Monday, July 12, 2010

Ardbeg Rollercoaster (2009 Bottling)

The Rollercoaster, per the bottle's label, was created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee. Full disclosure: I am a member of the Ardbeg Committee. (All you have to do is sign up on their web site). They sent me a nice little promotional packet with a satirical rule book. I think Committee members can get any special bottlings shipped to the United Stages, though. And I don't get free samples from anyone.

Ardbeg was closed in 1981, and distilled in limited quantities from 1989-1996. It came back to full production in 1997 under the new ownership of Glenmorangie, and the Committee (basically, the Ardbeg fan club) was founded in 1999. This means that there is a dearth of Ardbeg older than 12 years, which helps to explain why the Corryvreckan, Uigeadail, and Supernova have no age statements. Oddly, since age statements represent only a minimum -- they may have whisky of wildly different ages in them. And since an age statement is only a minimum, not a maximum, we may be in a situation where the 10 contains some whisky that is much older. I wonder if the distillery will re-introduce regular bottlings with age statements as they gradually build up stocks of older casks, or does the success of their bottlings with no age statements prove that flavor, not age, is what matters?

Anyway, back to the Rollercoaster. This one is not packaged in a box, but comes with a little booklet hung from the neck. The booklet details how the Rollercoaster consists of Ardbeg from 1997 to 2006 -- so the youngest whisky was, at the time of bottling, just 3 years old, which is the youngest it can legally be and still get called Scotch Whisky! (Technically, I think it has to be 3 years and a day). So, per the label, 5.4% of this bottle is almost new make spirit.

The official tasting notes are kind of mind-boggling. Each year's contribution is described in the little booklet; the descriptions range far afield from the the usual toffee and citrus notes to include some more exotic ones: "beeswax, soy sauce" (1998), "black cherries" (1999), "coriander leaves" (2000), "almonds, smoked fish, carbolic soap" (2001), "Tabasco" (2002), "asparagus" (2004), "diesel" (2005), and "fish pie (mussels, lobster, potatoes)" (2006).

Well, that's a lot to take in, and given that all these are blended, a lot to nose and taste in one glass. So, I don't think it will be a shock to say that I can't taste all those notes in this whisky, at least not in one tasting. But that doesn't mean it isn't very good and very rich in flavors. To my untrained palate, the notes all blend together in an enormously delicious "flavor bomb" that is initially quite hard to dismantle -- you just want to enjoy it, not analyze it! I will do what I can to take those flavors apart. But I can tell you this for sure: the Rollercoaster is not your typical Ardbeg!

This Ardbeg is quite pale in the glass: a light straw color. The legs are very short and runny. Bottled at 57.3% ABV, the casks are all probably vatted together cask strength, or so close as to make very little difference. That's great for flavors, but murder on the head. Ardbeg's site advises us to drink responsibly, and I generally try to -- but the wonderful flavor complexity of this whisky is a big, big incentive not to. I first tasted this one at bedtime. I almost never drink more than a single, modest dram, but this whisky was so appealing in flavor that I sipped and nosed my way through two, and they were closer to bar-sized.

Anyway, to make a long story short, two drams required that I go lie down before I fell down. I decided to just give in to the inevitable and go to bed, and woke up quite hung over. I don't know if that is just the alcohol content itself, or might also have something to do with the youth of the whisky, the undigested sugars, or some compounds from the raw distillate that are not as broken down by the aging process as they might otherwise be. Anyway, proceed with caution!

On the nose, the trademark peat and smoke is quite light, reminding me more of a young Laphroaig than an Ardbeg. The smoke is wood smoke -- maybe pine? There are vanilla notes, and iodine seaweed notes, and some smoked sturgeon, but in particular this whisky gives up a lot of delicate nut and fruit aromas. I am strongly reminded of a hazelnut liqueur called Frangelico, and also of Amaretto (almond liqueur). It also reminds me a little bit of Bunnahabhain 12: oily, nutty aromas and vanilla nougat (a Pay Day candy bar, or a Pearson's Salted Nut Roll). The high ABV burns the sinuses a bit, but those toasted nut aromas keep bringing my nose back to the glass.

On the palate, the sinus-burning heat is moderated and it warms but does not burn the throat. That smoke flows around the tongue almost like smoke around a plane fuselage in a wind tunnel, seemingly barely even landing on it. I taste some kind of undefinable tutti-frutti (bubble gum) or fruit cocktail that is hard to tease apart, but there are definitely apples and pears, and white grapes. There is something that could be fried green tomatoes. There are those wonderful nut flavors, Wrigley's spearmint gum, ground cayenne pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. That very light smoke prowls around in the background like a bat hunting mosquitoes on a hot summer night right at dusk, making a little noise and movement every once in a while just to remind you it is there. It's all so wonderfully light. The texture is indeed a little waxy -- tongue-coating, but in an appealing way.

This is A+ stuff. The palate really lives up to the nose. The finish is quite long and warm and it is those delicious nut flavors, reminding me of pecan pie, that dominates, but there are also some of those spicy cayenne pepper flavors. In other words, the balance between the nose, palate, and finish is just wonderful. Despite the burn in the sinuses and the high ABV, I just can't bear the thought of watering it, so you'll have to try that experiment yourself. Just remind yourself to take a small serving and go slow, or the Rollercoaster may make you a little dizzy!


  1. 57.3%? Yep, that's "Murder on the head"! What's it like with a little water added?

  2. I said "I can't bear the thought of watering it" but I'm happy to do the experiment since it gives me a reason to drink some more Rollercoaster...

    Let's see, if I want to change a 57.3% solution of alcohol down to about, say, a more sober 45%... errr, at 57.3%, 2 oz. of Rollercoaster would have about 1.15 oz. of alcohol. Hmmm...*+(573+/+1000)+%3D+x+oz.+*+(450+/+1000)

    Alpha says 191/75, which is close to 2.54667, so add about a quarter of the starting volume again in water.

    Hmmm... now I'm off on a tangent...

    To take x oz. of whisky at a% and convert it to y oz. of whisky at b% and give y - x oz. (how much water, in ounces, to add) the formula looks something like this:

    z = ( x oz. * a% / b% ) - ( y oz. * b% / a% )

    Replace the y values on the right:

    z = ( x oz. * a% / b% ) - ( ( x oz. * a% / b% ) * b% / a% )

    z = (ax - bx) / b (where b != 0, obviously)

    z = (0.573 * 2 - 0.45 * 2) / 0.45

    (I hope that's right... Alpha is only as smart as the stupidity of my input... but Steven Wolfram and his army of very expensive servers and programmers and millions of lines of code say we add .546667 oz. of water. Money well spent, in my opinion! Next time I will try it with my slide rule...)

    (Somewhere one of my math teachers is either smiling or sadly shaking his head...)

    Anyway, the nose becomes more smoky and smoked-fishy, more like the Ardbeg Uigeadail. On the palate the malty and sweet flavors are killed a bit and the nut flavors are more liked smoked cocktail almonds and sweetened shredded coconut now. That chili spiciness becomes more intense, as if I added a squirt of hot sauce. Strangely, as whiskies sometimes do, when you add water it gets "hotter" and more warming on the finish. It's good both ways, actually... another mark of an excellent whisky!

  3. Oh, in case anyone missed it, we have a general formula:

    z = (ax - bx) / b


    z = amount of water to add

    a is the starting percentage as a fraction

    b is the desired percentage as a fraction

    x is the starting volume of whisky.

    This works for ounces or milliliters or gallons or whatever; it does not take into account the strange volume reduction of ethanol mixed with water: see which says "Ethanol-water mixtures have less volume than the sum of their individual components at the given fractions. Mixing equal volumes of ethanol and water results in only 1.92 volumes of mixture."

    If you followed all this, have another drink...