Ardbeg Alligator vs God

Ardbeg Alligator vs God

Ardbeg enjoys a status which most people would describe as ‘cult’, some as ‘sect’ and a few, including me, think it’s nothing short of a major religion. Indeed, with it’s evangelists, prophets and miracles; pilgrimages, shrines and vigils; with it’s commandments, structured devotion and, at times, extremism, Ardbeg is as close to Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism or Islam as any whisky will ever get. And it doesn’t come with dirty priests or suicide bombers, that has to count for something.

I have enjoyed observing the Ardbeg success story of recent years. I revelled in it treating each limited release instant sell-out almost as a personal success. I got to meet some of the important people behind the liquid, most notably the most desired woman alive – Glenmorangie’s master blender Rachel Barrie – and the Dexter (from Dexter’s Lab) of the drinks trade – Dr Bill Lumsden. They both made a lasting impression on me and helped me understand the spirit in the green bottle much better. In fact, they charmed me so much that at one point I even applied for an evangelist job with Ardbeg hoping it wouldn’t involve celibate. It didn’t. But they didn’t want me.

Ardbeg Alligator

Why am I sharing this and why the strange title and allegory? Because I am not a convert any more. Past the church-goer stage too. I count myself as a free-floating gnostic evangelist and from where I am there is only a small step to becoming a heretic. I mean, don’t expect me to nail my 95 theses to the distillery door any time soon but, and I’m saying this officially for the first time, I fear that in my eyes the Ardbeg shebang is starting to somewhat interfere with the content of Ardbeg bottles. The liturgy has become so elaborate that few still understand what it is about. I know this is nothing new, this concern has been voiced before. Ardbeg’s new tradition of quirky limited releases from the beginning has attracted as many devotees as critics, both fierce and relentless. I still count myself firmly among the former, I can tell marketing magic when I see it, and on some level I enjoy every bit of modern Ardbegness. But deep inside, when the lights go down and the tasting room empties, I die a little death thinking what is coming next. Ardbeg Garden Gnome? Ardbeg Hello Kitty?

The feeling is gone as soon as I’m back with people. No wonder, those limited releases are such great conversation points… partially because they are a bit hit-and-miss, right? I kind of liked all of them so far but only Uigeadail truly wowed me while still not coming even close to the Ten year old. And the recently released Ardbeg Alligator follows this pattern. It has a great story behind, a very well executed campaign and a cool twist on packaging. The spirit is unmistakably Ardbeg even though rather predatory casks have been used (char 4 new white oak). It’s by all means a good whisky.

But by Ardbeg standards, not great. Was it released by any other Islay distillery, bar Caol Ila, it would be considered a gem. But what I want from Ardbeg now is a solid alternative to the Ten year old, something that can stand its ground when lined up with the old 17s or the 1974. A spirit which takes a step back from all the glamour, doesn’t ride a chopper or sign autographs, but instead strips right down to the bare distillery style. I want Ardbeg to put the wellies back on. I want to be able to add my own story to it, to help build a buzz around it, treat it once again as my own and fall in love with it. Instead, for now, I have the Alligator – a pre-digested Ardbeg which comes complete with an iPad app and an inflatable cult status which is curiously hissing at the seams.

Ardbeg Alligator
51.2% ABV
£65 from the Ardbeg website

Nose: Thyme honey and elder flower. Coriander seeds and gingerbread with touches of aniseed and toffee. Wood smoke. Interesting complexity and fun development with water.

Palate: Charred orange peel, toasty and smoky with spicy overtones.

Finish: Sweeter and richer by the second, showcases some great nutty and chocolaty depth with tobacco ash.

Overall: A good, interesting Ardbeg. Char 4 new Missouri oak sings its part beautifully whereas the the usually aggressive signature smoke plays a subdued role this time. I enjoyed it but somehow can’t see it being a hit with hardcore Ardbeg fans. Especially at £65 a pop.

Lucas

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Judging honours

World Whiskies Awards Judge         Spirit of Speyside Whisky Awards Judge Global Scotch Masters Judge         Scottish Whisky Awards Judge