The Ardbeg Tasting
Ardbeg proudly proclaims itself to be "The Ultimate Islay Single Malt Whisky" which is a big claim. Islay, despite its small geographical area, is responsible for some of the most loved expressions world wide, with the big Southern Three (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg) being arguably the most known. Take one dram of Ardbeg, however, and you will realise that the claim is not empty. While it may not enjoy the notoriety and ubiquity of its Southern neigbours, its status as a cult malt cannot be denied.
The 80s and 90s were not a bright time for the distillery and indeed it was not until The Glenmorangie Company bought it in 1997 was its future secured. Now there is the Ardbeg Committee, which has more than 100,000 members, and the Ardbeg embassies (which the website describe as "A global network of Ardbeg evangelists have developed these outposts – either bars or retail outlets – dedicated to supporting everything and everyone Ardbeggian") to ensure the brand continues to grow and flourish. It never ceases to amaze me the passion with which people will discuss Islay whisky, but given their uniqueness I often find myself doing fervently defending the smell of antiseptic and smoke.
I have been to the Ardbeg distillery once before, but unfortunately we arrived too late and were unable to do a tour. I have to say, however, they do have a delightful restaurant and a shop with many a sample. On the day in question four of us set out and toured along the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg in turn. Tastings had been arranged at the first two stops and by the time you take those (and the additional samples we tried at the shop) into account you can imagine that there was a fair amount of merriment in our group of 4. So much so that one decided to peel off and fit in a restorative round of mini-golf! I mean really - I had voted for leaving him on the island when we were leaving for this desertion but reconsidered when I realised that would be no punishment at all! We stayed at the restaurant perhaps longer than we should and pondered over more drams than we ought and, long story short, missed the last bus. Thankfully island life moves at a different and altogether more friendly pace and we were offered a lift back to Bowmore by a very kind lady who worked at the distillery!
Before looking at each whisky individually I would like to thank Ardbeg for the sample of Kelpie allowing this to be a more comprehensive article. On the other hand, Ardbeg has now cost me the price of a bottle of Kelpie because, as you will see below, it is too good a bottle to not have in my collection.
The 10 stands as the flagship of the Ardbeg range and with good reason having been named Whisky of the World in 2008 and won more awards & accolades than you could shake a stick at! It is non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% ABV. Non-chill filtered is something that will appear throughout this article so maybe best I explain: the natural oils in whisky can go cloudy when they get chilled (for example with ice). Notwithstanding that the same oils give a lot of the flavour and mouthfeel to whisky, many expressions are chilled to take the oils into suspension and then passed through a filter to remove them. Sure, your whisky won't go cloudy if you decide to add ice but at what cost? Anyway, this expression retains all those phenolic oils imparting the maximum peaty flavour.
Appearance: Pale gold
Nose: Without water: Medicinal salt with a hearty smack of Islay smoke. There is a very slight hint of toffee.
With Water: Not a massive difference. The salt, smoke and medicinal notes are still prominent but the toffee sweetness is emphasised.
Taste: Without water: Intense peat smoke hits immediately clearing like a cloud to reveal sweetness towards the back. Salt and seaweed linger towards the tip of the tongue.
With Water: I don't usually take water in the 10, but on adding it this time I got a light coffee note that I have never appreciated.
Finish: Salted smokey fudge. The sweet notes continue to develop as the smoke mellows. A finish that will be with you for a long time.
Named for the Loch from which Ardbeg draws its peaty water, the Uigedail vats together traditional Ardbeg with ex sherry cask, giving it the most beautiful colour. It is bottled at 54.2% ABV and is non-chill filtered. Jim Murray said that tasting this expression was "one of the great moments in my whisky life" - high praise indeed but well deserved.
Appearance: Vibrant auburn verging upon mahogany
Nose: Without water: Smoke is there but is much more tempered by the sweet notes than the 10. Salt still strong but the medicinal quality is less apparent. The dark plum and raisin notes come through straight away.
With water: An absolute world of difference. Tobacco and cinnamon come out as the smoke becomes more of a wisp than a cloud. The salt notes take on the properties of fresh dulse.
Taste: Without water: Peat smoke and salt masked most other flavours for me, which is not surprising at this high ABV. It did not necessarily follow through from what I expected on the nose. Other flavours hinted at but not discernable.
With water: Peppery spice is revealed with the fruity raisins and plum. The smoke becomes an amazing compliment to the other flavours with the addition of a little water. A honey sweetness appears towards the back.
Finish: The Ardbeg medicinal notes only really came through on the finsh for me, arriving out of the peat. The surprising thing for me was that sweetness won the day and made for a long finish. As with all the drams on this list, smoke played out alongside the honey/treacle through to the end.
The name comes from the frothing whirlpool that lies to the North of Islay. Interestingly, the Corryvreckan is the merest stones throw away from the house on Jura in which George Orwell wrote 1984. I don't think a writer could ask for a more tempestuous scene to inspire! Like the rest of the range, Corryvreckan is non-chill filtered and bottled at 57.1% ABV.
Appearance: Deep Burnished Copper
Nose: Without Water: Salty smoke - like seaweed on a peat fire. A cinnamon/pepper spicy note lingers behind.
With water: Ok, this one may just be me but - this just makes me think of toffee popcorn when the water is added. The sweet nuttiness with that trademark peat is the reason I return to this bottle again and again. For me, Corryvreckan wins on the nose.
Taste: Without water: Huge heaping piles of peat but somehow with a buttery smoothness. It is often said of Ardbeg that it is a 'peaty paradox' and in this I get it. Salted toffee is there as a hint.
With water: A tart note is introduced at the front with water. Jim Murray says it is citrus - I couldn't pin it down but will enjoy many more drams trying! The tart note gives way to the smokey sweetness of salted toffee before a final peppery kick.
Finish: Buttery smoke with a lingering toffee sweetness. Very long
Whereas the other three in this article make up the Ultimate Range, the Kelpie is a limited edition bottling created for Ardbeg Day 2017. It is named for the mythical Scottish shape-shifting water spirit which is said to take the form of a bull or horse to come onto land and terrorise those passing by. Legend has it that a farmer was almost dragged asunder by the bull, but overcame the creature and locked it in his barn. His daughter was later chased by a Kelpie 'horse' which was seeking to avenge its fellow creature. Flinging the barn doors open, she released the 'bull' which promptly departed back to the sea. Kelpie is, as you might have guessed, non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% ABV.
Appearance: Yellow gold
Nose: Without water: Very different from the others - salty seaweed is still there but drier. Dense plumes of peat smoke betray a note of black liquorice. There is, as the tasting notes say, a herbal note but I was unable to pin it down further than that.
With water: All the flavours of before but now with a vibrant and remarkable caramel sweetness coming through.
Taste: Without water: This just reminded me of Highland Toffee Bars - Specifically baking with my Aunty using them when I was young (I do love when a smell brings you back to a moment). Just before the peat smoke rushes in there is a chocolate/candy note towards the back of the palate. Slight peppery spice.
With water: Even more toffee with a cocoa sensation. The smoke is very much still there and very intense.
Finish: I got burnt toast as an immediate follow up which slowly and pleasingly transitioned into burnt toffee sweetness. As with all the others, the finish is very long.
Every one of these expressions is exceptional in its own right. Each is notably Ardbeg, encapsulating the core nose and palate of the 10, but each has its own distinct character. Peat smoke is dominant, which is not surprising given the Ardbeg is famed for being the peatiest Ardbeg whisky but the delicate sweetness plays beautifully as a tempering force. Even the salty seaweed notes in each are expressed differently.
On appearance I am blown away by the Uigedail - the sherry cask influence is stunning. As far as the nose and taste go, I am firmly in camp Corryvreckan. This was the first whisky that I nosed and got an immediate moment of 'oh yeah, that's popcorn.' For the finish it gets a bit more difficult, because each gives something so different. The Kelpie's burnt toast is like nothing else I've tasted and for that I love it. The Uigedail's long dance of smoky sweetness is distinctive and for me probably the most pleasing.
There isn't a bad dram here. When you are presented with only good choices it is difficult to pick a favourite. For an everyday whisky, nothing beats the 10 - the value of what you get in a bottle of 10 for the price is astounding and can stand up to many bottles 2 and 3 times its price. It is the Corryvreckan I find myself going back to and, indeed, is the one that I had to replace first. That probably tells you all you need to know about my opinion. The eagle-eyed among you may also have noticed the Kelpie is not on the bottles I want list on The Whisk(e)y Shelf.
As a side note, I have found myself looking at the Kintyre Express - a small ferry that goes from Northern Ireland to Port Ellen and offers a day trip to Ardbeg. Now just to clear a day.