Reviews of interesting whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…
The Smokiest Ardbeg… Ever!
Hypernova is the late-2022 Committee Release from Ardbeg. There’s usually at least a couple of these limited edition bottlings each year but what makes this one particularly eye-catching is the ppm count. For those who aren’t aware, ppm means parts-per-million and it’s the standard way of measuring phenol count in barley. Or in other words, the amount of peat smoke in the malt. Hypernova apparently has a ppm count of 170, making it officially the smokiest Ardbeg of all time. However, the ppm count of the barley is only part of the story.
The peat smoke absorbed by barley changes and evolves, even decreases, throughout the distillation process. Therefore, a high ppm count pre-distillation doesn’t always translate into an ultra smoky whisky in the bottle. The unique quirks in production that can be found at each distillery have an effect on the flavour of the whisky. Look at Lagavulin and Caol Ila, for example. Those two Diageo-owned distilleries use the same malt, from the same maltings, peated to the same ppm, yet the whiskies are very different.
Bruichladdich’s Octomore series has rather set the bar for outrageously high ppm levels but that whisky often surprises people. The slender stills at Bruichladdich promote lighter, elegant spirits, meaning Octomore often isn’t as smoky as expected. At Ardbeg, the stills are of a very different design but, thanks to the addition of purifiers on the lyne arms of the spirit stills, a similar effect takes place. The purifier filters away some of the heavier vapours that make it to the lyne arm. Those heavier compounds drop into the purifier pipe and return to the pot to be distilled again, whilst the lighter vapours carry on toward the condensers. So whilst Hypernova is, without a doubt, a very heavily peated whisky, it may not be as intense as you imagine it to be.
Ardbeg is well-known for its brightly-coloured, often bizarrely-named limited editions. People seem to get quite annoyed by these bottlings and I’ve never really understood why. Every time a new expression is announced there’s a collective rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth on whisky social media and I don’t know how many times I’ve read “That’s it! I’m done with Ardbeg!”. I’ve always found it a baffling response. I can totally understand that people might be put off by the price or that they might lament the lack of an age statement but getting upset because a whisky has a funny name, or a bright label, seems a bit daft to me.
Whilst recently discussing this very topic, a fellow enthusiast advised me that some people perhaps find it a wee bit juvenile and that may well be true but why is that bad? Isn’t whisky supposed to be fun? Must all marketing carry a sombre, ultra-serious tone? Should we go back to the days of old-fashioned labelling, when bottles were adorned by stags and tartan and glens and bens? Where the only information on the label was a number? When whisky was a man’s drink and no-one would dare to be so reckless as to use a single malt in a cocktail?
Of course, people are free to choose how they spend their money and if the latest release from Ardbeg isn’t to their taste, that’s completely understandable. It would be boring if everyone liked the same thing. I just don’t really see the point in being publicly angry about a silly bit of marketing. I’m reminded of that Ricky Gervais joke that was recently pinched by James Corden: the internet is a bit like someone seeing a sign for guitar lessons and getting angry at it because they don’t want guitar lessons. They seem somehow unable to consider that the sign has been put there for someone else’s benefit. So it is with whisky. Not every release needs to be tailored to the individual’s personal taste.
Me, I quite like Ardbeg’s silly marketing. It’s a bit of colour and a bit of fun in an industry that often takes itself too seriously. That doesn’t make me a slave to the hype, however. If a bottle appeals to me and I can get one without much hassle, then I’ll pick it up. If I don’t like the sound of it, or won’t get the chance to grab one, then I simply turn my attention elsewhere. No big deal. No chucking the toys out the pram. No drama.
Why Hypernova? The previous “smokiest ever Ardbeg” was called Supernova and the definition of a Hypernova is “a very energetic supernova”. So in the canon of Ardbeg releases, the name makes a sort of sense.
It’s botted at 51% and retails for £185. Interestingly, the malt was smoked with non-Islay peat. This was done for purely logistical reasons – the maltsters on Islay couldn’t achieve the numbers required and shipping Islay peat to a maltster on the mainland would have led to a dramatically increased carbon footprint, so mainland peat was used instead.
Smell: Salty and briney. Smoky – yes but perhaps not as in-your-face as you might expect. Seaweed. Seashells. Tobacco ash and cigar smoke. Stoor burning on old radiators. Pungent peat building over time. Beyond the smoke there’s also liquorice, pepper, a touch of citrus and grass. Even a wee touch of menthol.
Taste: The smoke is more to the fore. It’s there from the first sip but it smoulders and glows menacingly rather than blazes out of control. Charcoal. Sea salt and black pepper. Brine – like breathing in a damp, sandy beach in winter. There’s also some creamy malt under all the smoke and some fresh lemon citrus with a wee touch of young oak. The smoke builds in intensity over time.
Thoughts: Given the marketing of the whisky, you almost expect it to blow you away but in fact it develops over time. At first it seems only a wee bit smokier than standard Ardbeg expressions but with each subsequent sip it grows. By the time you’ve reached the end of the glass you’ll be wondering if you’ll ever taste anything but smoke, for the rest of your days. Maybe I could accuse the whisky of lacking complexity? There certainly isn’t a great deal of cask interaction. Indeed, the whisky feels young but I’d argue that’s kind of the point. What do people want from the Smokiest Ardbeg Ever, if not lots of smoke? Personally, I’m really enjoying it – perhaps a little too much. Given the price, I’d prefer to savour my bottle for a long time but it’s emptying faster than I’d like.
Price: It would be ridiculous to try to claim that it offers value for money. Sure, the production costs are higher than normal but £185 will never not be a lot of money for a young single malt. That said, I knew what I was getting into so no complaints from me. I tasted it first and still wanted a bottle. The more sensible approach may well have been to leave it on the shelf but I have it now and I’m damn well going to enjoy it! Will obviously not be for everyone at the price, however.
For more on Ardbeg visit https://www.ardbeg.com/en-gb