Following on from a couple of rather hectic, but extremely fun, days at Bruichladdich distillery (you can see what I got up to here), myself and The Drinks Lady managed to squeeze in a visit to Ardbeg before (almost) missing our ferry back to the mainland.
Ardbeg has long been a favourite of mine, with some of the ‘best’ (whatever that means) whiskies I’ve ever tasted coming from this distillery – single casks from the 1970s, *that* 17yo, the massive Supernova releases. You name it, I’ve enjoyed it. It seemed rude to depart the island without visiting this Islay icon. After zipping across from Bruichladdich on a crystal clear morning, we were greeted and shown round the distillery on what was essentially a private tour for the two of us (10am appears to be too early for Illeachs and tourists alike to be doing anything energetic). Tasting the wash proved to be a real highlight, as it’s not something most distilleries allow you to do, and apparently went down well with The Drinks Lady…
Moving on to the stillhouse, it was also great to see first hand the spirit purifier on the spirit still – this rectifies the ardbeg new make even further, by returning any spirit which condenses in the lyne arm back to the base of the still, resulting in only the lightest alcohols making it to cask. This may be the reason behind Ardbeg, despite its barley being peated to higher phenolic content than Laphroaig, coming across less smoky to some people than its neighbour.
Finally, after a brief wander through the warehouses (apparently there are still a couple of casks lying around from the famed 1970s period) we were treated to a tasting of the core range, plus Dark Cove and the Supernova 2015 Committee Release. As a parting gift, I was also given a wee sample of the recent 21yo release. Distilled in the mid-1990s, when Ardbeg was only operating for a couple of months per year, it was produced during a time where the future was looking bleak for the distillery, to say the least. According to Dr Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation & Whisky Stocks at Ardbeg, he “selected the casks for this sumptuous, golden whisky as they combine the distinctive, peppery smokiness of Ardbeg’s award-winning malt with soothing, buttery qualities. Born from adversity, Ardbeg Twenty One is the perfect dram to celebrate the resilience of Ardbeg.”
Ardbeg Twenty One
Nose: A light fruitiness hits first, blueberries, stewed apples, and apricots. Then there’s a real coastal note, quite earthy and briney, with salt and vinegar crisps and a lemon zing. Underneath, there’s heather, wet sand, and flint which are covered by quite gentle peat smoke.
Palate: Seafood BBQ, gammon steak, pork scratchings and leather hit me first. Then the smoke comes through, with some moss, soot and a peppery spice. Quite oily too, maybe a touch of linseed.
Finish: Long, soft peat smoke is accompanied by gentle oak and some sweet spices.
Overall: A quite beautiful distillery, a great tour, and some wonderful chat at the end whilst sipping some very cool drams. Highly recommended if you’re on the island and can resolve to make it beyond Lagavulin and Laphroaig without being sucked in by those equally pretty distilleries. As for the liquid, well, it comes with the Ardbeg name, a high age and a big price tag. My expectations, therefore, were very high, but in reality they were more than met. This is a truly excellent expression of Ardbeg. And I don’t use the word excellent lightly. It’s everything I expected, and more. Could I afford a bottle? No. Does it matter? No. I’ve tasted it once and that’ll do. No need to be greedy. What a privilege.