Ardbeg

Write up by Luke Jones

This week’s tasting from TLWC marks a special occasion. Not only do we return to the format of having a club member host the session, we also have a fantastic line of whiskies and most exciting of all, we have a hybrid tasting session. Yes, for the first time in six months some of the members will be in the same physical room with the rest of us joining in virtually. Forgive my excitement but having the opportunity to be in the same room as other members enjoying a dram seems like a distant memory. Unfortunately, the event is due to take place only a few days after the government took the decision to reintroduce measures which means this will also be the last hybrid tasting for the foreseeable furture. So let’s enjoy it while it lasts. A big thank you to Cask Trade (www.casktrade.com) who allowed the club to use the Cast Trade HQ for the face to face tasting and of course to Andy “Ardbaggie” Purslow who will not only be taking us through the whiskies tonight but also provided the whiskies from his own personal collection.

To emphasise how special some of the drams are, if I were in a room full of whisky enthusiasts and ask them to raise a hand if they had not heard of Ardbeg I would imagine, with a high degree of certainty, that no hand would be raised. Likewise, if I asked the same room to raise a hand if they had never tasted Ardbeg, again I would imagine that no hands or at best, very few hands would be raised. But, if I were to ask the same room to raise a hand if anyone had tasted one or less of the drams on offer tonight, I would expect to see a room full of raised hands.

Before I introduce the drams, a little background on Ardbeg. Ardbeg can be found on the south coast of the isle of Islay and is famed for producing heavily peated whisky. The Ardbeg distillery has been producing whisky since 1798 but didn’t begin commercial production until 1815 and that’s why most consider this to be the birth date of Ardbeg. By 1886 the distillery was producing 300,000 gallons of whisky per year and employed around 60 workers. As with a number of Scottish distilleries production was halted and the distillery mothballed in 1981, but 1989 it did reopen in limited capacity and continued at a low level through late 1996 this is the period when Ardbeg was owned by Hiram Walker. In 1997 the distillery was bought and reopened, with full capacity produced in 1998, by Glenmorangie which was subsequently taken over by the French company Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) in 2004 who have remained the owners until this day.  The distillery was reopened by Ed Dodson in 1997 and handed over to Stuart Thomson who managed it until 2006. Michael “Mickey” Heads, an Islay native and former manager at Jura, took over on 12 March 2007. And as we all now Mickey will be stepping down in October of this year. Ardbeg have announced a special bottle will be released to the Ardbeg Committee members to honour Mickey’s service. He hands over the reigns to Colin Gordon who come in from Diageo and has big boots to fill.

The distillery output is considered sizable for a distillery with only two pot stills. The wash still has a capacity of c18,000 litres and the spirit still of c17,000 litres. Currently a new still house is under construction which will double Ardbeg’s distilling capacity which hopefully means more Ardbeg for all of us. Ardbeg is also one of the only Scottish distilleries who use a purifier, which leads to a smoother spirit.

Lastly, before we move on to the drams, there was a special request from Andy for us all to pour the six samples into six separate glasses and covered prior to the tasting start.

Our exciting line-up for the night’s tasting:

  • 1974 Signatory Vintage 43%
  • 1990 Airigh Nam Beist 46%
  • 1977 Limited Edition 46%
  • 1981 Lord of the Isles 46%
  • 1991 Douglas Laing OMC 50%
  • 2004 Adelphi Limited 60.7%
Picture provided by Andy Purslow

Dram 1 – 1974 Signatory Vintage

Distilled on Islay on the 22nd March 1974, and bottled in August 1997 just one year after Hiram Walker and DCL bought the distillery. A 23yr old single vintage Ardbeg from Signatory Vintage.

Dram 2 – 1990 Airigh Nam Beist

Bottled 2006, the Airigh Nam Beist 1990 is a vintage bottling that is now sadly discontinued due to exhausted stocks. When released it was an extremely popular Ardbeg, mainly due to the powerful peatiness and a lovely honeyed edge. Its  matured in ex-bourbon casks and the name, ‘Airigh Nam Beist’ derives from the Scotch Gaelic for ‘Shelter of the Beast.’ Ardbeg themselves describe this as “Ardbeg Ice Cream”. Lets dive into the dram and see if we agree.

Dram 3 – 1977 Limited Edition

The stock of whisky distilled before the 1997 Glenmorangie purchase tells its own story in respect of the uncertain times that Ardbeg was going through. Besides some vintage releases, like this 1977 and a 1975, there was the core 17 year old that took the distillery back from 1997 to 1980 which was the last full year of distillation. The distillery released around 60 single cask releases between 1999 and 2010, with most of those being distilled between 1972 and 1976. If we read a little deeper into this many of those casks were distilled on bunched date ranges. Does this suggest that the distillery was working only intermittently even when it was fully active?

Anyway, the Ardbeg Very Old 1977 Limited Edition is a very collectable bottling. It was released between 2001 and 2004 in several batches. It was matured for at least two decades, surviving the distillery’s period of instability in the mid-1990s making the whisky 23 to 27 years old and is bottled free from chill filtration at a strength of 46% abv.

Dram 4 – 1981 Lord of the Isles

The Lord of the Isles is a title of Scottish nobility that began with Somerled in the 12th century and continued with the Norse Gaels rulers of the Isle of Man and Argyll and the islands of Scotland into the Middle Ages. The end came when in 1493 John MacDonald II had his ancestral homeland, estates, and titles seized by King James IV of Scotland. More recently the title is usually borne by the Prince of Wales. Therefore, the current Lord of the Isles is Prince Charles.

Back to the whisky and this is a rare old malt whisky from Ardbeg that has been matured in oak barrels for 25 Years and as you would expect, is non chill-filtered.

Dram 5 – 1991 Douglas Laing OMC

This is a pre-closure 16 year old Ardbeg bottled by Douglas Laing. Only 335 bottles were produced and the whisky was finished in a rum cask. Distilled in March 1991 and bottled in September 2007.

Dram 6 – 2004 Adelphi Limited

A single cask of Ardbeg whisky bottled by Adelphi. This cask was filled in 2004 and matured for 14 years. This is one of only 194 bottles and was bottled at 60.7%.

Adelphi whiskies are both rare and sought-after which makes Adelphi one of Scotland’s most acclaimed bottler of rare single cask. Apparently, Adelphi only accepts 4% of what it is offered ensure that the very small number of casks they do accept produced ultimate whiskies. The criteria for selection include rarity and maturity, but above all flavour. 

Tasting notes

1974 Signatory Vintage 

Nose: Toffee, sweet, clotted cream, old leather furniture, musty, wax, olive oil, subtle smoke, saline.

Taste: Stewed fruits, oily, citrus, seashells, slight smoke, sea spray, malt.

1990 Airigh Nam Beist 

Nose: Honey, toasted cereal, cream, peat, apple, peach, vanilla ice cream, nutty, lime and citrus. This is like eating Ardbeg ice cream on the beach – the combination of sea spray, peat finished with a hot fudge sauce finish.

Taste: Smoked oats, sweet honey, crispy bacon, spice, seaweed bonfire smoke, pepper, oil, apple, notes of black coffee and chocolate.

1977 Limited Edition 

Nose: Subtle peat, white wine. As the whisky opens up, we get honey with a hint of peat and pine, with a lovely spiciness.  Dry and oaky which is reminding me of a good chardonnay. Sweet apples, and a hint of a floral bouquet. Creamy and almost fudge like. The more it opens the more the peat smoke comes through.

Taste: Initially very sweet, with honey and waxy citrus fruit, lemon or lime. A very gentle fizzy along with the peat and pepper or clove and a touch of iodine. A nice balance between sweet and peat.

1981 Lord of the Isles 

Nose: Deep, rich and sweet. The sweetness of chocolate-dipped cherries with a deep peaty centre. Freshly oiled leather armchair and the smoke of open wood burning fireplace. As it opens up we get more woodsmoke, vanilla and salt. This is very complex and refined for such a big peaty dram.

Taste: Peaty, chewy, silky and oily leaving the mouth to salivate. The initial sweet vanilla and chocolate transforming into peat and cocoa. Pepper, plumbs and redcurrants sit under the oak spice leaving a slightly bitter dark chocolate taste.

1991 Douglas Laing OMC 

Nose: Musty, tropical fruit, a cigar left to burn in an ashtray, orange jolly rancher. As it opens up the peat gets more pronounced and we start getting more leather and tar which gives it the older whisky notes.

Taste: Oily, bananas, cherry lozenge, tar with more ash than smoke. Maybe a lingering fizziness and medicinal notes. The more I drink the more orange notes come through.  It leaves an oily mouthfeel but still hits hard with ash, peat and cinders.

2004 Adelphi Limited 

Nose: Rich peat smoke, fresh fruit, saline and more savoury than sweet.  The nose is like a punch in the face with an explosion of pepper, spice and ginger with unripe pears. The peat and oil are a little overpowering at the start.

Taste: Soft spices and red fruits topped with salt encased in peat smoke. The heat of jalapeno pepper and the slight bitterness of green peppers, with grassy notes. The abv is definitely noticeable but its closely followed by heavy smoke, smoked meats like bacon and beef. It leaves a think oily coating on the mouth. The smoke slightly dampens to a campfire and damp logs.

After sampling all the drams it came to “Dram of the Night”. I’m not convinced we actually had a clear winner. In other tastings anyone of these could easily have been crowned the winner. People frequently changed their mind to the dram that they were currently drinking. For that reason, I’m going to go with my favourite which is the 1981 Lord of the Isles. It was a privilege to have tried just one let alone all the drams on show tonight and I’m not sure when, if ever, I will get to sample them again.

———————————————————————-

The next club tasting returns to the virtual tasting arrangement, but we do have a big whisky personality to take us through the night. Billy Abbot will be introducing The Whisky Exchange Single Casks on Wednesday 23rd September.

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