“If you wake up at a different time in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”
So asks the narrator in the classic movie Fight Club; he poses the question as to whether our essential nature changes as we travel throughout time zones and terminals. I would be inclined to ask the same about whiskey. I’m not talking about terroir, partially due to the fact if one more person says terroir this week, I might force feed them JW Red… I’m talking about how our experience of a whiskey changes depending on where and with whom we consume it.
My first ever experience of a Scottish distillery was Talisker, and I’ve had an awful fondness for that most peppery of spirits ever since—but is it the liquid, or is it the memory?
I’m Irish by birth, or the grace of God—whichever you prefer—and by the first time I tasted an Ardbeg, I was already well on my way down the rabbit hole of Irish whiskey. I was shocked. Without knowing much about Ardbeg or the deep history that goes with it, I thought it was novelty whiskey, that this Ardbeg 10 handed out to me across the counter by a smiling demon was some sort of hellfire liquid made smoky for the sake of appealing to these ‘Peat Heads’ I’d heard about. I was sure that this, the taste of campfire ash that was currently sitting at the back of my mouth, was produced for the same reason that people go shark diving: because they can. It took me some time and quite a few more drops before I began to appreciate the subtlety (or sometimes lack thereof) of the peated variety of the spirit.
I’m often heard to remark (to whoever will listen) that my favourite bottle of Scotch is Ardbeg Alligator Committee release, but I think much of that drop is tied up in the excellent memories of the company and the place where I consumed it. It was a dark night in deepest Johannesburg where a bottle of Port Ellen also met an untimely demise…. I was surrounded by amazing company and amazing whiskey in fantastic weather, and life was good. Every time I look back on that night, I wonder: was I just kidding myself? Was it really that good, or was I just high on life and peat fumes?
Thus, I decided to delve back into that Islay, and to discover if it were as good as I remember.
First off, it’s worth noting for the uninitiated that the Alligator committee release is not commercially available, and was a limited-edition release brought out a few years ago. A heavily charred cask is generally known as a “crocodile char,” so the folks at Ardbeg were having a little fun with the naming of this one. Ardbeg’s Alligator is a no-age-statement experimental malt, bottled at 51.2% ABV after a full 10-year maturation in new American oak barrels that had received the alligator char treatment. This ‘alligator’ malt was then vatted with an undisclosed quantity of the standard 10 year and married for an additional year. That makes it approximately 11 years old.
Cracking open this bottle was a majorly nostalgic moment for me, but I tried not to be over-awed by memory, and to be objective in my tasting notes… still, I could almost hear the lions roaming in the background…
The fact that this liquid only diverges in a couple of essential ways from the original might lead one to believe that it’s not that different. One would be wrong.
Ardbeg Alligator Committee Release – review
On the nose: BBQ, wood smoke, the rich tobacco of a Cuban cigar; it’s a huge bouquet of flavours. The cask is obviously going to be prominent, but the smoke has more than a small say here. Sit on this one for a least ten minutes, and you’ll start to get the cinnamon and some faint notes of vanilla and caramel, almost bourbon-like.
In the mouth: This one doesn’t disappoint. If I could drink every drop of my whisky at cask strength, I would. At 51.2%, there’s just enough in this one to add a depth of flavor without flash-frying your taste buds. There’s lots of sweet BBQ notes coming through onto the palate, and there’s also some fruity, zesty notes which I really didn’t get on the nose. They are a pleasant surprise. There’s a huge hit of ginger for me right at the back of the palate, and a lovely, long-lasting, warming finish. That ginger develops into pepper and hangs around for quite some time.
Is it as good as I remember? Maybe not, but it’s still fantastic. This is a cracking drop—lots of sweetness and spice, balanced out with smoke. The standard Ardbeg 10 doesn’t have anything like the kind of balance of this drop. It’s not cheap, but you can pick a bottle up of the secondary market for around £120, and I absolutely would. I recently picked another bottle of this up, along with a bottle of Ardbog from a friend, and I will thoroughly enjoy them both… but that’s a story for another time. Do yourself a favour and grab a bottle while they’re still available! This remains among my favourite bottles of Scotch, and there are very few drops which outdo it for me.
Image kindly provided by Celtic Whiskey Auctions.