Whisky sells and in today’s market it has become a very profitable commodity. Ardbeg has carved out a niche for itself with the annual release and all the promotional madness geared around the launch. But what about the actual liquid within? The contents? The real reason for the existence of such a bottle?
Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton has created a new direction and brand for this once decrepit Islay distillery. This French powerhouse is extremely adept at such things and fostering a sense of luxury. We must be thankful that Ardbeg is thriving and set to expand in 2019, with a new traditional style still house built upon the site of a former warehouse. This will feature 4 stills, effectively doubling capacity. The original still area will be lost to washbacks and whether you see this as an improvement, progress or whatever spin you want to put on it, is entirely down to you. Personally, I’m slightly worried by the prospect.
It is a roll of the dice from the owners, intent on meeting demand and expanding a limited core range. As Adam speculated in his excellent New Zealand Double Wood 18 year old review, you are tinkering and trying to recreate things not entirely within your control. Yes, this applied to the lost distilleries that Diageo is reviving in a mad Frankenstein experiment with no expense spared. Not because they care about the sites or heritage, but there’s money to be made and for all the corporate power the giant can call upon. It was in danger of losing illustrious names such as Brora and Port Ellen to the history books, which is where they belong. After all, it was a rash and brutal series of decisions that closed these distilleries in the 1980s. You reap what you sow.
Ardbeg lives and breathes. Upping the equipment and adding more to the equation in a new location, is not without its risks. We’ve all heard of the problems around Clynelish after the total internal refurbishment. For all the planning in the world and preparation, there still remains a slight sense of alchemy when it comes to distilling. Questions also arise around this self-proclaimed traditional style still house. The influence of technology within, compared to the fairly hands-on approach at Ardbeg currently. Another issue, and now at Clynelish operatives are reduced to merely watching computers do most of their former responsibilities. Is this truly progress? Only time will tell, but I remain apprehensive.
I really enjoyed the original Ardbeg Day release that brought a sense of fun to the whisky calendar. Since then it has been repetition rather than evolution, with each year heralding a different cask or trick to justify its existence. Mark was a big fan of the Ardbeg Kelpie although he refused to pay the price and this is a trend that runs throughout many of our Ardbeg reviews. Many of you out there clearly love these limited expressions, whether to hoard or flip at auction within weeks. The actual art of drinking the whisky and sharing seems lost. The market becomes saturated in all things Ardbeg and the whisky takes a berth.
For 2018, Ardbeg gave us the Grooves release. The concept behind this is that the whisky has been matured in ex-wine casks – which wine casks I hear Mark & Adam ask? – that have been heavily charred. Fact fans know that a cask can give you around 200 flavour compounds but these are determined by the type of cask and the level of charring. For this release, the mysterious ex-wine casks so charred that grooves formed on the surface of the wood. It all sounds like a possible Metallica whisky called Blackened, oh wait a minute…
Ardbeg Grooves is bottled at 46% and is a time-limited edition. Let’s not start on what constitutes limited in whisky nowadays as the outturn is closer to a 6 figure number than 4 figures. Speaking of numbers, this would have set you back in the region of £98. That’s a big figure for a No Age Statement whisky with very little detail about the contents or processes involved. These have all been smudged in favour of a 1960’s summer of love marketing theme. A social experiment that was killed off at Altamont during the Rolling Stones set. There was no Islay or whisky on the running order that day.
Ardbeg Grooves – review
Colour: So bored of gold.
On the nose: Chocolate fudge with an earthy core and coastal driftwood. Burnt toast, heather honey and cinnamon bark. There’s a mustiness with charcoal and a sense of dampness. A milky coffee, a walnut whip with caramel and dried orange.
In the mouth: A bit watery in all honesty and a murky pond water with a peaty tang. There are some typical earthy, autumnal peat characteristics. Honeycomb, more coffee notes and dark chocolate. A bit flat in reality. More of a concept than an actual finalised experience.
The only winner with this release is Ardbeg or the parent company in reality. I’m not really sure what this brings to the party. It is all a bit average and meh in my humble opinion. Too young for either the spirit or the cask implementation to form a harmonious marriage. Instead, it comes across muddled and halfhearted.
A perfect example of a very average whisky. A modern whisky if you will, created to fill an annual requirement. Why bother with all this gimmickry? Just give us Ardbeg in a solid cask at a higher strength. An easy recipe and job done. For the asking price of this Ardbeg Grooves, which feels more like a £45 bottle, a point is deducted for sheer nerve.
We can remain optimistic that 2019 brings us less marketing and more substance in whisky as a whole. That’s my wish, resolution and dream.
Lead image from the Whisky Exchange. The sample from Noortje – Queen of Instagram.