Ardbeg was founded in 1815 by the McDougall family and rapidly grew into a smalcommunity along the SE coast of the Isle of Islay as the demand for whisky for blends increased in the 18th Century. The distillery has been mothballed several times in its history, and only just saved from demolition once. The distillery was completely closed between 1981 and 1989, and only open for 2 months each year from 1989 through to 1996. Despite its global cult status as a 'talisman brand' Ardbeg is fairly small on the production side of things.
The limited release Ardbeg Alligator was launched towards the end of 2011, taking its name from the inside of heavily scorched barrels which begin to crack and peel into a rough, but shiny pattern that looks rather similar to alligator scales. Originally released for the Ardbeg Committee and in a general release ‘Untamed’ form (though both at 51.2% ABV), both versions are now long consigned to auction.
The marketing campaign behind the launch of An Oa drew much derision - possibly unfairly. Whilst certainly twee and old fashioned, it at least felt somewhat grounded. Perhaps having seen an Icarus-like birdman (frankly missing a trick not employing Brian Blessed) from Macallan, folks might look back on An Oa’s promo a little more kindly. At the very least, it got people talking.
Whilst cats are supposedly curious creatures, it is humans who are the ones hardwired to be inquisitive (though apparently sheep can be inquisitive also – who knew). And whisky fans are most certainly an inquiring bunch. As soon as a bottle hits the shelves, enthusiasts are already scanning the horizon for the next release….and the one after that. And if you work for a distillery, you better get used to the bombardment of appeals. What’s next? When will that cask be ready for release? What will you be doing in a decade’s time? But for all the bleating, it’s often in the industry’s interest to indulge these investigations – the hype train requires constant fuelling.
It’s rare for a distillery’s character to remain completely unchanged over generations. New managers put their own spin on things, production regimes and casks availability changes, and the desires and tastes of the market shift and adapt. Since I began my whisky journey some 20 years ago, the overarching profile of Ardbeg has developed during that time - from fruits supported by peat, to peat, possibly supported by fruit.
Ardbeg is a divisive whisky. Its profile does not suit all tastes, and over the years my wife has developed a particular (disapproving) facial expression for when the heavily peated spirit in in my glass. Similarly, it’s divisive for fans - new entrants scrabbling over each other in a bottle stampede, piles of limited releases flipped immediately, and old-timers (who remember the dearth of production in the mid 90’s) bemoaning what they see as falling standards and an increasing number of streamlined, ‘beginner’ flavour profiles. And then there’s the marketing…
If history has repeated itself today will be irksome. It used to be so straight-forward – a simple case of being in the right place at the right time with a modicum of patience. But, over the years the sadists at LVMH seem to take increasingly glee in making the Ardbeg Day Committee release as painful as possible. 2018’s was about as un-groovy as they come – an obvious window where more website bandwidth would be required to sate the demands of a baying Ardbeggian mob - but little bandwidth was forthcoming. Many 404’s were displayed. Many heads were banged against walls. But, here I am once again, locked in my own perpetual cycle awaiting the release of Ardbeg Drum.
The advent of the 21st Century sparked a peated arms race. Both greater demand for smoky Islay whiskies in general, and the presentation of phenolic content (as measured by parts per million – PPM) on bottles/packaging has led to an escalation in distilleries producing particularly heavily peated expressions, and promoting these liquids based around listing high PPM values. Peat obsessed enthusiasts have by and large lapped this up – like moths to a candle. Ardbeg’s Supernova – first released in 2008 (as a Committee bottling) was probably my first experience of the emerging ‘super heavily peated’ category. Peated to 100 PPM rather than Ardbeg’s more usual 50-55 PPM, the early Supernova releases have become unicorns – now seldom seen and commanding eye-watering prices on the secondary market.
Ardbeg Uigeadail almost needs no introduction - but every post needs some form of starting point, so I’ll try my best. The original batch of Uigeadail was supposedly released on 9th October 2003 - around a similar time that Committee members were reviewing the first mature spirit produced under Glenmorangie’s ownership - Ardbeg Very Young 1998.
Every pursuit, hobby and industry has bad actors and - let’s be quite clear - in virtually all cases these are a vocal minority. Whisky is no different in that regard. Day-to-day most enthusiasts go about their dramming with good humour and in many instances a superlative amount of modesty and compassion. Well-meant advice, fair-minded dram shares, and acts of pure charity that remind you that community is still the beating heart of the whisky world. It’s nice to be nice. But at the same time – over the past five years – and exponentially exacerbated over the last four months – there’s a growing contagion of self-importance that to my mind is starting to cut far deeper than the long-standing and misguided condescension for ice or mixers.
It surprises me how impatient whisky fans can be. Despite every facet of the creation and appreciation of whisky requiring some degree of patience – enthusiasts often revert to the allure of instant gratification. Distillation takes times, maturation takes considerably longer and even waiting for a dram to properly unravel in a glass can be an exercise in restraint – but woe betide you if you leave an enthusiast waiting too long for their new release fix.
It occurred to me over the weekend that despite heading towards 700 tasting notes and musings, that there are still some obvious bottlings that The Dramble has yet to write about. Walking through the aisle of my local supermarket I spotted the familiar green glass of Ardbeg, which served as a timely reminder that I’ve yet to cover this much loved (and relatively recently expanded) distillery core range. So, this week, we’ll right that wrong and log our musings on the four bottles that make up the Ardbeg ‘ultimate range’.
It seems that additions to the Ardbeg core range are like buses – nothing for ages, then two in quick succession. I first saw mutterings of a new age-statement Ardbeg about a month ago – then a few weeks back someone found (and promptly shared) the officially registered bottle label hosted on the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s website. But, it wasn’t until yesterday’s formal announcement that it because clear that Ardbeg 19 year old Traigh Bhan would be a permanent addition to the distillery’s expanded range – An Oa released back in 2017 offered something of a new entry point (outside of the stalwart 10 year old). Now there’s a bottling at the upper echelons of the distillery’s core range.
Buying a whole cask of whisky is an aspiration for many enthusiasts. Alas, the huge growth in the industry has meant that many of the larger (and more popular) distilleries have all but halted private cask sales – nowadays, your best bet for purchasing a cask is probably via one of the new up and coming distilleries (or indeed perhaps via Arran) who require the initial investment that early cask sales can provide to keep their operations running until their malt spirit has fully matured into a commercially viable product.
If there’s one thing I hate more than chasing bottles, it’s the failure to secure said bottles. It comes with the territory – despite my father sometimes wondering if I’m playing whisky Pokemon (gotta catch em all), there are always releases which simply slip through my fingers. Ballot disappointments, a lack of fastest-finger-first or just a failing to keep abreast of what is being released when. Over time, I’ve had to learn to just let these bottlings go. You can’t catch em all – it’s either folly or a full-time job to try to do so. But, that’s not always the case for many people – and it’s part of what fuels the secondary market. Whisky FOMO is very real.
The history of Ardbeg is not a story of plain sailing. Closures and periods of low production were a feature of the distillery which has become rather the talisman for peat-heads worldwide. When you arrive at Ardbeg you'll see a huge gleaming copper pot still, and a giant fake dinosaur head. Ardbeg try not to do things normally.
Fan-favourite Ardbeg comes around again for its 135th SMWS bottling. This youthful expression is 9 years old, having been matured in a 2nd fill oloroso sherry butt. Sherry butts are big, so this is one of 606 bottles. Peated Profile.
Guaranteed to sell out in a flash, this Show special Ardbeg was matured in a single ex-bourbon hogshead for 20 years before being bottled at 57.2% ABV. The label ‘An Ever-changing World of Order’ shows a mechanised ‘whisky factory’ which features machines doing all of the work (lifting, moving, disgorging and bottling) that previously humans would have undertaken. Judgement day approaches.