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

Comments

  1. You know, I also realised I was a little too involved with the cult of Ardbeg, which seemed less and less about the whisky. I’m a little like that with Bruichladdich, but that’s more of a community – an open, non-markety type, completely about the superb whisky, so it feels different.

    Very nicely put and I’m glad I wasn’t the only one! I was a little disappointed in Alligator too.

  2. While I kind of see what your trying to say I must say that I thought Alligator was a cracking dram when I tried it.
    Your right as well when you say Ardbeg has a “cult” following. Everyone wants to believe in the “little distillery that could” philosophy and when a product is small and niche you can, as you say, revel in a personal satisfaction of helping them succeed- BUT success breeds more sucess.
    Ardbeg is a bit like that band that you knew about years ago that nobody had heard of. You went to their first gigs and wrapped yourself in the warm cozy feeling of the raw around the edges style while they found their feet. You tell anyone who’ll listen that they’re the best thing since sliced bread and that sliced bread was over-reated anyway. You wear the T-shirt not only to show your support but so people will stop and ask about it.

    “Who are they?”
    “Well it’s only the best band (distillery) ever”
    “I’ll have to give that a listen (drink)!”

    Then before you know it they’ve hit the big time and your mum is asking you to get their new album (limited edition bottling) for her for Christmas. They’ve gone corporate and sold out. Suddenly their older stuff was much, much better than anything they’re doing now.
    I think Ardbeg is always a distiller led company who also have very good people to promote the brand. It was only opened again in 1997 (i think) so it’s not like they’ve had a chance to get any old whisky so right now we’ll just have to make do with some young and experimental bottles just now.
    You need to keep having interesting and thoughtful concepts to keep your brand on top and I really don’t believe that Ardbeg is getting lost in their own hype.
    If anything i’d like to see what they’re going to do next…

  3. @Mark Thanks for your comment

    @Jason Thanks for your opinion. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, the band comparison is a good one. Another example could be books made into films:) For me the most painful one was Lord of the Rings which sadly I stopped being an advocate of even though I loved the films!

    I am a fan of what Ardbeg has been doing marketing-wise, I said that on many occasions and stated it clearly above too. But the bar for the spirit is just so high… when a limited release fails to impress, the disappointment is proportional to the pre-release hype. Perhaps that’s my problem. Once again it all boils down to the perception of the spirit.

  4. Nicely written article and i like Jasons Comparison .
    I think Ardbegs problem is that (and it’s been touched on here) it’s in Limbo . It doesn’t have the old pre-1997 stock now to release decent aged statements as it’s waiting for it’s post-1997 stock to reach an age where it can do a 15/17/18yo to supplement it’s 10yo (or i hope they are going to do a 15/17/18yo at some point !), in the mean time they have to experiment with non-standard casks . I must say i wasn’t impressed with the Committee Alligator , not enough to run out and buy the new one but i have been happy with the other Casks they’ve released like the “Toasties” from the 2009 Feis Ile and the PX’s from this years Feis Ile . Also the Burgundy matured stuff that went into the Corryvreckan was superb .

    One thing i still can’t get my head around is the people who for 11 months of the year sit and have snipes at Ardbeg/LVMH then when it comes to the new committee release fall over themselves to be the first on line to buy one and end up bringing the site down and then moan about that….. :-)

    Slainte
    Gordon

  5. Nice Write up!
    I share your opinion. It’s good but not great.
    Surely they will sell it like hot buns.
    Me, I live ardbegs but I’m expecting more
    From them.
    Maybe next time.

    G.

  6. Very nicely written article.
    It reminds me very much of my personnal experience.
    I really enjoy Ardbeg, but the marketing strategy and the stratospheric prices lead me to choose and investigate other alternatives.
    At £65 the alligator, this is really pricy for this type of whisky.

  7. Very nicely written article.
    It reminds me very much of my personnal experience.
    I really enjoy Ardbeg, but the marketing strategy and the stratospheric prices lead me to choose and investigate other alternatives.
    At £65 the alligator, this is really pricey for this type of whisky.

  8. Great article. I’m glad I’m not alone.

    The Ardbeg phenomenon is certainly an interesting one. It seems that friends of mine who are not particularly into whisky know and love Ardbeg, though it is generally only limited to the standard 10 yo.

    I am yet to open my Alligator but have heard varying reports about it compared to previous releases. I am sure it is a good whisky – Ardbeg simply doesn’t make bad whisky. The question is where is all this headed. I have the impression that, certainly among whisky enthusiasts, the “peat bubble” may burst in the not too distant future. I fear the anoraks are getting tired of all the hype around who’s the peatiest, smokiest, strongest etc. I certainly am. As an Ardbeg fan, I hope they can establish and extend their standard range before the bubble bursts so they don’t have to rely on hype around limited edition and committee bottlings. I felt the same about Bruichladdich and am now relieved they have finally got to the 10 yo mark and will no longer have to rely on three hundred (don’t know if this figure is correct ;-) ) different releases in a few short years.

    I can see the hype dying down in the coming years and Ardbeg securing its place in the Pantheon of peated whiskies without having to come up with reptiles in the future.

    Roger

  9. I enjoy looking from the outside at the “Cult of Ardbeg”. I love the product. The marketing is pretty catchy, and I find it fascinating.

    I had the opportunity to visit Ardbeg on their open day during Feis Ile. I tried a load of limited and committee expressions right next to each other. Good time for all. Of every thing I have tried, nothing impressed me as much as Kildalton — a 3 year Ardbeg in Beam Casks with about half the peat (25-30PPM). Maybe it was due to just visiting Kilchoman and finding a new love, almost cult-like for younger Ileach brother.

    If it were up to me, instead of going older like the 14year old 1991 nam Beist. I would prefer younger. Let me try the heart of Ardbeg. This way it doesn’t have to be limited or committee.

    As for Aligator, I thought it was pleasant. But I personally will take Corryvrecken over limited supplies of other espression.

  10. Hold the phone – Devin – did you say that Ardbeg are planning a new release of Kildalton?

    I missed the Ardbeg distillery day at this year’s Feis Ile as our ferry was cancelled – have I missed potentially the biggest bit of news from the entire festival?

    Ben.

  11. Marketing aside, I actually thought that the latest release of Ardbeg surpassed some of the previous limited bottlings.

    I like the comparison of Ardbeg to a rock band. But I will dig a little further. I think perhaps Ardbeg is in their Zeppelin III stage (I loved that album). If Devin is right and Ardbeg is releasing another Kildalton or perhaps something different like an older Ardbeg that’s at a price tag mere mortals can touch or some kick-ass young stuff, then perhaps they’ll enter their Zeppelin IV phase (and we all know that album kicked a$$)…

  12. Excuse me, but _Rachel_ is the Dexter, she is the one who does all the experiments! She is the brain behind the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg drinks, has been for the last decade! Signet, Rollercoaster, etc etc. Please ensure she gets the credit that is long over due!

  13. Hey BAM, we do give Rachel credit every step of the way, don’t worry.

  14. Interesting notes, but Uigeadail not even coming close to the Ten ? No way, it’s rather the opposite really.

  15. Agree you with you Raphael. Uig is better for me. Never knew you were such a Ten fan, Lucas?

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  17. I only just found this version of the review. I agree completely and, what’s more, it’s nice to have someone else in the whisky world agreeing that the 10 is a class apart! I almost felt inadequate when drinking my Uigedail thinking “It’s awesome, but the 10 is a different class”. I havn’t had a bottle of the 10 in a while. Hoping it’s still as good as a couple of years ago…

  18. Je ne connaissais pas du tout ce projet. j’ajoute votre blog à mes favoris. A bientôt.

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