Oooooo, you know it is... frightening,
Let me just say that this whisky is one mega-bitch to review. There is just SO MUCH happening in here, with layers and layers of riddle me this, riddle me that, wrapped in a mystery, cloaked in an enigma. The dark side clouds everything, but after nearly 3 days straight of nosing and tasting this whisky I think I've finally penetrated enough of its secrets to share them with you in writing today. Make sure you crank the subs for that song above - transcendent stuff.
And what a day it is! Today, June 1st, is Ardbeg Day, coinciding so beautifully with that Islay Festival of Malt and Music that we call Feis Ile (pronounced faye-SHEEL). Here Ardbeg has a sacrificial offering to slake the thirst of gathering fanboys (and girls) everywhere... if you can find a bottle. In typical Ardbeg fashion this is a vatted expression consisting of roughly 60% standard 10yo Ardbeg and 40% spirit matured 10 years full term in ex-Manzanilla sherry casks. Right now you're rolling your eyes saying "Sherry again?? Way to get off the beaten path, Ardbeg! I renounce you!" but you'd be terribly premature in your sarcasm. If Ardbeg Day (last year's committee release) has been described as a cross between Uigeadail and Alligator ("Uileagator") then this is squarely a cross between Uigeadail and Corryvrecken (in flavor, not necessarily maturation). Uigeavreckan! That's truly the best comparison I can make after having sampled the 6 other Ardbeg expressions I own alongside it. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that when Jim Murray reviews this for his Whisky Bible he's going to flip his shit.
Just as an experiment I've gone to my cabinet and mixed 40% Uigeadail with 60% Corryvreckan and placed that glass next to Ardbog. The nosing will be an exercise in comparisons. Diving in!
Hmmmm... whereas Uigeavreckan is somewhat meaty and stuffy, full of dark, brooding oils and smoking grill, Ardbog's nose is bright and sticky with a distinct maritime salt-spice. Who would have known from the name? Then again, when I spoke to David Blackmore at the launch event he said, "We don't take ourselves too seriously here." So there's that. If you were expecting some sort of weird peat monster larvae here, you'd be sorely mistaken. In fact, the peat is so well integrated into those bright maritime notes I talked about that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. One suspects that the contribution is not all from that kelpy peat bog malt. Perhaps the smoke is complemented and nurtured by this particular light, sherried dryness?
Yes, I did say the sherry is dry. Just because sherry is fruity and floral by nature doesn't mean it's sweet. Have you ever tried it? Most sherries would be described by sommeliers as "dry", but a lot of tasters (even Master Blenders! - looking at you Red Breast Single Potstill Irish Whisky) say that the sherry imparts a "fruity sweetness" to the malt. I think the problem here lies in trying to sort out what our tongues and noses are telling us with these whiskies. We taste sherry and it has that unctuous, long fruit-based contribution and we say "sweet" for lack of something to compare it to. But would you call a fig newton "sweet" upon first tasting it? Or a dried date "fruity"? I'd say "luscious", "unctuous", "fibrous", "rich", or "caramel-y", but when I think "sweet" I think of cherry pie or strawberries or Kool-Aid. Even then the word "sweet" by itself could almost be applied to anything from toaster strudels to flavored mouthwash to milk chocolate. So, maybe not the best word, especially when we talk about sherry.
The palate has a slightly oily mouthfeel with an instant burst of spices (clove-forward), tannins, and spent, slightly-burnt coffee grounds. If you were expecting fruitiness I don't know where it went, aside from maybe a touch of lemon zest in the background. The oiliness trades in for salad dressing notes, with bits of kalamata olive soaked in brine and Italian spice. Perhaps you'd like some cheese and salami on your salad? And then almost no iodine hits whatever - so strange for an Ardbeg that's 60% original 10yo.
This whisky is straight-up delicious with a finish that is medium spicy.. I was telling some friends yesterday that this ranks above Ardbeg Day and Galileo in my book, and is working its way up to become my favorite Ardbeg expression. It really grows on you.
Much of the critical reception has been positive, but for all the "sigh" articles you read out there I suspect it has more to do with the annual product hype cycle (and general weariness of this particular peat-bomb distiller) than it does with the whisky itself. Which is a shame. Ardbeg is unquestionably one of the greatest Islay distilleries, if not one of the greatest distilleries period. If they had released this as a separate, limited edition later in the year I suspect everyone would be going gaga hailing it as Uigeadail's long lost cousin. Let the whisky speak for itself, and feel free to make up your own mind. I think in a year we'll look back and say "damn", and I'll be glad I bought two bottles :-)
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.