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A trip to Ardbeg
Islay is expanding. Not only is the island about to gain two new distilleries (at least), its more established producers are racing to increase their capacity. Last year, in 2021, Ardbeg began producing spirit in a new, purpose-built still-house.
In order to increase capacity and keep up with rising demand, owners LVMH decided that the old, cramped still-house would have to be replaced with something a little bigger. The new version overlooks the shoreline and doubles the number of stills from two to four. It’s an impressive structure that would feel more like a cathedral than a still-house, were it not for the four copper stills that take up residence within.
The Islay Whisky Academy paid a visit to the distillery as part of the Spring ’22 Residential Diploma. Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed in the new still-house but we did get to snap away in the old one. It was nice to see inside the decommissioned stills and fun to see the old condensers lying in the courtyard awaiting their as-yet-unknown fate.
Ardbeg is a distillery I rarely leave without a bottle under my arm. I find the quality of the whisky produced there to be among the very finest on Islay. This time there was an abundance of their latest Committee Release on the shelves. Having tasted it in the warehouse only a few moments earlier, I decided I’d splash out on the £105 bottle as a wee treat to myself.
The latest special edition has been released for the 2022 Ardbeg Day celebrations. June 4th sees celebrations at the distillery and at various events all over the world, not to mention online. Each year there is a theme. This year its punk rock. The whisky is called Ardcore and its made from dark roasted malted barley.
There are some in the whisky community that seem to get very upset with Ardbeg’s shenanigans. The funny names and brightly coloured labels provoke seemingly endless complaints on social media. And don’t get them started on the dressing up that takes place at the distillery on Ardbeg Day. For my part, I quite like the fun of it all. Whisky is meant to be fun. We don’t actually have to take it so seriously, all the time.
[*Incidentally, for an interesting and fun chat about Whisky Geeks and the pitfalls of taking things too seriously, you should check out the Islay Whisky Academy’s IWA LIVE 4 stream on YouTube https://youtu.be/z_D2_v2gtrs]
Regarding Ardcore, I sometimes find myself wondering what came first, the whisky or the marketing concept? Obviously the spirit was laid down some years back so it’s been in the pipeline for a while but did master blender Bill Lumsden decide the whisky was ready and prompt a mad dash to come up with a marketing concept for it or did the marketing team come up with Ardcore and ask Dr Bill to find something in the warehouse that could fit the brief? Whatever the case, it’s a fun name and I know one of the Islay Whisky Academy students, who was once a bit of a punk himself, was absolutely delighted with it!
Incidentally, punk was a bit before my time but rave wasn’t. If the marketing team at Ardbeg haven’t lined up Happy Ardcore as a follow up they’re missing a trick. Imagine Ardbeg Day with smiley faces and glowsticks everywhere?! That’s got to be a winner, surely?!
Smell: Lots of thick Ardbeg smoke. Coal fires. Chimney smoke. Ash. Charcoal. Soot. A touch of that famous medicinal TCP note that’s unique to Islay. The roasted barley is there too. Dark chocolate and well-fired morning rolls. Cereals. There’s also citrus – lemon and fresh orange. The longer it sits in the glass, the fruitier it seems to become. Soon there’s tropical pineapple coming through. It almost develops a white wine quality.
Taste: A big mouthful of flavour with a pleasant oily texture. Brine. The aromas of stony beaches and seashells evaporate off the palate. Thick, almost acrid smoke like sitting too close to a campfire. Liquorice. Aniseed. Pepper. Earthier peat notes towards the back. A little paprika along with the pepper. Water released some creamy malt and vanilla but always with a robust, malty base underneath. The finish is smoky and long, though perhaps not as intense as you’d expect.
Thoughts: As you can probably tell from my notes, I’m thoroughly enjoying this whisky. The idea of the roasted malt paints something of a picture but the reality doesn’t quite match it. Not that that is a bad thing. You almost expect to find another Ardbeg porter and while those chocolate / coffee notes are in the glass they’re only a small part of the picture. There’s also a wonderfully fruity spirit on top of those deeper base notes and the whole thing is wrapped in a big cloud of smoke. It ticks a lot of boxes.
Value for money: At £105 I certainly can’t call it a bargain and it’s always a little disheartening when a price tag like that doesn’t buy you a little more information – like an age statement, for example. I was in the fortunate position, however, of being able to try it first. I can’t overstate how much of an advantage that is. Is the bottle of whisky “worth” £105? In the grand scheme of things, probably not but I knew that I was going to enjoy it enough to justify the purchase. It won’t be for everyone but fans of Ardbeg won’t be disappointed.
For more on Ardbeg visit the website here https://www.ardbeg.com/