As I empty this bottle of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist, I’m reminded of the days when I was a dedicated whisk(e)y drinker.
It’s been a decade since I started taking whisk(e)y seriously. When I try to remember those days, I can recall the trifecta of (at least) 46% ABV, non-chill filtered (NCF) and no added coloring just being introduced to the market. Non-age statement (NAS) single malt weren’t so popular yet, but the movement was starting.
After a few more years of trying more whisky from wherever, my youthful naivety and arrogance made me think I knew everything. At that time, I thought that whisk(e)y was the center of the booze universe, and that the other brown spirits couldn’t compare to it. My core ideas were: the trifecta above is a must for single malts. Japanese whiskey is better than most Scotch. Ex-wine cask finished or matured whisk(e)y are the best. Different mashbills, char levels and barrel aging locations are all American whiskey needs to be unique.
Basically, I thought I knew everything there is to know about alcohol. I wouldn’t be surprised if the more knowledgeable but quiet enthusiasts thought of this Junior Soprano quote when they saw my comments: “Some people are so far behind in the race that they actually believe they are leading.” I mean, I missed out on legendary releases in the 2000s such as Ardbeg Lord of the Isles, Macallan Cask Strength 10 Year, the Bruichladdich Redder, Blacker and Golder Stills, single malts from the 60s, etc. They probably got into brandy and rum earlier than me as well.
Pity and shame are what I feel when I look back at my younger self. But with the local spirits scene being always behind, I was already considered advanced for the local market, so there was no one else to correct me. The whisky enthusiasts I interacted with online also thought the same. That, plus the popular opinion is almost always considered as being true or correct. Sticking with a crowd gives one the feeling of being assured.
Being behind plus sticking to popular trends and opinions is very applicable to Ardbeg and other trendy brands these days. The distillery’s early releases post-revival, and Jim Murray’s championing of the Uigeadail, helped create a cult. Trying really good releases such as early Uigeadail, Alligator and Airigh Nam Beist made me a believer. I’ve heard of more experienced Scotch drinkers referring to Ardbeg as the Macallan of Islay, which is something I agree with since both brands are heavily involved in NAS releases today. Also, their limited editions, despite not being great, quickly get snapped up and a lot are sure to end up in the secondary market.
Legacy is what I think Ardbeg has left now. The quality of their yearly releases no longer match the attention and prices they fetch. The last one to really wow me was the Alligator. Blaaack was the most recent I tried, and I prefer the 10 over it. An Oa and Wee Beastie are fine but don’t do justice to the legacy of Ardbeg’s early days. With the magic of old sherry casks having dried up, modern Uiges is no longer what it once was.
I hope more consumers stop relying on legacy brands. Most spirits are presented and sold as works of art, but I’ve learned that these are usually smoke screens to make us forget that the industry is a business. Money men know how to take advantage of us and our money, so be wary of the big name distilleries owned by the corporate giants.
Change is the only constant in life. A brand may have been either lackluster or great ten years ago, but it doesn’t guarantee the quality has stayed the same ten years later. With whisk(e)y prices constantly increasing, one must be smarter with how they spend their hard-earned money. Train and listen to your own senses and not the hypebeasts. They’re not paying for your booze; you are.
From what I’ve heard, there are three batches of this Airigh Nam Beist. They were all distilled in 1990, but some were bottled in 2006, some in 2007, and the rest in 2008. After this, Dr. Rachel Barrie created the Corryvreckan to replace it.
I bought this bottle in Japan around 2014 or 15 for around $120, which was crazy expensive for whisky and me at that time. But, now reaping the rewards of being able to taste the past, it’s a small price to pay.
Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist 1990 – Review
46% ABV. Bottled 2006.
Color: Pale ale.
On the nose: An initial greeting of light but rough and enveloping pepperiness, smoke, and ashes. It’s followed by medium aromas of honeydew melon, Fuji apples, dehydrated lemon peels, ginger candy and tangerines. Behind it are light and quick aromas of lime feel, candied guava, vanilla, honey, more smoke & ashes, and nori.
In the mouth: The peat and smoke are a little bit bolder. I’m greeted by medium tastes of ginger candy, burnt nori, ashes, lime peel, dehydrated lemon peels, smoked longganisa and candied guava. In-between is a bit of creaminess which is supported by light tastes of Korean barley tea, vanilla and honey. More smoke, burnt nori, and a bit of salinity at the end.
Being distilled in 1990, this was distilled under the ownership of Allied Distillers; LVMH only bought Ardbeg and Glenmorangie in 2004. That said, I’ve always found this and the Ardbeg 17 to be fruitier than the LVMH-produced Ardbegs we get now. This fruitier than usual profile is also something I’ve tasted in the very few 1980s and the one Highgrove Laphroaig I’ve had.
I can only guess what changes happened in Islay single malt production over time. Some may say that due to this being a 15 or 16 year old peated Islay single malt, the less pronounced peat and smoke gave way to the fruits. I disagree. The well-aged peated Islay single malts I’ve had gave off more nutty flavors than fruity ones. I think the nutty notes come from the cask/s transforming the peat and smoke.
I’ll expect some violent reactions from today’s Ardbeg heads. The following is still strong. But I’ve just come to realize LVMH’s Ardbeg legacy was built on something they bought but not distilled. I feel cheated. What will you think and feel?