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.
Nevertheless, you’ll still often see private cask bottlings for sale either personally, or via auction sites. Whilst the idea of owning a whole cask of whisky seems amazingly attractive, the reality of possessing the hundreds of bottles that result from disgorging a barrel, hogshead or butt can sometimes lead to individuals having so much whisky as to not know what to do with it all. Honestly, were I to buy a cask I’d want to go in with members of my whisky club – share the costs (which are not small when you consider tax and bottling costs years after your initial investment) and also to share the spoils.
Danny and I spotted a bit of a bargain towards the end of last year. A private seller was shifting some bottlings of 1994 Ardbeg that they’d been gifted several years earlier. We jumped at the chance – and particularly, the price that was agreed for a 1994 17 year old Ardbeg. You see, production at Ardbeg during 1994 was still at low levels (only two months each year) – it was not until a few years later, following purchase by Glenmorangie that full production was resumed. Therefore, any bottlings from this period are both rarer, and of great interest for enthusiasts.
New Year’s Eve proved the perfect opportunity to crack this rarity open…
Nose: Quite relaxed and restrained. Squeezed lemons and pine needles provide fresh aromas – these are tempered by ashy bonfire smoke which is sweet, but more gentle than you’d expect from this distillery. Burning logs, fireplace cinders, smouldering earth and a long forgotten beach fire. Underneath, there’s a slight meatiness – roast pork, and after a while, our ashiness becomes almost chalky and mineral. The addition of water reduces the fresher notes and adds in fishiness, rock pools and a gentle hint of rubber.
Taste: Woodier, spicier and fruiter than the nose implies. Hedgerow berries, lemons and limes mix with slightly acrid fairly phenolic smoke. Ashiness still remains and indeed provides texture and mouthfeel. Both pepper and salt can be felt – adding seasoning and reinforcing the coastalness of the whisky. Water lessens the peat influence and adds juiciness to the fruit elements.
Finish: Medium in length and delivering ashy, mineral smoke.
This 1994 Ardbeg is quite a different beast to modern expressions – the natural, bonfire-esque smoke is of course present, but 17 years of maturation has proved quite reductive, and pulled the peat reins right back in to create something rather more controlled and tranquil. I’d personally have hoped for a touch more woodiness to sit alongside the other flavours, but nevertheless, this is fairly sophisticated and still takes dilution quite well.