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.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Traigh Bhan is that it has been announced as a ‘limited batch produced whisky produced on an annual basis’. The Dramble has written about batch variation a number of times, and if you look elsewhere on the interwebs, you’ll find that folks believe that Ardbeg have something of a reputation for inconsistency across their bottlings over the last 20 years.
Traigh Bhan heads this allegation off at the pass by letting everyone know that they’re not even going to attempt to maintain the stability of the product. Indeed, this is being pitched as something of a selling point - “The whisky’s recipe is set to change with each batch, creating ‘subtle differences’ between future iterations.” I admire the openness and honesty here. Managing the constancy of 19 year old product without digging too deeply into your cask reserves is no easy task – by indicating that the composition will vary each year Ardbeg have both acknowledged this, and teased fans into considering an annual purchase – which, no doubt many of them will do. Clever but honest marketing. I like it.
Age-statement Ardbegs are not as great white buffalo as they might seem at a glance. Whilst recent releases have by and large focussed on the 20-something moniker, if you cast your mind back a bit you’ll find the 21 year old and Galileo (12 years old). If you’re even longer in the tooth you might remember Lord of the Isles (25 years old) and Serendipity (12 years old). But, to find the last permanent age-statement Ardbeg you have to travel back further in time to 1997’s release of Ardbeg 17 year old.
Ardbeg 17 year old was part of the distillery’s range until 2004 when it was effectively phased out for the release of Airigh Nam Beist. It was interestingly produced in two versions – 40% ABV for 75cl bottles and miniatures and 43% ABV for 75cl (US market) and litre bottles. The expression, is now far from easy (read cheap) to obtain. You can expect to pay close to £300 (plus fees) for a bottle at current auction prices. Or, if you don’t want to wait for a listing and can’t stand the bun fight – double that price for a bottle from a retailer such as The Whisky Exchange. It would probably gall some of you to learn that when the 17 year old was first released in 1997 its RRP was a mere £29.99. How times change.
Ardbeg 17 year old is something of an oddity in the distillery’s range in that it was created with a much quieter peat profile (I read through the addition of some unpeated malt) than all other bottlings – perhaps save for Blasda (which was peated to a mere 8ppm). Our bottle hails from 2001 (bottle code L1). Those interested in dating Ardbeg bottles should visit the Ardbeg Project’s Code page for a seriously detailed breakdown of the 12 digit codes. As a UK bottle at 70cl size the ABV is the surprisingly paltry 40%.
Nose: Bright, fruity and coastal, but at the same time restrained and elegant. Preserved lemons, pancakes sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with lemon juice and an assortment of fruit tea infusions are joined by bundles of fresh tobacco leaves, green leaves and newly patented leather. Seashells hark to the coast, whilst engine oil, brass polish and petroleum jelly provide an industrious edge. Wispy peat smoke – part quartz and mineral, part medicinal – is joined by candle wax, unscented soap bars and metal shavings. In the background, buttered bread and golden barley.
Taste: Oils and waxes on arrival – about as good as 40% ABV can feel texture-wise. Bright lemons and grapefruit segments move into wild honey and barley before offering brass polish and a combination of sweet and salt. Smoke is still controlled – antiseptic ointment, and hospital cleaner - fine, delicate and sympathetic. Beach sand, shingle and gravel steadily develop into coal dust and then soot. White pepper and nettle tea offer light herbal spicing whilst homemade lemonade and something akin to mezcal delivers a bright but sophisticated sharpness.
Finish: Medium in length with lemon balm, white pepper, buttered scones and touches of hewn chalky cliffs.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Ardbeg 17 year old is a very different kind of proposition to the modern heavily peated intensity offered by the distillery. The softer approach seems more controlled and restrained that Ardbeg’s DNA suggests….and, indeed it is, but the result here is classy, cultured and seriously drinkable. Dangerously so at current prices. I can’t think of the last time that 40% ABV felt so textured and fulsome. Ardbeg tamed. We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.
But don't take our word for it..
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