A couple of nights ago I was privileged to attend an Ardbeg Committee launch event in Westborough, MA, celebrating the arrival of Ardbeg's latest, rare committee release - Ardbog! The launch is coincidentally timed quite well with the arrival of Ardbeg Day on June 1st (today!), with rolling launch celebrations being held all over the world the week prior. The May 29th event I attended was expertly hosted by Julio's Liquors, with a raffle of Ardbeg Supernova (a bottle signed by Dr. Bill Lumsden and David Blackmore!) and great food and drink all around. There was even an "Ardbog Sushi Roll" designed to pair flavortastically with the new whisky, but they ran out before I could try some.
As with any major whisky tasting event there was great SWAG, such as signature green Ardbeg tasting glasses, Ardbog Day tees, and assorted memorabilia, but the reason we were all there was to get our first glimpse (and taste) of Ardbog itself and maybe buy a bottle or two. While I've finally penned my tasting notes for Ardbog over in the reviews section, I thought I'd share a few other observations from the evening here.
I had a chance to speak with Ardbeg and Glenmorangie Global Ambassador Mr. David Blackmore at length after the new drink had been introduced and all the hubbub died down. I first met David Blackmore at a Glenmorangie Master Class at Whisky Live NYC (where I talked him into a bit of a blind tasting), but I'll never turn down an opportunity to get the "inside scoop" on what's happening in my favorite distilleries. It was - in a word - sublime to enjoy a dram of the delicious Ardbog while generally "shootin' the shit" with one of the most fun-loving personalities in the whisky biz.
Here's a summary of what I could get on the record:
While critical reception of Ardbog (which has already been in some tasters' hands since mid-week) has been generally quite positive, Mr. Blackmore was understandably tepid about pronouncing Ardbog to be anything "revolutionary" while simultaneously confident that it was quite excellent stuff. True 'nuff. I think much of the "sigh" reaction that you tend to hear amongst industry insiders is just weariness at the annual Ardbeg hype cycle itself, rather than the whisky. Also, there seems to be a weariness about sherry maturation setting in around some corners, with many renowned and respected tasters and bloggers swearing that ex-bourbon is just "where it's all at" right now. I think any judgment of Ardbog needs to be free of preconceived prejudices. In fact, if you've read my review, you'll see that I rate Ardbog easily above the Ardbeg Day and Galileo expressions, going so far as to say that it may turn out to be my favorite Ardbeg release yet - and that includes the Corryvreckan!
Why "Ardbog", given that this expression is actually none too monstrous on the phenol front?
"Well, I think it's a lot like the Uigeadail in some respects, while being 'dirtier' - a bit earthy. We don't take ourselves too seriously here," David said. The host at Julio's Liquors even joked about one of my recent "criticisms" of the Glenmorangie Master Class, where it seemed Mr. Blackmore was there to let us have our stab at what we thought we tasted, while telling us definitively what we were supposed to taste. If there's one thing I appreciate about whisky fans it's that everyone is a critic.
Glenmorangie's Cask Masters Project
If you haven't heard about Glenmorangie's Cask Masters Project, it's an industry first (as far as I can tell) attempt at crowd-sourcing extra maturation. Glenmorangie periodically releases private edition whiskies that showcase their mastery of ACE'ing (Additional Cask Enhancement). The Artein, for example, was extra matured in Super Tuscan wine casks. What the Cask Masters Project aims to do is give the public control of what cask to mature the next private edition in. Your choices: ex-Burgundy, ex-Bordeaux, and ex-Manzanilla.
I've said before that I tasted all three expressions at Whisky Live NYC, and I definitely preferred the Bordeaux above the other choices. I thought the Burgundy was too much at war in the glass and the Manzanilla was not enough of a departure from the signature, light Glenmo character. I was disappointed then to hear from Mr. Blackmore that the Manzanilla is currently in the lead among Cask Masters voters. I have my own suspicions as to why this could be so, starting with the fact that few of the voters have probably actually tasted the variations, having instead learned about them by tasting note videos on the Cask Masters website. The drawbacks here are obvious, like telling a Master Blender that he can't rely on the valinch and must instead go on what a stranger is going to text him about his casks. Please, please, voters, don't screw this up.
The other thing I discovered was that the Cask Masters Project is - for the moment - delayed. Mr. Blackmore didn't offer too many specifics as to why, aside from a bit of bureaucratic maneuvering in the UK and USA governments. However, I suspect it could just as easily be a master blender who thinks that many of the casks just aren't ready. After all, this isn't an exact science, and nobody's going to release a whisky for Glenmorangie - pioneer of ACE'ing extraordinaire - until it's perfect. Overall, while Glenmorangie is committed to this grand experiment, it sounds like there won't be another private edition until 2015 unless something changes. Still, with private editions like Astar and Ealanta still selling out there, I think I can entertain myself another two years just fine :-)
Having just reviewed Lagavulin's 1991 Distiller's Edition, I figured I'd briefly turn our attention to the impending launch of another great son of Islay.
Ardbeg's annual committee releases are amazing feats of marketing and pizzazz, to a hyperbolic degree, but who am I to take issue with the creation of another great peat monster? And great it will surely be, despite the hype and Ardbeg's command of the Reality Distortion Field (see my post on Ardbeg vs. Glenmorangie if you're wondering why I'm comparing whisky to the tech industry). I just can't see this distillery doing something blunderously stupid with their maltings, even if people are wearying of the annual keynote hangovers. I trust Distillery Manager Mickey Heads implicitly. But Mickey, how about making one of these releases something we can enjoy as a permanent addition to Ardbeg's lineup? Wink wink, nudge nudge, saynomore.
Ardbeg introduces Ardbog on Ardbog Day, which is technically June 1st. However, the preceeding week will be one of revelry and merrymaking at Ardbeg Embassies the world over since committee members have been invited to launch parties starting 28 May. I myself will be attending one in Massachusetts prior to June 1st, and I'll make sure I report back diligently on my findings (along with preliminary tasting notes). Hopefully I can even grab a bottle as soon as it's released. Now, what little do we know about Ardbog? Let's tell it in pictures, posted just this week on Ardbeg's Facebook page.
Part of me is just curious - is the prehistoric marketing angle just hype and differentiation? After all, it's supposedly Manzanilla doing all the work. Or could it be that they've somehow peated this one differently, with some especially prehistoric peat? Or something? All peat is ancient, so I'm thinking it probably wouldn't matter, but I like the air of mystery and intrigue.
Either way, I'm excited about Ardbog. Whether it turns out to be justifiably hyped or overburdened by expectation, it's a good day to be a Committee member. Joining up is free on the Ardbeg website.
...owned by the same company. I was settling down with my muse (currently Ardbeg Day's Committee Release) this evening and had an epiphany of sorts.
I don't work on Madison Avenue, but I'm often fascinated by the many marketing angles at work in the world of whisky, especially Scotch. I'm also a political scientist, so I enjoy studying policy and how people organize. Put these two "passions" (hey, I do have a life) together and it means that I find myself reading up on the whisky business scene with regularity. And speaking of religion, what's interesting to me is the zeal - and often times, ignorance - that accompany's people's beliefs about those 750ml brown, aged spirits that they covet and hoard.
I'm here to present a theorem of sorts, a tale of two distilleries and their current marketing approaches - Ardbeg and Glenmorangie.
These distilleries are known for being unquestionable leaders in their fields. Glenmorangie are the pioneering experts of ACE'ing (Additional Cask Enhancements) since 1995, treating the world to "finished whiskies" like the Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, and Nectar D'or that are all the rage nowadays. Many distilleries have since followed Glenmorangie's lead, whether it's simply to chase the money (Glenmorangie's offerings fetch a premium price and reputation) or to expand their flavor portfolio. Some distilleries like Bruichladdich - revived by Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan - have even leapt out in front, blazing a trail of experimentation that has proven extremely rewarding. Nowadays it's no surprise to hear of whiskies around the world spending time in an exotic range of casks for flavor enhancement: sherry, port, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Pedro Ximinez, Manzanilla, Sauternes, bourbon, rum, virgin (helloooooo Ealanta)... maple syrup. I shit you not. Goes well with breakfast on top of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I suppose.
All in all, Glenmorangie is known for producing stalwart, premier whiskies and leading the charge on elite cask management and maturation. It's signature malt is also supremely light, heathery, and filled with "orangey" (heh) and menthol topnotes, which give the distillery a larger, more neutral palette to "paint" with as it selects casks for ACEing.
Owned by Glenmorangie Company Ltd. (which is actually a subsidiary of the French Company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy) is Ardbeg, one of eight distilleries on Islay that are currently still producing. Ardbeg's claim is to be the "peatiest" whisky on Islay (which pretty much makes it the peatiest whisky in the world), and although you'll find no argument from me on the nature of the nose, its actual phenol levels (~55 ppm) are eclipsed by those of Bruichladdich's Octomore series (140-169 ppm). Ardbeg's strength lies in its cult following, members of a "committee" of over 50,000 members (how's that for an island of 3,457 residents?) whose zeal and evangelism rival anything you'll see at a Southern Baptist Convention (ironic? yes).
"Unquestionably the greatest distillery to be found on Earth. If perfection on the palate exists, this is it." Jim Murray, Whisky Bible
These Ardbeggians love their Ardbeg, and the distillery is more than happy to include them (committee membership is free) and indulge them. What struck me tonight, as I skimmed through the latest news on these two distilleries, was how diametrically opposed their current marketing strategies are - a difference made stark when you understand that these distilleries are owned and operated by the same parent company (despite their independent leadership).
My thesis in a nutshell: Glenmorangie is Microsoft, and Ardbeg is Apple.
WHOA THERE, Cereal dude. You tryin' to start a flame war?
Hey, even I relish the idea of the page-views. But hear me out here. This goes beyond surface fanboyism and settles down inside some well-established pop culture memes. Besides, it's an illustration through metaphor, not a direct comparison to every facet of their business models.
Let's start with Ardbeg.
You have Apple, Inc. in distilled (pun intended) form. Hell, this company even went so far as to check off an entire calendar day as it's day. Just claimed June 1st as its own, every year, for time immemorial. That's chutzpah. That's confidence. That's Ardbeg. Have you seen the hype for the Ardbog release on Ardbeg Day this year? I don't even have to taste it - I can tell you right now it will be worth a fortune in no time and be impossible to find a year from now. That's the Ardbeg reality distortion field in full effect.
Then we have Glenmorangie, the quintessential "whisky establishment" types who've been around a while.
I have a feeling you're going to demand some evidence to back up my assumptions on that one. After all, for some reason, say a company is "like Microsoft" nowadays and Apple fanboys tend to let it go to their head: "Oh YEAH, take that Glenm... Glen... whatever it's called. Apple, WHOO!" Microsofties get Stockholm syndrome: "Why you hatin' on Glenmorangie, man? FASCIST!" You're all insane.
Look, in general, I love what Glenmorangie produces, as evidenced by the fact that I own all of their expressions except the Signet. Fanboys, you need to get with me on this. However, you Microsofties, you need to face up to the fact that Apple is kicking your ass in the mobile sphere, despite the beauty of Metro UI and the well-known drawbacks of iOS. It just is, and I just said that neither system (or dram) is perfect. This could be a generational gap - show me several images from the life of each distillery and tell me which one the Millenials will go with and which one takes the boomers. Go ahead. YEAH, I am right on this. That doesn't mean that I've just argued one is better than the other, unless you really dig ageism, which is okay I guess.
I am not a whiskey apologist, nor a tech apologist. Now that we've cleared the water a bit, a defense of my actual thesis is in order. In short, I've just claimed that one company has the "coolness" and hype on its side (but for how much longer?) and the other is playing the long, open establishment game.
Glenmorangie's been at this business for a while. The long game has long been on their side, and they're doing everything they believe is necessary to stay on top. But acting like sherry, port, and Sauternes finishes are a bold, new thing at every tasting is clearly a bit passe. The release of the private editions (like Metro UI) are a great step in the right direction here. Astar and Ealanta? There are no better expressions of wood finish on the market.
I've read several interviews where Glenmorangie totally spilled the beans on the contents of their major releases. "Oh, have you noticed the original has been tasting better in recent years? That's because it's about 30% Astar blend now." Whoa, sweet. "Ealanta is aged in slow-growth, American white oak from the northern slopes of the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri, cut and air dried for 2 years before being coopered into a virgin cask and mellowing the spirit for 19 years." Bangin'. "Any other questions?" Huh?
They can also be somewhat tone-deaf in their master classes. "Pick up the Artein. What do you smell?" There's a kind of meaty sweetness, perhaps a bit of almond butter and grape skins. "Well, what I smell is the orange, the heather, that signature Glenmorangie menthol topnote." That's nice, I'm tasting some leathery mocha notes here, along with chocolate cherries - quite dark for the Glenmorangie palate, no? "Chocolate covered cherries yes, but really look for that mint." UGH. Don't you think the Lasanta still has a problem with sulfur notes in the casks? "Some people have more sulfur sensitivity than others." (A true statement, but you see what I'm getting at here). Lasanta was never my favorite of their ACE whiskies.
What I really must commend Glenmorangie on is their latest crowd-sourcing initiative, the "Cask Masters Project" that aims to let the (mostly) common man have an input as to what will go into their next private edition release. I tried all 3 version finishes at Whisky Live NYC, and personally, I loved the chance to speak my mind about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each expression. Any of them will be great whiskies, but if you get a chance, vote Bordeaux finish ;-)
So you see, I'm not really hating on either distillery here. In fact, just the freakin' opposite! I own dozens of their whiskies and enjoy them all. Still, I think the comparisons are apt, and the topic is perfect for drams and cigars. DISCUSS!