.

Body - Rich, sweet, dark fruit - all lovely but with an obvious and unwelcome young twang to it.  Quite spicy actually.  The sherry is balanced and wonderful in here, as is the Ardbeggyness, but I wish this was more mature.  Water takes the edge off that issue.

Finish - Medium, rich and slightly cloying neat.  The most ashen of the Ardbegs in this set I’d say.  Diluted, the finish draws out and is very concentrated in the side of the tongue, giving lovely, balanced tannins and toffee.

What’s not good about it - too young.

What’s good about it - Lovely nose, excellent casks, good complexity throughout.

Ardbeg Renaissance, 55.9% A⊕

Thanks again Sjoerd for the sample.

ardbeg-renaissance-10-year-old-whiskyNose - Light, bright, perfumed and juicy.  Such gentle, rich sweetness.  I didn’t realise before lining this lot up how gentle and sweet Ardbeg can be if you look at it the right way.  Blackcurrants, barley, heather.  Beautiful.

Body - Rich, light, lemon sweet, like an old Bowmore with fizzing parmas.  Is this really 10 years old?  So gentle, round, beautifully wooded and full of lemon cake.  Some serious casks have gone into this whisky.  However, some youth is apparent here with a cloying sweetness neat.

Finish - The bright fizzing tannins of the peat are here now - long, balanced and complex finish, lemon boiled sweets.

What’s not good about it - Frankly, this is still young.  That’s it though.

What’s good about it - The work that’s gone into this whisky is obvious.  Balance, elegance, intensity and complexity.  Very good.

Bowmore next time!


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