The last year was incredibly tumultuous across the globe for reasons that everyone has experienced or heard about ad nauseum. Whisky has been a unifying hobby for people to rally around at this time, not just to share drams and actually uncork bottles, but to remain emotionally connected with each other. MALT has certainly been a rallying point for so many of us to share our opinions while increasing the collective knowledge and experience of the community. New voices being welcomed as much as the familiar ones are part of what makes this space unique and special.
Recently, I’ve had to move cities and that involved shuttling my own whisky collection again. It was a good chance to take stock of which bottles were opened, unopened and overdue for tasting sessions, reviews, enjoying for pleasure. Going across expressions from various distilleries and doing vertical tastings is an excellent way to see how a distillery’s flavour may or may not shift over the years, and how certain distillates react to maturation in various cask types or combinations. Given the slew of old and new Ardbegs that have been released over the past 20 years, some to critical acclaim, others to a shrug of the shoulders, it seemed like a good opportunity to evaluate and compare various releases from the darling of Islay.
Part of the MALT spirit includes actually opening and tasting expressions, lest they become mere shelf trophies, for educational and entertainment purposes. For the educational content, entertainment, and satisfaction of curiosity (and totally not for any self-indulgent reasons, of course), I thought it would be fun to pit two Ardbegs against each other. Specifically, a 2018 Uigeadail versus the 2004 Uigeadail. That particular expression is one that has been scrutinized heavily and accused of changing significantly since its introduction to the core lineup. Then, I became intrigued about the discontinued expressions and current NAS bottles of Ardbeg. Well, one thing led to another and the initial two Ardbegs turned into ten!
Admittedly, part of the reason behind this was my disappoint with the last several special releases Ardbeg has produced. They are overpriced, difficult to get a hold of, and seem to underperform compared to the core range. All these exotic wood finishes and maturations are nice and all, but something really cool to see Ardbeg do would be akin to the Springbank Local Barley series. Imagine locally grown Islay barley, malted at Ardbeg, peated at Ardbeg, mashed at Ardbeg, the whole shebang! Combined with effective cask management one can picture how truly spectacular such a whisky could be.
The fanfare around Ardbeg among whisky lovers is a well-known phenomenon. While reception to their recent marketing, prices, practices, and special releases have been mixed, the reputation of the distillery still remains quite high. One could go on for ages about ownership changes, alterations to the distillation methods, cask management, where the barley is sourced from, the exact steps in the peating process, or any other aspects of the production that have changed, but the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the bottle. The only way to know is to taste it for yourself. Doing that also continues ensuring that Ardbeg is enjoyed the way it was meant to be, and not held endlessly for flipping purposes or profits made at auction.
Ardbeg Uigeadail 2018 Release – Review
Bottled at 54.2% ABV. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Light gold, maybe two or three shades darker than the 10-year-old.
On the nose: An explosion of crisp peat smoke at first nosing. The kind of smoke you’d get from burning some exceptionally dry firewood on a cold night. I think it’s become smokier than the 10 over the years. There are hints of black pepper candied bacon, toffee, tar, slight medicinal and coastal scents (think of a light salty brine), charcoal, and leather. It definitely smells like a modern Ardbeg but with a more sugary and savory character to it.
In the mouth: Hot! This drinks stronger than 54.2% to my palate but the flavours are there once you get acclimated. Maybe add a drop or two of water. The charcoal smoke and burned oak tastes are most prominent at first. As it breathes in the glass and sits on the tongue it starts to taste like vanilla extract with a whole bunch of baking spices: nutmeg, ginger, maybe even a bit of cinnamon. There may be a hint of dark chocolate in there but it could also just be my imagination. The finish has the standard Ardbeg liquorice, aniseed, and a bit of lemon zest.
There isn’t an overt sherry character or huge complexity to this expression anymore, but if peat and sweet is what you crave then it will definitely satisfy. Unfortunately, this is $172.00 CAD at the draconian LCBO and one point (ok maybe two) was docked for the price.
Ardbeg Uigeadail 2nd Release (2004 Batch) – Review
Bottled at 54.2% ABV. This one was a vatting of 10-year-old and 13-year-old ex-bourbon casks and an undisclosed number of 1970s ex-sherry casks. This is arguably one of the original flagship bottlings that ignited the NAS market. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Amber-gold. Darker than the 2018 version.
On the nose: It almost feels wrong to compare this to the modern editions. On the nose alone it’s a noticeably different whisky. “Dark” and “Rich” feel like the best descriptors for scents emanating from this. Cooking strawberry or blackberry jam, honey-glazed ham, faint balsamic vinaigrette, a Dijon mustard “funkiness”, plum-raisin fruitcake, and some kind of herbal minty leather all standout at some point. The smoke is much more subdued compared to the newer iteration and is far more reminiscent of smoked brisket or the burnt ends dipped in bbq sauce. There are even hints of fresh cut cigars. The nose is a joy.
In the mouth: Does not drink as hot, but it’s still bold and monstrous at first sip. Smoky leather is most apparent, followed by fudgy fruitcake, smoked chocolate-covered almonds, sweet and bold bbq sauce, and grilled pineapple. The mouthfeel is oily, viscous, and clings strongly to the tongue, roof of the mouth, and throat. What’s interesting for me is the total lack of any coastal or medicinal taste like there is in the 2018 release. You’d almost guess this is some kind of heavily peated sherry bomb from the Highlands. The aftertaste is a mentholic, minty smoke with espresso, dark chocolate, and a bit of toffee.
The 1970s ex-sherry casks clearly added an entirely new dimension of complexity to this expression. Although that’s not a total surprise considering 1970s vintage Ardbeg is among the best whisky ever made. There is no doubt, this expression is head and shoulders above the newer release. The clear winner. It would score even higher if not for its current prices and rarity.
Ardbeg Lord of the Isles – Review
A 25-year-old Ardbeg released in batches between 2001 and 2007. This particular batch was from 2004 and bottled at 46% ABV. A mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, with ex-bourbon comprising most of the blend. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Dark gold.
On the nose: I would implore anyone who tries this to let it sit in the glass for at least half an hour in order to let it open up. Your patience will be rewarded with enticing changes in the smell and taste of the whisky. At first, it’s incredibly aromatic, herbal, phenolic, and candied peat. It’s not smoky so much as it is earthy. Rich vanilla cream, fresh cut oak, freshly baked apple pie with the caramelized apple slices and extra buttery pie crust sprinkled with cinnamon. Grilled pineapple, floral honey, and baking spices are all softly present. The longer it sits, the more a dark chocolate mint smell develops. It’s bright and vibrant despite the age, without being harsh or ethanolic in the slightest. While the nose has all this smoky, light sweetness going on, it’s not huge or bold. However, it is wonderfully and exceptionally balanced and opens up beautifully with time.
In the mouth: Now the peat and smoke show up more strongly. Used charcoal briquettes and fireplace soot but with a kind of sugary, syrupy sweetness to it. While powerful, the smoke doesn’t stick around along. Other flavours like the baked and caramelized apple, baked almonds, ginger, cinnamon, sea salt, and a rich, honeyed toffee. The aftertaste has a more prominent saltiness, almost like a cured meat (specifically prosciutto), along with the lemon and pineapple citrus notes again. It’s incredibly oily and resinous! The flavours refuse to leave the palate, even 5 minutes after taking a sip. The finish is one of the longest I’ve encountered in a contemporary whisky, and lingers with the taste of salty, honey-glazed Iberico ham.
Really the only complaints about this are the relatively narrow flavour profile and the current prices. It’s almost surreal to think back on a time where this release was a dud, sitting on shelves for years at a tenth of its current price until the whisky boom arrived. It might not be the greatest Ardbeg of all time, but it deserves a spot in the top ten. Lord of the Isles is certainly among the best original bottlings the distillery has put out in the past 20 or 30 years (yes, better than the 1815), in my own humble and subjective opinion.
Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist 2006 Release – Review
Bottled at 46% ABV. Aged in ex-bourbon casks for 16 years. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Light gold, lighter than the 2018 Uigeadail but darker than the 10-year-old.
On the nose: Straightaway, you can tell this is the new style of Ardbeg. The smoke component is far more prominent, with notes of spent campfire wood, burning meat, and ashes. However, there is a significant medicinal component to this one as well. Not quite as iodine forward as Laphroaig, it’s more earthy and “rocky” than that. Maybe soot or a minerality like salty brine would be a better description. The pungent and acetic scents of the vegetal peat are accentuated by lemons and limes grilled over charcoal as it sits in the glass. Freshly grated ginger and nutmeg are lurking behind all the intense smoky character.
In the mouth: Black pepper rubbed into a steak, salted lemon juice, baked almonds (a taste I find in many Ardbeg expressions, I suspect it’s a distillate flavour), vanilla bean, and more charcoal. The aftertaste has some salty-sweet brine seafood flavour to it, almost like eating a smoked salmon on the beach.
It’s a shame that Ardbeg was not able to keep up the stocks for this expression. It would have been a mighty contender to Lagavulin 16.
Ardbeg “Twenty Something” 23-Year-Old – Review
Bottled at 46.3% ABV. Aged in ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso sherry casks for 23 years. Released for the Ardbeg Committee in 2017. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Many of these Ardbegs are gold. Let’s call this one deep yellow.
On the nose: The sherry aspect is a little more forward in this one, but the smoke remains in center stage. It is an older, pre-Glenmorangie-ownership style of Ardbeg however. The smokiness is more like a creosote, tar or diesel fuel, with a stronger medicinal component. Salt, brine, some iodine, burned seaweed, and campfire ashes combine with a softer scent of raisins, figs, and dates. It’s a decent combination of smoke and sherry, with more smoke than sherry.
In the mouth: A really fantastic mouthfeel here, oily and coating. Cigar tobacco, leather, brine, salty green olives, black pepper and bacon all make for a tasty sip. It’s creamier as well, with the sherry component really shining through more so than in the nose. Blackberry jam, glace cherries, and dried fruits add an extra dimension of sweetness to all the salt and smoke. The aftertaste is more salt, seaweed and leather. It’s more coastal and medicinal than you’d expect for an Ardbeg, even compared to the Airigh Nam Beist.
The age on this definitely adds a layer of complexity and tames the smoke a bit. It’s a good old Ardbeg, but frankly not good enough to justify its astronomical price, then or now. There are many batches of Uigeadail, other Ardbegs, and other sherried Islay expressions that will give you equal or greater value for your money. The mouthfeel and complexity saved this from lower marks.
Ardbeg “Twenty-One” 21-Year-Old – Review
Bottled at 46% ABV. Aged in ex-bourbon casks for 21 years. Released for the Ardbeg Committee in 2016. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: A smidge darker than white wine.
On the nose: Similar to the 23 but without the sherry character, and quite a bit tamer. This is a slightly subtle and quiet for an Ardbeg. Wood smoke is present of course, along with polished leather, pepper-rubbed bacon, but there’s a much stronger floral type of vanilla richness to go with it. The medicinal character is strongest in this one too, lots of seaweed, brine, ashes from last night’s campfire on the beach, iodine, and some kind of antiseptic. Some green apple and lemony scents cut their way out after 15-20 minutes in the glass, along with something that, to me, smells like day-old strawberries or cranberries being kept in a dusty, old warehouse.
In the mouth: Brace yourselves, here comes the forbidden word (you’ve been warned): surprisingly smooth! There, I said it! It’s flavourful without being overpowering. There’s ever-present smoke, thyme honey, fish rubbed with sea salt and spices while cooked on a beach bonfire, iodine, mineral salt rocks, hints of lemon and lime throughout, and again with those chalky, smoky almonds. The aftertaste is mildly peppery with some earthy peat, toasted barley grains, and coastal saltiness.
This one feel like an extension of the Airigh Nam Beist. If that one had a few more years of age on it then it would probably be extremely close to this twenty-one. In any case, Ardbeg 21 feels like a more consistent and cohesive single malt than the 23. Given the price and rarity of this expression, both upon release and today, I think it’s still fair to give it a:
Ardbeg 10-Year-Old – Review
Bottled at 46% ABV. Aged in ex-bourbon casks for 10 years. Purchased in 2019. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Light white wine.
On the nose: Probably the simplest nose of the bunch, but one of unmistakable quality for a whisky so young. Lately it has seen some batch variation, but on the whole, this remains a solid, readily available Islay single malt. The nose is powerful in its smoky quality, but it’s a crisp and clean smoke. Full of black pepper steak, burned bacon, earthy peat, and a little wisp of medicinal qualities like some iodine and antiseptic. A few minutes of rest in the glass brings out fresh cut apples, a little bit of vanilla, and coastal brine. More faint citrus notes like lemon, lime, and pineapple start to appear but never get very strong. I feel like this is less oak-influenced and more distillate-forward than it has been in the past.
In the mouth: Sharp and explosive at first. Peat smoke of course, along with charcoal, lemons, sour apples, brine, sea salt, and raw tobacco. Not a thin mouthfeel but not overly oily either. The aftertaste is espresso beans (or some kind of dark coffee), brisket burnt ends, aniseed, and liquorice.
This may not be overly complex but it nails the flavours that it does bring to the table. While it may presently be outshined in value by things like Longrow or Ledaig, it’s still a great whisky that rightfully deserves its place on your bar or shelf. Plus, it’s easy to find and, depending on your market, relatively affordable.
Ardbeg Corryvreckan – Review
Bottled at 57.1% ABV. Aged in ex-bourbon casks and finished in French oak barrels. NAS. Purchased in 2018. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Medium white wine, slightly darker than the 10-year-old.
On the nose: The most similar to the 10-year-old. Everything present in the 10 is present here, with the exception of the obvious medicinal scents. Those are replaced by a vanilla icing sugar sweetness, star aniseed pods, barrel char, Sambuca, honey, vanilla bean custard, and of course that black pepper bacon.
In the mouth: A smoky pastry. Salted meat, black pepper, treacle with extra cherries in it, >70% dark chocolate, and a heavy vanilla. Fresh cut oak and a bit of coastal flavours come out, mainly sea salt and a touch of brine. There’s more vanilla custard and cream, with a small amount of citrus, and maybe a bit of seaweed. This feels more wood-driven than the 10-year-old, but the mouthfeel is oiler and the finish is a bit longer. The aftertaste has such a strong liquorice and aniseed quality that I’d swear this has a teaspoon of Sambuca in it. Coffee, meat, and smouldering tobacco linger in the mouth.
Of the current core range, I would say that this Ardbeg remains my favourite. It has had some dips in quality over the years but appears to be back on top of its game. It’s better than the 10 in some aspects, weaker in others, but is still a great whisky in its own right. At 57.1%, it goes down easier than the more contemporary Uigeadail bottlings.
Ardbeg 17 – Review
Bottled at 40% ABV. Aged in ex-bourbon casks for 17 years. Natural colour and un-chill filtered.
Colour: Medium gold.
On the nose: Not exactly roaring out of the glass. Easily the tamest distillery bottling of Ardbeg I’ve ever nosed. Charcoal smoke, buttercream frosting, salt, vanilla-scented candle wax, some coastal brine and a herbal quality. Almost like mint, pine, or eucalyptus.
In the mouth: A tarry smoke, lots of artificial vanilla, strawberries with cream (actually this fresh berry note is pretty dominant after the smoke settles), old pipe tobacco, and hints of iodine. It’s fairly *ahem* smooth, but quite thin and what little finish or aftertaste that exists is short-lived.
Despite the popularity and fanfare around this expression, I’ve never really been a fan of it. I can see why it had a wider appeal with its much softer profile, but it just doesn’t bring the power and flavour you would expect from an Ardbeg. Not that a different or unique flavour set is a bad thing, but it should be a profile that lives up to the distillery’s name and heritage. I can understand why this one was discontinued and wouldn’t rush to get one from the current market.
Alright, we can’t end an Ardbeg session on a low note like that, especially with the whiskies that are to follow! So, here’s the best I’ve got (and by best, I mean best at crippling my wallet as well as my tastebuds):
Ardbeg 1976/2008 Single Cask – Review
Bottled at 52.4% ABV natural cask strength. Aged in ex-sherry butt #2397 for 32 years. Natural colour and un-chill filtered. Note photograph is the sister cask #2394.
Colour: Dark gold to orangey.
On the nose: This was allowed to sit for one full hour. I’ll have to borrow a phrase from Mr. Valentin for this: “We’re approaching whisky perfection here”. Where the other Ardbegs usually have smoke billowing out of the glass, it’s firmly in the background here. The peat is both lighter and sweeter. More berry-fruit-sweet-earthy-candy than burning-acrid-wood. Old-style sherry matured whiskey! Umami scents, grilled mushrooms, beef broth, bacon fat, bbq sauce, chocolate raisins, sherry-soaked figs, chocolate rum-raisin cake, all smothered in that warm and sweet peat fog. This. Nose. Is. Glorious. The 2004 Uigeadail is much more in the direction of this style, and it’s easy to see why if they were putting casks like this into the vattings. With more time the smells of old cigar box, freshly ground cloves, mild iodine, freshly brewed espresso, and blood oranges appear. The sheer diversity of aromas is staggering. If they made a cologne of this, I would buy entire cases and apply it every day.
In the mouth: You may think you’ve had oily and viscous whiskies, but after this everything will be thin and watery by comparison. Seriously, the mouthfeel of this ruined all other contemporary whiskies for a week the first time I had it. The tastes and flavours match the nose almost perfectly. The only thing I would add is the fireplace soot, soy sauce, and lemon-orange liqueur sensations that linger with the finish, which is as close to endless as it gets. I was still tasting hints of it in my mouth several hours later.
The sheer quality trumps everything else here. “Heaven, I’m in heaven…”
Clearly, Ardbeg is a distillery with a history of making some stellar whisky. As they continue to expand their range and raise their prices, I hope that both they and LVMH remember what it is that makes the distillery so special to us. It would be a sore blow to see this historic distillery go the way of some others in the Edrington portfolio. Sorry, I know, low-hanging fruit.
In summation: Ardbeg is, for the most part, good. Not the most stunning revelation, but confirmation is reassuring, and who doesn’t want to be reassured by a little comfort and familiarity these days? Speaking of familiarity, I would like to circle back to the beginning of this article and how great it is to have MALT welcome new voices. Greater still has been the wealth of information its contributors have provided, along with an unwavering commitment to uphold honesty and transparency within the industry. They give newcomers a sense of welcome and connoisseurs an arena for polite discourse.
The commitment to an emphasis on value for money, as well as opening bottles instead of hoarding them, is just as much a staple of MALT as their logo. Few other major review aggregators have put their money where their mouths are the way MALT has in those regards. These principles have left a positive impact on the whisky community. To that end, I’d like to highlight another set of reviewers embodying many of the same principles.
They are a pair of relative newcomers to the online community. Specifically, they’re two gentlemen by the name of Mike and Narbe who operate a YouTube channel named “Malt Reviews”. While they have reviewed many bottles that are readily available on shelves, they also specialize in rare, hard-to-find, “museum-piece” whiskies. There is not a single bottle these guys are unwilling to open and review. Seriously, they have put out video reviews of some utterly stunning whiskies, including: 1967 Laphroaig RWD Samaroli, Bowmore 1964 Soffiantino Import (and the 1956 Soffiantino!), Caol Ila 15 Manager’s Dram, 1990s Springbank 12-year-old 100-Proof, Macallan 1976 Fine & Rare, I mean the list just goes on. Mike and Narbe are entertaining to watch and definitely deserve a portion of your time if you’re looking for reviews of old, rare, and collectible expressions.
The more information and honest content that is generated, the more well-informed consumers will be, and the more enjoyment everyone will receive from participating in this luxury. And it gives us a way to remain connected with each other, which is undoubtedly the most special part of this hobby.
Bottle photographs kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange.