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Sunday, 19 June 2016

Ardbeg Alligator Whisky Review!

One very rare limited release Ardbeg, with some unusual (and even more so at the time) casks used for maturation. Sigh, yet another one that got away!

Ardbeg Alligator was released back in 2011, and like most older Ardbegs these days it's impossible to find without resorting to auction sites, and you'll want to be sitting down before looking at the prices. I did taste it a couple of times back when it was much easier to get, although I never bought my own bottle. But thanks to a very generous Neil from Malt Traders Emporium, who added his own personal bottle to a recent quickie Ardbeg tasting, I can share the reptilian love with yourselves!

The name here refers to the level 4, a.k.a alligator, charring of a portion of the casks this whisky was matured in. The basic idea behind charring is that casks (particularly new / virgin casks) are charred (scorched internally over open flame) to varying degrees to activate or refresh (internally shaving and re-toasting/re-charring used casks) the wood during the coopering or re-coopering process. Heavy and alligator charring is more commonly used in American bourbon production, because that inner layer of charred oak basically acts as a filter and helps to remove or reduce undesirable flavours. The charring also caramelises the sugars in the oak, and allows the maturing spirit to penetrate further into the staves for more wood influence.    

In the case of Ardbeg Alligator, the alligator char has been applied to virgin (new / fresh) American oak casks, which were filled with Ardbeg new-make and left to mature for around 10 years. They were then married / blended with standard ex-bourbon cask matured 10 year old Ardbeg before bottling. So the whisky is reportedly between 10 and 11 years of age, despite there being no official age statement. There's no mention of what portion of this release was matured in those alligator-charred casks, but whatever that percentage was, it's certainly made a big difference to this whisky!

It's worth noting here that both component whiskies were matured separately, then married together (blended and left to mature further) before bottling. Ardbeg don't 'finish' their whiskies like most distilleries, they instead mature the components separately and marry those liquids together. Which in my opinion could be partly why their whiskies do not carry age statements. After all, a 12-year old whisky with a 6-month finish in sherry casks is still legally 12 years old, but a 12-year old whisky which also contains some 6-year old whisky is legally 6 years old. But in this case both component liquids were apparently around 10 years of age, so if true an correct, that's not a factor here. Regardless, this one certainly didn't need any more time in the casks.
Ardbeg Alligator, NAS, 51.2%. Islay, Scotland.
Partly matured in heavily-charred virgin American oak casks for around 10 years, and blended / married with normal 10 year old ex-bourbon matured Ardbeg. Non-chill filtered. 

Colour: Copper. Not unlike the recent Dark Cove, in fact (oh no he didn't!)

Nose: Sweet, spicy and complex. Sticky, spicy & fruity BBQ sauce, loads of rich creamy vanilla and caramel. Hint of vanilla custard / creme brulee as well. Some burnt / charred limes, a big pinch of fresh black pepper and silky warm oak. Hints of an extinguished wood fire in the background. A little peat comes out with more time in the glass as well.  

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, warming & oily. Mouth-coating. Lovely stuff.

Taste: Sweet and spicy again. Smoked vanilla, buttery oak, cracked black pepper, some soft peat. Wood spices, warm cinnamon especially. A hint of toasted coconut as well, some charred wood and that sticky, spicy and (tropical) fruity BBQ sauce from the nose. 

Finish: Long. Seriously long actually! Spicy peat initially, then a wave of sweet vanilla and warm oak. Some peat and a little salt comes in, still with that buttery oak and vanilla behind. Lovely. 

Score: 4 out of 5. Very close to 4.5 though. Definitely should have gone with a 10-point scoring system...

Notes: Really delicious stuff! Not particularly peaty or smoky really, the casks have definitely asserted their dominance, but it's still absolutely delicious. The peat is still there of course, sitting in the shadows and adding some serious depth and extra complexity. Between this one and Laphroaig's An Cuan Mor, I'm definitely becoming a fan of peated malts that have spent some time in virgin oak. It really seems to work, it definitely has in the case of those two beauties anyway.  

It's a shame the Alligator is basically impossible to find these days. Definitely another one that got away! A big thanks to Neil from Malt Traders - Emporium for the sample. And the fact that he had his own bottle of this seriously rare Ardbeg out for tasting is remarkable. Much appreciated!


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