Well, Ardbeg & Moet Australia have really come through for us again! Not only were we lucky enough to get an allocation of the committee release of "Grooves", but we were also spared the website issues and subsequent postponement that European buyers endured.
Of course, the allocation of the committee release sold out very quickly, and I believe it has also sold out around the world. Like previous committee releases the system used here in Australia worked very well. Registrations were done online, followed up by a confirmation email, and then a phone call to confirm the order and collect payment, with dispatch commencing a week later. While doing it this way is obviously more work for the staff and more expense for the company, it actually works. So it's well worth it!
This year's Ardbeg "day" or Feis Ile (Islay festival) release, Ardbeg Grooves is a very exciting expression. While the strength is similar to 2017's Kelpie Committee Release (reviewed here along with the previous four Ardbeg "day" releases), and yes there's no age statement, I just can't understand why there's such a level of hate and misery in some sectors of the whisky community when it comes to these bottlings. Some releases are better than others of course, as is the case with all distilleries, and I must admit that I wasn't a huge fan of either version of last year's Kelpie. But in my opinion the fact that Ardbeg's releases are by far the easiest to get hold of, and are often the most reasonably priced, both in the committee and regular release versions, more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings. Sure there's no age statement, and yes there's a slightly contrived marketing spin, but those aren't exactly new or unfamiliar things. There are hundreds of fantastic "NAS" whiskies out there from dozens of different distilleries, and there have been for years now. None of that is going to change on a substantial scale any time soon, so I think it's high time that some of the "haters" just accepted it and judged the whiskies on their aroma & taste instead.
And let's not forget the upside to these Ardbeg releases. There seem to be two trains of thought when it comes to Feis Ile releases. Most distilleries produce a relatively tiny amount of whisky for their commemorative bottlings, which usually means both high prices and very slim chances of getting your hands on one. Think about it, when was the last time a Bowmore, Caol Ila or Bruichladdich (for example, I'm not singling anyone out!) Feis Ile bottling made it to another country, without being on-sold for massive profit at secondary auction? They don't! Only Laphroaig and Ardbeg's releases are actually able to be purchased by those who aren't on Islay or based in continental Europe, which I think is a great way to celebrate the festival in a wider circle. If they were to instead release a single cask with a retail price well in the hundreds of pounds, then only a few would get their hands on a bottle, and they'd also get a lot of bottle flippers, speculating collectors and ravenous (bordering on greedy) retailers 'investing' and turning a profit. But with Ardbeg there is always plenty of stock (particularly of the regular version), the prices are reasonable, and the whisky is always something different from the norm. I'm sure we'd all love a single refill ex-bourbon cask Ardbeg with an age statement in the teens, but if that were the case, how many of us would actually get to taste the stuff? Ardbeg's contemporary Feis Ile releases are meant to be enjoyed by as many of their masses of fans as possible, and having plenty of reasonably priced whisky that is widely available is certainly the best way to accomplish that.
Anyway, enough of all that. I mentioned above that this years' release is an exciting expression. That's because this is the first Ardbeg release to include some whisky that was matured (Ardbeg don't do finishing, remember) in red wine casks! Not only that, but those wine casks were also heavily charred to produce deep grooves in the surface of the wood, giving more surface area for the spirit to interact with. Those grooves are also how this whisky's name was derived, along with the "groovy" 1960s-inspired marketing angle. There are rumours that those casks were procured from Jack Daniels' owner Brown-Forman, who previously did a similar thing with Jack Daniels Sinatra Select, although they used virgin oak in that case. Now I'm only speculating here, but Brown-Forman also own a Californian vineyard that produces Pinot Noir, so perhaps that's where the wine casks were sourced? Or alternatively, perhaps Moet-Hennessy sourced the casks themselves and sent them to Brown-Forman's cooperage for re-charring, since they had already used the same charring method? It's a little strange that we haven't been told anything about the origin or provenance of the red wine casks themselves, since Ardbeg's mad scientist Dr. Bill Lumsden doesn't usually shy away from providing detailed information on the casks or elaborating on the exact origins of the wood, so I'm not sure what the reasoning is here. Perhaps more details will come to light when the regular version is released around the world on Ardbeg day in June. In any case, it'll be very interesting to see how those re-charred wine casks have gotten along with Ardbeg's peaty-yet-relatively light spirit (which is largely thanks to the purifier on their spirit still), and the regular ex-bourbon cask Ardbeg that it was married with prior to bottling.
The committee release version of Grooves that we're looking at today (from my own personal bottle) is bottled at 51.6% ABV, and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, since Ardbeg don't add any E150a spirit caramel to any of their expressions. While part of this whisky was matured (not finished) in those heavily charred red wine casks, as with most Ardbeg releases the majority has been matured in first- and second-fill ex-bourbon casks. Not that there's anything wrong with that! Like all modern Ardbeg committee releases there's no outer box supplied with this one, and the packaging and labelling is relatively basic. But the extra ABV, and let's be honest, also the relative rarity, more than make up for that. The regular release of Grooves will be bottled at 46%, again without chill filtration or added colouring, and will come in a pretty box. But it will also be more expensive than the committee release, at least until the latter starts appearing on the auction circuit. Let's get to it!
Partly matured (not finished) in ex-red wine casks, heavily charred to produce grooves in the surface. Majority matured in ex-bourbon casks, first- & second-fill. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Nose: Lovely. Sweet, spicy and coastal. Smoky chewy toffee, toasted sweet vanilla, paprika & cinnamon. Creme brulee, some tar, brine and caramel popcorn. Hints of grilled fish in the background with a few drops of lime juice.
Texture: Medium weight, oily, spicy and smoky. No heat at all.
Taste: Much drier here than on the nose. A little minerality, a lovely dry, crumbly peat and some delicious smoked spices. Cinnamon, ginger, black pepper & aniseed. Smoked honey, toasted vanilla again and some singed (lightly burnt) herbs. Delicious.
Finish: Long length, warming. More of the tar & brine from the nose, and that smoky toffee, plus some blow-torched citrus rind. Dry wood smoke and more of those tasty smoked spices. More aniseed coming out and a couple of cloves here too. Then more caramel popcorn, toasted sweet vanilla, and a little lime juice. Some golden orchard fruit and a lovely sandy, salty peat further down the rabbit hole.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Tasty, tasty stuff! I'd actually go so far as to call this a "return to form" compared to the last few Ardbeg special releases (although the Dark Cove committee release was great too). And by that I mean it's more identifiable as Ardbeg, and the quality is beyond question. It doesn't have the massive hit of hot spices that Kelpie did (which almost spoiled the experience for me), nor the big almost too-sweet fruit of Dark Cove, and I love that the classic Ardbeg tar & citrus notes are still there. But it's still a different whisky from the norm, and let's remember that that's exactly what we should want from these special releases! I'm really loving those smoked spice notes in the Grooves, they're not dominant and they work really well with the whole package, adding a new part of the experience. An expertly concocted and also nicely balanced whisky here.
I struggled to score this one, in fact it was nearly a 4.5 score, which only reminds me (again) that I should have gone with a 10-point system. But, Grooves committee release is now officially my equal-favourite Ardbeg "day" release, sharing the title with 2013's Ardbog, despite them being two rather different whiskies. If you missed out on this one, well, I'm sorry to tell you that you're probably going to regret it. I'm sure the "regular" 46% version that will be released in late May will be good too, but I think Ardbeg have already nailed it with this one. Groovy baby, very groovy!