Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Apotheosis of Ardbeg

Ardbeg these days is regarded by some reviewers as a distillery hitting its stride and producing some of the finest whisky in the world. In particular, Jim Murray's 2010 Whisky Bible rates the whole current peated lineup quite highly. (Note that he had not yet reviewed the Rollercoaster, and I have not yet tasted the Blasda, a very lightly peated whisky, and so will say nothing else about it today).

Jim says of the 10 that it "...goes down so beautifully with such a nimble touch and disarming allure..." That's the ten, their least expensive bottling. The 10 rates a 97 in Murray's estimation, the same rating he gives the Supernova. The Corryvreckan, at 96.5, he calls "...slumping-in-the-chair stuff... simply brilliant." The Uigeadail, which he gives a 97.5, he calls "quite simple: perfect."

The distinction between these scores may start to seem like an administrative detail, but it highlights a truth some readers may find a bit uncomfortable, and an important point that I will make once and then come back to in several different ways: the differences between these bottlings are of much less importance than their similarities. What I'm really saying here is that Ardbeg, with these bottlings, has mostly released an excellent whisky in such a way that they have also activated every whisky geek's inner Pokemon Master. The theme music is playing: you wanna be (or taste) the very best? You've gotta catch 'em all!

People who pick one to taste will simply not go wrong (assuming they have a basic taste for peated Islay whisky, of course). Nerds who, like me, make a near-fetish of flavors will be in nerd heaven blissfully, and slightly drunkenly, cataloging their differences and similarities and promoting their favorite and dismissing their least favorite in a frenzied expression of the narcissism of small differences. Ardbeg's marketing here is clearly brilliant in every respect, including their packaging and even their label design and typography, which is both classy and extremely clever, full of visual puns (like the way the "beast" has charged right through the border, and the Corryvreckan name is being sucked into a vortex, and the way the flavor "stars" form a "constellation" on the stellar Supernoval label). The only down side I can see: they may lose a potential Ardbeg fan who looks at the lineup and can't be bothered to decide, and choses instead to go with a distillery whose offerings are more clearly differentiated.

OK, still with me? Are you in violent disagreement, or nodding your head so far? All that said, let's quickly review these bottlings. You can read longer reviews elsewhere; you can read my own long review of the Rollercoaster on this blog. For now let's try to get quickly to the point.

Ardbeg 10 (46.0% ABV) is the best bang-for-the-buck of the lot. It is very roughly comparable to another young Islay whisky, the Laphroaig 10, which it somewhat resembles. Where Laphroaig's citrus note tends towards a bitter-ish orange, Ardbeg's tends towards lime. I have no idea why this would be so -- Arran's citrus note, by the way, is more lemony -- but it probably has something to do with the shape of the still. The 10 is very fine stuff, with rich, saliva-inducing, "chewy" barley notes, that fine clean lime, and of course a healthy dose of smoke. It has a little bit of the salt and smoked fish that shows up in pretty much the whole lineup. If you like Islay whisky, you can't really go wrong with this bottling. I rate it an A.

If you haven't tasted a peaty Islay whisky before, but feel like you want to try, the Ardbeg 10 would be a great starting point. Just remember to taste it on at least 3 or 4 separate evenings before you decide if you really like Islay whisky or not. It seems to take people a few tries to really ones taste buds "calibrated" and capable of tasting the other flavors in the presence of the peaty notes. (But you may find that once you've gone through that "calibration," Islay flavors really grow on you!)

Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist (46% ABV) (it's pronounced just like it is spelled -- that's a little joke, son) is a limited edition 16-year-old whisky, bottled in 1990, and now may be a bit hard to find. I reviewed it some time ago, before spinning my beverage reviews off to this blog. It is, perhaps, very roughly comparable to the Lagavulin 16, although given that the house styles are quite different, that isn't truly a fair comparison. It is a bit "meatier" than the 10, with more smoked bacon notes, and the extra aging has imparted a little more vanilla and oaky spices (maybe a touch of cloves, maybe a touch of ginger). I rate it an A-. If you come across a bottle on the shelf it is worth picking up, but I wouldn't pay collector's prices for it or go out of your way to track it down.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan (57.1% ABV) seems to replace, at least indirectly, the Beist in the Ardbeg lineup; it started out as a limited edition Committee bottling, but now seems to have become a standard. It is similar, but younger, and so slightly fruitier, with a huge array of flavor notes, among them malty flavors (fudge, shortbread), that "tarry ropes" note, and, I kid you not, hot chili sauce. It has some of the toasted-nut flavors that I love in the Rollercoaster -- in particular, I get a nice flavor of slightly burnt toasted pecans. The difference between the 10 and the Corryvreckan is kinda-sorta like the difference between the Laphroaig 10 and the Quarter Cask: the Quarter Cask simply has more wood character and more depth of flavor. Complex and pungent. A+.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2% ABV) is a whisky that includes some sherry cask influence. Jim Murray calls this one a little more "cerebral" than the other members of the Ardbeg lineup, and he's right. The flavors aren't quite as in-your-face -- but that's not to say there isn't a lot of flavor to study here, particularly juniper, smoked kippers, caraway, butter, candied ginger, and pine needles. It has a fantastic oily texture. It is very roughly comparable, perhaps, to the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition, which also has a fantastically complex nose. This one really is for quiet, possibly solo, contemplation. I wrote a more extensive review over at Connosr, condensed from a longer original version, and much of the flavor notes I pointed out in the Uigeadail would apply to other Ardbeg bottlings as well. A+ as well.

The Ardbeg Rollercoaster (57.3% ABV) I've also already reviewed. I've been going on about how these whiskies are variations on a theme, and not so very different, and so perhaps it is not truly worth your hard-earned money to buy them all -- but with the Rollercoaster I have to break down and say that, yes, this one is a little different. Some of the young-ish flavors in it are very roughly comparable to the Caol Ila "unpeated style" 10, but only very roughly. Among the notes I get from it are hazelnut, almond, bubble gum, apple, fried green tomatoes, and spearmint. A limited release, unbelievably complex in flavor, and, interestingly, containing some extremely young whisky, some of it just three years old. Jim Murray applies phrases like "your whisky-drinking experience is not complete until you taste this one" to a number of different whiskies, but in this case I must say that, yes, I really think that if you like Islay whisky, you, you personally, should get a bottle of the Rollercoaster with all due haste, if you can still find one, and taste it. Slowly. It really is one of those taste experiences that is likely to be imprinted on your brain; you will look back, years from now and remember where you were and what you were doing when you first tasted Ardbeg Rollercoaster. A+.

Ardbeg Supernova (58.9% ABV) is billed as one of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world. This is slightly deceptive, and, I fear, might be off-putting. It put me off -- in fact, I put off trying it for some time because I was expecting an enormously phenolic, explosively peaty flavor. But while the phenol numbers are laughably high, it would be a mistake to think of this whisky as some kind of exotic outlier in the Ardbeg family. Five times the peat doesn't result in whisky that is five times "stronger," or it would probably eat through the bottle. Ones ability to detect levels of flavors probably follows a logarithmic, rather than linear, progression. After tasting all these Ardbegs, I've become pretty confident that Ardbeg would likely not risk the reputation for quality they've established by using their marketing materials to sell "stunt whisky" that was actually mediocre. So, it is quality whisky -- but will it appeal to you?

It seems to be closer to the Rollercoaster than the Corryvreckan, and it must have some very young casks in it. But the peat flavors, and the ABV, are both more intense. It's not all about smoke, though; it's oily, and actually somewhat sweet and nutty, under those thick waves of hickory smoke. It reminds me strongly of hickory-smoked almonds, or even mackerel grilled on a hickory plank, with a barley sweetness that is almost like the sweet and salty miso- and maple-infused sauce you might find on such a dish.

I still can't decide exactly how much I like this whisky. It's a bit enigmatic. It certainly invites further study, although after tasting small drams on three separate nights it still remains a somewhat inscrutable. It's probably not for everyone. It's almost 120 proof. There is more going on in the nose and palate, but at full strength, has an effect on the palate not entirely unlike Listerine -- a numbing heat that can leave me fearing that it might actually be burning holes in my tongue.

Adding a bit of water seems to make it easier to actually taste the flavors, but I still find it hard to separate them them from all that peat. I get bitter licorice, of the salty style, and asparagus-like vegetal flavors, and the black pepper that the official tasting notes mention -- but the floral and herbal and fruity notes are all packed too tightly together for me to distinguish under all that smoke. I'll try again next time, but I find myself thinking that whisky shouldn't be this hard to enjoy, and perhaps the peating level and ABV are actually dimishing, rather than intensify, the availability on the palate of the usual complex of intriguing Ardbeg flavors.

Whether you're happy with the intense flavors that are there, or feel cheated by the lost complexity, is probably very much a matter of individual taste, and reviews I've seen tend to follow a strongly bimodal distribution (either quite positive or quite negative), which is not something I tended to see at all in reviews of a less controversial whisky like the 10 or the Uigeadail.

Keeping all this in mind, I'm going to give the Supernova a somewhat provisional letter grade of A- for now. And the 2010 Supernova, even peatier and, at 60.1% ABV, even higher in alcohol, I have not purchased and tasted yet -- and may not.

So, let's say you haven't tried any of these. What would I advise?

If you're on a budget -- and do some serious soul-searching here, folks; it's whisky, not food or housing; don't punish your future self by going into debt for it -- save up for the 10 and enjoy the hell out of it. It's really good whisky. Some of the best in the world, in fact.

If you want something a little more complex and you'd like to taste what is, in my opinion, pretty much the best example of the peated Ardbeg style, and one of the absolute best Islay whiskies, pick up the Corryvreckan.

If my description of the Rollercoaster sounds appealing, and you're up for a younger whisky with a very high alcohol content and a hugely complex flavor profile, track down a bottle the Rollercoaster immediately. I don't know whether the Rollercoaster is going to become an annual release, or whether there might be future editions, but by design it is quite distinctive, and so I can only speak for this one bottling -- which may be pretty much gone by now. And so far, I've never tasted anything quite this complex -- like a maze of flavors that you can get lost in.

If you like sherry cask influence and Islay, and really like to study a whisky, the Uigeadail is absolutely the way to go. It's the best example out there of a "marriage" between wine cask flavors and Islay flavors -- all the other bottlings I've tasted that attempt to achieve this mix, such as Caol Ila and Lagavulin Distiller's Editions, don't succeed as well.

I'd call the Uigeadail a very "serious" whisky, a little restrained and sophisticated, designed to be appreciated by slightly older folks who no longer want to attend hot sauce tastings, who may no longer be flavor "thrill-seekers," as it were, and who have trained their palates a bit on dry wines, basic but flavorful food such as game braised with herbs, and appreciate a good sherry. It may seem silly to talk about the "world's best whisky," as if there were any possibility that tasters the world over could agree on a style, much less a bottling, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Uigeadail is on that top shelf, on that slightly other-worldy, rarefied plane, and is one of the very finest bottlings of whisky of any region or style, period.

The Supernova can be considered, I think, mostly an especially costly and extra-pungent variant of the Rollercoaster; or perhaps you might think of the Rollercoaster as a limited-edition "Supernova Light." I may wind up changing my opinion when I've tasted it a few more times, but I have not convinced myself that the Supernova is worth the extra money. (Here in Michigan, it's a lot more money -- the Corry runs in the $80 range, and the Supernova, if you can still find a bottle, runs in the $130 range). Some folks will not buy it at all on because of the price, either because they really can't afford it, or as a sort of protest against Ardbeg's pricing, an I can certainly respect either of those positions.

The Airigh Nam Beist is quite good -- in fact, some Ardbeg fans are unhappy to see it run out. If you come across a bottle, and you have the money on hand, it is certainly worth buying -- however, I wouldn't recommend paying collector prices or bending over backwards to get a bottle. It's nice to taste an older Ardbeg. I think the particular flavor qualities of this 16-year-old whisky suggests strongly that there is still room for an older Ardbeg in their regular lineup, perhaps in the 14-17 year range, especially given that their 25-year-old Lord of the Isles is very expensive and scarce.

Even though Ardbeg has spent the last several years proving that whiskies without age statements can be blockbusters, I expect to see one arrive eventually. I've never tasted it, but I've heard that their late and much-lamented 17 was quite good. I think the distillery has very handily turned what to some would seem a liability -- a lack of middle-aged casks in the warehouse -- and instead, with a combination of great blending and very clever marketing, turned it into gold. But there still is room for a whisky that is hitting what I consider to be the aging "sweet spot" of about 15 years. So far, I have not been convinced that whiskies older than that are, in general, worth the usual price premium they command -- although I have tasted a few exceptions.

I should caution you that it is fairly pointless to try to taste more than one or possibly two of these in any one tasting session: the high ABV and high peat levels will generally tend to confound and even nearly disable your taste buds, to the point where you can no longer distinguish delicate notes. If you decide to taste them all I recommend that you taste them on multiple evenings and take notes. Give yourself a quiet hour each night, and sip very slowly. To get the most out of a bottling, you will want to taste it multiple times, perhaps at least three! And take a day or two off to let your taste buds (and your liver) recover from the alcohol, and from some of those slightly numbing phenols.

I welcome your comments.

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