Did you jump ship, diving into the stormy waters around Islay, to pick up your bottle of Ardbeg? The latest release with an age statement or story, conceived and hatched from the gold plated and diamond encrusted Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy headquarters in Paris?
Whisky is an international commodity nowadays. It is Scotland’s gift to the world alongside an endless list of inventions, Irn Bru, haggis, Cullen Skink and, well, frankly I could go on forever. The point being, that Scotch isn’t reliant on the domestic market nowadays. You have new money regions, the large European markets of France and Italy alongside the peat thirst we’re seeing from North America. So, as I’m a charitable guy, I’ve done my bit in recent times by giving up buying Ardbeg and ensuring more goes elsewhere.
That’s a joke before you reply with a comment. A bottle here, or there, won’t affect decision making at LVMH. However, I feel that I’m not alone with it comes to Ardbeg. Many of my circle are tired of the annual special release that takes us into space, the 1960’s or headfirst into a swamp. The age statements just don’t have that certain je ne sais quoi anymore. They are overpriced and almost Ardbeg-lite in terms of their presentation. Even the 10-year-old cask from the SMWS lacked that classic Ardbeg factor and like anything coming out of Islay nowadays, came at a premium.
This isn’t the death of Ardbeg piece. I’m thankful that the distillery was saved and sprung back into life, but like several distilleries across Scotland it has a choice to make. Whether to remain true to its roots and traditions, or change to engage with new markets and palates. We can already see this at Glenmorangie, which has the same ownership and is further down that journey. Do you talk about or drink Glenmorangie anymore? Very few I know actually do and based on recent form, the only release I’d consider is the Signet, which in itself is not a cheap option.
For many there’s been a parting of ways. Glenmorangie has followed the yellow brick road to riches and influencer acclaim, while former diehard fans have found new options to entertain themselves with. Ardbeg feels a little different. It has a stronger more rugged brand and when I think of Islay, then Bowmore springs to mind closely followed by Ardbeg. I also love an Ardbeg. The 10-year-old with a good batch is simply hard to beat when its on form, as is the Uigeadail, but I’m left questioning value at times and information around each release.
While we’ve hit pause on the Death of Ardbeg article, it could be revived at some stage. Particularly with releases such as this Committee Supernova from 2019. Already, the asking price of £140 puts this bottle into another orbit; a passage that is beyond the reach of many. Also looking at the official page, we know the strength and that this is non chill-filtered but beyond these facts, you’re left to be as imaginative as the LVMH creation department. In this day and age it feels as if our custom is being taken for granted. Slap a famous name on the label, the immortal tag of limited edition to tempt onlookers and hey presto! You’ve got an instant sell-out; as long as the Ardbeg website can cope with online traffic.
That reliance hasn’t been a given and shows there is still demand and a desire for Ardbeg. Yet is it for the whisky itself, which is fairly obscure when it comes to information? The only way to gauge an appreciation is trying before you buy. In these crazy times, this isn’t an option, as hesitate, blink, or consider and the bottle will have taken off elsewhere. A £140 punt as a consumer is a great deal more of a gamble than the completist or investor. Once you’ve broken that seal, then you’re stuck with the contents. All 53.8% of it and I bet, many homes are littered with open whisky bottles that have become orphans. Whiskies that won’t be revisited, or savoured. Now, the time has come to see if the 2019 Supernova is worth such a punt.
As a bonus I’ve included the original Supernova Committee release from 2009 for a comparison. An edition of 2400 bottles, a peat level of 100ppm, this was bottled at 58.9%. My thanks to Andy for the sample.
Ardbeg Supernova 2009 Committee Release – review
Colour: a light honey.
On the nose: a very sweet and dashing peat, fatty bacon crisps and fresh driftwood that underlines a saltiness. Apple puree wrapped up in smoke and pineapple. Not hugely complex but fluid and enjoyable. Lemons, cracked black pepper and milk chocolate alongside tweed, a bucket of sand and a gentle raspberry.
In the mouth: more of that very sweet peat and juiciness. Dying embers, kindling and a smoky decay that lingers into the finish. Highland toffee, a maltiness alongside honey and those coastal walks on a briskly cold autumnal day.
Ardbeg Supernova 2019 Committee Release – review
Colour: dried reed.
On the nose: salty as, driftwood, a spent campfire and wetrope. It’s very clean and precise. Freshly sliced apples, sugar puffs and plenty of peat with a touch of soap. Fennel, mint leaf, petrichor follwed by salted caramel, liquorice, brine and vanilla.
In the mouth: peat alright and youthful. Sooty on the finish and prior to this tar, aniseed balls, black pepper and a little menthol. It lacks layers with dying embers and smoke taking us into the finish.
The 2019, it’s alright, it’s ok. It loses a mark for charging £140 for a bottle and the threadbare details. Otherwise you are receiving that peat blast, but you’re lacking depth and complexity. Even with this level of peat, I’m not blown away to any degree.
The 2009 incarnation has more peat but also more body and substance. It feels more wholesome for want of a better word. Less vapid. More poised and distinguished. In other words, verging on an 8/10 if it wasn’t again for the lack of details. Pricewise on the secondary market, I’ve seen this pushing £500 and it isn’t worth that in any shape or form. Let’s see what bonkers release Ardbeg have in store for us in 2020 and hopefully, a little more transparency.
2019 Sample kindly provided by Just Whisky Auctions. The 2009 image kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange.