So here we are, the final fun packed day on Islay and the home straight in what has been a highly enjoyable trip to this wonderful island. Ardbeg have historically been the distillery to close the Feis celebrations and as a result, you always expect something special. This year was possibly the best yet and… against all odds, the sun actually appeared to want to play along.
The distillery had gone the whole hog (or should that be bull?) with a Spanish theme, from the huge imposing bull sculpture overlooking the coastline Flamenco dancers and traditional costumes for all the staff members taking part. They’d also hired in a mechanical bull, which sent shivers down the spine of caskstrength, as memories of drunken stag weekend injuries loomed into view. But not ones for turning away from a challenge, we vowed to prove our rodeo prowess, escaping chafed thighs in the process.
El Ridley clearly mastered the snake-hipped Toreador technique and hung on for a highly credible 25 seconds, but it was a disaster for El Harrison, whose premature ejection from the bull after just 1 second earned him the nickname ‘El Burro Muerto’ for the rest of the day. Tossed off in a second… clearly a word of warning, ladies.
The Spanish theme also stretched to the whisky events during the day and Mickey heads lead a number of enthusiastic Ardbeg committee members through some interesting sherry influenced cask samples, including demonstrating the heavy, rich Pedro Ximenez casks used to mature this year’s Festival bottling, which we reviewed earlier in the week, the notes of which can be found here.
One masterclass that really caught our eye however was a scientific look into the main component of Ardbeg - its wonderfully peaty character. Phenols clearly play a huge part in the development of Ardbeg and a specific discussion into the chemical compounds, which make up smoky aromas and flavours (C6H50H) was held up in the old floor malting warehouse.
Bryony Macintyre (fresh from finishing her dissertation on the science of whisky) led our group through a fantastic tasting, bringing the science to life. Bryony is clearly destined for big things – Mickey, you should start watching your back!
But perhaps the real highlight for us was a chance to try one of Ardbeg’s newest creations side by side against one of their most legendary drams. Ardbeg Alligator is to be the next committee bottling, released on the 1st June and is the latest in a new line of wood experiments from Dr Bill Lumsden. A number of heavily charred (level 4) first fill bourbon casks have been maturing since 2000, peated to the standard Ardbeg level of 55ppm. Having tried some of Ardbeg’s heavily toasted cask experiments (single casks 1189 and 1190 from 2009’s Feis Ile) we were itching to see how the heavy char affected the whisky. Here’s our thoughts:
Ardbeg Alligator – Committee release – 51.2% - around 10,000 bottles
Nose: Immediate spicy, fruity notes, with rolled oak shavings, BBQ charcoal, stewed apples, white pepper and hints of strong tea and fresh bourbon. With a dash of water the whisky really comes alive with wonderful rich vanilla tones, chocolate orange notes and hints of copper. Sterling stuff.
Palate: Big, resonant and dry, leading into more of the chocolate orange notes, sweet vanilla, hints of Five Spice and more stewed apple. Then the smoke arrives, soft, aromatic and gentle at first, giving this a superb complexity.
Finish: The sweet vanilla develops alongside the soft smoke for a very lengthy and pleasing finish.
Overall: What a mega whisky. We were critical of the last committee bottling (Rollercoaster) and its apparent lack of consistency and overly youthful tones, but Alligator is just brilliant. Rich, complex and spicy, it puts Ardbeg right back up there in terms of how to construct a highly drinkable and complex smoky whisky. Miss this one at your peril.
Next up, a dram we’d wanted to try since this site began…Pray silence please for Ardbeg Provenance…
Ardbeg Provenance - 1974 - 55.6%
Nose: Walnut husks, firm asparagus, overripe plums, melted marshmallows and a faint whiff of BBQ. The peat smoke is wonderfully delicate, soft and medicinal, without any overpowering notes whatsoever. With a dash of water, hints of old leather armchairs and polished oak come to the fore, but by then, you're completely taken in. We could smell this all night.
Palate: Sweet chocolate and walnut cream - basically like biting into a Walnut Whip. The delicate smoke lingers, with hints of baby back ribs, BBQ sauce and tobacco notes.
Finish: Lengthy soft smoke and rich vanillas, leading into some dried fruit notes. Superbly balanced.
Overall: Without a shadow of a doubt, this is a masterpiece of whisky making. It fetches a high price now on auction sites, but mid 70's Ardbegs have such a magic about them, which gives them such a desirability. If you can beg borrow or steal, get one of these for your collection and open it, don't stick it in a dark cupboard. Whiskies as good as this need to be enjoyed, savoured and remembered for the spirit inside the bottle, not just their aesthetic beauty.
Once again, Ardbeg have delivered a great open day and we very much look forward to next year's Feis. Come and Join us!!
Tomorrow we head over to Arran for the distillery's open day and to pick up a bottle or 92...