This could be one of those unicorn reviews. We have a perfect solar eclipse of the whisky universe, what with a desirable bottle in the form of a Cadenhead dumpy, and the liquid—circa March 1975—from none other than Ardbeg. A meeting of desires and wallets: perfect Instagram fodder to be stroked, swiped and double-tapped.
Except that this isn’t going to be one of those reviews, nor do I need to apologise for the bitter disappointment, or the collective sighs now reverberating across social media. The historical route is enticing, allowing us to talk about the dumpy range, or even of how the floor maltings at the distillery had closed the previous year—the same maltings that Dr Bill Lumsden would love to revive, and a missing component of what made Ardbeg truly fantastic. We could detour to the modern age and the recent Cadenhead’s news that Mark Watt and the bottler have parted ways, albeit on amicable terms. Although this is sad news to many enthusiasts, given what Cadenhead’s have done in recent times, it doesn’t feel the right time, or place. All I’ll say is good luck to both parties, and thanks for the whiskies.
Oh, and this bottle was opened and consumed within a weekend.
I’m grateful to Andy for doing the deed, and then sharing with many enthusiasts united by a love of whisky during Whiskybase Gathering weekend. The bottle itself didn’t last beyond the Sunday; despite being camouflaged in packaging from a youthful English whisky release, it was gratefully received by many, with such generosity replicated across the room that by Sunday—and after a morning cocktail of Irn Bru and 1975 Ardbeg (a wonderful cocktail of Scottish excellence)—we were left with the conundrum of the empty vessel and its fate.
I’ve smashed many a rare bottle in my time, each thankfully emptied and enjoyed. I also retain a few that continue to hold contents in another format: not a tangible or financial roost, but rather, memories of favourite moments and friends. John quite rightly suggested in his St. Magdalene review that the company improves the drink. As I gaze behind me towards the elephant’s graveyard of fine emptied whiskies, accumulated over many years, the crack of a wee smile breaks through.
There are various recycling initiatives when it comes to old bottles, including turning into a lamp of some shape or form, or a more invasive slice to become a candle. The more underhand practices have come to light recently in America, with a concerted effort to tackle the secondary market and the growing business of fakery.
Fred Minnick spotlighted moves from many attorney generals to tackle the issue of counterfeiting, including a recent case of an empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle being sold via eBay. The practice continues today, even on this side of the Atlantic, despite a crackdown from the online giant in 2012 around the sale of whisky online in the UK. It seems eBay are not interested in empty vessels and their purpose once the seal has been broken and the contents consumed. You can do whatever you like in the online reality, and they’ll take their slice of the proceeds.
Currently, the majority of those bottles appearing online are for a minimal cost and would not instigate any bidding war, whether intact or emptied. These are of no interest to the faker, or even the illegal bootlegger who looks to pass off something as a tasty Bruichladdich, rather than their homebrew concoction—oh, what a minute… I’m reminded of festivals such as the Whiskybase Gathering, and the unwritten rules: what you’re purchasing is indeed the original contents and has been kept in suitable conditions. Bottles, once emptied, are either defaced, destroyed or kept out of the hands of fakers. After all, if you have an empty bottle, then the deception is far easier to achieve–even more so with many of these older scotch whiskies coming in coloured glassware.
A great deal of whisky is built upon trust, right down to the exchanging of samples from otherwise strangers—and thank you to everyone who offers and has sent me samples to review. The element of trust is easily shattered. I know of some collectors who are rather suspicious of specific bottles within their collection, but the only way to determine the validity when faced with an original bottle is to break the seal, and therefore, the residual value. The way to stop all of this is to ensure that such empties don’t manifest themselves into the hands of unscrupulous individuals. Either smash, or deface, to an extent where the origins of the bottle and its traceability become obvious. Selling on empties is a counterfeiter’s gift, and one—it seems—that keeps on giving.
Right now, we have this Ardbeg to hopefully savour: distilled in March 1975, this was bottled in November 1990 at 46% strength. As always, and very true to this iconic range of releases, the details are scant at best.
There is a certain Tomb Raider element to opening a Cadenhead dumpy. You don’t know the details of the contents, the type of wood maturation and sometimes (even better), neither does Whiskybase or the Internet. There is only one route left open to us, and it’s the best option.
Cadenhead’s Ardbeg 1975 – review
Color: golden toffee.
On the nose: beautifully layered peat – a marked contrast to the Islay peats of today. Here, there is harmony, balance and depth. Autumnal and peppery with a rich toffee, some honey and chocolate. There’s a sweet sooty element alongside brown sugar and a resinous quality. With liquorice and blackcurrant jam, some lemon freshness cuts through the pencil shavings and dried fruits. Camphor, diluted orange and a gentle smoke appear.
In the mouth: now the peat steps up a notch, and there’s a drying, chalky, blackboard dynamic at play alongside the more familiar melodies of black pepper, sea salt and autumnal foliage. Bitter dark chocolate, liquorice, stewed black coffee and a dark brown sugar midway emerge. An ashy finish comes with fudge, mace and aniseed.
Quite a character at just 15 years of age. Plenty of punch, but also a wonderful poise way beyond its maturity. This has certainly opened up since my tasting in Rotterdam and has benefited from time; it feels more charismatic and alive.
I doubt I’ll have the pleasure of its company again, but that’s what whisky is all about: forging ahead with new discoveries and memorising those moments where things fell into place … along with that Sunday morning Irn Bru chaser.