This year, and for the first time as far as I'm aware, Moet-Hennessy Australia bought in the 'committee release' version, i.e. the higher strength, un-packaged, usually distillery-only version, of their Ardbeg day special release. The 55% ABV version of Dark Cove was very well priced, and also very well received. I've reviewed it here, and rated it a strong contender for one of the best Ardbeg Day releases so far. It's a close call between it and Ardbog for me, anyway.
That review was from my own bottle, which means that now that I have a sample of the 'general release' 46.5% ABV version (thanks to Moet-Hennessy), I can compare the two side-by-side. You'd be forgiven for thinking it won't be a fair fight, but not so fast, because this may be a closer race than what you may think, given the difference in strength. But before we get into the tasting, let's refresh our memories of the Dark Cove specs.
As far as we know the two versions of this whisky are identical save for the alcoholic strength, which also means some of the details are still a little vague. All we can learn from the packaging is that 'it's heart has been matured in dark sherry casks', and that it's not chill filtered. So we can assume that the dark sherry casks were ex-PX sherry (but we don't know the portion of sherry-matured whisky in the bottle), with the remainder being ex-bourbon cask matured. As per usual there's no age statement, but unfortunately there's also no mention of whether it is naturally coloured or not. We know Ardbeg don't usually add colouring, but I wish they'd print it on the packaging so we could be certain. Particularly when there's such an emphasis on the colour of this whisky in the marketing and directly on said packaging.
We can't compare the two versions of this whisky without mentioning the pricing. The 55% committee release was an absolute bargain at $150 in Australia, and of course sold out long ago, while the 46.5% general release is priced at $170. So the committee release was an incredible deal, and let's hope they do the same again next year! As for the general release, 46.5% is the lowest strength Ardbeg day bottling they've ever released, and unfortunately it seems that every year the widely-available versions get lower in strength, while the pricing stays roughly the same. Nonetheless, let's have a look at the new general release version first, then we'll have a look at how the two compare.
Ardbeg Dark Cove (General Release), NAS, 46.5%. Islay, Scotland.Mostly matured in ex-bourbon casks, partly matured in ex-PX sherry casks. Non-chill filtered.
Colour: Gold, slight tinge of copper.
Nose: Quite sweet initially. A little salt, quite maritime as well. Tar, some musty & wet wood, a hint of peat. Golden syrup, a little grease, and something floral which is tough to pin down. A little floral perfume, perhaps.
Texture: Nice medium-weight, a touch of heat but not unpleasant.
Taste: Dry & spicy peat, a hefty pinch of spice, particularly clove and ginger, maybe a little cinnamon. Some mild lemon zest, touch of dark chocolate, and more of that tar & salt from the nose.
Finish: Short-medium length. A little peat mixed with a load of spice. Some spent coffee grounds, tarred rope, and the peat comes back down the track with a little smoke alongside.
Score: 3.5 out of 5.
In Comparison: Lined up against the 55% committee release, there is definitely a big difference in colour (which is reassuring), like comparing the 10 yo to Uigeadail. On the nose, the general release is much lighter and sweeter, and of course the sheer volume of aromas and flavours, and even more so the texture, is vastly different. But these are all to be expected with a near 10% difference in strength.
Tasting them side-by-side, the general release loses most of the darker notes and most of the more obvious sherry influences on the palate, which I love in the committee release, and while there is more spice in the 46.5% version, there is also definitely more heat. Which is one difference I did not expect to find with these two.
Notes: So there is definitely a big difference between the two versions, and I definitely prefer the committee release. But some may feel differently, and the general release does stand up on it's own. I can see occasions where I would choose to drink the general release over the committee, much like a Benromach 10 43% vs. Benromach 10 57%. And after all, you can't get the committee release anymore, while the general release is out there in reasonable numbers.
But I'm sorry Ardbeg, there's no way this is your darkest whisky ever, you could almost have gotten away with it with the committee release, but the general release is considerably lighter. Why make that the focal point of your marketing when it's not even accurate?
Regardless, the Dark Cove general release is still an Ardbeg worth having (provided you already have a bottle of Uigeadail!). It's a different take on the make, I don't think I'd pick it as an Ardbeg in a blind tasting. I'd put it on even footing with last year's release, Perpetuum, and it's certainly a big step up from Auriverdes from the year before. A big thanks to Moet-Hennessy for the sample, and I'm already looking forward to next year's Ardbeg Day! See you there.