To paraphrase the Bard: the devil works hard, but Ardbeg Distillery’s marketing team works harder.
Every season is an excuse for a new unusual Ardbeg release. February this year saw the release of the Ardbeg Fermutation (which underwent a unnaturally long fermentation period). Fèis Ìle 2022 saw one Ardcore distilled from roasted black malt. April saw the release of the Fon Fhòid which was buried in peat bogs for several years, before being released from Singapore on the back of a NFT (which I fortunately hesitated to purchase, considering rumours of an impending crypto rout). At the rate these bottles are coming, I’m running out of f… thoughts to give.
Then there’s an even more outlandish campaign that hardcore fans couldn’t have anticipated. Ardbeg’s core range expressions now have a sci-fi graphic novel that explains their “origin stories”.
More recently, The Glenmorangie Company (which owns Ardbeg) purchased The Islay Hotel, which sits at the charming Port Ellen in an ambitious plan to create a whisky-and-hospitality experience on Islay where accommodations, food, and drink can be provided to Ardbeg fans.
Saying the sky is the limit to the imagination of Moët Hennessy’s marketers is an understatement. They are, after all, the first Scotch to be matured in space.
It goes without saying that there would be a release to mark the end of travel restrictions, as air travel returns in full force. Ardbeg’s new Smoketrails Manzanilla Travel Exclusive edition just became available for purchase in Heathrow Airport this month for the price of around £68. Thanks to the good bar manager at The Single Cask Singapore, I am probably one of the first few in the country to have a taste of this new release.
The Smoketrails collection would apparently involve Shortie – Ardbeg Distillery’s canine mascot – sourcing for good quality casks from different countries (Shortie is the Jack Russell circled in red in the promotional poster above). The first edition features classic Ardbeg cask whisky matured in American oak married with Ardbeg whisky aged in ex-Manzanilla casks sourced from Sanlúcar de Barrameda off Spain’s Atlantic Coast.
Given the sheer number of operational whisky distilleries, releasing a Manzanilla Sherry -aged whisky isn’t something particularly revolutionary these days. That said, I’d point out that amongst the main styles of Sherry, Manzanilla is one of the lightest and driest, with low sugar levels and often a tangy, yeasty, savoury character. These influences and flavours are significantly different from the more common types of rich or sweet Sherry used for whisky maturation, the likes of Oloroso or Pedro Ximénez.
Let’s get to tasting this.
Ardbeg Smoketrails Manzanilla Edition – Review
American oak casks and Sanlúcar de Barrameda Manzanilla casks, 46% ABV.
Colour: Pale gold, or sunflower oil.
On the nose: A combination of mild Ardbeggian ashiness with a fresh, light brightness with a lot of savouriness. Opens with a lively note of pomelo, dry Riesling and a slice of burnt lemon peels. At the same time there’s a distinctive toasty nuttiness to the nose. The nose develops into abundant notes of toasted Chinese black sesame (黑芝麻), roasted peanuts and almond butter. The Manzanilla seems to have imparted some oiliness and mild doughy character. I’m getting croutons and herbed sourdough bread dipped in virgin olive oil.
Very approachable nose for an Ardbeg. There’s not quite the same peaty intensity as the Ardbeg Uigeadail or Corryvreckan, not even the same level of punchiness as the Wee Beastie.
In the mouth: Fresh, oily, ashy, full of aromatic herbs. Opens with the bright tartness of Riesling accompanied by a spearmint note, somewhat like Ricola Eucalyptus drops. The texture is lightly oily and the spirit coasts the tongue. Quickly develops towards an understated ashiness as the peppery and assertive note of oregano grows and grows.
A complex aroma of freshly crushed black peppercorns eventually pervades the oral cavity; not so much the prickliness or tingly sensation, but the aromatic mustiness of black pepper. Certain impressions from the nose continue here. There’s a certain salinity here, much like Japanese wakame seaweed salad. There’s also a stronger briny, nutty olive oil note reminiscent of Italian bruschetta with pesto (grilled bread topped with garlic, olive oil, salt and tomatoes).
The finish is medium length, with light notes of lemon cake (just a hint of sweetness), once again burnt lemon peels, lively prickly spice entertaining the back palate and a trailing ham-like smokiness.
This is approachable, balanced, fairly flavourful with a couple of interesting minor chords that titillate the palate (I nosed this again and again and I couldn’t shake the image of roasted peanuts and peanut butter from my head).
Make it 5/10 for faithful Ardbeg acolytes, because it wasn’t quite the “Smoky Blast Adventure” hardcore peat heads may expect from seeing the marketing copies. Typical Ardbegs have a signature punchiness and intensity. This isn’t a classic in that sense; it does carry some of that DNA, but it is more like a pleasant soft ashiness that gets interpreted as milder notes of, say, roasted black sesame or burnt citrus.
Whisky has wider appeal now than ever before. This is arguably good news. So rather than focusing on a narrow niche of “cultists,” it’s not surprising that the legion of NAS expressions these days from Big Whisky (a term which would certainly include the likes of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg) would continue to seek broad appeal to the wider segment of whisky drinkers who prefer easier sippers.
Surely the bottom line is never far from the minds in Moët Hennessy – as Taylor noted in his hilarious review of the Ardbeg 8 Years Old For Discussion – but I do think “balance” (and, God willing, a bit of baseline quality) is a reasonable benchmark for Big Whisky producers to continue to strive for. And if my personal bottom line is met, I think I’m okay with that.