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.
Whilst many will frequently pontificate about the allure of older liquid and the patience that was required to nurture it into being over several decades – it seems this only applies to historical maturation and not to individuals themselves. Outlandish monthly auction bids, near stampedes at whisky festivals – we’ve seen it all before. The instant gratification trap leads to impatience, addictions and impulsive and sometimes imprudent behaviour.
I’m as eager as the next person to try Ardbeg’s new core range addition – Wee Beastie. However, I’m quite prepared to wait for the vagaries of international supply chains (and odd regional distribution decisions) to sort themselves out enough for me to obtain a bottle at, or close to its RRP. Others are obviously a lot less patient - I’ve seen bottles of this upcoming 5 year old release trading for over 150 Euros - simply because its not available everywhere - yet. Whilst it’s hard to fathom that something produced in the UK, from ingredients sourced from the UK will actually not be released in the UK until nearly everywhere else in the world has already obtained it (I’m reading end of June/beginning of July) – at the same time, paying nearly 400% more for it, seems utter lunacy.
The release of Wee Beastie says something about both the changing perceptions of whisky age statements and the changing tolerances of both producers and consumers. It was not all that long ago that the thought of a distillery releasing an expression (let alone a core bottling) emblazoned with 5 year old age statement would simply be an anathema. Whilst independent bottlers have dabbled longer with single digit age statements – indeed, trading off of them as a marker for individuality – distilleries themselves have been generally loathe to unpick decades of consumer education of age being equitable to quality. Now with stocks being pushed by demand, and a loosening of opinions on age-statements, a 5 year old Ardbeg is not only possible – it’s actively welcomed.
It should likewise be noted that by re-pivoting the whisky market to a point where NAS has become generally accepted – as has the suggestion that anything with a larger age statement must be nose-bleed expensive – producers have leveraged the conditions required to release lower age statement bottlings - that was then, this is now.
Ardbeg’s purchase by Glenmorangie from Hiram Walker (a precursor of Pernod Ricard) marked both the resurgence of a distillery that had struggled for much of the early to mid-90s and the beginnings of what would become a re-ordering of the precedence and prominence of age-statements. Before NAS core range and limited edition releases became the plat du jour for Ardbeg - earlier bottlings demonstrated a willingness to release ‘younger’ liquid – with youth being an active selling point.
The ‘Path to Peaty Maturity’ series, which commenced in 2004 with the 6 year old Very Young and ended in 2008 with the 10 year old Renaissance presented fans of the distillery with the chance to follow the evolution of the liquid under the new Glenmorangie regime. The four bottlings which make up this ‘progression’ series are all now rather collectible – certainly when offered together – but when released, the then Ardbeg fans didn’t exactly snaffle them up.
Nowadays, the distillery could bottle a peated fart and fans would eagerly spend all morning on the Ardbeg website watching the “please waiting” message whilst feeling their blood pressures rising. Times were certainly different back when this series was released. As was demand. And so too common sence.
The second release in the series ‘ Still Young’ was brought to market in 2006. With its origins in a very early Glenmo 1998 spirit run, it is effectively age-stated as being an 8 year old. Originally released for £29.99 (not bad at all for a 56.2% ABV bottling – even back then), and according to the excellent Ardbeg Project website (do check it out) - it sat around long enough for bottles to be re-released on the Ardbeg website when Alligator when up for sale in 2011 – only then for the increased price of £50.
And yet 14 years after the release of Still Young which the distillery struggled to shift, here we are with folks willing to pay well over the odds to get hold of the youngest ever age statement OB Ardbeg – simply because of impatience. Undoubtedly a change in perceptions, but also perhaps a change in mindsets – the Internet generation requires instant gratification. Waiting was so last decade.
Nose: Overt peat smoke – engine oil, inorganic fertiliser, lanolin, felt roofing and tar. Dirty stuff. Concise citrus oils provide a fitting sweetener, whilst stagnant salty rock pool water and leather seat covers sit with liquorice. The addition of water reveals additional fruity elements as well as an underlying medicinal edge – apple slices and melon balls alongside Sudocream, scorched sticking plasters and woollen blankets.
Taste: Rather greasy and oily in texture – not quite full-bodied – but undoubtedly heading in that general direction. Immediate alluvialness from shale and gravel, followed by brighter, sweeter asides from split vanilla pods and salted toffee squares. Pine, moss and a touch of mint reveal themselves in the development, before thick wood lacquer is joined by unrefined sugars, salts and pepperiness. Reduction takes the mineral edge and moves it to the back of the palate – the arrival now favouring lemon balm, onion stalks and leafy greens, before expressing a maltiness that is enveloped in Germolene and ash.
Finish: Long in length, with tangy and tart coastal minerality alongside an industrial steeliness, whilst bitter chocolate and spent coffee grounds are joined by coal dust.
Ardbeg 1998 Still Young dials itself into the adage that age and maturity are not one and the same thing. As a route marker it points the way towards some of the richness that was notable in earlier (pre-Glenmorangie ownership) expressions, but at the same time, it charts its own course with some individualistic qualities which don’t tend to make it into the perceptible DNA of what we might consider to be ‘modern’ Ardbeg. The industrial-edges and mineral cues of this 2006 bottling are not entirely unfamiliar, however their concentration is a far cry away from the explicit wood smoke which drives many of the distillery’s current expressions. A thought-provoking point in time that is certainly worth exploring if the occasion arises – though not necessarily worth the 2020 entry price for a whole bottle to do so.