As Ardbeg fans will know, the distillery was brought back from the brink of extinction in 1997 by The Glenmorangie Company (now owned by LVMH), when it purchased the down-trodden and neglected distillery from Allied Distillers. The previous two decades had not been kind to Ardbeg, being closed or "mothballed" from 1981 to 1989, when it came under the umbrella of Allied Distillers, who also owned Laphroaig in the same period. But under their ownership Ardbeg was only producing spirit for two months of each year, operated mostly by Laphroaig staff in the quieter periods of the year, between 1989 and 1996, when the distillery was again closed.
Around a year later Glenmorangie came to the rescue, and immediately began getting the distillery back up to scratch. The buildings and equipment needed a great deal of work, and a number of changes were made before the first distillation run under the new owners took place a few months later in June of 1997, before production shut down for another 6 months soon after for further maintenance & repair work. Ardbeg's whisky had already started to gather a cult following at this point, no doubt helped by the scarcity at the time, and the distillery's revival saw the quick introduction of the much-lauded 17-year old and 1978 vintage bottling, while work commenced on a new visitor's centre and the now famous Old Kiln Cafe. That work may sound unremarkable now, but remember that this was two decades ago, and the whisky world (and Islay) was a very different place! Thanks to all of that work and subsequent efforts, there's absolutely no questioning Ardbeg's future now, in fact expansion plans were announced earlier this year, and the well-deserved cult following that the distillery now enjoys is no secret.
After production started up again in 1998 and ramped up towards the turn of the millennium, Ardbeg embarked on a special project, and a clever strategic move. That move was a series of official bottlings that commemorated their spirit coming of age, which enabled the Ardbeg fan to follow their spirit as it matured, with the final goal being the first 10-year old Ardbeg that was distilled under their ownership. The 10-year old Ardbeg expression had already been released around the year 2000, and Uigeadail followed a few years later, but they were bottled from existing stock that was produced under the previous owners. Known as "The Path To Peaty Maturity", there were four separate releases in this series, all limited releases that were distilled in 1998. All were matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, and all were bottled at their true cask strength without added colouring or chill filtration. Oh, and that old still (pictured above) that you may have seen in Ardbeg's car park was still in use when these bottlings were distilled. So these are rather special whiskies, and are basically the only way to sample progressively maturing Ardbeg in perhaps its purest form. I've been lucky enough to review some older releases of Ardbeg before, the favourites so far being the incredible Supernova bottling from 2009, and a 22-year old independent bottling of 1975 Ardbeg from Gordon & Macphail, but neither of those are representative of how Ardbeg as we now know it. So this series is very special to us Ardbeggians!
The "path" started in 2004 with the now-unobtainable "Very Young", which was a 6-year old Ardbeg. Obviously that is now the most difficult to source, and you'll need to resort to overseas auctions to find one. And you'll need a clear credit card. The second bottling was "Still Young", an 8-year old Ardbeg bottled in 2006. That one can still be found in specialist retailers, and you'll be looking at around $500 AUD. I had the pleasure of tasting it in London last year, and it was very, very good. Young, gristy (malty) Ardbeg with plenty of peat & citrus. The third bottling was "Almost There", a 9-year old Ardbeg bottled in 2007. That one is a similar story, a couple of specialist retailers still have stock, and you're looking at around $450 AUD to own one. The last bottling in the series was named Ardbeg Renaissance (referring to the revival of the distillery), a.k.a "We've Arrived!" as per the timeline on the packaging, which as you can probably guess is 10-year old Ardbeg, bottled in 2008. It can also still be found, and you'll be looking at around the $500 AUD mark again. And it's the subject of tonight's review!
Now at this point you may be thinking "but it's just 10-year old Ardbeg, I can get that for $75!". Of course you can, but you probably can't get one that was bottled a decade ago, matured in all first-fill casks (the modern 10 year old is a mix of first-fill and re-fill casks), and most importantly you definitely can't get one that was bottled at cask strength, 55.9% ABV in this case. And for what it's worth, the original retail price from the distillery was - wait for it - a whopping 41 pounds sterling, which is around $73 AUD. For a limited edition, commemorative bottling of cask strength Ardbeg with an age statement. Times really have changed in the last 10 years! To my knowledge there has only been two other bottlings of cask strength Ardbeg 10, one of which was exclusive to Japan that was bottled in 2003 (so distilled pre-Glenmorangie), and the second was the first release (and only the first release) of a bottling named "Ardbeg Mor" that was bottled in 2007 (so likely also pre-Glenmorangie spirit), which only came in a massive 4.5-litre bottle! So this Renaissance is pretty damn special, and the anticipation is high for this particular Ardbeg fan! I was lucky enough to find an open bottle on a recent trip to Perth, and just had to bring a sample home to review. Let's do this!
Ardbeg Renaissance "We've Arrived", 10-year old, 55.9%. Islay, Scotland.
The first 10-year old that was distilled under Glenmorangie ownership. Distilled 1998, bottled 2008. Matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, bottled at cask strength. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Pale gold, but significantly darker than the regular 10-year old.
Nose: Ooh, nice! Loads of brine, and a little drying seaweed, and a generous serve of sweet vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate shaved over the top. Sweetened lime juice, black jelly beans (aniseed / licorice flavour), and black pepper corns. A little salt-crusted driftwood, and some old marine rigging, as in those tarry old ropes that Ardbeg are noted for.
Texture: Lovely. Medium weight, lightly oily, smoky, sweet & warming. A slight touch of heat on the edges, but in a very pleasant way.
Taste: Sweet, floral entry, then it explodes a half-second later with a big whack of dry, spicy peat and ashy bonfire smoke. That fades relatively quickly but doesn't let go completely, and then there's more vanilla ice cream, more brine, and a decent pinch of cracked black pepper. Then some bitter oak, a little ginger, and dried woody herbs.
Finish: Long. That spicy peat, ashy smoke and black pepper carry through, the black jelly beans come back, and there's that light bitterness again. Then the brine and vanilla ice cream return and hang around to the end, with flashes of more ginger, and a little citrus along the way.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: As expected, it's pure, unadulterated Ardbeg, and it's beautiful! Renaissance is very much like the 10-year old, but with the volume turned up quite a bit, and the sweetness turned down quite a bit. The nose on this one is just outstanding, and it is slightly reminiscent of that '09 Supernova. But only slightly. The bitterness on the palate and finish is a little surprising, almost hinting towards a cask-strength Lagavulin actually, but it does add depth and doesn't get in the way of the rest of the show. Don't go looking for any fancy cask influence or weird & unusual flavours here, that's just not what this story is about, but every now & then it's nice to get back to basics to recalibrate and rediscover.
In fact it's been a while since I last tasted such a pure, clean expression of Ardbeg that hasn't been messed with in any way, and getting back to the "original recipe" is like reconnecting with an old friend. That classic combination of sweet, peat and brine, plus the black pepper & lime juice, is Ardbeg in its purest form. These "Path to Peaty Maturity" bottlings are mostly collector-fodder now, and I can certainly understand why, since they're effectively a permanent marker on the Ardbeg timeline, but the two that I've now tasted also make for tasty dramming. This one may not push any boundaries or attract much attention from the whisky "glitterati", but if you're an Ardbeg fan you'll want to get your hands on a dram of this one at some point, even if only to tick it off the list, or for a fleeting glimpse back to the end of the beginning for the Ardbeg that we all know & love. But it also won't disappoint when it comes around to tasting time. Now I need to track down a dram of the other two stops on the "path"...