I’d like to begin with a bit of an apology for my absence. I’ve not drafted a word since the beginning of October. Social plans, holidays, day job, and a significant birthday all conspired against me. Thanks to the other Malt writers who kept the content flowing, and thanks to Taylor who is always so understanding when these things occur.
For this article I reach back to tasting notes penned at the end of September following an exceptional vertical tasting put together by the lovely husband and wife team behind WhiskyClick. Anyone seeking value whiskies these days will be aware of Ardmore. The output is popular amongst indie bottlers; the NAS Legacy graces supermarket shelves. But, there is a lot more to the spirit than being a peated dram without the “Islay premium.”
Autumn is a season where many whisky drinkers shift from the lighter, fruity Speysiders to the heavier, chunkier, and smokier single malts and blends. Often, the transition marked by the first fire in the hearth and the turning of the leaves. Ardmore certainly delivers on those deep earthy notes, along with wafts of bonfire smoke. It is perhaps lacking a little excitement – more Fair-Isle jumper to Ardbeg’s Novelty Christmas Jumper – and that’s all the better in my book.
Founded in the boom year of 1898 and greatly expanded in the boom of the 1970s, most of Ardmore’s output goes into the Teacher’s blends. However, since the launch of the Ardmore Legacy in 2014, the distillery has become far more established in the psyche of the single malt drinker. In my preparation for this article, I noticed the Legacy is a blind spot for Malt, which I hope to correct soon. Current owners Beam Suntory have managed to offset the decline in sales of Teacher’s through increases in sales of Ardmore single malt.
Ardmore does not have a visitor centre, but often tours can be facilitated via fellow Beam Suntory distillery’s visitor centre at Glen Garioch. Although many visitors during the 2022 season will have been frustrated by limited availability. That has been due to the surge in popularity of the visitor centre at Glen Garioch, which has been at maximum capacity almost all summer, leaving no spare bodies to travel to Ardmore.
Further, there have been extensive renovations at the distillery including installing two additional washbacks to aid capacity and maintain the fermentation time. Ardmore is running a seven-day-a-week operation at a maximum capacity of 4,725,000 litres.
Less well known is that Ardmore also operates to produce unpeated spirit, which is labelled Ardlair. Ardlair is produced between April and August, and therefore must represent about half the distillery output. This largely goes directly to blending, but occasionally crops up on the independent market. As for anyone who doubts they have tried Ardlair? 20% of it goes into the signature Legacy single malt, so very many will have inadvertently tried it.
The remaining Ardmore produced through autumn and winter is peated to approximately 12 to 14 ppm, giving the distillate a medium peated character, although this is sometimes boosted by the use of ex-Islay casks usually from fellow Beam Suntory distillery Laphroaig.
From this vertical tasting I’ve eight sets of notes to get through, so let’s jump right into them:
Gordon & MacPhail Ardmore Distillery Label 1996 – Review
Bottled 2013. 43% ABV. £75 to £100.
On the nose: Soft, fruity, with light smoke; noses like some classic peated Speyside blends. Very sophisticated, some white fruits, brown sugar, some dunnage notes, the kind of nose you can enjoy for a long time before drinking.
In the mouth: Soft smoke, malty, and biscuity, followed by apricot jam smothered on a custard cream biscuit. More smoke, then a little spicy peat. Rewards being held in the mouth; more custard cream on the finish, with some balanced peat and wood spice.
Firstly, a word of caution: if looking for a bottle, the G&M Distillery label series varies from release to release. so you need to watch carefully for the exact vintage and age if you are trying to find a particular batch.
There is a lot of flavour for the price point, though this will be difficult to track down now. More generally: 43% from G&M can be great whisky that rewards the patient, and whilst there are those – including Ralfy and Roy/Aqvavitae – who are strong advocates of 46%+ being a minimum bottling strength, I would argue that great whisky will stand up flavour-wise all the way down to 40%.
Ardmore 20 Year Old – Review
Official bottling. First fill bourbon and ex-Islay casks, 1996 to 2017. 49.3% ABV. £100. Previously reviewed on Malt by Adam Wells in 2017 when this cost just £55.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Quite soft and fruity; wood smoke and some damp leaves on a bonfire, stone fruit, nectarine, flaky sweet pastry. Very fine balance of smoke and fruit.
In the mouth: Sweet toffee and vanilla, wood smoke, muted fruit comes with peach and nectarine, gooseberry tartness, warm caramel, a slight gluiness, sharp spicy peat, a hint of iodine, oaky wood spices, a little tannic on the lingering finish.
A lot of delicious layers of flavour coming from the careful cask selection, but the woody mainland peat and more medicinal Islay peat clash a little.
Ardmore 30 Year Old Double Cask Matured – Review
Refill bourbon plus first-fill bourbon cask. 1987-2018. 47.2% ABV. £300.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Very sophisticated from the off; vibrant juicy fruit, ripe bruised apples and pears, plum flesh, a bit of dusty vanilla, ripe melon, just a flash of wood smoke. Makes ones mouth water.
In the mouth: Sweet soft fruit; apricots and custard, sweet pastry, tart orange sorbet, rich species, toasted oats, toasted coconut, ripe pear, a waft of woody smoke up the back of the nose, lingering warming wood spices and spicy peat harmonious on the long finish.
A really well-balanced and sophisticated dram. The palate is better than the nose, which is just how it should be.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society Ardmore “Smoky Dark Cajun Roux” – Review
First fill STR ex-oloroso barrique finish. 23 years old (1997). 49.2% ABV. £200.
On the nose: Fruity baked apple, BBQ pineapple, roasted nectarine with honey, toasted oak, Brûlée tops, apple crumble; the spirit appears to hold up well from the activated cask, dusty vanilla and toffee sauce.
In the mouth: Sweet non-descript flavour developing into thick fruity caramel, dates, tannic oak, and smoky peat, yeast extract, fig rolls, mint polos, smoked ham soup, numbing tannins, and peat spices on the finish.
A big punchy dram, pricy, but a little simple, modern whisky for fans of maximum-flavour at all costs. This is probably a decent whisky underneath the cask.
Jack Weibers Whisky World Ardmore Saxon Elbe Valley Station Limited Edition No. 4 – Review
8 years old (2011 to 2020). 49.3% ABV. £80.
Colour: Sun bleached straw.
On the nose: Buttery and malty, yeasty craft lager, more prominent smoke, lemon peel, vanilla shortbread biscuit.
In the mouth: Malty and buttery with oaky smoke and spicy prickly peat; there is a juiciness underlying which is fruity, before a big smoky finish with some peppery spice.
Fine and tasty, not bad at all. A little tall on the price at £10/year, being at the premium end. Would finish a bottle all the same.
Signatory Vintage Ardlair distilled at Ardmore 10 Years Old – Review
Refill sherry butt, 2011 to 2021. 66.1% ABV. £70.
On the nose: Bright and sweet; Tunnock’s caramel wafer, dry dusty ash in the background, squashed raisins, fig rolls from the sherry, some burnt sugar and over baked biscuits, a little sulphurous struck match.
In the mouth: Thick and rich, sweet aromatic sulphur, a sharp bitter note, then more familiar sherry fruit notes including dates. Milk chocolate, more sulphur, and a toasted oak note. Some banana appears with water, the finish is black pepper and chilli flakes, smoked chipotle, and some ash.
It’s very unbalanced and the sherry cask is a little harsh; it is not letting the delicate spirit shine through… BUT! For me there is something really enjoyable about this dram, almost a guilty pleasure kind of thing, it’s a bit filthy and a bit of fun. This is only my second Ardlair but to say it’s unpeated would be incorrect. I rather wonder if the casks filled after the change over from Ardmore to Ardlair, that are still quite peaty, are pushed out to indie bottlers, as they are neither one thing nor another. Interesting, fun dram.
Ardmore Hidden Spirits 17 Years Old – Review
Ex bourbon cask AM219, 2002 to 2019. 52.7% ABV. £175.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Smoky with a hint of burnt plastic, a fruity-plastic estery funk takes my mind to Hampden Rum from Jamaica, but does not become juicy enough for such a comparison. Dry ash, some lemon sherbet, and a Swizzle stick
In the mouth: Flat soft smoke, damp cardboard, some flat sweet wine, then damp smoke, wet coal, soft gingerbread, buttercream frosting; a little effervescent brightness in the end is a saving grace.
This Ardmore has a bit of a reputation for being good, but it didn’t land with me at all. That’s unexpected, as on paper it should have been great. Minus a point for the price giving just…
Ardmore Morisco Spirit (Italian Release) – Review
Second fill Koval Barrel, 2009 – 2021. 52.1% ABV. £85.
On the nose: Rounded woody, a little dusty rye spice, American oak evident immediately, juicy vanilla, chewy toffee, foam shrimps more oaky spice.
In the mouth: ashy smoky and spicy peat followed by sweet buttery malt, vanilla and spice build on the tongue. Fresh green chilli, salty brine, the spice from the wood and peat linger on the finish.
The cask is very active despite being a second fill it’s almost like a virgin oak cask. It’s a nice change and unusual treatment from for a familiar spirit.
Note: up-to-date information on Ardmore obtained from the excellent 2023 Edition of the Malt Whisky Yearbook (provided by them, free of cost), a must have publication for any self-respecting whisky geek. https://www.maltwhiskyyearbook.com/