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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Ardbeg for Days - 5 Year's Worth of Days Reviewed!

Ardbeg Day is finally around the corner, along with the arrival of the 'standard version' of this year's commemorative bottling, named Kelpie. Australia was lucky enough to receive an allocation of the extra-special 'committee release' earlier this year, so this seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at the last 4 year's worth of 'Day' releases, before finishing up with this year's bottling. Why not!

Unfortunately I couldn't get my hands on any of the first 'Day' release from 2012, simply named 'Ardbeg Day', since it's now very hard to find and of course is very, very expensive. I have tasted it before though, around 4-5 years ago when I was just starting to get into whisky, and I still remember it being delicious! So we'll just have to make do with 2013's Ardbog, 2014's Auriverdes, the standard version of Perpetuum from 2015, the Dark Cove committee release from 2016, and this year's Kelpie committee release! Not a terrible way to see out the weekend, hey?

What am I talking about with standard versions and committee releases? Well in the last few years there have been two different versions of the Ardbeg Day commemorative bottlings, where the committee release is bottled at a higher strength, is more basically labelled and presented and sells without a box, while the standard version (released on Ardbeg Day itself) is bottled at a lower strength, with more recognisable Ardbeg presentation and a matching outer box. Obviously the standard versions are also much more numerous, and are much easier to get a hold of, but they're not always cheaper when you're comparing the initial retail prices when first released.

For the 2012, 2013 and 2014 bottlings there was only the one version released, while for the 2015 the (only slightly) higher strength version was labelled as 'distillery release' and was ostensibly only sold from the distillery's own shop, while for the 2016 and 2017 bottlings there have been significant differences between the two versions. The committee release of last year's Dark Cove was bottled at 55%, while the standard version weighed in at a much-lower 46.5%. This year's Kelpie committee release was bottled at 51.7%, while the standard version is down to 46%, which is the equal lowest strength of any recently released Ardbeg, and the lowest strength of the 'Day' bottlings so far. Not that 46% isn't enough of course, it's basically the new standard for quality single malts (which is great to see), but previous special release bottlings from Ardbeg were a little more generous.

Australia has been lucky enough to get an allocation of the last two committee releases (plus the 2014 and 2015 Supernovae), sold directly from Moet-Hennessy Australia, and pricing has actually been very reasonable (cheaper than the standard versions!) despite the inevitable high demand. I really hope that this continues, since in the past finding these extra-special Ardbegs in Australia was nearly impossible, unless you resorted to importing them yourself from Europe, which put them out of the reach of your average whisky geek. So keep your fingers crossed people!

Now, on to the fun part! I'll give a brief run-down on each bottling in question, plus tasting notes and a score, and finally some more details on this year's 'Kelpie' release since this is the first time I've reviewed it. And I'll declare a winner at the end, because why not! In the interests of fairness I visited these whiskies over three separate nights, with an ample break & plenty of water between each dram. To my knowledge all are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, although not all have this clearly stated on the packaging.
Ardbeg 'Ardbog', 52.1%, 'at least 10 years old', released 2013. The only 'Day' commemorative release to have an age statement! You won't find a big number in prime position on the label though, it's in the fine print on the back. This alone doesn't necessarily make it better of course, but it's always nice to know. Ardbog was a marriage of spirit fully-matured (not finished) in ex-bourbon casks, and spirit fully-matured (not finished) in ex-manzanilla sherry casks, all aged at least 10 years. So that's essentially a 10-year old age statement. The name and packaging details were a tribute to Islay's venerable peat bogs.

My bottle of Ardbog has been open for around 3 years now, and while I've been using wine save (argon gas preserver) for most of that time, it's obviously still going to have an effect.

Colour: Polished bronze.
Nose: Lovely. Rich, sweet and salty, with stewed fruits in sweet syrup, some dark, rich toffee and a little cocoa powder. Earthy & salty peat, slightly nutty - roasted walnuts? And some slightly creamy vanilla.

Texture: Medium weight, buttery, with a dab of heat. Still quite rich despite being open for that long.
Taste: Quite rich with a deep peaty-ness, it's definitely oxidised but it's not going out without a fight. Spicy with salty earthy peat, hint of that cocoa, and more sweet stewed stone fruit. It is starting to go a little flat unfortunately. Stupid oxygen, what did you ever do for us anyway!?!

Finish: Medium length, spicy & peaty fading into mild coastal salt, fruit syrup and dusty, ashy peat. Some more creamy vanilla and little hints of citrus alongside the slowly ebbing peat.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: I'd love to taste a fresh one again, I think this bottle is approaching its final sunset. It's lost some of it's sparkle and is getting a little flat. Very glad I split some into smaller sample bottles a while back. Still very enjoyable though and there's plenty of 'Ardbeg-ness', just less of that intensity of flavour that I remember it having. Regardless, definitely a very good one.

Ardbeg 'Auriverdes', 49.9%, NAS, released 2014. A marriage of Ardbeg matured in ex-bourbon casks, apparently mostly second-fill, with specially-toasted virgin American oak barrel ends / lids, and 'traditional' ex-bourbon cask matured Ardbeg. The name is the Portuguese translation for 'green & gold', meant as both a tribute to the 2014 soccer world cup that was held in Brazil (who's flag is green & gold, and Auriverdes is their team's nickname), and as a tribute to Ardbeg's green bottle and the golden contents.

There was also a promotional version of Auriverdes in a gold-coloured bottle that was used for PR events and the like, but the whisky inside was identical to the normal green-bottled version. I wasn't a fan of Auriverdes at the time of release, so let's see if time has healed this wound...

Colour: Yellow gold.
Nose: Much lighter, with far less peat and salt, and a little less sweetness. There's ripe tropical fruit, particularly papaya and banana, maybe some red apple. Citrus as well, plus some lightly salted butter and a mild earthy-ness. Hint of coconut and a little vanilla & dry toasted oak.

Texture: Medium weight again, a little spicy heat, fresher (duh) and still rich but much lighter in character.
Taste: Sweet & fruity, and a little salty citrus tang. More ripe tropical fruit and some vanilla sponge cake. Mildly spiced milk chocolate, and a slight earthy-ness again.

Finish: Short-to-medium length. Lightly toasted caramelised oak, slightly salty tropical fruit, slight hint of coffee grounds.

Score: 2.5 out of 5.
Notes: Nice and fresh and clean, but it's still not a true Ardbeg if you ask me. Barely detectable peat or smoke, and a much lighter and more tropical dram. I suspect it's younger than Ardbog, although peat does tend to mask youth a little, but there's slightly more heat in this one despite the 5% drop in ABV. It's not unpleasant though, and it's still decent quality, it just doesn't do it for me. I still think that Ardbeg were going for a lighter, tamer dram here to appease the non-Islay drinkers, and in that regard I think they succeeded.

Ardbeg 'Perpetuum' standard release, 47.4%, NAS, released 2015. There was very little information given about this bottling, in fact the official details were that it was a mix of "old and young Ardbeg, from ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks". So that tells us basically nothing. Perpetuum was also the commemorative bottling for Ardbeg's 200th anniversary, and the name basically means 'never ending' or 'going on forever' (as in perpetual motion).

This was the first year that Ardbeg also released an 'extra special' version of their special release for Ardbeg day, although the white labelled 'Distillery Release' version of Perpetuum was only slightly higher in strength, at 49.2%. It's reportedly also notably better than the standard version, despite apparently being the same whisky at a slightly different strength.

Colour: Pale gold.
Nose: Fresh & bright. Sea spray, milk chocolate, sweet frozen (not fresh) strawberries. An earthy, damp peat, mild chilli salt, creamy vanilla. Slight dried herbs & floral note.

Texture: Light-medium weight, fresh & creamy, no spirit-y heat at all.
Taste: Fresh & quite peaty, a nice deep earthy peat, a little of that chilli salt again, slightly powdery milk chocolate. Creamy vanilla and more dried herbs.

Finish: Medium length, nice soft peat, some ash. Some spice as well, then slightly grassy dried herbs.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: Well balanced and flavoursome, with plenty of peat. A few interesting notes, but it's not a big departure from the standard / core range Ardbegs, with a little of each showing itself at various points. Which is basically what it says on the tin anyway. It's a pleasant peaty easy drinker, but it doesn't quite hold up compared with the mighty Uigeadail, or even the 10 year old for that matter, particularly with pricing factored in.

Ardbeg 'Dark Cove' committee release, 55%, NAS, released 2016. Once again there wasn't a great deal of information given about this one, other than stating that its "heart" has been matured in "dark sherry" casks, which is a little ambiguous and could mean either Oloroso or Pedro Ximinez. As most suspected at the time, this turned out to be ex-PX sherry casks, and I wish they'd just printed that on the damn label.

Speaking of the label, this one proudly claimed to be "the darkest Ardbeg ever", which simply wasn't accurate, especially in the case of the considerably lighter 46.5% 'standard' version, which I previously reviewed here. Both versions of Dark Cove were a marriage of ex-PX sherry casks and 'traditional' ex-bourbon cask Ardbeg, and we don't know the proportions of each. Again both versions are the same whisky bottled at different strengths.

Colour: Bronze.
Nose: Sweet & fruity to start with, rich but not overtly peaty. Sweet juicy raisins, dried fruit (blackberry?), some treacle, spent coffee grounds. A little salty sea spray, some new rope, a little spicy wood smoke.

Texture: Medium weight, rich & powerful.
Taste: There's the peat! A spicy, dry peat with a little ash and wood smoke. Rich spicy sherry, some burnt caramel, but far less sweet than the nose.

Finish: Medium length, quite spicy, ginger. Then comes back to that sweetness, chocolate, rich sherry & dried fruit, and a fleeting floral note. Hints of sea spray, treacle and a little tar.

Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Very good stuff. It's lost quite a bit of peat compared to what I remember, having been open for around a year (with winesave), and has become seriously sweet. Still very nice though, and a nice different take on the typical Ardbeg style. While quite sweet, it's not in the usual Ardbeg ex-bourbon creamy vanilla way, more of a rich fruity style of sweetness. Definitely the second favourite so far (and no it's not just the ABV talking), but how is the new one going to stack up?

Ardbeg 'Kelpie' committee release, 51.7%, NAS, released 2017. This latest release is a marriage of traditional ex-bourbon cask-matured Ardbeg, and Ardbeg that has been fully matured in virgin oak casks. The oak used for these casks was sourced from the Adyghe Republic in Russia's south-west, near the Black Sea, which is extremely unusual, so kudos to Ardbeg and Dr. Lumsden for once again trying something new. Ardbeg Corryvreckan is very popular, and is partly-matured in virgin French oak, and the partly-virgin American oak matured Ardbeg Alligator was a huge hit, but that bottling used virgin American oak that had been heavily charred, so this is a totally different story really.

The name Kelpie refers to a shape-shifting water spirit from Scottish mythology, which obviously has nothing to do with Ardbeg really, but a 19th century poet wrote about a Kelpie that lived in the gulf of Corryvreckan (does that name should sound familiar), which is off the Northern coast of the isle of Jura, Islay's northern neighbour. There is going to be a standard version of Kelpie released to coincide with Ardbeg day this year, which will be bottled at 46%. As I've mentioned above, that's the lowest strength for a 'day' release so far...

Colour: Gold. Slightly paler than the partly-virgin French oak matured Corryvreckan, which you'd think would be the closest comparison.

Nose: Fresh, sweet and spicy. Pretty damn spicy actually - not alcohol sharpness mind you, but actual cooking spices. Ginger, clove and maybe cumin? The sweetness fades with time, becoming drier and also slightly herbal. Soft caramel and spiced baked apples, a hint of vanilla custard and a little citrus (orange?) zest.

Texture: Medium weight, with a little alcohol heat behind the spice.

Taste: Soft initially, then quickly becoming hot & spicy. Some dry, ashy wood smoke but not a great deal of it. Definitely cumin now, some menthol, and a little ginger. Cloudy apple juice. Not very Ardbeg-like, it's pretty different and quite unique actually!

Finish: Medium length, Still loads of spices initially. More cumin again and some cinnamon powder, and a little nutmeg. A little soft, earthy peat underneath, and more of that apple juice. Some bitter high-cocoa dark chocolate as well that hangs around until the end.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: Very interesting! Not your typical Ardbeg by any means, in fact I'm not sure what I would guess this to be if I was tasting it blind. Very spicy, a spice bomb in fact, which dries everything out and takes away most of that signature Ardbeg sweetness. The peat and smoke is quite subdued as well, hidden under those spices. Pushing my spice boundaries actually! It's pleasant though and fairly easy drinking, although I do miss the intense peat & sweet combination that we all love. But it's refreshing to see Ardbeg come up with something distinctly different for this special release. Russian / Black Sea oak was always going to be different, but I never expected to be quite this unusual! It has definitely improved and relaxed a bit in the week-and-a-half or so since I first opened it, and the spices have been amplified and the peat quietened since the first second introductory drams. It'll probably keep changing too, so I'll be sure to check in with it regularly over the next few weeks. For science, of course...

As for a winner, well It'd have to be a tie between Ardbog and the Dark Cove committee release. Both are excellent, and are very different in their own rights, although I suspect if my bottle of Ardbog was fresh it would have won outright. As we can expect from Ardbeg though, all five whiskies are distinctly different and are great quality whiskies. It's a tough gig when the 'core' range of Ardbeg, being the 10-year old, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan, are so damn good to begin with, so let's hope they keep pushing those boundaries and keeping things fresh & exciting. I'm sure they'll do just that.

It'll be very interesting to see how the 46% 'standard' version of Kelpie goes compared to this one. Will the spice be dialled back a bit, and will the peat come out of hiding? Time will tell, and as always I'll be lining up with the other Ardbeg-heads to find out on the 'day'. See you there folks!